Fighting The Battle On Two Fronts, Women And The Ouray Ice Fest

Dawn Glanc Powering To 1st Place at the 2011 Ouray Ice Fest - Photo courtesy Anne Hughes

You’ve heard about the girl who kicked the hornet’s nest, likely. It happens to guys, too. We kicked a great big one in the days prior to this year’s Ouray Ice Fest. The piece we posted then (referenced below), remains our most-commented piece, ever. In the discussion that followed there were several strong voices, and it seemed that several of them needed more space. We’ve been happy to provide it. Here we’ll hear from Jill Missal of She points out – quite well – that when women try to be heard outdoors, they first have to fight the battle on two fronts…


If you’re reading this, you probably remember the kerfuffle over the women’s Ouray Ice Festival climbing competition. If you don’t, I’ll sum up – PEMBA raised the question about why there were only five women in the competition even though there were more qualified female climbers – the PEMBA crew even personally knew some of the women who had applied and were turned away. Brad wrote an article critical of the situation, and the rumors started flying. I got my back up over it and so did a few others. Word went around that the other qualified women had backed out once they saw the difficult comp route and people scrambled to qualify this decision.

Later, we discovered that the fifteen men to five women ratio was the standard for Ouray and that the alternates were simply unable to attend the comp as they had made other plans after being turned down during the first round. That already-small number had dwindled to four by the date of the competition because one athlete had become injured and was unable to compete. Brad issued an apology for his rabble-rousing and I got snarky at him for apologizing because I thought he was right for bringing it up. It was Good Times all the way around.

The discussion continued  (in a civil fashion) for a few days. Most people seemed satisfied with the resolution and the facts as were eventually revealed. Me? Not so much. Surprising, I know.

I was still smarting from the swirl of rumors and innuendo. Not only did it bother me that anyone even suggested that the women backed out because the route was too hard, but it also really got to me that this high-level comp was actively declining qualified women competitors based on an arbitrary ratio. I suppose that I was naïve, thinking that sports were mostly behind this kind of stuff and that there were only five women applicants in the first place.  Finding out that there were more and they were turned away due to a “full roster” of only five athletes out of twenty possible spots was extremely dismaying to me.

You see, as it has famously been said, women have to fight every battle on two fronts. First, we have to fight for the right to speak our minds and be heard. Only then can we state our case about the actual discussion topic. Think I’m wrong? See this article I wrote about how men tend to look straight through women, shun our beta, and actively avoid accepting guidance or even friendly conversation from women in sporting situations. Read the many comments – it’s not just me. Before even getting to the meat of a conversation, a woman first has to assert herself and convince all present that she deserves a voice. Once this battle is won, and only then, can she be free to discuss the issue at hand. Most of the time the interaction doesn’t move past the first matter, and we’re dismissed before the conversation gets longer than a sentence or two.  Men get to start every conversation at the second step.

Think about that for a minute. For a male to have to fight the first battle is unusual. If a man has to prove he deserves a voice, there is usually a reason – he’s new to the sport; he’s visibly less experienced than the people he’s talking to; whatever; there’s some tangible reason why he’s not given the same status as other conversation participants. I know this is true because there is rarely any hesitation at the crag, at the ice wall, on the trail, etc. when men encounter each other. They’ll walk right up to the male part of a mixed-gender group and direct their “where am I on the map/where does this trail go/what gear do I need for this route” question to the penis-bearer. If the man defers to the woman he’s with, the asker usually has a hard time making the transition to getting the desired information from a female. I’ve just seen it too many times to even mince words about it. Men assume that other men have the answers and that women are just there as tagalongs and can’t possibly know the trail or the climbing route. Women have to fight that first battle – the one to prove that we are humans of equal status – every single day. Women have to fight the battle every single time they meet someone new in the sporting arena. Men can mostly just skip it.

Our entire lives are shaped by these dynamics. Men are used to being listened to, to being valued and appreciated. Women are used to being treated as if we’re invisible.

Damn good thing we’re all getting really pissed off about it now.

Speaking of being pissed off, I was really pissed off about this ratio issue and it still grates on me. Look, I’m not directing my ire towards the Ouray comp selection committee, but I do hope they all read this and reconsider the structure of the competition. I’m reluctantly not pissed at them because they’re simply doing what’s always been done – fifteen men, five women, that’s how it’s always been done.

That’s not how it should be in the future.

Why this skewed ratio anyway? Where did it come from? Probably the dark ages of ice climbing when having five women even apply was a major victory for equal rights. I really have no idea. I only know that there is a limit on the number of athletes for Ouray because of the time constraints of the comp, and therefore a selection process administered by a committee that chooses the climbers who will be allowed to compete. They only allow five women to compete out of twenty possible spots in the completion, ever, full stop. The implication is that there will only be five female applicants who can climb at a level high enough to be competitive. This is bunk! From the results from this year, we can readily see that that isn’t true. The top woman climber, Dawn Glanc, was seventh overall, out of nineteen. The lowest scoring woman climber was sixteenth overall! I know the world is used to seeing the bulk of the women (you can thank me for that later, girls) come in behind the men, but it’s really time to let go of that tired assumption. ALL of the women at the 2011 Ouray comp beat at least three men, and the top woman climber beat twelve of the best mixed climbers the comp could find.  Can everyone now agree that there’s no reason to restrict the number of female climbers?

I concede that maybe, just maybe, it might be tough to find ten women to participate in the Ouray comp next year. I have no idea why. For some reason it’s harder for women to find the time and freedom to drop everything and become a pro climber (and I’m looking into why this is), so maybe ten women won’t apply to Ouray next year. Maybe, like this year, only seven will apply. But if only seven apply, then all seven should be permitted to compete. Maybe nine women and one idiot competition neophyte (not saying who…ahem) might apply next year. If that happens, all ten should be allowed to compete. Fair is fair.

Ratio aside, more appalling to me is the rumor that the women alternates declined to compete because of the difficulty of the route. When I first read that, I felt sick. It couldn’t be true; surely no one would apply to a high level competition like Ouray and then back out because the route was too scary. If it were true, it would make a strong case for why there weren’t more spots for women on the roster. My blood was running cold; if in fact there were women who had backed out because the route was intimidating, it would essentially prove me wrong in my assertions that women deserved more spots in the comp. Most of all, it disappointed me and left me feeling dismayed that a top level woman climber would be frightened off by an M9 route in Ouray. Could women really be this wimpy? Could the ratio be logical? Could there really be so few women climbers capable of M9 competition?

No! There couldn’t. They’re not that wimpy, the ratio is arbitrary and archaic, and there are indeed more women capable of M9 competition than were allowed to compete. Whew! I’m right again! What a relief.

But seriously, people, the fact that this rumor even made the rounds is both astounding and horrifying. People still assume that women can’t do it, that they are weaker and less capable; that there’s a justifiable reason for their exclusion. When that rumor made the rounds, the Chicks Climbing folks and I even thought about believing it.

Well, now we have verifiable data to prove that women belong in the Ouray comp. The lowest scoring woman bested three of the men. The highest scoring women was in the top half of the comp and another female competitor, Emily Harrington (3rd in women’s comp, 14th overall) wrote that she only came off the route because of a poor tool placement; a simple mistake. A mistake is a mistake and it is costly in competition. But what is important here is that Emily didn’t come off because she was weaker, she didn’t come off because she was afraid, she didn’t come off because she was a woman. She came off because she’s a climber who made a mistake placing a tool. She’s a climber who could have done better in the comp if not for that one mistake.

Just like the other twelve climbers she bested, and the six others who bested her; she’s a climber.

(Jill Missal writes: “In a testament to our Internet-based game of telephone, I confused even myself by getting Dawn Glanc and Emily Harrington’s placements and blog posts mixed up.  I’ve corrected my mistake in the last paragraph to reflect the actual standings and results, and to give credit to Emily’s brilliant article about making an unfortunate tool placement at the comp. My sincere and humble apologies to these two brilliant climbers and to all the readers who thought, “buh?” when they read the uncorrected article.” –Jill)


Jill Missal is the founder, editor, and all around Head Geargal at, a web site for the woman outdoor enthusiast who wants to get the most out of her gear, and for the beginner who needs some help knowing where to start. Jill was raised in Alaska and has spent most of her life in the backcountry skiing, climbing, and trekking. When not testing gear for Geargals, Jill works as a consultant in the disaster planning and emergency management field, which takes her to amazing places in the world to do exciting projects. Jill is currently on walkabout from Alaska and is exploring the southwest United States before she heads back to the Arctic.

4 responses to “Fighting The Battle On Two Fronts, Women And The Ouray Ice Fest

  1. Great post Jill that highlights some real issues! I wanted to mention that Dawn didn’t actually come off the route during the competition- she simply timed out which makes her even more badass. She could have easily climbed the whole route and almost did but just ran out of time.

  2. Thanks Amy. I got Dawn and Emily mixed up in my notes and have now done my part to continue the rumor swirl. I sent a revised and corrected version to Brad which should be up soon. SO SORRY to the athletes, and good eye to both Amy Jurries and the crew at Chicks Climbing who spotted my error, like, five nanoseconds after this article was posted! Good job, ladies. For my mistake I deserve to be forced to climb a mixed route with no crampons and with a bunch of people gently throwing tomatoes (small ones) at me (as long as I’m not wearing my favorite silver and white climbing outfit, of course).

  3. Thanks for highlighting all of these issues, Jill. No one should be throwing tomatoes at you for minor mistakes – the issues still stand. The battle on the first front can be a very frustrating and discouraging experience. I would argue that it is why some women simply ‘give up’ on loftier goals to begin with or settle for being the tag along. I look forward to seeing the industry begin to change and shift to reflect the true intentions and abilities these women have in outdoor sports. ;) It must.

  4. I personally haven’t had much first-hand experience with this in the climbing world yet; some of the really good female climbers I know are well respected by the male climbers that know them. This makes me want to ask them if they have encountered this kind of situation with strangers out on the crags.

    I wonder if they is a correlation with age? Because I did once utterly amaze an elderly “gentleman” (non-climber) by the fact that I knew how to put up a tent (seriously!). My friend told him I could also now vote.