Saturday, 7 December 2013

On the moors and mountains, female climbers find there's room at the top....

There's a new generation setting records on some of the toughest ascents in the country – and they're changing the face of a sport that has long been male-dominated.
On a cold and blustery day threatened by rain, Katy Whittaker, a young British climber, headed for Curbar Edge, outside Sheffield, to tackle an escarpment named – appropriately – Knockin' on Heaven's Door.

Ascending a steep slab of rock spotted with lichen, the climb appears hold-less. Progress on the hardest section is made by smearing – a technique in which the climber must rely on friction to keep the feet from sliding off.

Graded E8 on an open-ended scale of the hardest climbs, where the top grade is E11, Whittaker admits that she was apprehensive.

"I thought if I fell off on the last moves, … if the belayer [the person holding the rope at the bottom] sprinted away, that I might be all right. But it is really tenuous climbing. If you get a foothold even slightly wrong, it makes the next move feel even harder."

It was the second difficult and "bold" ascent – where a dangerous ground fall is possible after a certain point – for Whittaker in as many weeks, doubly impressive given that she has a job and is limited to when she can climb.

The good news for Whittaker, and for the future of British climbing, is that, in a sport traditionally dominated at the top levels by men, she is not alone. In recent weeks a host of other young women have been succeeding on some of the hardest climbs in the country.

In North Wales in September, Emma Twyford climbed an E9 named Rare Lichen. Back in the Peak District, Katy Whittaker's housemate, Mina Leslie-Wujastyk, aged 26, has also recently climbed E8, again on the gritstone edges that dominate the moors above Sheffield.

The three are part of a wider group, including Hazel Findlay, Shauna Coxsey and Leah Crane, rapidly closing the gap with their male contemporaries, both in terms of climbing ability and ability to manage risk in what some are hailing as a golden age of British women's rock climbing.

For her part Findlay, a 23-year-old philosophy graduate from the south-west who has also climbed E9, last month free-climbed the 3,000ft granite bastion of California's El Capitan in the Yosemite valley for a third time – putting her in a tiny elite of British climbers regardless of gender.

Despite their youth, most have been climbing for approaching 20 years. For Whittaker it is a family affair. Both her parents climb, while her brother Pete is one of the world's top climbers.

While there have been British women climbing since the advent of the sport, going back to Nea Morin in the 1920s, what has distinguished the current period is the prominence of British women climbing well in so many of the sport's disciplines. That includes indoor competitions and sport climbing (where the climbs are protected by bolts drilled into the rock which the rope is clipped into) and "bouldering'" (very short, ropeless climbs above mats that soften any fall) – but most significantly "traditional" climbing.

In this last style of climbing, the climber is required to carry and place protection, metal wedges on wire or camming devices – put in holes and cracks in the rock where they exist – which are clipped into the rope to protect against a fall.

Where no placements exist, as is common on some of the hardest routes, success requires not only strength and skill but the ability to keep a cool head.

For Leslie-Wujastyk, known until now primarily as an outstanding boulderer, her own recent ascent of an E8 came from trying ever higher bouldering problems.

"That opened a door for me," she said last week. "I realised I could do hard moves high off the ground and I was comfortable with my head game."

Like her peers, she puts the emergence of the present generation of British women rock climbers down to the boom in indoor climbing walls which have made the sport more accessible and changed its gender and age profile.

"It is also a really supportive culture. Most of us know each other and, in a country where the weather is not always ideal for climbing, we train together indoors. There's an increasing normality to it. Girls see other girls climbing hard and training hard, so I think the idea becomes less intimidating."

Steph Meysner, who organises the Women's Climbing Symposium, believes climbing culture is changing, something she began noticing five years ago. "It was male dominated for a long time and a bit dysfunctional. Climbing walls and the popularity of bouldering, where you need minimal equipment, have made it more accessible. The change has been organic. We are seeing a wider change in attitudes towards risk-taking. In the past, women have tended to be villainised by the media for taking risks."

And if there is a difference between the top men and women climbers, Twyford believes, it is that the men still tend be "a bit more gung-ho" with women taking a more "calculating approach".

Whittaker's ascent of Gaia – also E8 – last month was a case in point. An attempt had been in her mind for seven years. "I knew where you could fall off and the point beyond which you couldn't."

Her second E8 of the month, however, was a journey into the unknown, climbing it within two weeks of considering an attempt.

Whittaker told the British Mountaineering Council's website: "I personally don't think first female ascents are a big deal. I don't want to be noticed for climbing something just because I'm a girl. I compare myself with the guys I climb with, and want to climb just as hard."

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