Consistency in Climbing—Women and Men Conquer the Same Mountains

Female climbers are reaching new heights in the traditionally male-dominated sport.

By Ashton Kowalski

Here’s the thing about mountains: they don’t care what your physical build might be, they are the same, immovable rock no matter who is trying to get over. The mountain doesn’t care who tries to climb it, and the challenges it presents have nothing to do with gender.

Lynn Hill was the first woman to free climb The Nose route of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park and the first person to do it in under 24 hours in 1993. Hill is one of the most iconic climbers of all time, setting the tone for all to come after her famous ascent that demonstrated her powerful abilities. 

Lynn Hill positioning herself for her next reach while climbing The Nose of El Cap
(SOURCE: Heinz Zak, Cameras and Carabiners)

Hill was not the first woman to take on the male dominated sport, but she did create major milestones for all climbers—her unforgettable phrase “It goes, boys!” following her ascent of The Nose shows the willpower she has to advocate for the capabilities of women. Hill has made a stake for gender equality in sports throughout her career, and it shows in climbing culture today as more women continue to overcome not just literal mountains, but the mountains of gender inequality as well. In November of 2020, climber Emily Harrington followed in Hill’s footsteps and set out for another route of El Capitan, the Golden Gate. Harrington’s ambitions met the daunting rock with trials, exhaustion, a bit of blood, and in the end Harrington came out on top with a 21 hour and 13 minute ascent, making her the first woman to complete the route in less than a day.

Harrington’s 21 hour, 13 minute, and 51 second victory over El Cap
(SOURCE: Jon Glassberg, Louder Than 11)

Harrington began her climb with fellow free climber and Free Solo star, Alex Honnold as her belayer. Both Harrington and Honnold tackle mountains with a free climbing style—no protective harness, just some rope in case of a fall. This free climbing style only allows for the climber to use their hands and feet with no other assistance, and it is one of the most difficult approaches because climbers must rely only on their own strength to push themselves up the side of the mountain.

Emily Harrington with a fresh gash to the head before becoming the first woman to ascent Golden Gate of El Cap in less than 24 hours
(SOURCE: Jon Glassberg, Louder Than 11)

The strength and durability it takes to free climb is the perfect picture of the irrepressible tendencies female climbers such as Harrington embody. The challenge of relying solely on yourself to conquer a beast of a mountain has spoken to the prevailing nature of female climbers as far back  as the eighteenth century. From “male only” alpine clubs, to descriptions of female climber’s achievements with phrases such as, “another successful invasion of the field of sport by the weaker sex,” these climbers tirelessly fought from the start of the sport to be seen as the mountaineers they are.

These mountaineers have paved the way for the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. Sport Climbing will be included in the games for the first time ever this year,  and female sport climbers will be given an equal number of competitive spots as men. Male and female climbers will also compete on the same course with no modifications. 

(SOURCE: Artwork by Constant Climbing as posted in Rock and Ice.)

The change in climbing culture from the 1800’s to now is highlighted in the contributions women climbers have made over the years. Women have transformed from invasive species to exciting competitors, and now men and women will compete on equal footing at the greatest sports event in the world. Even through mounting odds, women climbers continue to prevail through the test of time. The beauty of climbing is that everyone can climb the same route; no matter the previous inequity, the mountain remains steadfast.  

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