Last month, I blogged about my February slump. It’s true that I always find it harder to motivate myself towards the end of winter than at the beginning, but this year I had an added difficulty that I didn’t mention in my post because it was still early days: I’m currently 16 weeks pregnant, meaning that in February I was in the middle of first trimester fatigue. I. Have. Never. Been. So. Tired. In. My. Life. (Anyone who is tempted to counter this with an “ooooh, it’s going to get so much worse once the baby is here!”, please refrain in the interest of my sanity.)
As a result, I’m now so far behind on the 220 in 2020 challenge that even if I kick things up more than a notch, I likely still won’t make it to 220 this year. Because come the end of August (due date: 30 August) and probably even before that, I probably won’t be doing much exercising for quite some time. I’ll keep reassessing what exercise means to me as I get further along and of course after I give birth, and I firmly plan on doing things, but I’m also not going to push myself beyond my limits. If I need a night on the sofa rather than in the pool, I’m going to give myself that.
While exercising has been tough, it also hasn’t been non-existent. I stopped bouldering essentially as soon as I knew I was pregnant. I went once in early January only to find that I was scared of falling the entire time I was on the wall. A lot of people boulder at least through their first trimester and possibly longer, but not me. I don’t want to climb in constant fear. But I am still swimming with my team, albeit a little slower than before. I’ve been running as well (much slower than before), and I’ve been doing yoga. I’ll report a little more on how these have been going in my post next Wednesday! In April, I’m starting a prenatal yoga class. I want to keep all of that up for as long as I possibly can. As I move into the second trimester, I’m hoping to get some of my energy back and also still be able to do most movements. So far, so good!
Also, I’m ridiculously thrilled and terrified in equal measure to become a parent. We are having a son, and we plan to raise a strong, fit feminist.
I would be excited to hear about your experience with working out while pregnant! Feel free to share in the comments.
When you enter a long distance trail race, it isn’t called the Wet Dirty Crack 100k. When you enter a soccer tournament, it isn’t called the Spread ‘Em Baby Tournament.
When you take up rock climbing, you don’t have that “luxury.” You have entered a subculture where adolescent male sexual humour has had free play. By convention, the “first ascensionist” of a climbing route gets to name the route, and they name it for whatever is on their mind. Sometimes the results are delightful and witty. Names emerge from days of hanging out at the cliff, working hard, shooting the breeze with friends. There’s a rich kind of free association and play that works its alchemy.
But alchemists don’t always turn lead into gold. Sometimes they just end up with lead. Here’s a page from the recently released guidebook for the climbing in the Blue Mountains in Australia.
Jennifer Wigglesworth at Queen’s University in Ontario (Canada) is working on a PhD on women’s experiences in climbing. The Globe and Mail this year published an article on her work. My own local community figures in that article, with a gym owner and route developer defending these so-called spicy names. You gotta like that the journalist ended the piece with a classic quote from him: he says that the critics of these naming practices should grow up.
It took me some time to get my head around everything I think is wrong with this route-naming practice. There’s still lots of open discussion to have in the community–about what’s problematic and about how to bring about change.
There’s the obvious colonial history of people “finding” places and naming them as they please. The history of climbing is historically deeply entwined with the European project of “finding” places that were never lost.
I see sexualized route names as a form of sexual harassment. Consider the comparison I started with. If someone down at my university’s athletic centre wanted to name a soccer tournament “Spread ‘Em Baby”, students would have reasonable grounds to object to that as a form of sexual harassment. Making it a price of admission to the sport that you have to take part in (or exclude yourself from) activities with sexualized names is just that.
Some people don’t take the analysis that far: what they object to is derogatory names, not sexualized names. So our local community’s new guidebook (not the one pictured above) has derogatory names removed–where the authors correctly identified that a name was derogatory. Derogatory names that they didn’t think of looking up in the urban dictionary remain. And the book treats us to nice long trips down memory lane explaining the previous derogatory names.
Sigh. Like buddy down at the gym who wanted to call it the “Spread ‘Em Baby” tournament was told no, he can’t do that—so he planted himself at the registration table and told everyone who registered how he came up with this oh-so-funny name and why, with the wisdom of age, since he has a daughter himself now after all, he now sees that “Spread” alone is better. “Spread” is a tournament he would be comfortable having his daughter register in.
One perspective you don’t see in The Globe and Mail article (one a local coach mentioned to me) is that the names become a problem when you are coaching a group of kids. What kind of crag are you willing to bring other peoples’ kids to?
This has been the germ of a whole new perspective I have on this naming behaviour. Given the well-known ability of 13, 14, and 15-year-old girls to crush hard routes that virtually all grown men only dream of climbing, I suspect the whole practice is really a move to keep away the most threatening competition.
I’ve made some surprising connections in my local community with women who love my suggestions for feminist revenge names. The process of thinking up revenge names is fun. Handy tip: you can just take the first ascensionist’s name and call the route “[Insert name]’s Sad [Dick/Crack/Hole] Joke”. I’m also planning a whole crag built around lyrics from Beyoncé’s Lemonade album.
I tried making a plea for some minimal standards with the sexualized joke names. Cracks are a rock feature often climbed. You can see where this is going. You can just imagine how worked up a sexually frustrated quasi-adolescent gets when repeating the word “crack” over and over again all day while trying to perform a physically challenging act on said crack. Crack climbs are absolutely the low-hanging fruit of sexualized route names.
So I proposed that we could at least have a moratorium on “crack” double entendres, on the minimal grounds that they’re just too obvious. To my surprise, some people in our little facebook debate were genuinely surprised to learn that their crack joke was not seen by everyone to be as clever as they thought it was. I guess that’s how potty humour perpetuates itself–generation after generation failing to perceive the obvious.
There’s a local crag (Sorrow’s End) with a route called “See with Joy.” Now there’s a name that captures something about the climbing experience. May there be many more names like that in the future.
Shortly after starting indoor rock climbing, I found out that my grip strength was going to be a limiting factor, especially when I tried out the bouldering wall. So, I decided to train my grip strength. To get a baseline to measure my progress against, I asked my gym for a go at their grip strength tester.
I pulled about 100lbf. “You have excellent grip strength!” the gym attendant said, pointing at the last column of the “female” table, which topped out at 70lbf. That didn’t seem right to me because while I can open jars, I couldn’t hang on in any but the absolute easiest bouldering routes. So I checked the “male” table.
[img description: A grip strength tester reading about 100 pounds, set next to a paper showing two tables with age ranges and grip strength categories from “needs improvement” to “excellent”. The top table says “female” and the “excellent” grip strength column has numbers around 70 pounds. The bottom table says “male” and the “needs improvement” grip strength column has numbers around 90 pounds.]
“Poor,” it said.
Literally, this manufacturer’s grip strength assessment put the weakest of wimpy men at stronger than the strongest of women.
I would have understood overlapping results with “average” on the men’s table being a bit higher than on the womens. But this?
Anybody who trusts this table won’t recommend grip strength training to women but will to men, for the same strength measurement. It quite directly encourages men and discourages women from strength training. “Oh you’re plenty strong enough, lady,” it says. No need to get stronger.
Then people wonder why men tend stronger.
When I pointed this out to the gym attendant, he was shocked, and went looking for a better grip strength table, but all the ones he found on the internet had the same gap between the top of the women’s table and the bottom of the men’s table.
A much more useful grip strength table, in my opinion, wouldn’t be split by gender at all, and would have column headings like “can open most commercially sealed jars,” “can hang 50kg body weight with a 2 handed grip,” and so on. Because it looks to me like every female climber is going to be well into the “men’s” table,and whether your grip strength is “excellent” or “needs improvement” should really depend on what you need and want to do, not on some arbitrary and sexist value judgement
Varve is a nonbinary novice climber who is heartily sick of being told they can’t do something because they’re “a girl” – and has been since long before knowing there was anything outside the binary.
Climbing routes with sexually explicit and degrading names have recently attracted some attention, with articles appearing in Engaging Sports, The Globe and Mail , CBC , and Gripped. In July, a somewhat lengthy discussion thread about the issue began atThe Mountain Project. While the vast majority of climbing route names are completely inoffensive, not to mention intriguing and fun — think Moonlight Buttress, or Cardiac Arete — it’s surprisingly easy to find ones that demean people sexually in ways that target their gender, sexual orientation, racial identities, disability, and body type. Some of the names also evoke associations of sexual assault.
Many climbers feel that such names should be changed, and change is slowly taking place. Nonetheless, controversy remains. Some climbers are attached to the freedom of route creators to name without having to consider the feelings or needs of others. Others don’t think people should make a big deal out of sexually degrading route names. And if the comments sections are any indication, some think that taking a different approach to route naming would censor climbers and violate their right to free speech. The researcher at the heart of some of these articles — Jennifer Wigglesworth — has also received some rather troll-like attention from commenters who believe that the study of gender discrimination in sport is a waste of time and money.
Canadian climber Bonnie de Bruijn’s article in Gripped takes into account some of these concerns and offers a reflective argument for why it nonetheless makes sense to take the issue of demeaning route names seriously. Her article is worth reading whether or not you climb, so I won’t get into its content here. But her article did lead me to wonder about a couple of issues that might warrant greater consideration.
The first concerns whether degrading route names cut into the kinds of experiences — like joy, flow, feelings of sensuality, and a sense of achievement — that people often have while climbing. The physicality of engaging with the forces of natural landscapes can also involve what philosopher Sigmund Loland refers to (in the case of snowboarding) as a “rebellious sensuality.” Like joy and flow, the sensualities (rebellious or otherwise) of nature sports are pretty great to experience.
But it is also really easy to kill these kinds of experiences. Degrading and abusive language, for example, can smother joy, flow, and feelings of achievement in an instant. Sexually crude and demeaning comments can send sensuality into hiding. Given that experiences of joy, flow, and sensuality are important reasons why many people climb in the first place, one might ask: Doesn’t it make more sense to foster the conditions that stimulate awesome experiences than to preserve language that undercuts them?
De Bruijn’s article also led me to wonder whether derogatory route names might affect the kinds of psychological preparation needed to reduce human error. Feelings on the edge of consciousness — like feelings of doubt and feelings of knowing or “rightness” — are, in my view, especially important in sports with a high injury or death consequence. In Alone on the Wall, free soloist Alex Honnold says, “I’ve walked away from more climbs than I can count, just because I sensed that things were not quite right. It’s a deeply subjective decision, a combination of my mood and the vibe of the place and the weather. It’s nothing I can precisely quantify, more like a vague feeling that some days are just not the right day.” He practices and focuses until he feels that the risk of error on his part is as close to zero as it can get.
It’s a good model to follow. Nature sports with inherent dangers require clear focus and a solid awareness of subtle feelings and environmental cues to reduce the risk of error. But devaluing and callous language is preoccupying and can interfere with mental clarity. It can also undermine confidence and performance, which are similarly important for safety. Given that most people are not Stoic sages when it comes to insults and threats, it’s hard to make the case that demeaning language has no consequences for presence of mind. So why create mental obstacles for people at the outset of a climb when it isn’t necessary to do so?
As I see it, the concerns raised about route names are not about limiting speech, or censorship, or trying to spoil anyone’s fun. Rather than censorship, this issue is more like saying to a friend:
“when you say ‘Let’s climb $>%**@!+# today,’ I feel uncomfortable. Also, ew.”
Or saying to the community:
“We can see how $>%**@!+# might have seemed funny before we knew more about the impact of such language, but now we find it dehumanizing and distracting. Can we talk about this?”
Good conversations around these issues will help resolve conflicting interests and better enable climbing communities to decide what kinds of experiences and interpersonal relationships they want to build. Like it or not, we are the authors of our communities and sometimes it takes a bit of rewriting to get along. It might not feel like it sometimes, but there is a lot of goodwill to work with on all sides.
In my view, it’s better to create more opportunities for good sporting challenges and eliminate unnecessary social obstacles and sources of psychological harm. And given the relative rarity of experiences of joy, flow, and rebellious sensuality in life, it makes sense to avoid diminishing such experiences where we find them. So for now, Ms. Marmot says,
I’m a fat woman climber. And, I’m a person who directly pushes back when people invade my space. Given Bettina’s recent post about mansplainers at the climbing gym and Susan’s mention of my name as a Boundary Hero in the comments, I thought it might be fun to share a few of the internal thoughts that have enabled and empowered me to say, “NO,” when someone has overstepped a boundary with me without spending precious emotional labor trying to protect their image of me or getting them to like me.
A frequent event for me at the climbing gym is this: I am waiting to get on a boulder or a wall. I’m positioned a polite distance away but close enough that my claim should be obvious. Because it happens often enough that my mere presence is not enough of a stakeholder, I’ve widened my stance and put my hands on my hips to non-verbally say, “I mean business. I am here with purpose.” When the space becomes available, it is not terribly unusual for a guy to just step between me and the wall like I don’t exist or that my fat body is actually invisible.
I have some choices here.
1) I can just move to another wall; give up my claim.
2) I can stand there and glare at the guy, passive aggressively communicating my displeasure and hoping he notices and is more aware in the future.
3) I can wait and let him know verbally at the end of his use of the wall.
4) I can politely interrupt him before he gets started and say, “Excuse me. I’m sorry, but I was waiting for that. Do you mind if I go first?”
5) I can interrupt him before he gets started and say, “I was waiting for that.” I usually do this in a slightly raised voice, aiming for mild social distress as a negative reinforce.
More and more often, I opt for number 5 or its equivalent.
So, these are things that I have thought about over the years to make this a near-automatic and pretty unapologetic response.
Option 1: If I give up my claim, the guy is definitely going to keep doing it to me and everybody else. He was probably oblivious to my existence and will continue to be oblivious to my existence.
Option 2: If I wait and glare, he’ll probably write me off as a bitch and I am the only person who has been inconvenienced. He has already demonstrated that I do not exist for him, so I have serious doubts my glaring will result in a behaviour change.
Option 3: It is still largely me that is inconvenienced, and I actually have already decided that a person who doesn’t observe the space and see if anyone is waiting doesn’t really care that much about social interactions and community environment. In the past, at most, I have gotten a non-satisfying apology, a glare, or actual verbal abuse when I pursued this option.
Option 4: I tried this for a while, but when I ask nicely and politely for something I shouldn’t have to ask for at all, it feels like I erase myself. It feels like this guy has given me his emotional discomfort with waiting, and I have accepted the burden and will tend to the burden carefully to ensure that I don’t give it back to him while meekly asking for a tiny share of respect. This option doesn’t feel good, and I don’t’ think it’s my job to help grown men who are actual strangers to me (and have already shown me I have no interest in getting to know them) develop basic social skills.
Option 5: My best option so far. In this case, I am returning the burden of discomfort. It’s like a ball he threw at me when I wasn’t willing to catch it, and I’m just tossing it right back at him. “Sorry, I think you dropped this.” I affirm my own right to exist. I am just loud enough to make sure that anyone nearby can hear because I feel like it protects me from an escalation in violence. I’m relying on social expectation to help this guy reconsider his options next time because his actions told me that my opinion of him is already not enough to change his behavior. The world tells me on a regular basis that I don’t deserve space in the world, and asserting myself and my right to exist in these interactions is one of the ways I reject the word’s erasure of my existence. I am treating myself with respect. This guy is probably not going to like me very much, but he already didn’t respect me and I don’t actually want to invite him into my life. I don’t owe the person who just told me that my existence is at their convenience any great efforts in kindness. Every once in a while the guy I do this to will offer a genuine apology, and I will then profusely thank them. That’s when they re-earn my respect and my effort towards active kindness. Janis Spring says “You don’t restore your humanity when you forgive an unapologetic offender; he restores his humanity when he works to earn your forgiveness.”
Bystanders are often uncomfortable with my choice of option number 5. When I’m with friends, I have to remember to not exercise option number 5 on their behalf (when the guy gets in THEIR way) because it’s their choice to do so or not and not mine and I don’t want to make my friend uncomfortable if they aren’t choosing these kinds of interactions. Susan mentioned her visceral discomfort in her comment about me on Bettina’s post. I get it. It’s also part of what I choose when I decided option number 5 was my default. I understand that discomfort as one of two things:
1. an expectation that I, as a woman, continue to defer to men or 2) a rejection of their own desire to do the same; not yet ready to take on the social disapproval of stating a boundary firmly and with expectation. Whelp, I am not going to start deferring to men; I’m just not house trained. And, I compassionately understand the bystander rejection of my boundary setting, but I’m not going to bend for it. After all, to not set boundaries for myself feels like participating in my own social erasure, and I have to live with myself for the rest of my life.
Harriet Lerner has written some great books on women’s anger and boundaries. In it, she says, “You can have change or you can have people like you. You often can’t have both.” When you put it that way, I’ll have change especially over winning the favor of men who will mansplain to me, take my space, or generally treat me as less than them.
I just don’t need them to like me nearly as much as I need to like myself.
Alisa Joy McClain spent the first half of her life thinking she couldn’t do cool exercise-y things because she was fat and is now spending the second half of her life enjoying the body she has and all the cool things she can do with it like rock climbing, cycling, and scuba diving. When not trying to be a fat athlete, she can be found reading books, playing pinball, hanging out with her family and children, and ranting about various social injustices.
This week, I was going to post about my new bike and commuting with it, but I’m afraid this is going to have to wait until another time (though spoiler: I’m loving it). Something happened to me this week that really annoyed me, and I need a space to vent.
Mansplaining apparently never gets old. When I prepare a post I always double-check it hasn’t already been written, or what the other fit feminists here think about a topic. Lo and behold, when I checked for “mansplaining”, a post from Sam came up from 2014: Men explain things to me: The Gran Fondo Edition. Five years later, enter the bouldering edition!*
I’ve written before about how bouldering is a social sport that is a lot of fun in a group, and it is. Even if it so happens that you show up at the bouldering gym alone, you will usually end up chatting to someone about a problem that you’re both working on. And most of the time it’s nice. On Monday, however, it so happened that I just wanted a bit of quiet time figuring stuff out for myself. It’s been really busy round here, we have visitors at home (whom my partner was taking care of for the day), and I needed a bit of space. So maybe it wasn’t the best idea to engage in an activity that usually provokes chats. Maybe I should’ve just gone for a run. But I wanted to boulder, so off I went.
Oh boy, did people talk to me. And by “people”, I mean men. Out of an admittedly small sample of n=3, 100% of the people to give me unsolicited advice on problems I was working on were male. I got so pissed off I left earlier than I normally would have, or else specimen no. 4 would have had a “CAN A PERSON NOT HAVE SOME SPACE IN HERE?!” thrown at them. I didn’t want a hypothetical specimen no. 4 to suffer thusly.
The most blatantly mansplainy exchange was this:
ME: *works quietly on a boulder problem, chickens out before the end because doesn’t want to slip and bite the wall* RANDOM GUY (RG): But you almost had it, you just have to step up on the last bit! ME: But I didn’t want to. If you slipped there, it would be really nasty. RG: Hm, OK. But have you tried this problem? *points to problem next to the one I’d been trying* ME: No, I haven’t. RG: You should, it’s a fun one. ME: OK, sure, I’ll give it a whirl. RG: Try it, and then I’ll show you how. …
I mean, seriously???!!! I hadn’t asked him for help, I hadn’t asked him what problem to do next, and I certainly hadn’t asked him to “show me how”. The conversation went on like this for a bit as I tried my hand at the problem (he wasn’t wrong, it was kind of fun, just not with a random guy watching and doling out “helpful” advice). Eventually, I sort of bowed out and scampered off to the other end of the gym. Yes, I enabled this guy by agreeing to do the second problem. But what does one do in such a situation? Is there a way of shutting mansplainers down without being rude? Or should one just be rude?
Interestingly, I have hardly ever encountered unsolicited advice-giving from women. Mostly, they either don’t say anything, or they wait till you ask. On rare occasions, they have said something along the lines of “Have you tried doing this or that? It might not work for you, but it did for me!” As in, not just telling me what I “just have to do”, and waiting a while until politely offering a possible solution, while being aware of the fact that it may not work for me.
Often, I’ll have an exchange with someone and a witty reply will come to me after the fact. This time, I’m still stumped. What would you have done? How do you all deal with this sort of situation?
*Others have written about this too, notably Kim in her post “Why I hate spin“.
This year, I’ve joined the 219 in 2019 workout challenge: the goal is to work out 219 times this year. We check in with each other on Facebook. There are two groups, the general one and one that grew out of Tracy, Cate and Catherine’s feminist fitness challenge. I post my updates to both of them, and in both cases when I mentioned I’d been bouldering, people asked what it was. So I thought I might blog about it here, since it still doesn’t seem to be a very well-known sport – even though you wouldn’t be able to tell by the amounts of people at my bouldering gym!
Bouldering is a type of climbing, but it’s done at relatively low heights (I’ll come to that in a moment) where you don’t need a harness and rope. You can do it outdoors and indoors, although I’ve only ever bouldered indoors. For outdoor bouldering, there are special mats, called crashpads, you can carry to where you’re climbing. At an indoor gym, the floor is one gigantic soft mat. So if you take a fall, at least you fall onto something soft (again, we’ll come back to this). Here’s what a bouldering gym looks like:
On the walls of a bouldering gym, you’ll find holds (aka boulders) of various colours drilled into the wall, forming different routes (aka problems or routes) of various levels of difficulty. The goal is to complete a problem without touching the boulders of another one. You’ve successfully completed a problem once you get to its “top” boulder with both hands.
So what do I love about bouldering? The short answer is: almost everything. It makes me feel strong and badass. By the time I finish a problem, chances are I will have overcome moments of fear, my arms will have almost given out, and my hands are sore. It turns out I’m more afraid of heights than I’d previously thought, so higher walls are a real challenge for me, and it feels fantastic to rise above that. It often takes me several attempts to finish a route because I get scared. There is some reason to this – despite the soft mats, it’s not a danger-free sport. You can fall and break something. You can hit boulders while falling or scrape yourself. I’ve definitely come home with more than one big bruise. And yet.
Bouldering has taught me that I’m stronger than I often think. Yes, there are problems I can’t do because they’re too long and I run out of strength before I make it. But at least as often I just think I won’t be able to do it, while I actually can. It’s a full-body workout that requires a lot of body tension – core strength combined with the ability to use your arms and legs to push into a wall or against a boulder all at the same time. So it’s tough, but it’s also made me tougher, and I’ve found that being able to control my muscles better has actually had a positive impact on my swimming. Plus, the longer you boulder, the more you figure out what your individual strengths are. Mine are balancy problems and slab walls. A bouldering mate of mine loves overhangs (he has excellent body tension), and so on.
That’s also why I find bouldering to be quite gender-inclusive, at least from what I’ve experienced. Yes, there is the odd gang of muscle-loaded “super manly” dude-bros who need to show off in front of each other (and everyone else). But then a women will often come along and leave them mouth agape because she could do a problem they hadn’t been able to manage. There are routes for everyone: the stronger and the less strong, the more and the less supple, and the taller and the less tall. It’s very empowering. Also, by and large, it attracts an open-minded crowd that’s in it together and has decent manners. At least at my gym, the “super manly” dude-bros are far and few between.
And then there’s the mental challenge of figuring out how to approach a certain route. I love tackling stuff head-on, but here I’m learning to think before I do. Strength is precious, so you don’t want to waste it by not being able to complete a route because you got stuck somewhere and hadn’t thought about how to best place your hands and feet, balance your body, or manage a particularly long reach. (Sam blogged a while ago about how climbing seems to appeal to philosophers in particular, and I think this extends to researchers more generally.)
Finally, bouldering is a social sport. I enjoy going to the gym alone – you always end up chatting with strangers anyway and giving each other tips -, but it’s more fun in a group. We help each other through problems. We egg each other on, celebrate our victories and share our frustrations. There’s a lot of resting involved between exhausting problems, so we hang out on the mat and chat, or squint at walls together trying to figure out a good way to tackle a route. And afterwards, we have a beer together.
Two weeks ago, I attended the Women’s Summer Festival in Ischgl, Austria. It’s basically a three-day summer camp for female adults. You can sign up for lots of different sports workshops, including yoga, mountain biking, climbing, hiking, the full works. All of it women-only, set very scenically in the Austrian Alps. I’d read about last year’s edition and it sounded like a ton of fun: a chance to try out new things, meet people and spend a few days frolicking in the mountains? Sign me up.
I agonised for a while about my choice of workshops – there’s no way you can do them all – and finally put myself down for a via ferrata (complete novices), trail running (beginners), morning yoga (all levels), and an all-day hike (experts). Aside from yoga and hiking, I decided to do things I hadn’t done before, so for instance bouldering fell by the wayside in favour of the via ferrata. And I was too much of a chicken for mountain biking. Somehow, the thought of hurtling down a mountain on two wheels terrifies me a lot more than the thought of being suspended above a precipice secured by nothing but a fixed steel cable and two carabiners attached to my harness through a via ferrata set.
The classification of levels, I later learned from fellow participants, stumped not only me. How do you know you’re an “expert” hiker, rather than an “advanced” one? As I’ve mentioned before, I have my share of athletic impostor syndrome, so I was mildly terrified of both the trail running (should I have signed up for the “complete novices” one?) and the hiking tour (what on earth had made me think I was an expert? The hubris!). If anyone still needed proof that women tend to underestimate themselves, they only had to attend this festival. Nearly everyone rocked up with the same self-doubts.
But these shared concerns actually ended up making for an incredibly supportive environment. Everyone cheered each other on and kept encouraging others. It had been a long time since I’d seen two people as happy as two women with vertigo after crossing an incredibly scary suspension bridge on our trail run, fuelled by gentle coaxing from our guide and the supportive cheers of the other participants. It was wonderful to watch.
The other thing I’d been a bit wary of is going by myself. I wasn’t organised enough to enlist anyone else to come with me, and I’m not exactly a social butterfly – my small talk is limited and I tend to get incredibly intimidated by people I think are cooler than me, which is pretty much everyone. I ended up really, really enjoying myself, both in terms of the activities and the company. I met some very nice people, and the activities were great. In fact, both the via ferrata and trail running (who would have thought, considering how badly I do running uphill!) left me hungry for more.
The morning yoga was beautiful, and the hike was out of this world stunning – three three thousand-metre summits in one day! With bright sunshine! And incredible views! If I were to do this again, and I’m definitely keeping this option open, there are plenty of things I didn’t get around to doing: a more challenging via ferrata, bouldering, more hiking, and maybe, just maybe, even some mountain biking?
There was a framework programme too, to keep yourself occupied while not attending a workshop, with ad-hoc activities such as TRX training, massages, pilates, etc., and you could even get your nails and your hair done if you wanted (I opted for the nails, which I usually never do or get done, and also because there’s not much you can do with my hair). In the evenings, one night there was dinner at a local hut, which ordinarily is a hip après-ski joint, and another night there was a concert with a local band in the festival tent. And as these things are wont to go, there were exhibitors peddling the latest trail running shoes, hiking poles, outdoor and yoga clothing, etc. You could also try all these things in action, which was fun, though it didn’t motivate any purchases for me.
The whole thing was a very enjoyable affair, but I wouldn’t be a good feminist killjoy if I didn’t have some issues with it. This was obviously not a free event. The all-in festival pass set me back just under 280 Euros, and I treated myself to a nice hotel in addition. There was the option of booking just individual workshops, but they also weren’t super cheap. There was a goodie bag for those who’d booked the festival package that contained some ecologically very dubious plasticky giveaways (although in fairness, there were some great quality ones too that I’ll definitely be using). And diversity at the event was limited to cis-gendered almost exclusively white, almost exclusively able-bodied, relatively fit women who could afford to be there, and a bunch of invited press, bloggers and social media influencers who were there for free (disclaimer: I wasn’t one of them).
In other words, we spent three days oozing privilege from all pores. Is this inherently a bad thing? Probably not. We had a lot of fun and it was great to completely disconnect from the news and the heat wave gripping the rest of Europe for a few days, being active among a bunch of very nice, like-minded women and pushing our comfort zones in a highly supportive environment. The event is absolutely fantastic in that it lets you test the waters with new activities that might otherwise be quite intimidating, which I think is very important in getting women to be more active. But it’s important to be aware of that privilege – and of the fact that if you were insecure about doing any sort of exercise, you probably wouldn’t sign up for a three-day mountain sports festival in the first place, so a substantial threshold is still there.
And things could be done to make the event more inclusive. One could think of travel stipends, marketing the event a bit differently to attract a more diverse crowd, and so on. Again, the organisers are a for-profit company that makes money with this, so it’s not surprising that it’s all a bit commercial, and all things considered, the commercialness is very low key – you’re not forced to buy anything or partake in any activities that aren’t your jam. And yet. A bit more of an effort in making the event more diverse and accessible would be very welcome.
Will I go back? Maybe. I had too much fun not to contemplate a return next year. I’ll keep you posted – and if I do, perhaps it will be in some fit feminist company? Would be fun.
I first started climbing (indoors) in 2009. I’d wanted to try rock climbing for ages but I didn’t know anyone who did it and (in the days before meetup and the proliferation of climbing gyms) it wasn’t obvious how to get into it otherwise. When I happened to meet someone who was climbing in the gym, I went along with them and fell in love with climbing. As someone who tends to get interested in something for a while, only to gradually lose enthusiasm and eventually turn to something else, I have been surprised by the ongoing passion that I feel for climbing. Almost a decade and still going strong. I fantasize about being a climbing ‘dirtbag’.
So that’s some relevant background. What I want to focus on is what could perhaps be called a ‘side effect’ of my passion for climbing, namely, injuries. Because I climb as often and as hard as I can, I tax my body – and especially my upper body – pretty severely. As a result, I’ve had a whole slew of minor soft tissue injuries over the past decade: both wrists, both shoulders, several fingers, and most recently, my right elbow. None of these injuries have required surgery and some have healed with rest alone. But most have required doctors’ visits, several months of physical therapy, and in some cases, X-rays or scans of various kinds to pin down what exactly is wrong.
In reflecting on this history, I’ve been led to wonder about two things in particular:
First, the threat of injury doesn’t act as much of a deterrent for me. I hate taking time off climbing to rest an injury, but I seem to end up doing it at least once every other year (and sometimes more often). Rationally, it is obvious that my body simply cannot climb as hard as I would like it to and so it should also be obvious to me that I should scale back my climbing ambitions to better suit what I can do. But I have incredible trouble doing this. When I am injured, that forces me to scale back (or stop), but when I am healthy, I only want to try to push myself a bit harder than before. For me, a significant draw of climbing lies in tackling problems that I’m not sure I’m capable of doing. I have learned to be better about building up my strength gradually and pacing myself (especially in the gym) to avoid overdoing it. But my ongoing string of injuries suggests that I haven’t mastered this self-control (if that’s what it is) yet.
The second thing I find myself thinking a lot about is that I consume a lot more medical resources than I did before I started climbing. On the whole, I have been fortunate not to need much medical care beyond routine preventative check-ups and tests. The various climbing injuries which send me to the doctor and the physiotherapist are essentially ‘self-inflicted’. That is, they’re not the results of accidents, but of overdoing it, of not exercising self-control in how hard I push myself. Given how overtaxed our medical resources are, I’m not sure this behaviour is justified. I suppose I could argue that climbing keeps me happy and healthy in ways that go beyond my ligaments and tendons, which might in turn help me avoid other kinds of medical care. But who knows whether that’s true? Perhaps I’d be almost as healthy if I stuck to the forms of exercise that I enjoy but am not as passionate about.
I’m trying to learn from experience, to push myself less hard and to draw as much enjoyment as I can from simply being outside on the rock, even when I’m climbing something easy. And I think my rate of injury is gradually slowing. But as I continue to age, I expect the physical demands of climbing, even at the easier grades, to increase. It fills me with delight to see climbing friends still going strong in their 60s and 70s. So I’m hopeful that if I can find a better balance, I’ll be able to keep climbing for a long time. But in the meantime, I wish I could do a better job finding the mid-point between the challenge which brings me such joy and a level of physical demand which my body can sustain.
Catherine Wearing is a philosopher, feminist, and rock climber. Also a runner, tea drinker, and mystery novel reader.
It’s worth filling out if you’re involved in climbing at all, or have been, or have thought about getting involved and been uncomfortable and left (or whatever your experience). It seems to have quite a limited lens on what harassment consists in and what its effects on you might be (it might cause you to climb more, climb less, climb the same), but there are open text fields you can use.
One thing that I consider an interesting kind of sexual harassment is the way that the culture of adolescent sexual humour in climbing means that a lot of routes and peaks and problems have sexist or racist names–and in coded youth language (of whatever era) that I don’t know. I’m constantly wondering whether I’m saying something offensive in saying that I climbed x. There is a peak in Alberta with a name that would make you spit your coffee. Peakfinder says “Obviously very politically incorrect, the name will likely not be made official but is in common useage [sic].” It offers no alternative, despite its being 2018 and the name’s offensiveness having been more than apparent my entire life. (That’s 52 years and counting.)
I was very proud of the first thing I climbed on Le Salève outside Geneva—and then I figured out I was saying something pretty offensive in saying what I had climbed. I wanted to talk about that in the post I wrote, but I thought that having to write about it in my “proud I climbed this” post was part of the problem, not the solution. So I saved it for another time. (Now. The survey.)
I know Sam likes climbing pictures along with my posts ( 😉 ), so here are pictures of some great climbing partners on Sorrow’s End, a cliff in my own neighbourhood that I finally got to climb this week. I was so excited that in Europe I found I can climb things that supposedly translate into a 5.9+ in North America! I’m ready for 5.10s, I thought! But here I am back to reality, and granite, and my local scene. The people here are on two 5.7s. I climbed them, one on the first attempt but with a lot of coaching and the other on the fourth or fifth attempt. I’d be flashing the European equivalent of a 5.7, no question. (Flashing means climbing on first attempt, with no coaching and without having seen someone else climb it.) 5.7 for 12 metres of layback! Google “layback” and you’ll see it’s described as an advanced climbing technique. Sigh.
Soon I’ll be in Cambridge with nothing but railways bridges and old colleges to climb. So I’ll enjoy these 5.7s while I can.