More women are climbing than ever before. But just who are the really inspirational British female climbers of today? Katherine Schirrmacher has some ideas.
A few years ago I found myself in Yosemite and picked up a special edition of Rock and Ice magazine - the Women’s Issue. It was packed full of interviews and pictures of women I’d never heard of. Some living out of their trucks, some holding down high-flying jobs, others raising families. Crack specialists, boulderers and mountaineers, the lot. And all living for this strange shared passion of ours.
It made me think of our country and considering our diminutive size, the wide diversity of climbing and climbers that we can boast. Just who would be on our list, who would feature in our Women’s Issue? And now, finally, it’s led me to put together something similar, a collection of those whom I consider to be some of the most inspiring women climbers out there in Britain right now.
I wanted to profile those British women living here, those who are active right now, doing their thing on the crag, mountains or plastic. Almost every aspect of our sport and corner of the country is covered. Those not included are our resident foreign “wads” (Jude Spancken, Audrey Seguy and Mary Jenner to name but a few) and those talented ex-pats who have long flown our shores (such as Clare Murphy and Naomi Guy).
This is no ranked list, this is a collection. You may feel that deserving people have been missed out, and they probably have, as the number of women out there pushing themselves is large. But that is just all the more encouraging; female participation in the UK has grown, is still growing, and standards are increasing. Last year the BMC equity survey showed that female membership had grown to 25% - from just 16% in 2000. The women profiled here talk about themselves, their lives, lifestyles, challenges, motivations and of course their climbing. It’s interesting.
“What is the image of the woman climber?” asked Eliza Moran, Director of the American Alpine Club, in her report of the 1998 BMC International Women’s Meet. “She is anything and everything, she is always the same, and she is never the same, ” concluded the group discussion that took place on the meet that May. I was there that evening and the threads of discussion were far reaching, from motherhood to mountaineering and the media. Far gone are the days of the “Thwarted Maiden Lady” written about in 1938, where the very definition of a woman climber was someone with something lacking in their lives, such as a man! At the time of the BMC International Meet, many of the issues being discussed went straight over my head, all I wanted to do was climb. But one thing I did know is that meet was brilliant, I enjoyed every minute and found being amongst that group of women inspiring in itself.
In her interview Angela Soper talks about another, earlier, BMC women’s meet - one that she herself organised in the early 1980’s. And she proposes that it is perhaps time for another. I can’t help but agree, but the big question is, is it up to “us women”, the BMC, or both? I guess it’s like organising a girls’ night out – you can never get round to doing it, but when you do, you wonder why it’s been so long since the last one.
Last year in Summit 44, Naomi Buys took a detailed look at the women currently on the British Female Bouldering Team. That article dealt predominantly with grades and sponsorship. However the majority of women don’t climb with those things in mind and I wanted to illustrate a different angle. Sometimes the most inspirational people are not the top performers but the adventurers, the jugglers, the ones who are just out there doing it day after day. Hopefully you’ll enjoy reading not only about your favourite “superheroes”, but also some of the lesser known - but no less interesting - women of our wide sport.
Some would actually propose that there is no need for a women’s article or women’s climbing meets or indeed a women’s anything. But from where I, and many of my peers, sit, why shouldn’t women get a separate voice sometimes? We read about the top men and women all the time, but here is a rare chance to hear from a broad range. Many of the women profiled here would never begin to tell the world about their achievements – because that’s just not what British women do.
Everyone trips over themselves to be politically correct these days, but in any area where there is a minority, issues will occur. It’s as simple as that, from the world of business to climbing. Last year I wrote a series of articles for the website planetFear.com highlighting issues of lack of representation within the British climbing media (the magazines, internet, guidebooks, films, calendars etc). This included surveying the balance of female climbing imagery in the magazines (incidentally Summit was the only magazine to get its representation right with about 25% of its images featuring women). This sparked some serious online debate - some agreed with the findings, others wholeheartedly didn’t.
A small part of the story concerns the reporting of top-end British female climbing ascents. This can be a tricky one for news editors. Is the ascent of an E8 or an 8b newsworthy when trails of men have already achieved that level years ago? Is it even actually sexist, as some claim, to make such a separate case for women? Perhaps it theoretically is, but there’s no denying that women do climb at a different level, and applying such a rigid philosophy would mean that we’d never get to hear about female achievements. And one thing’s for sure - women like reading about other women whatever they’re doing.
As I interviewed the selection of women it became clear that the British climbing women quietly go about their passion, fit it in around jobs, and sponsorship is often the last thing on their mind. These women do it for themselves and no one else. They are not necessarily after the big golden grades, but after truly enjoying this sport in all its facets.
Interestingly, many of the women at the higher end of the sport are in their 30’s, often mid-to-late, and some over 40. Children feature, either in reality or as questions in heads. Some admit to frustration when realising that it is only now - when they know how to reach their maximum performance - that they must take steps to motherhood instead. Others have already made a decision and sacrificed this altogether in pursuit of their climbing dreams. The younger generation is here too, poking its head in the thriving competition scene. Only time will tell if they will break on through into other realms of the sport.
Many defied simple categorisation as a boulderer, an ice climber, a trad climber. They do all this and more, and this to my mind is what makes our female climbers so different from other countries. Few of our top women specialise, possibly answering the eternal question of why our female climbers aren’t up there with the world’s best. You may have heard about Josune Bereziartu from Spain, a sport climbing specialist biting at the men’s heels with ascents of up to F9a+ on bolts, or the American Lisa Rands, a top boulderer with ascents up to Font 8a+. Disparaging comparisons are often made but remember - the climbing in Britain is different.
On our small island we have such diversity, from sea cliff climbing on remote islands to bold, rounded grit and short, powerful, bolted limestone routes. As a climber here it’s almost impossible to ignore this range and the women on these pages are taking full advantage of everything on offer. Let’s face it, with our unpredictable weather if you didn’t do everything, you’d struggle to climb outside at all for many months of the year.
How do you place the onsight of a sea cliff E7, or a bold grit head point on a world stage? It’s always going to be difficult, these styles of climbing are peculiar to Britain. But one thing is for certain, we are approaching a critical mass; there are more women than ever before in Britain leading E5 and climbing F8a, and for the first time in this country many women are actually “training”, like the men. Some women are also finally beginning to specialise more, particularly in bouldering. Our standards are certainly on the up, and I’m confident that in a few years we’ll see a real leap in British women’s climbing.
Some people may pontificate over whether enough women are “proper climbers”, i.e. trad climbing right now. But does it actually matter? Why should we be climbing one certain style more than another anyway? It’s all down to individual choice. But one thing is for sure, and that’s that the women’s climbing scene in Britain is now the healthiest it’s ever been - something that is very clear to me after 15 years of climbing.
It’s a great time to be a female climber in Britain. Heck, it’s a great time to be a British climber right now, full stop. OK, our weather’s not up to scratch but to be a climber here means that you climb what’s on your doorstep, you deal with the weather and you enjoy it. And if I’ve learnt anything from these interviews it’s that our British women share one thing - a real sense of adventure.
They continue to inspire me. I hope they do the same for you.
View the complete pdf of this article to read all the interviews.
Katherine lives in Sheffield with her husband Nic and is on the eternal search for that elusive work/life (climbing) balance. In between climbing she is a climbing instructor, coach and sometimes writer. Having dabbled in almost every area of the sport her favourite recent discovery is gritstone headpointing, which she hopes to do more of if it ever stops raining.
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