The brave and the bold: inside the 2014 Women's Climbing Symposium

Posted by Claire Jane Carter on 14/10/2014

The fourth Women’s Climbing Symposium (WCS) filled out TCA Glasgow with 160 women for one hectic day this autumn. One third of the organising team, Claire Carter, tells us just what was brave and bold about WCS14. Plus, watch the brand new and inspiring film of the event.

Shauna Coxsey told me she came up the idea for the Women’s Climbing Symposium after coaching a group of women at home in Liverpool and realising they had issues with their climbing that she’d never even thought about.

They found the crags of mainly men intimidating, hesitated to pull on to problems those guys had fallen off and struggled to work out different beta. It was ruining their ability to get inspired, try hard or enjoy their climbing.

Because since childhood she has often been the best climber in any given situation, gender has never really been a factor in Shauna’s relationship to the sport. She felt so taken aback by these ‘invisible’ barriers that she wanted to create a space to talk about women’s climbing, offer some straightforward encouragement. A bit like Miss Emma Watson’s mandate for the ‘He for She’ Campaign - ‘All I know is that I care about this problem and I want to make it better’.

From this starting point, the value of a Women’s Climbing Symposium seems like a no brainer, but articulating it is trickier. It’s hard to feel educated or confident enough to speak definitively on gender issues, let alone within the joyfully acerbic British climbing community.

The first symposium clearly hit a nerve, both selling out and inviting sarcastic criticism fast. The pink high-heeled climbing shoe of the first year put a fair few women off and so the communication of the symposiums aims – inspire, develop and connect women climbers – seemed to be key to its success.

This year’s theme #beboldbebrave summarised what we wanted the Women’s Climbing Symposium to examine and maybe provoke, and tackled the fear of saying the wrong thing – ‘We’re just having a bit of banter right? #JoinIn’. But even hashtagging the theme felt a bit bold. However viral Watson’s talk went, she still sounded a little like her alter ego, a spouty swot, rather than a woman we can all easily identify with. Part of the flak WCS attracts is probably due to the perceived arrogance of anyone attempting to define an issue for a large group. Who are we to say that women want to #beboldbebrave, or in doing so suggest that we aren’t already?

Generalisation by gender is the massive pitfall the symposium must sidestep. Last year I’d worried attending the WCS might just give me a brand new excuse book – ‘We are short, weak and might give birth mid-training plan. Might as well give up now’. Of course it was the opposite.

The ‘being a woman’ bit provided a base of shared experience that lead to a diverse set of workshops. I chose those that I was psyched about (trips) rather than the ones I wasn’t (training) and the fact that the other climbers in the room were all women meant we got to the meat of the issues pretty quickly. ‘You need to jump for that hold? Me too. Lets crack on then.’

This year’s symposium focused on the mental in climbing, so delegates' psyche rats were duly tested, fed and watered in the WCS climbing lab. Four coaching sessions lead by eight very distinctive coaches were balanced by some upfront, debate-style talks from 12 different climbers. We wanted to find out what women think about their climbing, and what they are getting on.

Thanks to the enthusiasm of a huge bunch of volunteers and speakers WCS14 tapped into an exciting array of psyche and expertise. I heard from women competing on world stage plastic, women breaking grade barriers on loose choss, climbing filmmakers, new winter routers, mums, self-proclaimed punters, physios, psychologists, youth GB team members, etcetera, etcetera. Lots of different women all with a common goal - getting up rocks, or rock shaped objects.

The #bebravebebold theme dug down to good core of honesty and humour in everyone, and the highlight for me was Hazel Findlay’s brutally truthful talk on being afraid and taking falls. Yes she is and yes she does. In fact, she works bloody hard at building strategies for both, and very kindly shared a few on stage - cheers Hazel.

Reading the workshop responses, many commented on the surprising experience of climbing with just women. Attending a single gender event obviously required some bravery, it seems to have proved an unusual, revealing experience. Having those scary-new experiences is why I climb. It’s definitely why I’d recommend you attend a future WCS.

WATCH: The Women's Climbing Symposium 2014 on BMC TV

Here’s what some of those different women thought about this year’s symposium.

Hazel's totally scientific dissection of the relationship between female climbers and their 'other halves' was very funny and a bit too close to the bone - she made me want to pull my socks up.
Naomi Buys, WCS coach

I met a lady who had been climbing indoors for a year and was keen to go outside for the first time, as well as someone who had put up a number of new high altitude routes. Having so many women psyched about all aspects of climbing with that range of experiences all in one place was pretty fascinating.
Eve Blumson, delegate

WCS14 suggested 'Be bold be brave' could applied to whatever level you climb at and you should always push your own boundaries and not let those boundaries be defined by anyone else.
Claire Youdale, WCS speaker

The incredible access to leading female climbers was really unlike anything else I've experienced. I felt like I should get my autograph book out, I'm ridiculously psyched to go out and find new projects.  I've found that there's something really valuable about climbing around people with a similar shape to me. If they can climb hard, why can't I?
Rebecca Machin, filmmaker

I learned that I own my climbing. I am responsible for stopping my mind from holding me back from achieving my goals. I left recognising that my fears were shared by many other women and they are okay because we can grasp the root of those fears and change them. I left feeling incredibly empowered. I have noticed a change since I returned to climbing later this week. I have been trying harder.
Catherine Philips, delegate

Something that struck me most of all was the recurring theme of being afraid to fail in front of others - it’s a problem which I believe needs addressing  and I think this event really helped the women who expressed this as an issue.
Natalie Berry WCS coach

Well, there I guess there is an incredible movement going on... Hearing so many stories from so many women within climbing, it's plain to see that we are getting bolder and braver in many ways, and that might be quite hard to see until you get so many of us together in one place, talking to each other.
Jen Randall, filmmaker

The WCS 2014 is supported by the BMC, MCofS, Beastmaker, Crimp Oil, Five Ten and Cliff Bar.

WATCH: The Women's Climbing Symposium 2014 on BMC TV

WATCH: The Women's Climbing Symposium 2013 on BMC TV

WATCH: our film about being a woman and a climber by Mina Leslie-Wujastk on BMC TV

WATCH: our film on BMC TV about climbing as a mum on BMC TV



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