Women's Trad Fest: what's this incredibly popular event all about?

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 14/08/2019
WTF in photos. Photo: Charlie Low
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The fourth annual Women's Trad Fest took place in the sunny Peak District last weekend. It’s a festival largely aimed at beginners and learners, many of whom can already climb but want to learn trad skills in a safe, friendly environment. This year it was run as a BMC event to deliver what must be one of the bigger climbing festivals of its type to be found anywhere.

Sarah Stirling caught up with Gilly McArthur, one of the four organisers of  WTF, along with Charlie Low, Hetty Key and Ellie Fuller.

GM: Last year, WTF tickets sold out in under three minutes, this year they sold instantly, in one refresh of a page! It’s incredible really. A lot of people might consider that trad climbing is just for hardened climbers but we pour a lot into making sure it’s a friendly, supportive and welcoming event for newbies.

The atmosphere and sense of community at the festival always leaves the biggest lasting impression on me. We welcomed over 300 people from across Europe – all ages, genders and abilities – and there was a really tangible sense of camaraderie between everyone.

We want to help break down some of the barriers within climbing. To reach communities who don’t even know that climbing is an option for them. By providing all the gear, mentorship and support we hope to sow that initial seed to start someone’s trad climbing journey.


The four organisers of WTF. Photo: Jessie Leong

The benefits of trad climbing

Throughout the festival, we aim to replicate, as much as possible, what an adventurous weekend of trad climbing is about. The event is off-grid, with no hero-worshipping or focus on performance.

I think the skills learnt through trad climbing are really important in today’s society: trust in yourself, decision-making, listening to your inner voice and immersing yourself in nature. There’s something quite marvellous about challenging an unhelpful belief held deep inside, and overcoming it. It’s empowering, it’s rewarding and it can be life-changing.

This intrinsic feeling is also backed up by my fellow organiser Hetty Key’s research through Women in Adventure. In her recent survey 99.6% of women agreed the outdoors has a positive impact on their mental wellbeing.

"There’s something quite marvellous about challenging an unhelpful belief held deep inside, and overcoming it. It’s empowering, it’s rewarding and it can be life-changing"

In a world that seems to be building walls around communities, and highlighting how different we all are, we feel it’s important to celebrate and encourage that our hearts all beat the same. Over 70% of attendees travelled to the event alone, and they came from a wide range of backgrounds. We’d love to hear how we can make the event ethnically more diverse.

We are far more than we think we are: sometimes we just need a nudge to see this. Sailing up close to being challenged – be it travelling alone to the event, tying into a top-rope, making that first transition to leading or sharing your already developed skills with others, is mentally huge for people. We want to nurture this and hope it transcends into the rest of life.


Beginners learning the ropes. Photo: Claire Clifton

A sustainable festival

One of our core values is trying to run a sustainable festival. We encourage all attendees to consider plastic use. To avoid single-use plates, cutlery or cups, everyone brings their own utensils and crockery.

After this, the smaller details make a real difference. We had two specific recycling centres, which included soft plastics and organic waste. 100% recycled loo roll came from Who Gives a Crap, who donate 50% of their profits to charity.

"Glass-bottled milk came from a local dairy, bin bags were flour sacks from a Sheffield bakery"

Glass-bottled milk came from a local dairy, bin bags were flour sacks from a Sheffield bakery. The Rab festival t-shirts were organic and printed with soil association dyes by a local artist. We even used sheep poo from the site to fertilise one of the organiser’s gardens!

Outdoor brands were asked not to bring single-use freebies like posters and stickers to the event, and plastic was kept to almost zero. If we can change things from the grass roots up maybe we can make little ripples to make everyone consider their environmental impact.

WATCH :Why We Climb, filmed at last year's event, on BMC TV

Huge thanks to the BMC

The BMC has been a long-term sponsor of the event, and this year the event was run as a BMC event. Without this, insurance wouldn't have been possible. BMC Equity and Youth Officer James McHaffie was really key at helping us sort this without pulling our hair out! The event this year has been fraught with challenges, and organising it as a four from Cumbria, Sheffield and Bristol just adds to the difficulty!

Emma Travers from the BMC Marketing team was on hand to talk all things BMC in their marquee and ran a very funny rope coiling competition. The BMC also partnered with Womenclimb to launch the Women in Adventure film competition at Outside in Hathersage as a fundraiser.

BMC President Lynn Robinson also came to support the festival once again. We even got her to trade in her old very worn harness to Scavenger and buy a new one. We need her to be safe!

Ultimately for that weekend of the WTF we were all just climbers.


The event brought together learners, competent climbers and mentors. Photo: Jessie Leong

How WTF works

The main ticket options are Learner or Climber. Learners are matched up with another Learner, and a Leader who is experienced in teaching others to climb. If you can set up a belay, lead competently and don't require external support, you can buy a Climber ticket, and you will be paired with another Climber. Climbers could also attend a crack master class with DMM athletes Libby Peter and Harriet Ridley. This year we also offered Mother & Child and Improvised Rescue tickets run by Rock and Sun and supported by DMM.

We also had Mentors like Cath Wilson and Rachael Crewesmith on hand this year. Leaders could ask them for advice, ideas and an eye over their plans for the weekend. All were truly inspiring as to what it looks like to be a Mountain Instructor.

WTF tickets include: two nights camping, two days of climbing and tuition, veggie/vegan dinner on Saturday evening, WTF2019 t-shirt and festival bag of goodies, access to borrow gear from our sponsors throughout the weekend and an exclusive 20% discount throughout the weekend from Outside in Hathersage.

Subscribe here to be amongst the first to hear about next year’s event: www.womenstradfestival.co.uk

Testimonials from attendees

“Thank you for such a wonderful wonderful weekend, it was such an inclusive place to be and my heart is so full from all the amazing people I met and in awe of all the wonderfully women out there giving it a go to the super experienced to aspire to! Never in a million years would I have thought I would be climbing outdoors and most definitely thought I would never even try trad and definitely thought it was so far beyond me, but the environment was so so safe and supportive and broke down so many fear barriers and definitely helped with confidence building for outdoor climbing in general.” Bec Lam, Learner at WTF2019

"I attended the WTF this year as a ‘learner’ and felt super lucky to have the amazing Maddy Cope as my mentor. I learned to lead trad a few months before, but was still lacking the confidence to start pushing myself through the grades. Maddy showed us certain mind skills she practises while trad climbing: keeping your face and body calm, focusing on the rhythm of your breath, and not getting frustrated or tense. That combined with some more advice on gear placements and anchors gave me the added confidence to do some of my best leads on rock. I felt like I found a rhythm and flow while leading that I didn’t know was possible before. The whole festival had such a positive energy,  I feel like everyone went away with added confidence and psyche to get out on rock and push themselves in climbing. I think events like the WTF are essential for women in outdoor sports to come together and share the uniqueness of being a woman in the outdoors, and to continue inspiring each other to overcome challenges and reach their goals.” Athena Mellor, Learner at WTF2019

WATCH First Steps, Katy Whittaker describes her first climbs on BMC TV:


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