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Petticoats and Harnesses


 

by Heidi Haas

November 11, 2002

Women in the History of Climbing

Reprinted with permission from WomenClimbing.com

When people think of women, what do they think? What may come to mind is someone who takes care of children, cleans the house, and most likely has a full time job to support the family. Rarely would one think of a woman dangling two thousand feet above the ground or spending a few months attempting to summit the highest peak in the world. To some, the morality of these women is questionable, but the climbers have no doubts. These women climb not necessarily to put their life at risk, but to experience a wider range of emotions, such as "the natural high." Though most women climb much less extreme rock, they still have many of the same emotions that the extremists have. The women who push their limits (and the men's limits as well) have brought the sport to the attention of many more women throughout the years. Women are now sharing the sport that has been primarily dominated by the men from the start.

Climbing has been around for many years, but the history has been hard to trace. The first climbers recorded were men who rarely told of their female counterparts who accompanied them on their climbs. To the men it seemed that it was not masculine to write of the women climbers, but valiant to write of their endeavors. This was true even of the many priests who also climbed, except for one who had an adventurous aunt and was the editor of an alpine journal. From this man comes the first record of a woman climber: Miss Parminter. Miss Parminter climbed in the Alps around 1799 (Seghers, p2). A few years later, in 1808, Marie Paradis, a Frenchwoman at a young age of 18, became the first woman to climb Mont Blac, the highest peak in the Alps (Seghers, p2-3; Arce, 104). As the 1880's progressed two other great women took the climbing scene: Miss Meta Brevoot and Miss Lucy Walker. Miss Brevoot at times took to shedding her dress or skirt, as trousers seemed easier to climb in. In eleven years she bagged thirty peaks and thirty-six passes (Seghers, p3). In 1871, Miss Lucy Walker became the first woman on a major ascent of the Matterhorn. Also in that year Lucy made the fourth ascent of the Eiger, it was said that she "lived on a diet of sponge cake, champagne and Asti Spumante while on expedition" (Seghers, 3). Only a few other women were noted at that time, the most influential being Annie Peck. After climbing the Matterhorn at 44, she became a founding member of the American Alpine Club (Child, 168). She continued on to climb many other peaks, eventually hoisting a flag "Votes for Women" (Child, 168) on the summit of a peak in Peru. The attitudes continued to oppress the women in their endeavors, though through the turn of the century, changes were coming.

The turn of the century turned the men into daredevils that brought climbing into popularity and into more commoners lives. Years of technical advances furthered the sport beyond the imagination of the climbers of the 1800's. Equipment began to be created and then manufactured (more so in Europe before the United States). By the 20's, climbing had started to become a "social event...Women were drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and rock climbing... Many marriages were created from the social events. The most famous was that of Mirium O'Brien and Robert Underhill" (Knapp, p48). Robert had advanced technical climbing aspects in the United States in the years he had climbed. Mirium, while climbing with her husband, advanced her own climbing and became one of America's top women climbers of the 20's and 30's. "She introduced guideless climbing and teaming with other women. Such ascents she called 'manless' (Child, p233). She continued the women's movement in climbing, but the sport remained male dominated.

In the 30's and 40's the women in climbing continued to be rare. Most had been introduced to the sport by their boyfriends or husbands. Bonnie Prudden was introduced to climbing on her honeymoon by summiting the Matterhorn with her husband. After returning she continued climbing, establishing many first ascents. She climbed well into the 50's (Child, p176). A few other women pushed their limits on the mountains. One such woman was Barbara Washburn who became the first women to summit Denali (known to many as Mt. McKinley) in 1947 (Child, p237; Voices). Beyond these few accounts that were recorded there is not much evidence of many other women climbing at these times.

Through the 50's and 60's many of the women that were to excel years later, were just being born. The first few years after their birth would forever change climbing as the world new it. The gear continued to improve as well as the technique and style. The men of the time were setting new standards, pushing the limits beyond anyone's imagination. The routes continued to become harder. More and more men decided upon a life as a climbing bum. (Knapp, pp72-79) One of these men was Royal Robbins. His wife Liz Robbins became the first woman to ascend a Grade VI route in Yosemite. Women started taking on this type of lifestyle as well, although they did not start appearing on the scene again until the 70's rolled around.

The early 70's found Bev Johnson as a strong female force. Bev was the first female on the Yosemite Rescue Team. By 1973, Bev had soloed and led many hard climbs and deemed herself ready to push on to big-wall climbing. She recruited Sibylle Hechtel to attempt the first women's climb of El Cap, in which they were successful. Bev continued to climb and soloed another route on El Cap five years later (Knapp, p54). On the higher peaks women continued to amaze. Wanda Rutkiewicz led a grup up Gasherbrum 2, at the time the highest unclimbed peak at the time. Two of those women made it to the top alone (Seghers, p7). On May 16, 1975 an all-woman Japanese team put the first female on top of Mount Everest: Junko Tabei. Junko was 35 years old, a mother of a three year-old , had been in training for three years, and had given piano lessons to raise the money she had needed (Seghers, p8). Finally, women were starting to be accepted into the climbing world. In 1978 the Swiss Alpine Club accepted its first female member (Seghers, p6). In 1979, a young woman by the name of Lynn Hill proved she could climb with the best (which at the time were all men). Lynn free climbed a .12c/d, the hardest climbed by a woman at that time. She continued and in 1983 helped put up the first .13 in the East. Her climbing career continued to proceed unhindered (Knapp, p56-59).

The 80's continued to push climbing limits. Competitions were created and sport climbing had become a popular facet. Indoor gyms also started popping up over the United States, creating different climbing cultures: trad verses rad. Two women continue to accomplish great things. Robyn Erbesfield appears and wins the World Cup in Leeds, England in 89. Later that year Lynn Hill wins the World Cup title and even appears on David Letterman (Knapp, p58-59).

Moving into the 90's and the present, Lynn starts with a bang by becoming the first woman to redpoint .14 in 1990 in France (Knapp, p60; Prichard, p65). Robyn follows in 1991 to become the second. In 1992 Lynn attempted two free ascents of The Nose on El Cap. She succeeded on her second attempt in a four day push. Lynn gives up competing after winning the Arco Rock Master (Knapp, p60). Robyn continues to compete, winning four years in a row (Interview). In 1994 she wins every single event. As Robyn was setting records in the competition circuit, Lynn was setting records in climbing history. On Sept. 9, 1994 Lynn succeeded in free climbing The Nose in a day on her second attempt. No one has repeated her feat since. Lynn and Robyn continue to push their limits climbing today and have taken up route setting for comps. In 1996 a young fifteen year old took the climbing scene by storm. Katie Brown amazed the world by winning both international comps that she was old enough to enter. She onsighted .13b/c (the hardest by a woman as of yet) in 1997 (Knapp, p60). Katie has become one of the best known women climbers, even compared to Lynn and Robyn. Other climbers making headlines include Mia Axon, who was the fourth to redpoint a .14. Bobbi Bensmen was also a comp addict. She, along with many other climbers, continue to push climbing not only in the women's circuit but climbing in general.

Taking a look at the past two hundred years one can see how climbing has drastically changed. The role women played comes apparent. Women pushed, just as the men did, their limits and set records of their own. The early women opened doors to the women who have taken the opportunity and run with it. We see many of these women today in the climbing news, making first ascents, repointing .14's and going beyond our imagination's wildest dreams.

Resources

Arce, Gary (1996). Defying gravity: High adventure on Yosemite's walls. Berkeley, CA: Wilderness Press.

Child, Greg. (1995). Climbing: The complete reference. NY: Facts on File.

Knapp, Fred. (1997, June). Strokes of genius. Rock & Ice, 44-56.

Knapp, Fred. (1997, Aug). The golden age. Rock & Ice, 72-79.

Knapp, Fred. (1997, Oct). The whole natural art. Rock & Ice, 50-60.

Prichard, Nancy. (1997, May). The climb of her life. Women's Sports + Fitness, 64-66.

Seghers, Carroll II (1977). The peak experience: Hiking and climbing for women. Indianapolis, NY: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.

(1997) An Interview with Robyn Erbesfield [Online]. Available: http://www.rockandgroove.com/robyn.html

(1997) Voices from the rock - documentary featuring accomplished women climbers [On-line]. Available: http://www.mountainzone.com/climbing/voices/barbara.html



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