One of the first things I noticed when I started climbing was the surprising amount of women taking part. It didn’t take long to notice how many of these women were climbing just as hard as the men, if not harder. Since then I’ve introduced all kinds of people, men and women, to the sport and it’s been really interesting witnessing the progression curve for all of them. Some people obviously improve quicker than others, some people have a head start (often due to some background in other sports), and everyone struggles to overcome various physical obstacles. To excel at climbing requires a very broad range of skills including, but not limited to, strength (in many of its various flavours), balance, flexibility, co-ordination, problem solving, ability to learn specific techniques, and a relentless devotion to improvement.
I’m not going to spend time discussing whether men have a natural advantage in some of these areas, partly because it’s a rabbit hole, but mostly because I don’t think it’s important. Male or female, we each face our own set of unique obstacles when learning to climb. We exploit our advantages and climb things in a way that best suits us, all the while improving on our shortcomings without necessarily paying any direct attention to them. If you’re strong but inflexible, you’ll find moves requiring flexibility difficult, and vice versa. You might not even be able to do certain moves at all, but attempting them will improve your abilities in the areas in which you’re lacking. It may be subtle and it may go unnoticed, but that improvement is always happening.
When you inevitably hit a point where a deficit stops being a mere hindrance and becomes a deal breaker it becomes necessary to focus on certain aspects more specifically. If you’ve managed to use your raw power to avoid learning to use good footwork and to position your body effectively, you’ll eventually have to climb things where the holds and angles aren’t good enough for you to use brute force to complete the route. Similarly, if you’ve relied too much on your technique to avoid training your strength, you’ll find moves that you are unable to do without a prerequisite amount of force. By the time you get to this point, all of the things you were already good at have continued to improve, but the things you weren’t so good at have improved too.
The good news is that, as far as I can tell, the rate of skill improvement decreases as your ability increases. The gulf between your advantages and disadvantages grows narrower over time as you practise any activity that involves interdependent skills. Your strengths plateau and your weaknesses catch up. Why is this important ? Because, since one strength will only get you so far on its own, most people seem to end up at roughly the same level given the same amount of practice. That broad range of required skills I mentioned above allows for a much more level playing field than you might expect. If you struggle with strength and agility at first, your creativity and imagination may have you out-climbing people much stronger than you sooner than you think.
The point here isn’t that you should spend all of your time worrying about how you’re doing compared to everyone else (if you manage to never do this then you know something I don’t), but that you shouldn’t be put off climbing because of things that you see as being detrimental to your improvement. Work hard on those issues, be patient, and just keep climbing. If you hit a slump, find the resolve within yourself to push through it; there are copious rewards for doing so. Something will eventually click and a new level of climbing will open itself up to you. There is a wealth advice available online and from fellow climbers to help you overcome each individual struggle.
We started on the subject of women and that’s where we’ll finish, because I think this is really important. Being a woman may or may not hold you back in some areas, and it may or may not give you a head start in other areas. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that if you work hard enough you’ll become good. You’ll work on routes with both men and women, exchange ideas, try different approaches, succeed and fail at a similar rate, and (excepting a few unfortunate idiots) do so on equal terms. I’ve been schooled by girls so many times now that any traces of misplaced preconceptions have been entirely washed out. That sense of equality on both sides can only be a good thing.
If you need more convincing, look back to when Lynn Hill was pushing the human limits of climbing, the more recent past where Josune Bereziartu, Charlotte Durif and Sasha DiGiuilian became the only three (at the time of writing !) women to climb the prestigious sport grade of 9a. And let’s not forget the future where the likes of Ashima Shiraishi and Brooke Raboutou are already breaking records and looking set to dominate the world of climbing over the next few years. It’s an exciting time for climbing and the focus is deservedly on both men and women.