The fact that the Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festivals sell out in under a minute with hundreds on the waitlist indicates a growing demand for women-centric climbing community spaces. And as I piece together a career focused around women-specific climbing programming myself, I hear a lot of conversations about how climbing with women feels better, even though in many cases men introduced us to the sport. Is it that we feel safe to express ourselves and push our comfort zones? Are there certain qualities that create this preferable environment? Is it actually about gender?
I interviewed climbers at the Chattanooga Women’s Climbing Festival (I was there representing Outdoor Research) to gather thoughts—and found it seems all of us, regardless of gender, experience both traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine qualities within ourselves. This duality shows up in how we express ourselves in leadership, relationships and creativity—all things that come to life in rock climbing.
“See this table right here?” said Abby Dione, climbing coach and owner of Coral Cliffs Climbing Gym in Florida. I met her at the Chattanooga WCF, where she pointed to the table next to us. “The structure of it is the masculine, the rigid is the masculine. The texture, the smell, the meat of it is the feminine—it’s not one without the other. But I’ll tell you this: You can get away with a lot more feminine power in climbing, oddly enough, than masculine. That rigidity doesn’t really quite apply as well.”
So what are we really talking about when we refer to these “feminine” and “masculine” traits? I asked questions and boiled down the qualities that represent both the light and dark sides of traditionally masculine and feminine expressions in climbing. This is what I came up with:
- The Light Side of the Feminine: Collaborative, supportive, emotionally available, graceful, gentle, patient and engaged with the process, nurturing, compassionate, receptive, community focused, inquisitive and curious, spacious, fluid, intuitive, calm, holds boundaries, perceptive, relational, intrinsic motivation, surrender
- The Dark Side of the Feminine: Passivity and not speaking up, doubt in strength and capability, thinking “I’m not _____ enough,” giving up when it feels physically hard, over-dependence on others, people pleasing, not stepping up, playing small, indecisive
- The Light Side of the Masculine: Practicality, confidence in capabilities, founded certainty, ambition, physical try-hard, healthy competition, strong, stable, self-sufficient, persistent and tough, healthy anger release, offering guidance, decisive
- The Dark Side of the Masculine: Recklessness, forcefulness, strong opinions without room for discussion, unbridled certainty, excuses like “I need to train more,” stubbornness, sees things as black and white, competitive/hierarchical mentality, suppressing and hiding emotions, only seeing the end goal, relying on brute strength
In Western civilization, especially the subculture of rock climbing, masculine power has been the norm, the standard. From the stone monkeys to corporate America, to our government, we live in a world where masculine-style leadership has driven the charge. Maybe it’s because our culture has glorified masculine leadership qualities and personality traits for so long that many of us, regardless of gender, have suppressed our more dynamic feminine qualities. Traditionally feminine aspects like emotional awareness have often been unwelcome and even shamed. But now we’re starting to welcome alternative outlooks and styles of leadership. It seems like “femininity” is having a re-awakening. But maybe the future isn’t just about femininity instead of masculinity—maybe it’s just re-balancing the two.
“We are quick to blame an entire gender for a fault, rather than the systems in place that uphold the toxic aspects of that gender,” adds filmmaker Biz Young. “If we all are able to see the darker sides of our participation and the power of our change—then we can make sustainable progress as a force. When I am climbing with a healthy mindset, I toggle between these two energies easily.”
“For me it ‘s been about making space for both [masculine and feminine characteristics] to coexist instead of favoring one over the other,” says Rokeda Brownell, warranty specialist at Outdoor Research.
So what does that ideal balance look like? Perhaps what we desire in a climbing partner (and in ourselves) can give us an outline for what a healthy representation of masculine and feminine looks like. In my interviews in Chattanooga, here are the top qualities people desired in a partner:
- trustworthy and patient
- shared motivations
- security in their personhood and always growing
- people who can have life talks while throwing down
- nurturing, kind and gentle
Laur Sabourin, the Warrior’s Way Climbing Director, says, “As a non-binary person, I have experienced firsthand that separating gender from traits is super beneficial process that opens up space for exploration and healing. We tend to create a cultural expectation of how someone in a specific gender role should act, but that leaves a lot less room for individual experience and for unique narratives about what it means to be a human.”
Perhaps, when folks exclaim how much they love to climb with women, they really mean that they love climbing with people who allow themselves and each other to experience the dynamic spectrum of being a human. While it seems that women more often fill this niche, we can all work our way into a healthier expression of our masculine and feminine traits if we want to. As a microcosm of the field of leadership and teamwork, we climbers have the opportunity to shift this historically masculine-dominated culture to one that embraces the power of the feminine and leaves more room for our dynamic, complex selves to collaborate. As a byproduct of the process we become a fuller expression of who we are as people, climbers and climbing partners.