I was once honored with the prestigious and highly sought-after Xena Warrior Princess award. It was almost the end of my seven months abroad in Costa Rica, when our small group of University of California undergrads, sensing that this period of adventure and intimate friendship was coming to a close, decided to have an award ceremony to commemorate each person’s contribution to the group dynamic and our collective experience. I earned my award—I’m pretty sure—based on two things: getting busted by the program director for galloping a horse through the mountains in a remote location far from any hospital (never mind that the tour guide condoned it … and it was his horse), and picking fights with guys yelling sleazy cat-calls (or piropos in Costa Rican slang) at the women in our group as we walked by.
My first confession is that I have never watched a full episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. However, knowing a little about the show’s protagonist Xena from the bits and pieces that I’d seen, I was honored by the award. I cannot think of a more accurate embodiment of who I aspire to be at the crag. Xena is a paradigm of the fully empowered woman. She is strong, smart, sexy as hell, and is a remorseless, unrepentant ass-kicker. She is completely unhindered by gender-role expectations and is in command of her identity and her destiny.
While I like to think I might model her in some ways, my second confession is that I often fall short of the example she sets. As a woman, I tend to psychologically take the back seat while climbing. I climb mostly with men who are stronger, more experienced climbers than me, who do most or all of the route planning and preparation, and who rope-gun hard routes so I can toprope to my heart’s content and never have to take the sharp-end. As a woman in a predominantly male sport, it is easy to become complacent and let the guys do all the heavy lifting. But the cost of staying safely within your comfort zone is that you never take ownership of the sport, and you never get to experience the sense of accomplishment that comes with taking on a project that is all your own.
Breaking out of this pattern is not easy. It creates its own inertia, and you might find yourself blaming external circumstances for the fact that you haven’t taken on a more active role. You might think, “But I don’t have any women climbing partners who climb hard … If I was a stronger climber then I could … I feel bad making the guys lead belay me on routes they would find boring.” Don’t fall into this trap! Ultimately, the only thing holding you back is you. If you want to be a Xena at the crag, you need to step up and own it. If you do find yourself feeling passive about your climbing, here are a few tips from my own experience that might help you make this psychological transition.
Climb with people who are less experienced than you. For many women, being the alpha in a group of climbers is a foreign experience. Most of us are not accustomed to having people look to us for leadership. Men’s natural (and sometimes infuriating) endowment of upper body strength makes them the leaders of most co-ed sports. But if you climb with people less experienced than you, you will automatically find yourself the leader and the rope-gun by popular vote or default, and it will hurtle your mind into the driver’s seat. It does not matter if the hardest thing you’ve ever led is a 5.9 on bolts. You can still rope-gun those 5.9s for people who get nervous toproping 5.8s. I’ve heard some women complain that they’ll get bored if they’re not with someone who can put up hard routes for them, but I call BS. When you’re on the sharp-end and know that your friends are watching you from the ground with admiration at your skill and courage, trust me, you will be having fun.
Don’t hold back. I hate to say it, but there are certain things I sometimes see women do that make it difficult for any of us to excel. While climbing, women tend to insist that we all climb in a group, at the same level. There is a subtle but real pressure that we assert on one another not to get too far ahead of the pack. Without even realizing it, we say things to our friends to discourage them. For example, a friend (who had climbed longer than me) once said to me after I successfully climbed a harder route than she could climb, “I don’t understand why some people have to be competitive about climbing harder than other people. It should just be for fun, for its own sake.” Instantly, my mind went off on a silent rant: By some people you mean me, right? Why can’t I climb something hard without it being competition? And what’s wrong with competition anyway? And who says it’s not fun to climb hard? I LOVE climbing hard!”
Don’t do this to your friends, and don’t let your friends discourage you. If you are climbing with other women, and you want to climb something harder than they can climb, do it anyway. Think of yourself as setting an example of empowerment, rather than as a showoff. Conversely, if your female climbing partner asks you to belay her on something you know you can’t climb, tell her to get after it! If we insist on all climbing at the same level we become like the proverbial crabs in a bucket. To really own climbing, women need to feel good about being rock stars, and we need to be genuinely proud of our friends when it’s their turn in the spotlight.
Go to the gym by yourself. If you fall into the mental habit of thinking you need a partner to climb, you’ll always be dependent on other people for your climbing, and you’ll pass up many valuable hours of practice. Although climbing with friends can be more fun, climbing alone lets you be completely selfish. You can work on one project for hours without worrying about boring your friends. Also, when I’m at the gym by myself, I inevitably meet someone working on the same problem, and it can turn into a really fun collaborative experience.
If the guys offer to be your belay bitch, accept. I want to give kudos to my guy climbing partners for their encouragement and for helping me be a better climber. As I mentioned, most of my climbing partners happen to be dudes, and they happen to be really strong climbers. And those guys have never hesitated to belay me on something they could do without breaking a sweat. When you are climbing with stronger partners, whether guy or gal, watch how they climb, learn from them, and if they say they would be happy to belay you for an hour on your project, take their offer at face value and accept it! If you have a willing belay partner, pick a project and work it until you send it. Your friend will be totally stoked to watch you achieve your goal, and you’ll be a better climber for it.
Look for other Xenas. I recently befriended an incredible crack climber named Loni. I’ve only known her for a few months, and already she has taught me more about jamming, foot camming, placing gear, building anchors, and swapping leads than I ever thought I’d know. Look for women climbers who inspire you and make them your climbing partners. Women mentors are invaluable. They remind us that we have a definite place in this sport—that Xenas like Lynn Hill, Steph Davis, Hazel Findlay, and Ashima Shiraishi are the rule, not the exception. They show us what is possible.
I have long-strived to take ownership of my climbing, and these tips are things I have learned from personal experience on this quest. My final confession is that I don’t always follow my own advice. I still sometimes find myself sitting in the mental back seat, or declining to take the sharp end in favor of toproping something someone else has put up. But this advice does work. When I do follow these tips, I find that I am finally in command of my climbing experience, and my enjoyment in the sport increases exponentially. So, if you too want to be a badass-warrior-princess-rock-star-climber-chick, these suggestions will point you in the right direction. The rest is up to you.