Felicity Smith reflects on moments from rock climbing star Louise Shepherd’s ’80s trad career while looking at the changes climbing needs to make to embrace the community groove.
You’re strapped into a harness and dangling from a tightwire.
One side of the wire is attached to a cliff, and the other is connected back up inside a helicopter (great structural choice). You are nervously pulling yourself over an impressively large canyon. The start and end of your journey are marked by muscled humans yelling supportive—but kind of condescending—‘you-can-do-it-isms’.
Suddenly, the gear that you and everyone around you—up until now—entrusted their lives in, starts to crumble. The red metal buckle twists and every strap and cord holding you in your harness slides away in a menacing polyester mass exodus.
While you dangle, unaccepting of the impending doom about to take place, the muscled humans argue about structural integrity. One of them attempts a save but (spoiler) you die. Your death is donated to the would-be-but-not-quite hero of the story to serve as character growth. Good for him. Not so good for you.
If it hasn’t clicked yet, you’re reading a description of that one scene in Cliffhanger; a 1993 mountain ranger action movie. This was the exact clip shown to me when I brought up the possibility of a rock-climbing jaunt while I was visiting my parents in rural Victoria. Apparently, my tough as nails mother had a traumatising and memorable 1993 movie theatre experience. Rock climbing had been besmirched. Of course, this only made me so much more eager to try it. Or at the very least, read about someone in the sport who was a little more relatable to me than Rambo.
Louise Shepherd is an Australian climber and possibly the first woman in the world to successfully onsight (climb without knowing the terrain) a 25 graded climb—translating to a 5.12b in YDS, or a 7b in the French scale. The climb is dubbed ‘Trojan’ and is located in Dyurrait (Mt Arapillies). Shepherd is a diligent trad climber with many ‘first woman’ ascents under her harness. This one she completed in 1981.
This romanticised action sequence comes to mind when I think of Louise Shepherd. It’s probably misguided, but I imagine her just flawlessly executing climb after climb without an ounce of stress. In a 2019 profile piece on Shepherd, she recalls completing her first ascent of ‘Lord of The Flies’—note the oddly relevant naming reference to a group of boys being left to their own devices and it ending in chaos.
Upon making it to the top, she recalls hearing a multitude of car horns from the valley floor and wondering what all the fuss was about. The fuss in question was about them getting to witness the first woman to ever complete an ascent of that climb. This is one of my all-time favourite sports stories.
The late Junko Taibei, the first woman to climb Everest and complete the Seven Summits, once famously said,
“I can’t understand why men make all this fuss about Everest. It’s just a mountain”.
There is an authenticity here that shares itself with Louise Shepherd’s tale. Instead of attempting to fit the traditional man-made mould of conquering or defeating, these women redefined (for me at least) what it means to be successful in these spaces. They took on these challenges because they wanted to, not because they felt like they had to prove themselves. I don’t know how universal this is, but I’ve often felt that to be worthy of respect in a male-dominated space I had to be exemplary. In reality, there’s not a level of ability that means it is okay to disregard someone.
It is fine to want glory, it is fine to want to be the best—it is not fine to feel like you have to be in order to just exist somewhere. Realising this brought me some peace, however, I’m still hesitant to get more into the scene. There is a lot of work to be done in climbing before it truly feels like a safe and accessible community.
Historically, like most sports, it has been a place for men. Anyone else has always been considered an outlier. After the first manless rock-climbing accent of the Grépon (located in the Mont Blanc Massif, Haute-Savoie, France) by Miriam O’Brien Underhill and Alice Damesme in 1929, Étienne Bruhl (French Mountaineer and possible meninist) said this:
“The Grépon has disappeared. Now that it has been done by two women alone, no self-respecting man can undertake it. A pity, too, because it used to be a very good climb.”
Although this wasn’t true for everyone in the community, these “women are ruining the sport” anecdotes have continued to crop up. The amount of gear, safety training, upskilling, and climb knowledge needed to actively participate in rock climbing, especially trad climbing, means that it necessitates community. If the community that you’re vulnerably trying to enter seems like it doesn’t want you there it can be difficult to learn from and trust them—and trust is important when you’re dangling from an earth-formed skyscraper.
Its inaccessibility doesn’t stop there. Behind the carefree #vanlife facade of the historically visibly white climbing community, there exists a host of issues—such as the more than questionable racist, sexist, and homophobic route names. These titles serve as repeating reminders of who came before, and who they think has the right to be there in the future.
Rock climbers’ bodies are physically and mentally pushed to the limit. For women, this mental exertion extends to scrutiny. Beth Rodden, the first climber to ascend the 70ft Yosemite climb Meltdown, writes about her experience with industry induced body image issues. The pressure to be small, thin, less, is neatly hidden under the guise of ‘you will be able to climb better’—a dangerous attitude that has been proven incorrect.
Climb grading systems have also been called out for catering solely to the experience of men, leaving others unsupported and disheartened. Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) in the climbing community have written about feeling overlooked and being discouraged by the attitudes in climbing circles.
Here is an amazing list compiled by Danielle Williams, and published on Melanin Base Camp, showing off some talented humans to follow in the climbing-verse.
Rock climbing can instil a beautiful connection with the land, self, and the environment. People should not have to complete a round of mental gymnastics to determine if they’ll be welcome. We need to continue putting emotional labour into community clean up, and hope that out of it we’ll be shepherded into an era with fewer Rambos, and more unsullied favourite sporting moments.