Rewriting the rules: Women in high places

*First seen in the New Zealand Alpine Journal, December 2017

Standing on the curb in Auckland wearing ripped jeans and floral t-shirt, I wait for Jim to pick me up for the NZAC Snowcraft Course. I’m like a packmule with way too many bags and fear I’m underdressed for the occasion. My suspicions confirmed as Jim rolls up in his technical outdoor clothing and a Landrover Discovery still caked in mud from the last adventure. Boot full of ice-tools and a bunch of survival gear. I’m way out of my depth but there’s no turning back now.

We power towards Tukino and my bones are rearranged in the backseat as we tackle the 4WD access road. Snow falling hard and horizontal thanks to the wild winds that Ruapehu delivers. Streaming across our view illuminated by headlights, it looks like white noise on an old television set. They don’t call this the Wild Side for nothing. Kitting up in full outerwear and crampons the team unload the vehicles, a human chain ensuring no one gets blown away. I witness this hilarious battle between man and nature and acknowledge that this mountain is the ideal training ground for alpine newbies.

Moreso, it's the ideal training ground for the 12 empowered ladies who joined Snowcraft in a bid to become autonomous in the mountains – no longer wanting to rely on their male counterparts. 2017 is the first year in club history that female participation has outdone men and the sense of camaraderie as a result has been unbeatable. 

Ocean Patrice - Ruapehu Summit.jpg

We may not look like the amazing #ClimbingBabes of Instagram, with their sponsorships, amazing tans and toned physiques. And yes we may seem a little unorthodox in our mismatched gear, crooked helmets and the odd mascara streak. But there we were filled with an abundance of stoke, keenness and pockets full of snacks. It couldn’t have been a better learning environment.  

Surrounded with new female climbing partners I felt more willing to ask questions, admit when I didn’t know everything, and let my fears be heard when stepping outside my comfort zone. Without the limitations of 'being female' in a male-dominant environment, we could cast aside the shadow of having to “harden up” and be free to progress in a manner that suited us best. No sense of competition, no sense of macho-ness, just a supportive and encouraging team of equals. I reflect on this and wonder what it must have been like learning to climb historically as a woman; needing to prove you can “climb like a man” and be equally fit, strong and brave – all while wearing a skirt.  I prefer this modern day reality whereby we don’t have to be something we’re not, free to express ourselves and climb in a style unique to our femininity.

We spend the weekend employing our newfound skills for moving safely in the mountains – practicing self-arrest, pretending we’re meat anchors, telling bad jokes and generally just being taken on a journey. At Whangaehu Hut I enquire as to the names of the peaks around me, and then commit to climbing each one in the future. I may still be a rookie mountaineer, but this was where I wanted to be. I’m almost kicking myself that I hadn’t explored mountaineering earlier.

From an outsider’s perspective, especially that of a young teenage girl, alpinism had seemed totally unachievable and hence why I hadn’t explored earlier. I’d been up to my eyeballs in mountaineering books hearing the tales of Rob Hall and Sir Ed; watching movies like Touching the Void and Into Thin Air, but it was a man’s world – where only the toughest and bravest survive. A perception fuelled by the media that only glorifies the extremities and horrors of mountaineering while failing to celebrate the successful summits. This glorification only heightening the sense of elitism associated with the sport while isolating our future climbers.

Why hadn’t I heard of the badass ladies that had been paving the way before me? The likes of Freda Du Faur, - the first woman to summit Aoraki/Mount Cook in 1910 (whilst wearing a skirt), Pat Deavoll who made the first ascent of Xiashe, Karim Sar & Miandi Peak (6,000m) among others, Lydia Bradey who was the first women to summit Everest without Oxygen, and Mayan Gobat-Smith who currently holds the woman’s speed record on the Nose, El Capitan.  These trailblazers had been pushing the boundaries for years, yet their achievements lost to me on the breeze like spindrift. So why was the media only glorifying the exploits of men?

As a club I feel we can play a massive role in the paradigm shift towards equally celebrating the achievements of both our men and women. Progress is being made at least, and when I sit down at the Auckland club nights once a month I'm presented with an epic selection of female speakers that share their alpine achievements. The most recent being Penny Webster who spoke in October on her life as a climber and the journey taken to achieve the 3000m Peak Challenge. Her massive energy and enthusiasm for the sport left me motivated when I walked out of the Dominion, rearing to follow in her footsteps. I also look up to our female leaders in the club like Penny Brothers - only the third women to hold the presidential position in the club's 126 year history. Women have played a massive part in the clubs governance over the years, but there’s massive room for improvement. Penny acknowledges this saying "we have some great female role models in the club who are at the forefront for climbing, however we just need more of them".

Having more female leaders would do wonders for encouraging a new generation of alpinists. Think about your own experiences learning to climb and explore the mountains: I have no doubt it’s through mentors and leaders like these that you’ve got to the level you’re at today. These role models are how we learn the hard skills, while gaining both inspiration and aspirational targets. They show us what to do, tell us what not to do, and along with some healthy banter help shape us into being more competent mountaineers and climbing partners.

This is not to say that female alpinists can’t be coached by men – but the clarity of hindsight and experience tells me that we learn best from those we share similarities with - both physical and ideological. It’s invigorating to learn from women whom we can see our future climbing styles reflected in, and was great to see so many female instructors on the Snowcraft course.

Doing my own part, I hope to start a women’s’ weekly climb night to encourage more newbies into the sport while finding adventurous ladies to mission with. And that’s not to say the men can’t join and contribute too. We love climbing with you and the competitiveness it provides – I wouldn’t have been brave enough to try leading or gain my first summit without your fierce encouragement. But for future record, can you embrace the fact that we climb in our own unique way and encourage us to do so? It’ll be a benefit to all of us, I promise.

BlogOcean Belcher