Ice climbing is no longer just for bearded blokes. Out of 90 competitors in the recent Kandersteg Ice Climbing festival, 20 were women. Since I started to ice climb last season the women I see on ice are a welcome presence in this fish tank of testosterone.
As I bludgeoned my way up 60m frozen waterfalls in the Aosta valley in Italy, wielding 20 year old tools, svelte Italian, Swiss and French women followed their men up with elegance and ease. They weren't hurling their axes into the ice. Their style was one of dry tooling – not the battle that their men (and I) seemed to be having. Their state-of-the-art ice tools clearly made a difference - Thin scimitars of light steel on curved and stepped handles that let them hook the ice delicately and dig gently but firmly enough into the pock-marks made by their leader.
It's as though the new tools make a direct transfer of skills from rock to ice possible for women: It reduces the need for the upper body strength of an Amazonian. 'But', I wondered, 'when presented with a pristine 60m pitch of 90 degree ice, would the 'dry tooling' approach work?' Yes, because they had another second element that made it possible - they had someone to pave the way in front of them, making the dents and pits for them to hook their picks into. But it could be quite different if they had to lead it... and then I realised I hadn't seen either any women leading, or any all women teams.
Despite being a minority, Ice Maidens aren't uncommon; but women who lead on ice are scarce, and women who lead hard are almost unheard of. How many recent news items about ice climbing women have you seen in the climbing media?
Leanne Callaghan made news last season when she made the first female ascent of Neanderthal (VII,7) in Glen Coe. "Ice climbing is an acquired taste", she says. "It breaks climbing down to its rawest parts - strength, power and adrenaline."
I enjoy the brutishness of the sport - the kick of crampon and blow of blade - but is huge muscle power what it's all about? Leanne agrees that modern tools do make the sport far more accessible for women. "These days the equipment is so good that women can second very hard routes if reasonably athletic", - but she qualifies this by saying: "When it comes to leading they become aware of the enormous difference between seconding and leading."
Anna Toretta, an alpine guide based in Italy, is another ice climber who leads hard routes. This January she teamed up with Cecilia Buil to make a recent all female ascent of La Nuit Blanche (WI 6), Argentierre, Chamonix. She too believes that having the right tools is important – and knowing how to use them: "I use lightweight tools", she says. "If women are taught how to use the right technique they can be as good as a man, but they need to both train to increase their strength and be taught where to place the tool".
Anna founded the first female ice climbing school in 2001. She says: "There aren't many places where women are taught by a women and I think this is more inspiring for them. I'll be introducing shorter tools soon as they suit a woman better".
In Leanne's view there's more to it than good tools, technique and a smattering of strength: "In winter climbing, technique is not the biggest thing. There's a lot of suffering and effort to just get on ice. Simply getting to the route can be hard". The physical demands of the environment can't be underestimated: long walk-ins hauling a ton of gear in fresh snow and a hard descent require both stamina and strength. This is predominately the UK experience – and is off-putting for many. The Italian Alps provide an entirely different experience. Forget the hours of struggle - here there are blue skies, monstrous ice pillars and chain belays. The demands are less extreme here, making it a more pleasurable prospect. But this is a rare extravagance – boggy Scotland is the more usual playground.
Both Leanne and Anna have difficulty in finding female climbing partners of their standard. Anna says: "Women aren't so interested in leading. There's no difference between men and women at this level but I like to have women partners as well as men, and women aren't easy to find". Similarly, Leanne says: "There are a lot of women out there leading at a steady level – particularly in Scotland – but it's difficult to find women partners who lead at a high level".
So what is it about leading that's so unappetizing to women? "Leading is a lot gnarlier. The fear factor puts women off", says Leanne. "It's more dangerous than any other form of climbing – it's run out, there's the possibility of gear ripping and ice falls. It's an acquired taste". Perhaps the question should be – why do men want to lead ice? "There are extremely strong women out there who can lead but they prefer to boulder", she says. If ice climbing is about 'strength, power and adrenaline', then it's understandable that it's not appealing to many – a day spent hacking at ice on questionable gear in freezing temperatures after a 2 hour trudge through snow doesn't offer much to women who often enjoy climbing for different reasons: movement on rock, the environment, and the skilful grace of the activity.
The stark difference between movement on ice and rock is something I revel in and shouldn't be written off. Ice climbing isn't a male preserve any more, but more women could and should enjoy the ice (try some European ice cragging). On the last day of my Italian trip at last I saw a woman lead a pitch. As I watched her adeptly disappearing over the crest of an immobilised waterfall with her man belaying below her, I thought: "If she can do that, I can too." Classic inspirational motivation.
Spurred in to action, I enjoyed my first lead - Ok, it wasn't particularly steep nor was it smooth hard ice – but I did it, inserted 3 screws and was surprised how relaxed and confident I felt (I'd belted those tools in good and hard mind).
With women out there to inspire us, women like Leanne, Anna and Ines Papert, it's an exciting time for women's ice climbing. Don't get stuck seconding, become an Ice Maiden. I did.
About the author: Sarah Flint (aka fishinwater)
Sarah writes a bit, climbs a lot and prefers to be outside rather than in some office staring at a computer. She got bored with her previous obsession, gardening, a few years ago, and found the strength and fitness developed in the 13 years she had been head gardener, suited climbing perfectly. Since then she's been greedy to cram as much climbing experience into her life as possible.
Where before she wrote about vegetables, she now likes to write about all things climbing and is keen to share the learning curve of her new addiction. She's based in the south west which is ideal for popping out to a crag before lunch and whenever the addiction calls.
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