My Weekend as a Learner at the Women's Trad Festival

Christine Liang writes about her experience as a learner at the Women's Trad Festival...


Women are risk averse creatures. Or so historically car insurance brokers seems to suggest, and business people and behavioural psychologists. Men's higher tolerance for risk, at least in part, explains the historic dearth of women in trad climbing. And yet, the atmosphere at the Women's Trad Festival this year was warm, friendly and optimistic (especially about the weather). Lacking over the weekend was the sketchy stuff or death wishes for which trad climbing has a certain reputation.

Friendly scenes at the WTF 2019.  © Jessie Leong
Friendly scenes at the WTF 2019.
© Jessie Leong

As a climber, I've taken the same route as many other city folk; I started in the gym, where bouldering was a natural first step because of the low barrier to entry – all you need is a pair of shoes. From there I progressed to top-roping (learned off YouTube videos, admittedly) and looked upon the lead climbers with horror, saying "I will never want to do that!" Three years later, I've climbed sport in the UK, Europe, Australia and China, and now I'm taking my first steps into trad climbing. My reasons for this are driven by a desire to expand my skill set, access new places, and of course, as an Australian living in the UK, to pay my respects to the institution that is the trad climbing 'tradition'.

Accessibility and inclusivity are core values of the festival and for two days I was surrounded by people of all ages, from all walks of life. Plenty of good dogs too. Although I came alone, there were commonalities among us that made us eager to share stories. It was not only that we were (mostly) women and climbers, but everyone I spoke to had acutely felt the experience of being the odd one out; crowded out or intimated by majority forces that dominate the climbing walls and the crags. It echoed the research done by Flash Foxy that uncovered the microaggressions (and blatant sexual or verbal harassment) that women experience in climbing gyms. Among festival goers, I felt a strong sense of solidarity and openness and a concerted effort to respect the individual.

photo
Christine learning to trad climb at the Women's Trad Festival.
© Jessie Leong

In its fourth year now, the festival organisers run a tight operation with support from a number of key sponsors. My group borrowed swanky Tenaya shoes and DMM cams. Contributions made by these companies ensured the festival was accessible even to those without gear. In our goodiebags we received laser-etched WTF biners and, perhaps most importantly, a roll of toilet paper – clearly the work of female festival organisers.

The organisers had clearly read every single application carefully and placed earners of similar ability together, assigned to a suitable Leader. My fellow Learner was also a mid-grade sport climber, who had travelled all the way from Denmark for the festival. Our Leader, Liz, wholly committed herself to our safety and learning over the two days. Before setting out on Saturday morning, she probed about our experience on the rock and watched our climbing carefully before deciding how to progress.

What I learned over the festival was incredibly specific, almost too specific to list here. But that is a testament to the incredible commitment demonstrated by the Leaders at WTF. They listened carefully to their Learners, finding out their individual needs and desires. In my case, I was keen to get feedback on my gear placement and build my technical skills. By Sunday afternoon, when she deemed me ready, Liz set up a fixed line beside me and ascended the rope as I led my first climb on legendary Stanage gritstone.

On our drive back to basecamp on the final day, I asked Liz if she would come back next year as a Climber and not a Leader, to escape my inane questioning and so she could get some climbing in herself. But she just grinned and shook her head; mentorship is an intrinsic part of the sport, she said. It's just that women have a harder time finding other women mentors.

Women of all ages, abilities and nationalities travelled to the WTF 2019.  © Jessie Leong
Women of all ages, abilities and nationalities travelled to the WTF 2019.
© Jessie Leong

No one would deny that climbing is an inherently risky activity. But I have learned that there is a difference between fear and danger. All climbers feel fear; it hangs around in the pits of our stomach reminding us of what's at stake. A fall too close to the ground, a rusty bolt, precariously placed gear – the outcome can be catastrophic.

But the presence of risk alone is not a good reason to abstain. At the Women's Trad Festival, under my Leader's close eye I was learning to manage and assess risk; to go slow, feel comfortable. To be confident in my ability and trust in my skill. It may not totally abate fear, but it certainly cools the head while the heart pounds away, dispelling the myth that trad climbing is always a risky sport.

This year there were hundreds of women who missed out on the Learner tickets, having sold out in under a minute. It would be unfair for me to come back and do it all again next year, taking away someone else's opportunity to try their hand at trad climbing. Instead, I'm determined to return to take this experience and run with them, maybe returning to the festival next year or the year after as a Climber — if I manage to nab a ticket!


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22 Aug

Thanks Christine, a really postive report and I'd not seen that Flash Foxy research before.

On the subject of unwanted beta I think it's important to say it is sometimes welcome (and even wanted) but people should always politely ask if the climber wants it and accept refusal in good spirit. I think it would be really sad if people stopped asking because of the risk of it being interpreted as a micro-aggression. At my local walls where I climb most (Nottingham Derby and Loughbourough), we have always had good female role models across the ability range. I've proportionately got more interesting and useful thoughts on movement from women (despite the often massive contrast in my, inflexible, overweight, male frame). I do like to try and work out myself how to flash most problems and adapt for the next few goes, but by the time I'm outside the first few attempts I really welcome advice. Solving the puzzle matters more to me than doing it all on my own; and solving things together is both friendly and beneficial. Learning to read the subltle changes in movement that lead to success at a limit can pay real dividends for me outside. One of the great things in bouldering for me is working hard on something that seems really 'out of reach' until, after much thought and effort, the movement puzzle is solved to the extent it feels OK most times. Doing this in company of other climbers makes it much more fun.

I look forward to the day when gender is as irrelevant on outdoor trad as it is in my local walls and congratulate WTF in helping achieve that.