As climbing spaces are often dominated by men, they don't always provide the ideal setting for women wanting to develop their confidence and technical skills on the wall or rock face. The first women-only climbing festival in Ireland, Women's Rock Festival offers a place where women can learn and develop in a safe and unjudmental environment, and somewhere to connect with women from across the climbing community.
As a speaker at the event on Ireland's windswept West coast this July, Mammut ambassador Maddy Cope took the opportunity to catch festival organisers, Freja Shannon and Anastasija Strizakova to find out more about the festival, the famed limestone sea cliffs of County Clare, and to talk about some of the challenges facing women climbers today.
"Often women-focused events are based on introduction and beginnings, but where is the step towards advanced?"
Can you tell me a bit about how the idea for the festival started? What motivated you to make it come to life?
Freja: I came up with the idea for the festival three years ago after being invited to speak at a women's climbing event in Sweden. I got to witness the energy and empowerment between women during this event and thought it would be a great opportunity to do a similar event but outdoors in Ireland as I have always thought Ireland is lacking in women in climbing.
Nastia: I had silently thought about creating a 'women in climbing' event for a few years, but I never really discussed it with anyone as I just never thought I could do it. In Ireland there has always been a small presence of women in climbing, and having spent most of my climbing life climbing with men, I wanted to provide a safe outlet for women to come together and flourish in their climbing journeys and life in general.
I had chatted about my plans with Freja briefly and apparently it was enough for her to invite me to be her partner in crime for the Women's Rock Festival. The stars aligned and, naturally, I couldn't say no.
The festival will be held in Ireland at The Burren in County Clare. What led you to choose this as the location?
Freja: I wanted the festival to be in Ireland, and the crag to be in the Burren as it is where I grew up. I wanted a project that I am so passionate about to be intertwined with somewhere so close to my heart - as I have spent many hours on the seacliffs of Ailledie!
Nastia: The Burren is a very special place that holds some incredible energies coming from the limestone cliffs, the wild Atlantic ocean and the golden summer sunsets. The climbing is also just one of the best in the country. It was a no-brainer that the first WRF had to be held here.
The festival focuses on outdoor climbing. Why do you think having experiences in the outdoors is so important?
Freja: I think having experiences in the outdoors allows for people to reconnect with nature and deter from the hustle and bustle of presumably 'indoor' life. I think the experiences we have in the outdoors are invaluable and teach us a lot of things, some of which we may not realise until much later.
Nastia: I see the outdoors as an opportunity to escape everyday life, to heal, to find myself, to reflect, to gain strength, to forget, to ground myself, to be in the present moment, to love, live and laugh.
"A safe space to me is a space with zero judgement: full of support, comfort and love. It's a space where women can be their true selves, explore the unknown, expand comfort zones."
The festival is focused on learning and growth. There are different areas of focus within this tackled through workshops. Can you talk about the different areas of learning in the workshops and why you chose them as areas of focus?
Freja: Often women-focused events are based on introduction and beginnings, but where is the step towards advanced? We wanted to give girls the chance to take the next step, such as learn to lead, rescue tech, seacliff climbing etc.
Nastia: We wanted to broaden the types of climbers that would attend the festival, so it was an opportunity for us to be creative and come up with six different types of workshops. It also meant that all the participants would be interacting with each other, learning about each other and getting inspired by what others are doing. Variety always breeds curiosity and discussion.
There is a community element to festivals like this—climbers can come together and connect. Who are the important people to you in your climbing life?
Freja: The most important people in my life are my close girlfriends - and the connection and honesty we have amongst each other, especially within climbing. Climbing with women is so much more than climbing - it is a shared understanding, emotional connection and feeling of support unlike any other. As I am lucky to have many sources of this in my life, I wanted to do everything I could to create a space where other girls could have it too.
Nastia: The most important people in my climbing life are those people who accept me for who I am, allow me to have my own climbing experiences, don't try to take control over the shared climbing journey, or rush me in order to chase grades and/or satisfy their ego. It is those people who understand that everyone has different motivations for climbing, different approaches to climbing and different engagement levels in climbing.
A word we come across a lot is the word "safe". This can seem counterintuitive when we talk about pushing ourselves. Can you describe what this word means to you?
Freja: I think the word 'safe' in this aspect is in a more spiritual way than actually technically safe. The word safe in the festival is related to creating a safe space where girls could feel comfortable, accepted and supported—a space where there was no pressure to perform or be too far out of their comfort zone. I think it's really important for women to have a safe space as I believe a huge reason for the lack of women in climbing is due to feeling external pressure, feeling incompetent or insecure in mixed groups and fear of failure.
Nastia: A safe space to me is a space with zero judgement: full of support, comfort and love. It's a space where women can be their true selves, explore the unknown, expand comfort zones, have heaps of fun, create friendships and build support networks. If you feel unsafe, judged and uncomfortable in a situation, you are more likely to revert back into your comfort zone.
"...There was a lack of female role models in climbing. It was very rare to see two female climbers outdoors climbing together—it still is actually."
What do you hope that people at the festival will take away from the experience?
Freja: I hope that at the very least girls can take away that anything is possible and it's just a matter of trying and going for it. Hence choosing you as a speaker Maddy, as you have a really free and relatable attitude to climbing as well as achieving so many inspiring things from a 'normal' climbing background.
Nastia: I hope that every single one of the participants learned at least one thing, no matter what it is and whether it's climbing related or not. Yes, this is a rock climbing festival, but at the end of the day the lessons we learn in climbing are transferable to general life, and vice versa. I simply want women to have more courage, to explore themselves, to become more independent and become a tad bit happier. If WRF can achieve even a fraction of this, then we have succeeded.
Are there any barriers that you have experienced yourself being a female climber?
Freja: Barriers I have experienced are mostly a feeling of inadequacy, insecurity and feeling of incompetency and comparing myself to others. I got bored under the veil of self doubt and recently have broken through this barrier by just doing what the lads seem to do - just going for it. This took a great deal of courage but I hope I won't look back.
"...With a bit of self belief and confidence it usually works out—and if it doesn't at least it's a valuable lesson!"
Nastia: In the beginning of my climbing journey I mostly spent climbing with men, and for years I sort of sat in their shadow allowing them to take control of everything and almost guiding me through climbs. I just always had this feeling of, "This is how it's supposed to be, men just do everything outdoors, you don't need to learn as much, you won't be able to learn it all anyway, so what's the point?"
Also, there was a lack of female role models in climbing. It was very rare to see two female climbers outdoors climbing together—it still is actually. It's almost always a girl paired up with one or more men. So you ingrain beliefs in your head based on what you see. This changed drastically when I decided to become an instructor, after which my confidence exploded and I learned how to take matters in my own hands and be responsible for my own climbing experiences on rock. There's nothing better than feeling independent and confident outdoors. It's very liberating and empowering.
"Climbing really transformed my mindset and life, going from socially awkward, insecure and fearful to a more courageous, happier and confident person."
What are some of the most important steps you feel you have taken as a female climber to feel empowered and confident in climbing?
Freja: To believe in myself the same way I believe in others. True enough, with a bit of self belief and confidence it usually works out—and if it doesn't at least it's a valuable lesson!
Nastia: Figure out what I want and go for it no matter how scary it may seem or feel. Everything I have achieved in climbing has massively helped me in my personal and professional life. And there is only one life to live - how we live it is totally up to us.
What do you personally value in your own climbing? Is there anything standout that you feel climbing has helped you with in a broader sense?
Freja: What I value in my own climbing is my attitude that nothing is impossible. I apply this to all aspects of life, just like the festival. Nothing is impossible - really - it just depends how much you want it!
Nastia: Climbing really transformed my mindset and life, going from socially awkward, insecure and fearful to a more courageous, happier and confident person. It has helped me battle my mental health issues since the day I started climbing: from social anxiety to minor depression episodes. It's not about the grades I have climbed - it's about the connections I've made with people and places around the world.
I think the one thing I have learned from climbing is every time I feel afraid, stressed or overwhelmed (in climbing or life) - to take a minute and ask myself: Why am I doing this and who am I doing this for? This always puts me back in my tracks, calms me down and allows me to make the right decisions in the moment.
Finally, have either of you had a standout experience where you really felt everything you can learn from climbing come together—that 'I got this' moment?
Freja: One moment when I felt everything I have learned was when I recently climbed my first E8. I really had to remind myself that I have got this I just need to trust myself. I feel like my 25 years on this earth went into clipping those chains!
Nastia: I don't believe that moment will ever come to be honest, because there is still so much more to learn and to be frank, I never want to be in a place where I have learned it all, because then what? Climbing life is an infinite game that I'm willing to play patiently but efficiently for the rest of my life.
Women's Rock Festival took place from the 15th to the 17th of July 2022. Find out more about the event and get updated on when and where the festival will be taking place next year. Head to womensrockfestival.ie.
Words: Maddy Cope
Images: Patrick Cross