She's wearing yoga pants and a ponytail, clutching borrowed climbing shoes and a safety harness. She warily looks up Karen Rock at Moonstone Beach. Her palms are sweaty. As she watches a couple of shaggy-haired guys ascend the cliff, her stomach tightens. She's so nervous. What she doesn't realize is that she's built for this.
If this beginning climber looked around, she would probably notice other women like her on the rock. Women scrambling up a crack in the green stone, their sweaty hands kept dry with chalk. Women who have harnessed their physical and mental abilities to become rock climbers.
Women tend to carry less upper body muscle than men. So a newbie male rockclimber with upper body strength can often muscle his way up a beginner route. He can wrap his hands around some meaty holds and haul himself up the rock face in a series of pull-up-like moves. This strategy will get the job done. It can also blow out his shoulders and "pump out" his forearms. And it won't make him a better climber in the long run.
A conditioned climber relies on precise footwork, fluid body movement, power in the lower body for dynamic movements and a bad-ass sense of balance. A newbie with strong back muscles can skimp on these qualities for a while, but at some point he'll be facing a rock slab with tiny rock chips for hands holds. To get up this climb, he'll need to use those chips as balance points as he tightens his core and presses his toes into the rock. This climbing is all about flexibility and agility. Push-ups and pull-ups won't get you there.
When a woman (or anyone with less upper body strength) starts climbing, she has to move across the rock face like a dancer, with small movements and frequent shifts of body weight to keep her balance. At first, this climbing feels slow and weak. But over time it becomes graceful, smart and strong. "I sometimes need to overcome that feeling that a route or problem just can't be done, or I'm too short or not strong enough," says Patricia Terry, a climber from Arcata, "I've learned that if I just get creative with the movement, I can solve the puzzle and find a sequence that works for me."
This is what I teach new climbers. I tell them to focus on their lower body. Solid foot placement maximizes your options when you're climbing; it gives you a base to launch from and it gives you time to consider your next move. Beginning climbers often mistakenly focus on gripping the big hand holds and letting their lower body go limp, their feet dangle.
"One of the best pieces of advice I was told early on by another female climber," says climber Trisha Cooke, "was that especially for women, climbing is in the legs." Women's center of gravity is naturally lower, so we are used to using our lower body for lifting and carrying. We are aware of and more flexible in our hips. So when a beginner climber relaxes her arms and focuses on moving her feet, she climbs stronger and higher.
Climbing doesn't just require agility and strength; it's an intense mental challenge. Afraid of heights? Of failure? Of pain? Of looking stupid in front of your friends? Climbing will get inside your head and find your deepest fears. Cooke says, "I constantly have to remind myself to breathe so that I don't let fear and insecurity overtake me." Your climbing buddies may be belaying you, spotting you, shouting out suggestions. But ultimately, it's just you and the rock up there. Actually, it's you, the rock, your adrenaline and your demons.
Most climbers can tell you about their inner monologues and climbing mantras. We try to psych ourselves up to climb higher, push farther, be braver. When I'm exhausted and scared on the crux of a route, I find myself chanting, "I trust my body" over and over again. Terry says, "Climbing puts me in a focused mental state that I don't find in many places. It's a feeling that is born in the fear of falling but becomes about determination and flow instead." That feeling is what climbers live for. We love the moments when we are dancing across the rock, each move flowing into the next. "When I'm scared, my adrenaline takes over and I just go for it," says climber Laura Dawson, "No other thoughts cross my mind."
When my legs are burning and my heart is pounding and the calluses on my hands are ripped to shreds, I am grateful to be climbing with other women. Women climbers tend to be tough and resilient, but they are also supportive of one another. Terry says, "It helps me to learn from other women. By watching other women's technique we learn new ways to move across the rock." But, Dawson adds, "It's not just about climbing support. It spreads to other things. There's a friendship that comes from it."
So to the girl in the yoga pants at Moonstone Beach: It's OK to be scared. Embrace the fear because it will make you a stronger, braver climber. Remember that you're not the only girl who's ever wanted to climb a big rock just to see if she could. If you're looking for climbing partners like you, we're out there. Climb on.
Amy Cirincione has been a beginning climber for 10 years. You can find her behind the desk at Far North Climbing every Thursday evening.