In Her Words: The Women’s Climbing Festival

Participants break down the challenges and triumphs of being a female climber —and how the sport has helped them grow.

What started as an Instagram account for Shelma Jun and her friends to share photos of their climbing adventures has morphed into a popular climbing festival for women that sold out in one minute during its second year. This year, with 300+ attendees and the 800+ names on the waitlist, the Women’s Climbing Fest was in high demand.

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Some packed up for Bishop, California, to spend the weekend learning new skills at clinics taught by pros like Nina Williams and Kate Rutherford, while others went for the sole purpose of meeting other women to climb with. We spoke with participants and key members of the festival to get their take on what it’s like to be a woman in climbing today.

The Largest Challenges as a Female Climber

“The biggest challenge I face as a woman climber is preventing the perpetuation of the limitations set on women by our culture. For example, making lame excuses when I fall off a move or playing ignorant instead of putting in the effort to figure something out, be it where the crag is or how to do a certain move. Or even asking for outside validation and assurance when I know that the best thing to do is depend on myself and my own resources and figure it out.  I don’t want to be the person who limits myself based on cultural norms, so I have to ask, how am I perpetuating these limitations?” —Becca Droz, participant

“I think my biggest challenge as a female climber is my goddamn period. I don’t care about the mess or the dealing with it—that’s perfectly fine—but sometimes, if it hits me on a climbing trip or right when I’m psyched and my skin is good, and I can’t climb… man, I’m not psyched.” —Aleks, participant

“The biggest challenge I face as a female climber is reaching faraway holds. It probably comes down to being OK with where you’re at and not comparing yourself to anyone else—male or female. But I think it’s the same challenge you feel in life, a feeling of inadequacy that you have to fight every day. I think climbing and overcoming challenges on a daily basis allows you to overcome that in every aspect of life.” —Vikki Glinskii, filmmaker and photographer

Using the Sport to Grow Confidence

“I hope people walk away from the festival with more confidence. When you’re climbing, it’s not a roller coaster like life can be. Things happen out there, but you can be proficient, safe, and understand every placement, every movement. Everything means something when you’re climbing.” —Lindsay Hamm, guide

“That’s one thing I want to do with my daughter: I went out of my range and did some toproping outdoors, which I’d never done. I want to get over that fear and get into sport climbing. I want to show my daughter courage—that if Mom can do it, you can do it, too.” —Amy May, participant

“After hearing some of the answers on the panel, the biggest thing I’m taking away from the Women’s Climbing Festival is how important it is to increase visibility to share your successes as well as to share your struggles so that other people can know that everybody else is going through the same thing. It’s a way to stay inspired and to keep pushing all women climbing everywhere forward.” —Trish, participant

The Male-Female Climbing Dynamic

“Women are pushing the envelope now more than ever, so there are all these different examples of women outclimbing men. It’s this huge burst on the scene. But yet somehow I still compare myself to men in my mind, even though I know I have the capabilities to push past anyone’s preconceived notions of my abilities. Even though I know women are stronger than ever, and we’re able to achieve our own goals and break our own glass ceilings, I still compare myself to men in this weird instinctual way. But I realize that and I’m working through it, breaking my own mental barriers.” —Nina Williams, professional climber


“I feel like I can keep up with the boys, and there’s no reason I should climb lower grades than they do after last year’s Women’s Climbing Fest.”Isabel Moriarty, participant

“When we talk about women and climbing, there’s this assumption that men need to change, and of course there are things that men could be doing differently, but I think we’re all complicit in these gender norms, in these social norms and pressures that cause us to act in certain ways. For example, when I boulder with a bunch of guys, I feel a social pressure to man up—it’s even in the word to ‘man up’—and I feel like I have something to prove. I feel like I need to show them that I’m good enough to be here and I deserve to be here. I think that’s a social pressure that’s been incorporated into a lot of different parts of women’s lives. I found that when I was climbing with a bunch of women, that social pressure was released.” —Shelma Jun, founder of Women’s Climbing Festival

On Climbing with Other Women

“Before coming to this festival last year, I was in a very male-dominated climbing world, and it really opened up my mind about–not only how many women climbers there are, but what they can do. So I’ve actually improved my own climbing just because of my mindset after the festival last year.”Giselle Fernandez, participant 

“At this year’s festival, I just want to find a rad group of women to climb with because it’s a very male-dominated sport, and I’m in a very male-dominated industry in electrical engineering, so I need cool women to hang out with.” —Nicole Armstrong, participant

“When I climb with women, the way we define success, partnership, or challenges might be different than if I were in a male-and-female partnership. For me, what I really hope comes from these women’s spaces is that they allow us to have an environment where we can challenge what is normal to climbing—and bring that into the sport overall—so that climbing represents the changing demographic more equally.” —Shelma Jun

[ed. note: Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.]

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