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Women and ice climbing

Original Post
Alissa Doherty · · Boston, MA · Joined Oct 2012 · Points: 105

Why aren't more women leading ice and getting after it? This is a hotly debated issue from another closed forum that I'm a member of. Interested in a broader perspective.

I volunteer instruct women every winter in a beginner's ice climbing program. Women usually make up a quarter to a third of students (and one year they were the majority). About half our male students go on to lead ice, but in five years, I've only seen a small handful of women dabble on the sharp end and usually well below their limit. The interest is there, the instruction is equal, so why the ice attrition? 

Some theories: need for more foundational strength, disenchantment with the sport's machismo, lack of female partners and role models, lack of mentorship opportunities, others?

FWIW, I'm a little more interested in women's perspectives and open to advice for how to make women's ice instruction better.

blakeherrington · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2006 · Points: 1,060

Women are more risk averse than men. Leading ice climbing where one might fall is fairly risky.

This is the same reason that there's more parity between genders in sport climbing and bouldering, but massive differences in remote trad climbing, alpine climbing, high altitude mountaineering, and leading ice climbs.

I have no idea how much of that risk aversion is "nurture" (lack of role models, macho culture) vs "nature" (biological aversion to self-induced stress, etc)

I'm in no way saying that there aren't very skilled and bold women who excel in dangerous adventure sports. But the climbing world is not full of Ines Paperts. I'm also not suggesting that choosing more exposure to risk (within the realm of adventure sports) is a good idea for women or men.

Alissa Doherty · · Boston, MA · Joined Oct 2012 · Points: 105

That may be true but I think it may be an oversimplification. Risk aversion exists on a scale and I don't think ice climbing representation is an accurate reflection of that scale across genders.

When I began ice climbing, I thought the risk of leading was beyond a level I was comfortable with. In reality, I simply wasn't getting good enough sticks. I got stronger and with the security that comes with bomber placements, ice climbing became a new sport to me and the perception of risk was greatly diminished. 

I think that there are perhaps women's physiological differences that play a big part in the gender disparity. Perhaps existing instruction doesn't address this well enough. How can we do it better ladies?

Alyssa K · · South Lake Tahoe · Joined Mar 2014 · Points: 35

Interesting question! For context, I'm a woman who's been learning to ice climb the last two seasons. I've TR'd about 100 pitches and plan to ease into leading before the end of the season. 

I agree with Blake that a big part of it is risk aversion/tolerance. I think in the climbing community on average, men tend to have a much higher risk tolerance. I like feeling in control when I'm climbing, probably moreso than many male climbers. With a lot of factors that can feel out of my control, it's taken me awhile to get used to ice climbing.

I tend to focus more on objective hazards than my male partners. Especially while alpine or ice climbing. I want to identify and mitigate risks as much as I can since I recognize that ice/alpine climbing already has enough inherent risk even if you do everything right. So something that's helped me become more confident on ice is having a super solid understanding of all the foreseeable hazards and feeling confident in my ability to assess and mitigate where possible. In terms of your teaching, maybe this means having a bigger focus on what can go wrong, and how to reduce the likelihood of those things happening. And presenting a framework for thinking through all these considerations (having a structured way to consider risk has been HUGE in enabling me to push my comfort zone in all climbing disciplines). 

One more thing is just confidence. I think a lot of women are less confident in their physical climbing abilities than men. You cannot fall when leading ice. So I've been holding off on leading til I feel 100%...that threshold may be lower for the average guy. 

As for your other theories, they definitely make sense but they're not huge for me. It would be nice to have women partners or role models, but I don't feel like it's what's holding me back. It might be nice to have more female mentorship in the community though, to have a broader perspective on how other women have approached risk in leading ice. 

T G · · Boulder, CO · Joined Jun 2015 · Points: 51

Directly from the mouth of my partner who has been climbing a long time. She leads sport, trad, and has led ice in the past.

1) "Skiing is more fun than ice climbing and more comfortable."
2) Accessible ice is likely to be occupied (in our area anyway), and given the choice between waiting around for a route (and all that comes with it) and being active, she'd rather be active. So that usually means skiing ;-)

NathanC · · Logan, UT · Joined Jul 2016 · Points: 10
Alissa Doherty wrote:

Some theories: need for more foundational strength, disenchantment with the sport's machismo, lack of female partners and role models, lack of mentorship opportunities, others?

I can't offer a women's perspective; however, I can report that my girlfriend's comments on not only ice climbing, but climbing in general, echo these theories.  Role-models and mentors are few and far between with respect to either gender...but substantially more so for females.  Thus, I believe female mentorship and role modeling could be an extremely effective positive feedback loop.

T Bloodstone · · Minneapolis, MN · Joined Nov 2013 · Points: 75

I don't like the cold. This is the only reason I don't ice climb. I prefer desert towers. I think this question of why women don't lead ice is pretty similar to why women don't trad lead. It's hard enough to find a climbing partner let alone a female climbing partner who leads trad so i imagine female climbers who lead ice are few.

reboot · · . · Joined Jul 2006 · Points: 125
blakeherrington wrote:

But the climbing world is not full of Ines Paperts.

+1 just because you mentioned Ines Papert. But I imagine genetics (physiology) probably has something to do with it too. Women are more sensitive to cold than men on average (same for non-white vs white) and ice climbing is, well, cold and miserable.

Dana Bartlett · · CO · Joined Nov 2003 · Points: 890

An explanation/rationale/reason - no. But it was funny when I read it. (Source: Word Freak)

A world class Scrabble player was asked why the top ten in the competitive Scrabble scene was, and always had been all men and never any women. He said:

"Probably because they have a life outside of this shit." 

Khoi · · Vancouver, BC · Joined Oct 2009 · Points: 45
reboot wrote:

+1 just because you mentioned Ines Papert. But I imagine genetics (physiology) probably has something to do with it too. Women are more sensitive to cold than men on average (same for non-white vs white) and ice climbing is, well, cold and miserable.

Apologies in advance for the derail.

Are you saying that on average non-White people are more sensitive to cold than White people?  If so, can you provide a source?  I'd like to read up on this.

Aerili · · Los Alamos, NM · Joined Mar 2007 · Points: 1,880

Here's my story: I've been wanting to start leading ice for about 3 years now. But, you know, it takes a while to get comfortable and strong on vertical waterfall ice. Leading is not as blase as when leading with clippy doo's or springy we know. In my first couple years, by the time I felt warmed up doing topropes first, I'd feel too fatigued to be confident on the sharp end. Then there's practicing screw placement as well. It's not often something you concentrate on right away when you're learning, and learning ice can take a while. It's not the technique being hard so much as making all solid moves and managing the pump.  

Other factors for me have been:

  1. When first starting out, trying to get both competent and properly geared up ($$$) while finishing grad school was an obstacle (who knew the two situations are not highly compatible).
  2. Using my partners' tools for a few seasons which were often large and heavy for my hands. This meant I fatigued faster and had worse swings quicker as the day went on. I finally got some Cobras and they are much more suited for my hand size and strength. I get consistently better sticks now, obviously a vital component of leading safely. 
  3. The limited days per year of actually getting on ice compared to rock, i.e. in most places, you get so many less days to "practice" on ice! Factor in getting a partner + the ice quality being decent + safe conditions + plus finding routes others aren't on -- it makes for less climbing per year. (On the flip side, you really get a bang for your buck once you do get on, especially if the ice is fresh.)
  4. The realities of climate change. I have been unable to climb virtually whole winters a couple years due to lack of normal ice flows forming up. I really need more mileage to begin leading confidently, and winters don't always care.
  5. The realities of physiology. As a woman who is not built like a gymnast, I don't have tons of upper body strength reserve and you've gotta feel you have the strength endurance to make the moves, place the screws, etc. You can't feel any doubt about what you've got left in your tank, so if you have a smaller tank to begin with, you have to carefully consider what you can and can't do safely.  
  6. Some health issues I've experienced in the last couple years have not helped make me an ice climbing machine with lots of energy to travel more and climb. 

In my case, risk aversion has nothing to do with it. I don't have more risk aversion than men-- and definitely less than many I've climbed with. So I won't pretend to speak for other women on that topic as I'm usually baffled why a woman would be more risk averse - since my mind doesn't operate that way.

Not sure if female role models would make a difference for me or not. I endorse them and feel good about women doing that, but I am also used to and can excel in a male majority climbing environment. Not sure that would be the same right now if I hadn't already been rock climbing for over a decade, though.  

Flava Flav · · Seattle, WA · Joined Jun 2013 · Points: 680

I am not convinced that being white is a significant advantage in cold weather, though there does seem to be a lot of people on the interwebs without degrees purporting their "scientific opinions". Adaptation in cold weather seems to be the winner of the article below, unless of course your mostly Neanderthal. In that case, vertical ice is less important to you than hunting down a woolly mammoth.

SM Ryan · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2008 · Points: 1,090

I tried ice climbing over two years (about 15 days on ice, probably averaged 3-4 pitches/day) 

I decided to not continue it for two main reasons including cost and cold.  Getting into ice and buying the necessary gear is not cheap.  I started by buying used gear and borrowing. Upgrading would have been a significant chunk of cash (Esp when you factor in that you maybe get a dozen days on ice/ year - ymmv depending on work schedule and where you live).  

It is cold. I would much rather gym climb in the winter and get ready for a spring season. Also,  I never really felt like ice climbing helped my  sport climbing or bouldering. 

Highlander · · Ouray, CO · Joined Apr 2008 · Points: 255

Maybe a product of environment, around these parts women get after it. Here is my wife on a WI5 first ascent with marginal or very little protection.

Alissa Doherty · · Boston, MA · Joined Oct 2012 · Points: 105

Great insights here, especially from Aerili, C c, and Alyssa. I'm really doubtful that aversion to cold is stopping our female students from progressing in the sport though--if anything, female students perform better with less complaining in the cold than male students   

Highlander, it would be interesting to hear your wife's perspective! Does she think of herself as an outlier or do many of the local ladies get into the sport? How did she learn to climb? We can't replicate the ice park here in the Northeast, but we perhaps we could foster an environment where more women progressed rather than burning out. Awesome photo of her crushing!

SM Ryan · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2008 · Points: 1,090

Alissa- have you asked your students why they get burnt out and not continue?  

Alissa Doherty · · Boston, MA · Joined Oct 2012 · Points: 105
SM Ryan wrote:

Alissa- have you asked your students why they get burnt out and not continue?  

Not really. It's not intentional, but I don't keep in touch with students who I don't run into at the cliffs. We could send a survey out, but that would be a bit formal. We do have some good feedback from women who have stuck with it but felt like there were more hurdles for women for a variety of reasons (some of those I cited). 

Amy Krull · · Oregon · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 45

I don't live near reliable ice.  That's my #1 reason, so not unlike men who live in Portland Oregon area, most of *climbers* let alone "people" don't climb a lot of ice here.  Traveling to ice climb allows you to see lots of cool places, but getting enough steady progression and experience to lead took a really long time.  I follow lots of women who live in the Canmore/Calgary area and they get AFTER it.  I imagine that access to climbs that are in all year allows you to develop a bit quicker and also allows you to take the day off in crap weather, vs. ice seekers who are like, "well, we drove 12 hrs to Bozeman or Cody and it's -10, let's climb!"

Abandoned User · · Unknown Hometown · Joined unknown · Points: 5,245

Has anybody read Ines Papert's book? 

Deirdre · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jun 2016 · Points: 10

There are a couple of things that I think are at play. I'm not sure that the argument that women are more fearful than men holds up. I can be as brave or as stupid (whichever way you want to put it) as a man.

 Women generally have less free time because of the second shift - all of the domestic labor that men often don't think they have to do. That means there is less time to bundle everyone up and out to ice climb. Women are more likely to get stuck with the kids. My kid will amuse herself at the crag in the summer so I can lead single pitches but I don't think she'd be psyched to do this while freezing her ass off in the winter. This means not having enough time on ice to feel anywhere near comfortable leading. Ice is also damn hard. It is like a living thing and to me it feels like it can change from one minute to the next. I feel like one really has to be solid to lead ice without splatting. So for me, it isn't really worth the investment. I can put in that time at the gym where my kid can climb too and get stronger for rock climbing.

Maureen Maguire · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Feb 2008 · Points: 0

The good ice is in red states. The good female climbers are in blue states. That's my experience. 

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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