Gender Dynamics in the Mountains

Gender Dynamics in the Mountains

By Charlotte Austin

Cody Ice Festival was buzzing. I’d flown in from Seattle that day, having accepted an invitation to talk about gender dynamics in the mountains. Somebody with a hand in organizing the festival had read my Alpinist piece about women and alpinism, and they seemed to be overlooking the fact that Kitty Calhoun — the next night’s speaker — climbs water ice a full ten grades harder than I do.

My presentation was sandwiched between a sponsored pull-up competition and Scott Bennett’s slideshow about the new line he put up with Graham Zimmerman on K6 West, a 23,097’ peak in the Karakoram. The room held 120 people; of those, maybe 30 were women. And I’ll be honest: it wasn’t easy to stand up in front of a room full of ultra-buff dudes to talk about gender in the mountains. But as I walked toward the podium I looked down at the four little girls sprawled across the floor, and I thought: it doesn't matter that I'm nervous. This is for you.

I cleared my throat, looked out at the room, and introduced myself. “Hi,” I said. “I’ve done a lot of research on gender, and here are things I’m tired of discussing anecdotally on Facebook and in dark corners of ski-town bars: whether sexism is real, whether women can climb as hard as or harder than men, whether so-and-so hot blond bouldering chick nabbed that sponsorship because she has a sexy Instagram feed, and whether first female ascents matter. I am a woman who climbs, and I am not encouraged, motivated, or inspired by any of those conversations. Those things are important—but none of them affect my decision making in the mountains, or how I decide on an objective, or whether I decide to go climbing at all. None of those conversations make me feel stronger.”  

A couple of weeks later, I’d use a lot of that same text in my article for the Outdoor Research blog about the psychology of climbing with women. In Cody, though, I was saying it for the first time. My voice got a little squeaky. Nobody seemed to be blinking. Somebody in the front row handed me a beer. I forged on.

“Every person’s experience is different, of course, but there is research — a lot of research — being done about gender, decision-making and communication. The findings vary from inconsequential to mind-boggling, and they have been applied extensively to the boardroom, organized athletics and medicine. But very little of that information has been examined in the context of climbing or mountaineering — and I believe some of it can be useful.”

I paused to scan the room. The women were nodding, and the men were watching me carefully. So I kept going, laying out a handful of concepts about gender. Stereotype threat is real. The Dunning-Kruger effect matters. Women and men respond to praise differently. Imposter syndrome can be crippling. If you’re a woman, this matters. If you love a woman, or if you climb with a women, or if you have a daughter: this matters. This. Matters.

I wasn’t sharing this information to divide the community, I told them. I don’t want to be a woman who climbs; I just want to be a climber. But the science consistently shows that men and women function differently, and — as I wrote for Verticulture — “…here’s how I see it: if there’s information out there that might help me improve my communication, be a better climbing partner or help me make more informed decisions in the mountains and in life, I want to know about it. In the words of the ever-badass Lynn Hill: ‘I [have learned] that having a rigid mindset is a detriment, not only when it comes to gender, but also when dealing with the world at every level [...] as climbers, we need to see possibilities instead of limitations.’”

Photo Bryan Aulick

The audience seemed a little shell-shocked as I thanked them after my presentation. But later, when I was packing up my laptop, a woman walked up to me. “I’m the mother of those four little girls,” she said, gesturing to the tangle of limbs and sunbleached hair on the auditorium floor. She didn’t smile, and we just looked at each other for one long beat. Then she grinned. “Thank you for helping me set them free.”


Charlotte Austin is a Seattle-based mountain guide and freelance writer.

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