On a sunny afternoon in July, I was dangling from a rope in front of a nearly featureless rock face and thinking about my friend Laura. Lake Superior sparkled 200 feet below me.
I had heard about Laura Petersen before I met her.
“She flashed a 12c,” people murmured in awe, meaning that she climbed a very difficult route on her first attempt, without falling.
Laura was an instructor with the University of Minnesota-Duluth climbing program. When I first started climbing, she was my role model. Later she became my mentor and my friend. She took me along on outdoor climbing excursions. She gave me advice, emotional support and my first pair of climbing shoes (tight slippers soled with high-friction rubber).
If she were here, I thought, staring at the rock, she could get me out of this.
The rock face was part of Palisade Head, a rhyolite crag that rears over Lake Superior’s north shore near Tettegouche State Park. It’s a popular destination for sightseers and rock climbers. My friends and I fell into the second category.
Sweat soaked my armpits and prickled along my hairline. I was trying—and failing—to climb a smooth section whose only distinguishing feature was an old-school anchor device, a rusty metal wedge called a piton.
The piton was probably hammered into place in the 1970s, by male hands. Back then, climbing was a boys’ game.
“There were less than a handful of female rock climbers,” recalled Vicky Zimmerman, a Duluth resident and volunteer climbing instructor who’s in her 50s. (Vicky is one of the founding members of CFUN—Climbers For Universal Nudity. Prerequisite for membership to this tongue-in-cheek club? Photographic proof of a naked ascent.)
In the 1980s, the number and skill level of female climbers increased. By the early 1990s, women had outstanding role models and wide acceptance in the climbing community.
“As a kid, I always loved to climb around on stuff,” Zimmerman said. “When my son started college at UMD [University of Minnesota-Duluth], he got into climbing, and he said, ‘Mom, you have to try this.’ And I said, ‘No way am I going in there to climb with all those kids.’ And he said, ‘Well, go to Women on the Wall.’”
Women on the Wall is a twice-monthly women-only night at the UMD climbing gym. The instructors are female, and attendance tends to be smaller than at regular open hours, so the atmosphere is less intimidating for beginners.
Zimmerman loved it. At first she went only on women’s nights. “I wasn’t comfortable climbing with 18- and 19-year-old guys. But once I started going to regular open hours, the guys accepted me as just another climber.”
The director of UMD’s climbing program, Kaija Webster, felt similarly welcome. (Full disclosure: She’s my boss.)
“Gender didn’t make a huge difference to me,” she said. “Right away in my early career there were things happening on a national level where women were equal to or better than men. Lynn Hill freed the Nose in 1993, and it was over 10 years before a man was able to repeat that.”
By “freed the Nose,” Kaija means that Hill climbed the iconic 3,000-foot “Nose” route on Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan without using artificial aid.
Hill’s size—she’s 5-foot-2-inches tall, with little fingers—contributed to her success.
Unfortunately, I’m not Lynn Hill. I’m 5-feet tall, but my size didn’t help me bypass that smooth section at Palisade Head. The next decent hold, a hole in the rock that climbers call a pocket, was a foot out of reach.
I tried a slow, controlled move from the piton to the pocket—and fell.
I tried the slow-and-controlled method some more and fell every time. Then I tried the desperate-flailing-lunge method. Same result.
I did this for almost an hour. This was the crux, the hardest part of the climb. My toes burned from balancing on grape-sized rock nubs. My hands cramped so badly they would hardly close. I couldn’t get past the piton. And there was still a hundred-odd feet of cliff above me.
I was stuck.
I slumped in my harness and muttered a word that rhymes with “stuck.”
Climb like a girl
While women are welcomed in the climbing world, there are still misperceptions. “I was looking at programs at the Michigan Ice Fest. There’s a women’s clinic at this festival like there always is,” said UMD’s Webster. “They also have an advanced ice climbing clinic with Steve House, this big-name alpinist … . I called and said I wanted to sign up for the advanced clinic. The guy who answered the phone said, ‘Oh, I don’t think we have an advanced women’s ice climbing clinic.’
“There are a lot of assumptions that get made,” Webster continued. “If I’m climbing with a male partner, people assume that he’s leading, and that’s not usually the case. If they’re asking for route information, usually they ask the guy.”
Maybe the same reason people ask Webster’s male partner for route information is the same reason people tend to be surprised when they find out I’m a rock climbing instructor. There’s a popular perception that climbers are all big blustery guys with basketball-sized biceps; I’m 5-feet tall and female, with a soft voice. My biceps are closer to tennis balls than basketballs.
These physical characteristics actually help make me a better instructor—I’m not as intimidating as a muscular 6-foot-3-inch man. When beginners come into the climbing wall for the first time and see me, they seem to relax a little. Maybe they’re thinking, “If she can do it, so can I.”
But the physical differences between women and men can exacerbate the psychological ones.
“There’s the frustration factor because I’m not as strong as a guy,” Petersen agreed. “All my climbing buddies are boys. They really push me hard. Sometimes I’m like, man, I wish I had some testosterone.”
In the gym where I work and climb, guys tend to congregate in the bouldering cave (a small, low-ceilinged area with a padded floor where you can climb without ropes) to play games. Sometimes the games turn the cave into a stage for outrageous, Spiderman-like ceiling moves that few of the female climbers are strong enough to do.
“Men obviously have a whole lot more upper body strength [than women],” Zimmerman noted matter-of-factly. “Some of the things they do are basically impossible for us.”
But men could say the second part about women.
Brain or brawn
Eight months ago, I had started climbing at the UMD gym. I got hooked. I climbed until my fingertips bled. I volunteered for the climbing program. I climbed indoors and out. I spent more time on rock than on homework. (If you don’t believe me, ask about my grades.)
In all that time, though, I had never gotten into a situation like this.
At climbing gyms and most North Shore crags, you start at the bottom of the wall or cliff and climb up. If you get stuck, your belayer—the person controlling the rope—lowers you to the ground. No problem.
But at Palisade Head you start at the top of the cliff. You rappel down the cliff face and then climb back to the top. If you get hopelessly stuck, you have two choices: ascend the rope using a prusik loop or mechanical ascension device or have someone haul you up.
I didn’t have a prusik or an ascender, so the former wasn’t an option. But my belayer kept offering to do the latter.
“Do you want me to pull you past this spot?” he shouted.
A droplet of sweat slid down my forehead. My arms ached. The leg loops on my harness dug grooves in my thighs.
Pull me up?
“Yes, yes, yes,” cried my body, like the woman in the Herbal Essences commercial.
As I stared at the hold I couldn’t reach, wondering what to do, I became aware of movement in my peripheral vision. I looked to my right. On the next bluff over, a couple of tiny figures pointed tiny video cameras at me. Sightseers.
“Don’t quit now,” my ego said. “Keep trying. You’ll get it.”
Body or ego—which should I listen to?
At times like these, I wished I had a spirit guide, someone like Obi-Wan Kenobi to appear beside me and dispense wisdom in a hollow, beyond-the-grave, use-the-Force-Luke voice. But I didn’t. So I asked myself: What would Laura do?
“Use your head,” she’d tell me, “and your little fingers and your balance.”
I scrutinized the rock between the piton and the pocket. Nothing.
Then I spotted an intermediary hold, a tiny ledge I had overlooked. It was thin, maybe a quarter-inch deep, but maybe it would be enough.
Using the ledge for leverage, I grabbed for the pocket. And fell.
“Do you want me to pull you up?” my belayer asked again.
The pressure was on and my strength was waning. If I didn’t get it the next time, I thought, I should let my belayer help. I sucked in a breath.
I surged upward and jammed my fingers into the pocket.
And stuck it.
My triumphant yell probably sounded like a startled seagull. But I didn’t care. My frustration turned to elation. I climbed up and up, past the piton, past my weaknesses. Adrenaline seared my veins.
Climbing wasn’t a boys’ game or a girls’ game. It was my game.