Why Climbing Needs MORE Feminism

Recently, publications such as Outside and Climbing, gear companies and retailers such as Outdoor Research and REI, and websites such as Mountain Project (run by REI) and Flash Foxy have posted articles or discussions of gender and gendered experiences of climbing (and skiing, and other adventure sports–but this essay focusses on climbing). Unfortunately (but almost inevitably) these articles were met with anti-feminist backlash, which, to be honest, I didn’t think existed within the climbing community. I was stupidly hopeful that the climbing community, with its roots in radical counterculture, would somehow transcend institutional sexism and racism and pretty much all forms of institutionalized oppression. I was stupidly wrong.

Climbing’s roots are not only in counterculture, but in the outdoors–a realm that we associate with a specific type of masculinity: the rugged individual, the mountain man. Many see the outdoors and outdoor adventure as sites where ‘boys become men.’ There is a huge gender (and race and class) gap in the outdoors and outdoor industry. On the NOLS course I took last summer, the gender ratio was approximately 2:1 men:women (5 women, 9 men). When I try to buy an aggressive climbing shoe, I find that, though the store sells six different downturned shoes, they only stock one of them (the pink Solutions) in my size (US Women’s 7.5 or EU 38.5). Even sleeping bag temperature ratings are more accurate for those with higher metabolisms–i.e. cis men.

Many of the men (and people of all genders) who disagree with this wave of feminist articles take offence that women would require or need a separate safe space. They argue that safe spaces for women are counterproductive, that they foster gender-based discrimination. What they don’t understand is that the outdoor industry, which includes climbing (even though much climbing happens in gyms), not only tacitly perpetuates patriarchy, but carries with it a history of being a men’s-only space, and is coded as masculine. In creating safe spaces and women-only climbing nights, women are not trying to push men out of the outdoors–they are trying to carve out a space wherein they can feel safe from the male gaze and patriarchal oppression and the general idea that they do not belong there. Safe spaces and women-only nights are not about excluding men; they are about including women, inviting women into a space that they might otherwise be hesitant or scared to enter because they fear judgement or do not feel comfortable entering a space coded as masculine, which they perceive as for only men.

Merely telling women that they now have equal access and opportunity to participate in climbing and other outdoor/adventure sports disregards the very real barriers to access that women face and the shit that women need to put up with once they make it to the boulders/crag/outdoors. Simply put, equality of opportunity is a myth. Women are more likely to live in poverty, and women make less money than men (the wage gap is quite real!), and thus women are less likely to afford gear, travel expenses, climbing gym memberships, guide fees, campsite rental, etc. Women are also more likely to have domestic ties that stop them from leaving the home for extended periods (again, this is due to patriarchy), and thus women are less likely to participate in multi-day climbing trips or expeditions. If patriarchal oppression did not exist, if rigid patriarchal gender roles did not exist, then maybe women could have equal opportunity to partake in adventure sports–but alas it does exist, and if you think otherwise you are sorely sorely mistaken.

And for the women who do make it to the crag/boulders/gym/outdoor space, there are the micro- and less-than-micro-aggressions. From the assumption that I cannot carry or even lift the bag or barrel or boat to the notion that I should stick to the slab, because that’s what women are good at, I have experienced micro-aggressions in outdoor spaces and climbing gyms. My friend has experienced an outright aggression, which I shall not discuss here, but suffice it to say that there is a man at the gym from whom we like to keep a decent distance. Every time I go to the gym with my friend, she gets anxiety until she walks around the gym and sees that he is not there. A women-only climbing night would allow her to climb without the fear of another such encounter. And if you are currently thinking that “not all men are like that guy,” then you cannot see the forest for the trees. This is not an isolated individual incident; it is systemic; it is part of a culture that lets perpetrators of sexual assault walk free (and even elects them as president) and brands survivors as liars.

So, do I think that we are over doing it with feminism and safe spaces and calling men (and people of all genders) out on their micro-aggressions and sexist behaviour? Hell no! I think that we are not doing enough.


Access and Conservation are NOT a Binary


Recently, in the wake of Parks Canada giving away “Discovery Passes” that grant free entry to Canada’s national parks for the duration of 2017, many conservationists have published articles or given radio interviews discussing the negative impact that increased tourism will have on the parks and the wildlife that resides in them. Access, these conservationists argue, stands in stark binary opposition to conservation. More humans in the parks means greater human impact on the parks’ ‘natural’ environment, and more human-wildlife interactions, which could lead to habituated and food-conditioned wildlife. Of course, Parks Canada can minimize human impact by ensuring that park-goers are aware of Leave No Trace principals and are educated in managing wildlife encounters. But, of course, ensuring that all visitors treat the land and wildlife with respect is impossible. Therefore, these conservationists argue, increased access and increased visitation undermines conservation efforts.

I disagree. I will be upfront: I am a hiker, climber, canoeist, snowshoer, and more. I rely on access to parks and conservation areas for recreation. And though I am pretty sure that, as someone who is formally trained in outdoors skills and Leave No Trace (LNT) principles, I am not the antagonist of these seemingly conservationist arguments, I was not always as outdoors-savvy as I am today. The conservationists promoting an anti-access agenda are most likely scared of an influx of ‘tourons’ (tourist morons, i.e. national parks tourists with absolutely no outdoors experience or knowhow) rather than an influx of experienced hikers, campers, climbers, etc.—experienced outdoorspeople will flock to the national parks regardless of admission cost or advertising campaigns. Yes, inexperienced campers, hikers, etc. can (and generally do) have a negative impact on national parks’ land and wildlife, especially when they arrive in hordes; however, many experienced outdoorspeople were once inexperienced ‘tourons.’ I know I once was.

A squirrel in Yosemite, whom I allowed to steal the lid to my almond container — photo by me

When I look back on my first experience in Yosemite, my ‘touron’ behaviour utterly horrifies me: I fed wildlife (squirrels), and hiked off-trail to skip switchbacks while descending a mountain. But my experience in Yosemite, however touron-esque it may have been, is the reason why I am now (or at least consider myself to be) an experienced outdoorsperson. If I did not have that seminal experience in Yosemite, I would never have fallen in love with being outdoors, with hiking, with mountains, with granite, with rivers and waterfalls. My experience as a ‘touron’ in Yosemite fostered my love of and connection to outdoors and wilderness spaces. My experience as a ‘touron’ inspired me to seek an outdoor education, to take up rock climbing and become a member of the Ontario Access Coalition, to donate to conservationist campaigns to ‘keep Jumbo wild’ and ‘protect the Peel [watershed],’ and to take a course with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), wherein I learned LNT principles and wilderness ethics. That is to say, I love national parks and wilderness spaces, and care about conserving them, because I have experienced them.

Experiencing the national parks requires access. Greater access to Canada’s national parks, which free “Discovery Passes” facilitate, leads to more people experiencing national parks and outdoors spaces, many for the first time. Rather than see this as a threat, and antagonize ‘tourons’ as enemies to conservation, I see this as an opportunity. The more people who have initial outdoor experiences in Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Glacier, Bruce Peninsula, or Kluane National Parks, the more people who understand what conservationists are fighting for, and why these spaces are worth conserving. The more people who have access to outdoors spaces, the more people who experience them, then the more people willing to protect them, to become activists, to get off their bottoms and work to protect outdoors spaces from threats like deforestation, fracking, pipelines, and climate change. I strongly believe that access and conservation are not a mutually exclusive binary. Access and conservation depend on each other; their relationship is symbiotic.