Climbing to empowerment: Women rock-climbers discuss participation in the male-dominated sport

Zoë Jennings

Earlier this year, 19-year-old Margo Hayes from Boulder, Colorado, achieved a new milestone in the world of climbing. After ascending La Rambla in Siurana, Spain, which has a difficulty rating of 5.15a in the Yosemite Decimal System, she became the first woman complete a climb of that difficulty, ranking with even the top male climbers.

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Cara Dunsmoor belays her climbing partner at the Miramont “ladies Climb” session on Sunday morning. Photo by Olive Ancell | Collegian

Women are rising in the rock climbing world as more of these milestones are reached.

Abby Matzke is a head climbing coach at the North Miramont Lifesyle Fitness gym in Fort Collins, Colorado. In a male-dominated sport, Matzke is encouraged when women hit milestones in the climbing world, she said.

Matzke began climbing 11 years ago when she fell in love with the sport at a birthday party. Now she runs all of the coaches and climbing teams at Miramont, including non-competitive teams for children, competitive teams and an all-girls competitive team.

Although Matzke believes that climbing is a male-dominated sport, women are becoming more represented in the sport, she said

“It’s up and coming for women,” Matzke said.

Hayes’ milestone climb, along with increased numbers in young women in climbing, help cultivate women’s involvement in the sport.

Audrey Ancell is a usual at the Miramont Fitness Center, who usually puts the bouldering wall to good use. Photo by Olive Ancell | Collegian

“This is a huge deal for women,” Matzke said about Hayes’ climb. “We just had a huge breakthrough for female climbers. No woman has ever done that.”

Matzke teaches students during the weekly Ladies Climb class offered at Miramont. The class was designed to encourage women to start climbing.

“Now women are getting into it, but it’s definitely intimidating with all these men who are so good,” Matzke said.

Anita Rae recently moved to Fort Collins and marveled at the climbing wall, Rae said. She heard about the women climbing class and thought it was a great opportunity to learn how to climb.

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“I knew nothing and I still feel like I know next to nothing, but at least I can get up there,” Rae said. “I was afraid to get up there. Heights are scary. I kinda got over that really fast.”

Rae attributed her improvement to her instructors and the encouragement she has felt with the climbing community.

“I know a lot of really good women here,” Rae said. “I love to just watch them because I learn so much from just watching, especially the women because they are so much more graceful usually.”

Abby Matzke, a climbing coach at Miramont Fitness, demonstrates some clibing techniques to a client. Photo by Olive Ancell | Collegian

Someday she hopes to get her four-year-old granddaughter into climbing, who is a “bundle of energy,” Rae said.

“She’s doing awesome,” Matzke said about Rae’s improvement since starting the class. “She could not do this a few weeks ago.”

Although men and women often have to compete together, there are physical difference between their bodies that make climbing logistically different.

“Women build muscles differently,” Matzke said. “It’s a lot harder for us to get really good. We have to rely on form rather than just muscle, so it’s definitely intimidating. We can still crush. Women are awesome. It just takes a little more effort.”

Miranda Sheets has been climbing on and off for the last three years. She climbs for fun and enjoys bouldering.

“Men definitely have dominated the sport,” Sheets said. “There are certain large bouldering moves that come more naturally to most men than most women. That’s definitely not across the playing field. That being said, I wouldn’t say it’s not necessarily easier. We definitely have our strengths. Our little fingers fit a lot more places than men’s.”

According to Sheets, the traditionally male-dominated sport is quickly growing to include women.

“There’s a lot more of a mix now,” Sheets said. “It’s almost an even playing field.”

Peggy Grabbe started climbing this January because it is a full-body workout and she hopes to climb with her three grandchildren someday.

Women build muscles differently. It’s a lot harder for us to get really good. We have to rely on form rather than just muscle, so it’s definitely intimidating. We can still crush. Women are awesome. It just takes a little more effort.”

-Miranda Sheets, rock climber

Grabbe does not think that climbing is a male-dominated sport based on her experience with the welcoming climbing community she has experienced.

“The really nice thing about this is everybody helps everybody,” Grabbe said. “When you come there’s nobody here competing against each other. I’m obviously their mom’s age but they are so nice and will help me, they’ll encourage me, high five me when I get down and I’ve done something I’ve never done before.”

The welcoming community is helpful in encouraging women to participate in climbing, according to Matzke.

Miranda Sheets masters the Bouldering wall at Miramont Fitness during the “Ladies Climb” hours on Sunday morning. Photo by Olive Ancell | Collegian

“What’s nice about regulars is that everyone gets comfortable with each other, which is nice,” Matzke said. “The climbing community is like a family. We’re just trying to make it comfortable for women just coming into the family to make them a little more comfortable on the wall. Being up there like that you think that everyone is watching you and things like that, which they’re really not. It’s trying to teach them to get out of their head and have a lot of freedom on the wall and not worry about people judging them.”

Sheets is excited for the increased gender equality in the sport, she said.

“It makes the sport a lot more fun and more welcoming,” Sheets said. “You can join in and not feel like you’re the lesser of the group.”

After climbing a route that she watched competitors complete the day before, Grabbe felt empowered, she said.

“It really makes you feel good,” Grabbe said. “I did it. I can do that.”

Arts and Culture editor Zoe Jennings can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @zoe_jennings4.