Scaling Gender Boundaries at the Gunks

In the rock climbing community, residence near the Shawangunk Mountains (more aptly known as “the Gunks”) is enough to spark envious exclamations and bragging rights. The Gunks are renowned for the endless amounts of pristine climbing routes and the rock climbing community.

On any given day or night, if the weather is just above frostbite levels, climbers will be seen dangling by their harnesses, reaching into chalk bags, as they puzzle over the best maneuvers to reach the top of the mountain.

Among the ropes and crash pads is a growing culture of women who are proving themselves to be just as passionate, and some say tougher, than the male climbers who have seemingly dominated the sport.

Women are not new to the sport of rock climbing. The first recorded summit by a female was in 1799 by a Miss. Parminter who climbed Mont Blanc in the Alps in western Europe. What’s changing now is the level of exposure they are receiving.

Women climbers are gaining more attention from endorsement companies, such as Cliff bar, Adidas and Prana, and their participation in national and worldwide rock climbing competitions is growing.

There are climbing competitions targeted solely for women, forums and blogs can be found all over the Internet, and the product market (full of floral patterned chalk bags and brightly colored climbing shoes) for women is growing.

“To be a woman is an advantage because you need to use leg strength to pull yourself up,” says Maddy Grupper, second-year at SUNY New Paltz and competitive climber.

Grupper added, “Most men are so used to using upper body. Women are so used to not using their arms so they have better technique.”

Women also naturally have more flexibility for reaching foot holds and their smaller, more nimble hands allow for more options in holds to grab.

Whether they were brought to the sport by male friends or decided to pursue it on their own, women will find that many of their climbs will be with men.

“Whenever I tell anyone I’m a rock climber, they take the sport less seriously,” said Grupper, who has been climbing for ten years.

“Guys always want to have some sort of strength contest,” she said, ticking the number of arm wrestling competitions she’s won on her fingers.

Alessandra Young, 19, explained that while men don’t always take her seriously as a climber, a level of mutual respect eventually sets in once the climbing begins.

“Guys cheer you on,” the Clinton, N.J. native said, “you both cheer each other on.”

Despite the levels of support they receive from their male climbing partners, women climbers still take on a heavy training load when it comes to climbing, whether it be a hobby or, like Grupper, for competition.

Jennie Hirsch, 20, climbs at three different rock gyms – The Inner Wall and the Climbing CoOperative, New Paltz, NY and Gravity Vault in Upper Saddle River, NJ – and in the Gunks every week, practices yoga for flexibility and regular cardio and weightlifting for endurance.

Food and nutrition, like with any sport, are also vital pieces to a climber’s routine. “I know a lot of climbers and they’re all very conscious about what they put in their bodies,” said Young, a climber since June of 2010.

Kristina, Young’s sister and an avid climber, only eats raw foods in her diet. Hirsch, a vegetarian, explained how she and her climbing friends are health conscience because of the physical demands of the sport. Many of them preferring vegetarian or vegan diets and paying close attention to carbohydrate and protein intake.

Hirsch, who has only been climbing for six months, said, “It’s also important to climb with other people who are better than you so you can watch.”

Grupper said males are naturally going to climb faster and with more strength, but it doesn’t diminish the experience for women.

“When I’m climbing I don’t feel like I’m a guy or a girl. I’m just a person climbing,” she said.

Women climb for fitness, for competition, for camaraderie, but they also do it to push themselves past physical and personal boundaries.

I like the reminder that I’m good at something,” said Grupper, smiling. “I know that I live, eat and breathe it. It’s wonderful.”