If you ask people to imagine a climber, they’ll probably visualize someone who is thin, strong, young - and almost certainly male. A young man, biceps bulging, doing a series of pull-ups with his feet swinging free below him. In fact, the blazing new talent who on track to become the world’s hardest climber is a 15-year-old girl, Ashima Shiraishi. Women can be just as good at climbing as men.
More importantly, you don’t need to be male - or fit, or young, or thin. There is a way into climbing for everyone and value to be found, whatever your level. “Imagine the satisfaction when you feel you can’t do something and then you achieve it. That feeling is what keeps me hooked on climbing – it’s made me do things I never imagined and I’ve made friends for life – climbing is full of genuinely caring people, women and men across all age ranges. People don’t care what you look like.”
These are the words of Emily Pitts, a bundle of energy channeled into a huge smile and vibrantly red curly hair. She is the founder of WomenClimb www.womenclimb.co.uk, a UK-based organisation started in 2013, for the purpose of training, supporting and connecting women climbers. Emily, like many of us in the climbing world, is in no way a natural-born athlete.
“Team sports have never been my thing,” she told me. “I didn’t fit in at school at all and was quite lonely. I felt depressed and unhappy, particularly with how I looked. I had bad acne and thought I was really unattractive. It wasn’t until I found climbing in my early 30s that I became happy with myself and able to give myself more compassion.”
Emily was introduced to climbing by her girlfriend, and then continued to do it through a women’s club. She was immediately enthused, wanting to find out all about it. “I just couldn’t find anything about women that inspired me – everything was written by men, and to me the online presence felt quite unwelcoming.” Emily took matters into her own hands, and with the technical help of two generous friends, she set up WomenClimb.
“I feel a real compulsion to help people understand and harness their own awesomeness. I hope that WomenClimb can help establish women as authorities in the field of climbing, by giving women from all backgrounds opportunities to get involved. Sometimes I think about stopping WomenClimb, because it takes so much time and we’re still aren’t generating revenue, but I just can’t do it. I think that it’s so important for women to have a space where they can give their opinion, where women can go to find out information from people just like them – beginners, experienced climbers, all different types of people.”
Emily is a busy woman and is well aware of the problem of women being so busy keeping the lives of their family running smoothly, that they can’t bring themselves to put aside time to do a sport just for themselves. “As well as being a full time parent and running WomenClimb, I have a half time job as a career adviser and I do freelance work in the arts. Being a single mum with lots of commitments makes it hard to carve out time for myself, but my wellbeing is critical to me being a good parent and human being."
“I want women to know that it’s ok to prioritise yourself and to ask the other people in your family to make an equal contribution.”
Emily is passionate about the inclusive nature of climbing as a sport. “When someone is holding your rope, it doesn’t matter what they earn, what they look like or where they’re from, what matters is their integrity, their honesty and their focus on you; climbing is an amazing social leveller. The idea of competition really puts some women off sports and this is another way that climbing is brilliant, because it’s a competition with yourself, mostly. Everyone climbs differently, because we all have different bodies. For example: I’m small and light, which means that in endurance situations I tire easily as I don’t have much reserve. Someone who is taller or heavier will have benefits that I don’t have – a longer reach or perhaps more endurance. So climbing is an activity that I would say nearly anyone can do.”
In a world with such intense focus on body-image, many women don’t feel thin enough or fit enough to step into a sporting space. It’s a problem Emily is familiar with. “Sometimes women say ‘Maybe I’ll try it when I’ve lost some weight’. I’ve climbed with women who are a UK size 18 and they climbed. They had to work hard, but they enjoyed it, had fun and by continuing regularly, they will likely get more toned and feel fitter. Imagine the satisfaction when you feel you can’t do something and then you achieve it.”
Climbing works for women of all shapes and sizes, the challenge is to find the confidence to try it. “Trying something new scares people, so it’s completely understandable that people resist giving things a good go. It’s easier to give up, sometimes. Women have been taught that their bodies are somehow wrong or won’t work if they’re bigger than a size 10, so we feel that it’s easier to not try, then we won’t look silly. When people make fun of others, I think it’s about how they feel about themselves – maybe they feel awkward or not good enough or want to feel important, so making others look small is a way to disguise that. When people make fun of me or try to belittle me, I try to think that it’s about them, and not me, and carry on being brave.”
Emily is honest about the dark shadows of anxiety that she has always struggled with. “People think that I’m super confident, but there are times when I have debilitating self-doubt. I feel that I’m not good enough, that I’m a failure and that people think I’m useless or that WomenClimb isn’t very good. It’s easy to look at other people and think they’ve got it all, but it’s never the full story."
“When I go out and climb, it’s a bit like doing meditation – everything falls away and my worries are moved out of my consciousness. Climbing has helped me to be much happier – with myself and with my life. It’s a bit like religion – it’s an inclusive tribe, a community with a positive focus and ethos. It’s helped me be more resilient and learn that I can do things for myself.”
Talking to Emily it is clear that climbing not just a sport, it’s a way to manage both body and mind, to find focus and and to find friends - a way to discover you can do and be so much more than you imagined.
“Running WomenClimb has helped me learn more about what makes people tick. I’ve become more interested in the psychology of confidence. On average, women are less confident than men. This idea was borne out in some research I did earlier in the year, so my focus now is on creating training to support women in a constructive and positive way with their confidence in climbing. It’s an exciting time, I feel that this has the ability to help a lot of people in ways that extend way beyond rock climbing and into their whole lives. Watch this space!”
You can find Emily and WomenClimb at www.womenclimb.co.uk or on Twitter at @womenclimb
For inspiration from a wide range of women stepping up to the challenge of sport, listen to Sarah Williams’s podcast Tough Girls. Find her at www.toughgirlchallenges.com