The power of collective female ‘stoke’ is not to be underestimated. As a woman, regardless of where you are – be it in a classroom, on a sports field or up a mountain – there’s something exciting about getting together with a bunch of passionate women who are pushing themselves physically, mentally and emotionally in their chosen field. This collaborative, female-centric environment is often seen as a safe place for learning and shared experience, away from the pressure and competition that’s often present when among our male counterparts. This is not to say that men don’t encourage women to try and excel, because they do, but there’s something extra special when you witness women empowering other women.
In New Zealand the outdoor community is pretty tight knit, and when it comes to the alpine climbing, the community is even smaller; the knit, tighter; the number of women, fewer still. In a typically male-dominated environment with tough physical demands and measurable risk, it can be an intimidating realm to enter for the first time – which is why it’s so important for aspiring female climbers to meet and collaborate with other women who are out there doing it already.
To test this theory, I signed up to attend the Chicks ‘n’ Picks ice climbing clinic at the Remarkables Ice & Mixed Climbing Festival in Queenstown, New Zealand. Joining a dozen or so ladies from around the world, we were a group climbers, skiers and alpinists who either wanted to up-skill or try ice climbing for the first time. Fortunate for us, we were under the dedicated tutelage of Rose and Gemma from the New Zealand Alpine Team – this team is the group of Kiwi mountaineers that Macpac collaborates with on the research and development for our most technical range of apparel and equipment, the Alpine Series. Tagging along was professional mountain guide and owner of First Light Guiding in Wanaka, Gavin Lang as our token male and photographer, and Emily, an Avalanche Two-certified ski patroller from Cardrona.
Day one saw us practising our ice skills and then climbing Altered States (WI3) and White Jism (WI4) up at Alta Ice, above Lake Alta and the Remarkables ski field. With our belayers hunkered down out of the worst of the wind, we swung our ice axes into the brittle ice over and over, learning how to flick our wrists for the satisfying thunk of a solid tool placement and delicately balancing on our crampon front points. The muscle ‘pump’ associated with climbing steep ice appeared all too quickly, yet the belay boogies and encouragement from below kept morale up.
Day two dawned better than predicted but considering the weather and avalanche advisory reports, we decided to stay out of the Grand Couloir and away from a potentially warming Alta Ice – which has been known to fall down in the sun – and instead investigated the lower rocky outcrops for mixed climbing potential. Fairly self-explanatory, mixed climbing still requires crampons and ice axes but the route follows mixed terrain over rock, ice and snow – and in our case, even the odd tussock. It’s a surprisingly delicate form of climbing and requires careful placement of tools and good core strength to balance on what can be thin grooves of ice or tiny ledges of rock – simultaneously you could be torqueing one ice axe in a crack above and hooking into a notch with your other axe. Problem solving at its finest, it’s a style of climbing that often suits women because it relies more on technique than physical power.
With the sun hitting our alpine crag, the girls were relaxed, happily climbing, sharing stories, reflecting on past mistakes and future ambitions. I was thoroughly inspired by them – they were intelligent, professional women with a deep commitment to outdoor adventure, and they wanted to share their experiences. When asked, Rose and Gemma explained that they run Chicks ‘n’ Picks every year at the festival because they’re passionate about getting women into the outdoors. Their goal is to empower women to get out into the mountains, and by building their confidence through skill-based learning, enable them to safely make all of their own decisions while out in the backcountry. Upon reflection, I realised all these women were important role models for myself and consequently other female climbers. Put simply, Chicks ‘n’ Picks not only encourages women to try ice climbing, but facilitates a platform from which women can connect with other women who like climbing in the mountains – a resource that is perhaps the most valuable of all.
Imogen Van Pierce is a Product Expert at Macpac HQ in Christchurch. On the weekends, you’re likely to find her skiing Canterbury’s club fields or walking in the backcountry with her dog, Harper.