All around the world, we’re experiencing a collective shift in attitudes towards gender equality in outdoor recreation. There’s fresh enthusiasm to get more women, and those of underrepresented genders, out into the outdoors to reap the benefits of spending time in nature, learning new skills and meeting new people. Not only does this help to build confidence and knowledge, it can empower people to take control of their own lives, figure out their personal values and strengths, and possibly even consider a career in the outdoor industry.
With a particular focus on women and outdoor climbing, the rising popularity of all-female skills clinics is significant, and the subsequent benefits of these clinics are tangible in the outdoor community. There’s evidence to suggest that when you make time and space for female-centric learning, without the pressure of ‘having to keep up with the boys’, you make climbing more accessible to a much larger group of women — these are women who are eager to participate but are perhaps intimidated by mixed gender climbing clinics, where they may perceive themselves to be the weakest link.
Like the rest of the world, outdoor and alpine climbing in New Zealand is typically a male-dominated environment with tough physical demands and at times, calculated risk involved, so it’s easy to see why as a woman, it might be an intimidating realm to enter for the first time. This is why it’s important that we, as an outdoor community, foster a sense of inclusion and provide opportunities for more women to participate in the outdoors. Down in Queenstown at the Remarkables Ice & Mixed Festival, the First Light Guiding Chicks ‘n’ Picks ice climbing clinic is one such example of how the local climbing community is actively encouraging women to try climbing in the mountains.
An all-female clinic, Chicks ‘n’ Picks presents an opportunity for aspiring female climbers to meet and learn from some of the leading female alpinists in the country. Although they’re not professional mountain guides, the women running these clinics are some of the best (and up and coming) winter alpinists in Australasia.
Last year as part of the Macpac crew, I was lucky enough to tag along with the Chicks ‘n’ Picks clinic to see what ice climbing was all about. Joining a dozen or so ladies from around the world, we were a group of climbers and skiers who either wanted to try ice climbing for the first time or build upon basic skills already acquired. Fortunate for us, we were under the knowledgeable and dedicated tutelage of Rose Pearson and Gemma Wilson from the New Zealand Alpine Team. Two women with impressive climbing résumés, Rose was selected as part of the 2013–2016 intake and Gemma joined the team as part of the 2016–2019 intake. With a fondness of technical rock and multi-pitch alpine routes, both women have climbed extensively in New Zealand and around the world, with notable ascents in the States, Canada, Europe and the UK.
A group brought together by a love of mountaineering and a desire to support and encourage young kiwi climbers, the New Zealand Alpine Team (NZAT) runs a three year mentorship programme with the aim of passing on valuable skills and knowledge to younger climbers starting out. In Gemma’s word, having been “…mentored by some of the best climbers in NZ is a huge privilege” as she knows just how hard it can be to find climbing partners who are keen to try technical mountaineering routes. Getting into climbing, she reckons she was lucky to be surrounded by a group of male climbers who are super supportive of female climbers, and never felt that being a woman held her back. While having to train hard aerobically to keep fit, she thinks that women often make up for physical strength by being able to climb technically well. A fact proved by Rose Pearson in 2018 when she team up with fellow female climber, Brette Harrington (U.S), to establish a new route — Life Compass (IV 5.10a M4+ 80 degrees, TD+, 980 m — up Mount Blane in the Canadian Rockies. Described as “one of the few climbs of this size and grade ever established in the Canadian Rockies by an all-women team”, Rose is well known in New Zealand for her climbing feats, having recently been awarded the Canterbury Mountaineering Club’s ‘Mountaineer of the Year’ award for the second time. Rose is the second person and only woman to have ever won the award twice.
Collaborating with Macpac to develop and test our Alpine Series gear, it’s encouraging to see the NZAT is conscious of supporting young female climbers and creating an inclusive team environment where women are on an equal footing to the men. Rock climber, Sooji Clarkson, recently joined the team during the 2019 intake and is already racking up a few notable climbs including a new route called Kia rapu i tõku māramatanga [Seeking the Light] (M4 IV 5 300m) up the South Face of Tititea Mount Aspiring with Gavin Lang in July this year.
For last year’s Chicks ‘n’ Picks clinic we were also lucky enough to have Emily Jones, an Avalanche Two-certified ski patroller from Cardrona Alpine Resort, and Gavin Lang, a professional mountain guide, photographer and operator of First Light Guiding, tagging along for the two days. With such a wide breadth of knowledge present, there was much to gain when discussing safe snow travel, mountain weather and the local avalanche advisory reports. Plus with Gavin as our chief photographer, we all got to enjoy seeing professional shots of our ice climbing efforts at the end of each day.
In terms of what to expect, day one saw us hike up the Remarkables Ski Resort, head across a frozen Lake Alta and up into the Grand Couloir. The Alta Slabs and the East Buttress of Double Cone were our objectives. Along the way, snow and weather conditions were discussed for the day, determining our level of safety in the area and whether our planned routes were sensible options. They were, so off we trudged uphill to check out Altered States (WI3) and White Jism (WI4) — two introductory ice climbs that were in good form and would allow us to practice the basics of ice climbing. With our belayers hunkered down out of the worst of the wind, we practiced swinging our axes into the seemingly brittle ice over and over, learning how to flick our wrists for the satisfying thunk of a solid tool placement, while delicately balancing on our crampon front points. The muscle fatigue or climber’s ‘pump’ associated with climbing steep ice appeared all too quickly, yet the hilarious belay boogies and encouragement yelled up from below kept morale high despite the frigid temperatures.
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. Our backup option was investigating the lower rocky outcrops above Lake Alta for some mixed climbing. 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 torquing one axe in a crack above and hooking the other into an icy notch. Problem solving at its finest, it’s a style of climbing that often suits women because it relies heavily on technique, rather than physical power.
With the sun hitting our alpine crag, the girls were more relaxed as they climbed on day two — they were happily sharing stories, recounting past adventures and discussing future trips. I was thoroughly inspired by them, as they were a diverse mix of intelligent, professional women with a deep commitment to outdoor adventure. From the two women who were planning an intrepid ski touring trip in Patagonia (and looking for a third team member) through to the new mum just getting back into the outdoors with her baby in tow, there was so much to discuss and learn from each other. We spoke about the challenges of meeting like-minded women, finding climbing buddies in our home areas and how nice it was to be surrounded by other motivated women — the majority instead of the minority for once!
When asked, Rose and Gemma explained that they run Chicks ‘n’ Picks every year at the Festival because they’re passionate about getting more 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. This idea of female empowerment through self-sufficiency and decision-making struck a chord, because often it’s easy to stay silent in the background and rely on someone else to make the decisions.
As an all-female clinic, Chicks ‘n’ Picks not only encourages women to try ice climbing and learn how to keep themselves safe, it facilitates a platform from which women can connect with other women who like doing the same thing. Encouragingly, it’s just one of a number of initiatives in New Zealand set up to get women into the outdoors — not all are climbing focused, but all are part of the push for gender equality in outdoor recreation and society. From Outward Bound’s ‘Women in Leadership’ programme through to the New Zealand Alpine Club’s own ‘Women’s Backcountry Ski Skills Course’ there’s an increasing number of opportunities for women to learn alongside other women. Further north, Women’s Outdoor Pursuits is an Auckland-wide women’s tramping group run for and by women, and near Nelson, Wheelwoman is a group which runs mountain biking workshops for women in the beautiful Kaiteriteri Mountain Bike Park.
To help these kinds of local organisations get off the ground, Macpac’s own Fund for Good supports a variety of adventure-based social development programmes, as well as environmental projects and ethical manufacturing. It’s our way of giving back to our communities. Through the Fund for Good we have supported groups like Women’s Fitness Adventures in Brisbane, Australia, which provides a wide variety of adventures for women. From short day walks to longer bush hikes, kayaking, indoor rock climbing and stand-up paddle boarding, this group runs weekend trips and week-long adventures to both local and international destinations.
While there is much to celebrate in terms of emerging gender equality in climbing and outdoor recreation around the world, it’s an ongoing struggle that requires everyone’s participation and the long term continuation of these valuable organisations, clinics and social platforms. In New Zealand, we are fortunate that we already have a strong history of female empowerment and leadership, not just in climbing but in society in general. From politics through to our music industry and outdoor recreation, we have had — and continue to have — a number of confident and capable women to look up to and follow as they repeatedly pushed the boundaries of what’s perceived to be possible. For the small, tight-knit alpine climbing community down under, our female role models are even more precious with so few involved in the sport.
Having just gotten back from the Remarkables Ice & Mixed Festival 2020, I can attest to the recurring popularity of skills clinics like Chicks ‘n’ Picks and the large number of women present at the Festival. To me, it affirms the need for these positive, female-centric spaces where more women may feel comfortable enough to give it a go for the first time. While these clinics do not alone solve the problem of gender inequality in climbing and outdoor recreation, they do seem to have a positive effect on those involved. Everyone’s different, so it seems clear we need a variety of initiatives to support and include those who are underrepresented in the outdoors. Even from an individual level we can all help, whether you start a local group or simply invite along a new friend to go climbing, it all helps.
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 tramping in the backcountry with her dog, Harper.