Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Unsolicited thoughts on women in climbing - part II

In the previous post, I annoyed almost everyone for explaining why I thought the women's climbing symposium was a waste of time, and why I think I'm wrong about that. One of the examples I used in that blog post was body image in climbing. It goes without saying that I've been thinking a lot about women's bodies recently, and something struck my mind.

This image is the #1 google hit I get for "professional women surfers". It's from an article about why, to be a top women surfer, you've got to be sexy. Go ahead, spend your lunch break finding pictures of the top 10 women surfers in the world. I promise you won't regret it. They are all hot. And these are the top surfers based on ranking, and not hot-or-not ranking either. What is going on here? And what the hell does it have to do with climbing?

Sisters Ellie-Jean, 18, front, and Holly-Sue Coffey, 16, are both vying for the same spot in the Roxy Pro. Pic by Luke Marsden.
Admit it. At least half of you were betting the next paragraph would mention Sierra Blair-Coyle. Well it does, so give yourself a pat on the back and keep reading. This year I have been watching the IFSC climbing world cup avidly. It's great. The streaming is usually good and the competition has been incredibly impressive. But there are always some duller moments in any competition, and in one of this duller moments the wife and I were having one of those horrifically shallow conversations about who you fancy. It rapidly became apparent that whilst the male competitors were typically attractive (there were maybe two or three that Jules thought passable), that a very large number of the women climbers were blond and really very pretty.

So - I know what you're thinking. This result merely reflects the fact that I am a pervert and a lech. But no! It turns out that Jules also shares my opinion on the attractiveness of top women climbers, and so do the small sample of friends I have dared raise the topic with.  "OK", you respond, "it is just that these are young, athletic women with fine bodies. Isn't it natural that they'll be attractive?". So I spent some time comparing my results with the attractiveness of women in other sports, for example athletics. I did this purely in the interests of scientific rigour, you understand. It turns out that, whilst women athletes are all young, and are obviously in peak physical form, they are just as pretty as the general population. Some are, some aren't.

So climbing, like surfing, seems to have found itself in a situation where most of the top women climbers are quite attractive. How did it get here? In surfing, you could argue that you have to follow the money. Sponsorship money flows easily to those who can sell product, and in the awful male dominated society we have, that means the pretty girls. This doesn't take away from the awesome talent of those at the top, it's just that you have to be an incredible athlete and pretty, which is not something the men have to put up with. Is this happening in climbing? I don't know. I get the impression that sponsorship money is pretty meagre, so maybe it's something more subtle? How would you feel entering your first competition, and all the girls around you were tall and pretty? What if you felt pretty self conscious about your appearance to start with? Would you feel at home? Would you climb your best? Maybe we're caught in a vicious circle, where potential top climbers don't feel at home unless they fit the profile? It's the same argument that's been made many times, in all walks of life to explain why we do not see diversity, even though we arguably have equality. It has been used to explain everything from the glass ceiling, to the lack of women on University Challenge:
"Diversity is looking at outcomes. If there weren’t any women at the Ritz, you might ask whether you were making them feel welcome, as well as whether they had the price of admission."
I don't know the answers to any of these questions. I don't know if most will agree with the basic premise of this post. However I do know that I don't want climbing to go the same way as surfing, where a young girl with tremendous talent will choose another sport, because she feels shy competing in her underwear.

Unsolicited thoughts on women in climbing - part I

So, on September the 27th, the women's climbing symposium will be held in Glasgow. Let me be frank. When I first heard about the women's climbing symposium I thought it was a really bad idea. Nowadays I'm not so sure. It's certainly true that women climbers face different issues to men, and this is an oft-used justification for women-only events. The issue I have with this is that too often this makes assumptions about whose fault it is that women face those issues. In a recent, and very inspiring blog post, Hazel Findlay puts it better than I can, discussing a time she let a male climber dissuade her from an onsight attempt:
"Although I was psyched to send my hardest route, I was annoyed that I had been discouraged from trying to flash it. Of course, it wasn’t Sean’s fault; it was my fault
The reason this send was so important to me wasn’t because I don’t believe in rehearsing routes first. It isn’t even to do with what male climbers expect from the average girl at the crag. It has to do with self-belief. I know how well I can climb a lot better than a random guy I met two days ago. So why did I trust his judgment and not my own?"
 Let's call this point of view the deficit model. In the deficit model, the issues women face when they climb is their own fault. Find all-male groups intimidating? Have a male partner who assumes you won't want to lead? Then man the fuck up and do something about it.

The phrase in italics highlights the problem with the deficit model. It views male behaviour as the norm, and forcefully suggests that women alter their behaviour to be more like men. Obviously, there are alternative points of view. One point of view is that if you do have a male partner who doesn't let you lead, then that guy is a dick, and he needs his world view adjusting. Preferably with a swift kick in the balls.

I believe that, for most situations, the issues women climbers face lie somewhere in between the two extremes. My issue with most discussions of women in climbing is not that the issues aren't genuine, or that the deficit model is entirely correct. It's that the deficit model is under discussed, and anyone suggesting that women share responsibility for solving their problems can be met with strong opposition.

Hey - here's an example. Women quite often shy away from power training, because they are afraid of getting arms like Sam Whittaker. Once again, the deficit model says the answer is to man the fuck up. Get over it. After all, it's not impossible to love a climber's physique. In a great blog post on the WCS, Michaela Tracy says:

"I remember hearing about a talk about body image amongst female climbers. This was something I just couldn’t understand at all. I love having big arms and broad shoulders, really I do. For me, having the build of a climber means that I can do what I love - and I get a lot more joy out of that than finding a dress that fits me."

But of course, it's not that easy. Because women face a lot of pressure from society about how they are supposed to look. It's hammered home from a young age. Their Barbie dolls are so ridiculous, if they were real they'd have to walk on all fours. The images they see in magazines are all airbrushed to present impossible ideals of femininity. It takes tremendous self confidence to ignore all this and be proud of your amazing body, and the training that got it that way.

When I first heard about the WCS, I assumed the deficit model would be totally undiscussed. To my mind that would make it actively dangerous - it would promote the idea that women faced special issues for which they shared no responsibility. For example, it would indulge women who found all-male groups to be intimidating, and suggest they climb in all-female groups instead. On the flip-side, a WCS that discussed the deficit model might suggest trying to overcome these fears, which would lead to a more positive, and less self-limiting result.

Of course, I've never been to the WCS, and so it is totally wrong of me to make this assumption. And no-one can deny that there are many many women who face issues that men will never encounter - and these women are whom the WCS is aimed at, and who give it overwhelmingly positive feedback every year. I'm sure that once again it will be a tremendous success, and I wish it all the best. Maybe those of them who I will force to read this blog might like to discuss the issues raised? Oh, and while I'm at it I have something else on my mind, which I'll harp on about in part II...

Monday, 15 September 2014

Dear Diary

Weight: 9st 10lbs (stubborn)
Cans of Coke: 6
Middle Finger Tendon Integrity (MFTI): 0.73

I'd spent the week holed up in a posh hotel in Pitlochry, discussing Electrification in Dusty Atmospheres. It did nothing for the waistline, and Pitlochry appears to be a Highlands Theme Park so horrid it has driven out all the local Scots. However, I did get to watch super-slo-mo videos of people re-creating volcanic explosions in the lab. Those guys are in the right job.

I returned Sheff-side exhausted, hung over and desperate to go climbing. Toby has a well-earned reputation for climbing without undue haste. It's ok though, because he rectifies this by starting early. So he picked me up from my house at half-past-early and we drove, bleary-eyed to Long Wall. I don't want to say bad things about Long Wall, so I'd best not say anything at all. It's long in one direction at least, I guess. Nevertheless I did manage to have an enjoyable day here. Toby dispatched Atlantic Realm, which is apparently 7c+ now half of it has fallen down. Toby did it with great ease, or at least very statically. It can be hard to tell which. Then I managed to comfortably flash the hard climbing and embarrass myself horribly on the easy top slab. Note to self: power screaming on 6b slab climbing is never acceptable.

On Sunday I returned to Malham to continue what is definitely going to be a long term affair with Rainshadow. I also cleaned out some bird's nests from Thriller/Victor Hugo so you really have no excuse now, do you? Once again I was struck by just how strong everyone is these days. Apart from myself there was one other 9a aspirant there that day, four people trying 8c's and teenage girls getting close to 8a's. It's a far cry from ten years ago, where you could climb an 8b and spend the rest of the day basking in the admiration of your peers. This makes me sad.

I'm sadder still by progress on Rainshadow. I firmly believe that I am capable of getting through the crux roof from the ground, but there is a long move on the headwall that I fear is just too hard. I can't do this move reliably off the rope, and you've already done at least 8c+'s worth of climbing by the time you get there. I remain hopeful, but not optimistic. The only thing that makes me feel better is how bad Alex Barrows is on this route. During his epic dogging sessions which seemed to last a day each, I estimate he spent 0.34 microseconds actually holding his own weight. I can only assume his belayer has very bruised hips this morning.

Still, no amount of failure on Alex's part will constitute success on mine, so I'd better do something about this headwall move soon. Stay tuned for more on that, and an upcoming blog post in which I alienate the entire female climbing community, shortly before the women's climbing symposium kicks off.


Monday, 1 September 2014

The two finest crags in the world

I really love getting to climb with Rupert. Our schedules don't mesh as often as they should. Ru has the excellent reason of having a young and adorable family to raise. I'm not sure what my excuse is. On Saturday Ru organised a full-day pass and we met up to head up climbing somewhere. Given that we didn't think about it too hard, and that we were chatting most of the way out to the peak, it seemed inevitable that my autopilot would kick in and we'd end up at Raven Tor.

After the usual pseudo-competitive warm up (a tie - honest), it became clear that neither of us were firing on all cylinders and so we ditched our plan A's and switched to plan B. Except we didn't have a plan B, so we shuffled back and forwards along the crag looking for a route that wasn't too hard, that we hadn't done, and which was short. There weren't many options. We ended up trying 'The Brazilian'  - a non-existent ex-project which Steve Mac hoovered up, adding a proper finish to give 'Rooster Crossing', and 8c which goes to the top of the crag. The original project took in a hard boulder problem to reach the <sarcasm>breathtakingly perfect line</sarcasm> of Rooster Booster, and finishes along that. Way back in the day, Ru nearly ticked it in an afternoon, so we figured it would be easy pickings, now that we're older, stronger and wiser. Oh the arrogance of old age. We licked our wounds by doing some stamina training - nothing like getting a stopwatch out at the crag to make you feel like a hero.

On Sunday I once again fell foul of my ambitions, and made the questionable decision to visit Malham in the baking sunshine. We arrived after noon, to find an almost empty crag shimmering in the heat. Warming up in the centre of the crag, I felt like Laurence of Arabia, squinting longingly through the heat haze to the shade on the right hand side. Slowly but surely the shade crept round until, just seconds before it got dark, conditions finally became good enough to get off the floor. Jules put a sterling effort in on Thriller, but my own performance is best left undocumented to spare my blushes.

Next weekend I have one day to climb, and then will be forced to stay in a five star hotel in Scotland, eating fine food and talking nonsense for a living.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Boat People

My new best friend Alex Barrows mentioned during an otherwise interminable car journey that he liked my blog, and was sad I didn't write any more. So I'm going to make an effort to post something up here every now and again.

I don't usually like Bank Holidays. Maybe because the Spaghetti Monster in the Sky hates me, and arranges for me to be away on work trips, whiling away the tedium by flicking through Farcebook and seeing what a great time everyone else is having. Not this time however; this time I had the full three days free. Moreover it is looking as if my rotting connective tissue may be starting to re-knit, allowing me to start doing some actual climbing, as opposed to belaying and offering helpful abuse to fellow crag-dwellers.

HMS Marjory
The Diamond is a crag I've wanted to go to for ever and ever and ever. We tried a few years back, but my nameless partner refused to descend the sliding staircase gully to the handline. This time, inspired by Gus and his continuing adventures in HMS Smash!, I bought myself a dinghy and the wife and I launched boldly crag-wards. And what salty mariners we are! Admittedly, there were a few wrinkles; such as when we cocked up the launch and filled the boat and our rucksacks with brine. And when Jules angrily insisted my rowing instructions made no sense, so that we spent a good few minutes rowing in opposite directions and spinning like a top. Once these minor wrinkles were ironed out, however, we proceeded to the base of the crag at warp-speed, arriving half an hour after high tide. As the photo shows above, half an hour after a high tide of around 7.5m is a perfect time to access the base of any route - although you may be lowering off into the sea!

On the way home, Jules and I passed our time by pleasantly arguing about whether the Diamond qualifies as Britain's #3 sport crag (after Malham and Kilnsey, natch). Suffice to say we had a very good time. Conditions were OK, with a small amount of spooge which burnt off over the day. I would have loved to be on top form and get involved with some of the big rigs (that's what the kids say these days, isn't it?). Unfortunately, neither fitness nor injury allowed it. I did have a play on the Brute, which is very very good, but still too tweaky. However, the finger did allow me to nip up The Sting and Boat People, appropriately. This was enough to reveal that all my hard won fitness has completely vanished. Lots of hard work ahead, methinks!

Rhoslyn on Boat People. Seriously good thugging.
On Monday we went to Malham, which hasn't changed. A shout out to Ted for topping out Totally Free during what seemed at the time to be the coming of the apocalypse. And for working out how to get back down on a 70m rope. We're all chuffed he didn't die.

Friday, 9 May 2014

In Praise of Alex Barrows

I think we've known each other long enough to be honest. I'm Alex Barrows' biggest fan. Ok, he's a ridiculous looking, freak of a human being. And admittedly he has ruined climbing in Parisella's Cave forever. And, since you bring it up, the "Climbers Against Barrows" T-shirt was rather funny. And his little poodle is quite annoying, but there's more to Alex Barrows than this.


I think it's time to acknowledge that Alex is a nice guy. He's cheerful and friendly and doesn't have a bad word to say about anyone. Reading for a PhD in Physics suggests he's at least moderately bright. Unlike me, when confronted with a different opinion he genuinely tries to understand why it might be right. He's helpful to other people at the crag and has a infectious, bounding enthusiasm more climbing. I genuinely struggle to think of someone I'd rather go climbing with than Mr Alex Barrows.

More than this however, it's time I admitted that he's actually quite good at climbing. Having now climbed 3 8c+'s his sport climbing track record is pretty much as good as it gets in the UK. Alright, two of them were boulder-problem traverses of dubious worth but we have to respect difficulty wherever we find it. Moreover, word on the street is that he has just onsighted not one, but two, 8b's in Rodellar. In typical modest fashion he didn't let anyone know about this (apart from posting on Facebook and updating his 8a.poo scorecard from the crag), so I'm telling you now. In short, Mr Alex Barrows is one hell of a climber.

In summary I'd like to take this opportunity to publicly apologise to Britain's hardest climbing Will Ferrel look-a-like and say - Alex Barrows, we salute you.

Monday, 5 May 2014

They shoot horses, don't they?

My connective tissue is rotting. I think it's a standing joke amongst other climbers that I'm always injured. Certainly when I meet people I haven't seen for a while, the first question they ask is 'are you injured?'. Currently I am nursing: one finger injury, occurring on the day after F-BO; torn knee ligaments, occurring on the day after the CWIF; and a sprained ankle, which came on during a gentle walk. All this makes me feel pretty decrepit. There's nothing like being old to make you feel old.

The *good* news is that all my aches and pains are manageable enough to begin training once again, so with a Coach-Randall-Approved Rehab™ plan I'm hitting the campus board again (don't worry Mum - feet on and open handed) to get fit and get awesome. By Saturday I even managed to reduce the swelling in my ankle enough to get a rock shoe, so I hobbled into Malham for a session on Rainshadow.

There was a good scene at Malham on Saturday, by which I mean that the entire sodding world was on the catwalk, strutting around as if they had as much right to be there as I did. Rainshadow is going well, although progress is incremental. I'm getting more solid on the crux moves, and got some good beta from Ryan P, who is looking very tidy on it. Probably because he climbs the crux bulge in seven moves, where I take twelve. For me I still need to take it easy and not try big links, in case they break me.

On Sunday the wife and I went to the Barn, for their amusingly-named 'Barn Wars'. Because it was May the 4th. Ha ha. Jules wants to get in as much comp practice before the British championships as possible so local comps like this are an excellent chance to refine strategy and learn to work sequences etc. Obviously I would have won, had people who were better than me not turned up. Nathan Phillips won, who is injured - though clearly not as injured as I am. Dave Barrans didn't win. I hope this makes him angry enough to try hard at next weeks World Cup in Grindlewald... Jules won the ladies comp despite being tired from a load phase of her training, and won a very generous £200 prize which she spent on shoes. Typical girl.

Then, since it was a bank holiday we spent monday shopping in Sheffield and doing a bit of gardening, and then had a nice evening watching the World Cup on YouTube and making Ravioli. Which was nice. And that's about it. Stayed tuned for more blog posts, in which I sustain more injuries and not much gets climbed.