Women in Early Climbing

High-Clip has invited me to write a guest post for theDIHEDRAL, a climbing blog, for its series, “Women in Climbing.” Thinking about the role of climbing in the life of this non-climber, I’ve been stunned by its influence on me. I would not be who I am at this point in my life — a self I’m happy with — without my climbing experiences (and non-experiences).

I was in high school in Colorado Springs from 1967-1970. Those years coincide with early days in growth of the popularity of climbing and mountaineering as sports in the United States. This moment was the end of climbing for “God and country,” planting a flag on the “conquered” peak and the beginning of corporate sponsored expeditions. NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, had been formed only a couple of years earlier by Paul Petzoldt in Lander, Wyoming. Petzoldt had been in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division fighting in Italy in WW II and, at 16, was the youngest person ever to climb Grand Teton.

A few of the “names” at the time were Yvon Chouinard, Reinhold Messner, Jim Whitaker, Galen Rowell, David Breashears. Climbing was evolving into a “sport,” but it would be twenty years or so before the first climbing gym opened in the US in 1987. There were no crash pads for bouldering, and when they appeared in the 90s, I thought they were a great idea.

My friends and I were infatuated by this emerging dream of “big mountains” and schools that would teach us!

Colorado was/is — naturally — a climbing and mountaineering Mecca. At the time, Colorado Springs had a beautiful (still has) small mountain equipment store, Mountain Chalet, where I bought my first climbing boots, “Kletters” or “waffle stompers.” Boots were imperative for anyone who wanted to climb anything and/or pass as an outdoor person. Mine were green suede, made in Italy, with Norwegian welt seams holding the suede tops to the Vibram soles. Vibram was a comparatively new product in America then, the first US factory opening in 1965. (The history of Vibram is fascinating. You can read it here.)

We all know that there’s more to climbing than fashion and dreams, so what did I climb? Not much. I wanted to, or thought I wanted to, but a moment came — a conscious turning point — when I realized I was not a climber. I grew up to be a trail runner who ran in mountaineering boots until the early 2000s when Salomon designed shoes for extreme back country races, with the first asymmetrical, one pull lacing. They blew out within three months, but WOW! They held the trail like nothing I’d ever worn whether the trail was sand, rock, dust, up, down or sideways — not to mention they didn’t weigh 3+ pounds each. (P.S. The current version is not the same; it’s heavier and more structured, but lasts longer.)

My youthful climbs were mostly up the formations in the Garden of the Gods, sandstone rocks that are now off-limits to anyone without protection. My little brother, our friends, and I thought it was fun to find an easy route up to the top of something. We would sit on the top, often eating oranges, waiting for the sun to drop behind Pike’s Peak and draping us with the mountain’s shadow. I always led. As the shortest person, any route I found would be within the “reach” (ha ha) of anyone. We used no protection.

From climbing rocks a person learns to pay attention. Everything you need to know is distilled into a chain of moments. Where is my hand? Where are my feet? Can I reach the next hold? The goal was to get up and down without dying. I loved this because it was clear. My home life at the time was hell with no clarity at all. My dad was suffering from the near-end stage of MS. My mom was a character from an Eminem rap, and my younger brother? I saw him pretty often, but he’d left home and was often strung out on drugs. I was just an ordinary good kid trying to hold my shit together. The Garden of the Gods and boulders in what is now called Palmer Park were my sandstone sanctuaries.

But the more I learned about the next steps (ha ha) in my climbing and mountaineering career, the more aware I became of my liabilities as a person. My life — and the lives of others — would depend on knots I would tie, and nothing was more confusing (I’m seriously dyslexic) than knot-tying diagrams. I practiced and practiced, but most of my knots didn’t hold. Then, one of my best friends took a fall (bad knots but not mine) from Devils Tower in Wyoming and suffered complex compression fractures on both ankles. When he returned from Wyoming, casts, crutches and all, he told me he was lucky, and I guess he was. In any case it became clear to me that the risks of climbing — death or worse — were more than I was willing to accept. I did not want to die that way. There were other things I wanted to do. I wanted to write. I wanted to paint. I wanted to ski. I wanted to see the world.

Rock climbing is one of the miraculous avenues for entering nature in a way that is more intimate, more meaningful, more real than a drive through a national park or even a ranger-led nature hike — as valuable as those things are. I learned every important thing in the years I spent with and on rock, whether it was my hands on the sun-warmed, living sandstone of the Garden of the Gods with my brother, or my feet on the wild igneous backbone of California’s coastal chaparral where I ran with my dogs nearly every day for 30 years. After everything, climbing became a running scramble up a sharp hill or a ten foot boulder beside a trail.

Nature has been my best friend and teacher, a text I never tire of. One of its first lessons was that I must know myself. The next was humility. The opening chapter of the book was Wonder. Nature’s rules are elegant and non-negotiable. Surrender to those rules has been, for me, the source of my greatest inspiration and greatest joy. Heaven and earth are ruthless,” wrote? Said? Lao Tzu,, and in that ruthlessness is truth. It’s the best book I know.

When my brother died ten years ago of alcoholism, some of his friends and I took a bag of his ashes up to the Garden of the Gods. I put part of the ashes on the roots of a juniper tree at the base of one of the rocks we climbed most often. I like thinking his ghost climbs up on clear afternoons, his hands grasping the sun-warmed sandstone, finding the best holds and, at the top, he eats an orange, and waits for the shadow of Pikes Peak to cover him with its blessing.

Pikes Peak
(Guest Writer)

Editor’s Notes:

1) See Martha’s book, My Everest!

2) See Martha’s website!

3) Martha is the coolest!

31 Replies to “Women in Early Climbing”

  1. Excellent piece! Looking to read more. Your reference to nature being non negotiable struck home. As a historian I am grateful for the facts imparted!🙏🐕♒️☮️🌈🇺🇸🗳

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I have 3 strong sisters; reading your yarn I never felt that ya gender was Any issue. More important thing was ya know how as to what rock climbing has become. Young people of the sexes would benefit from the story. Ya know this is book length and I cannot wait for its publication. Go ahead, please Begin!🙏🐕🌈☮️♒️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you — I don’t know that there’s a book in my climbing experiences. I did write one about all the years of running on trails. High Clip was kind enough to link it to this post. I wrote it a couple years ago when I was facing down a second hip surgery. You pay a price for running on uneven terrain most of your life!!!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I was reading this while listening to Rachmaninoff:Piano Concerto No. 2 OP 18 and the two together brought tears to my eyes. It would have been wonderful to grow up around rock. I was 45 before I learned to climb and fell in love with it. Unfortunately, I don’t climb anymore. So very sorry about your brother.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent reflections, Martha.

    And I agree: testing our limits in nature leads (pun intended) to some of the best life lessons and insights, even if we don’t realize them until we reflect back, decades later, having survived.

    A wonderful read!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Although I’m not a climber (yet), nature is also my best friend. I’m going to pass this on to my twin nieces, very accomplished Canadian climbers. I look forward to checking out your blog.

    Liked by 2 people

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