There Can Be One, But There Can’t Be Two

“I just hired a badass woman to work with you in Squamish; she just finished aid-soloing a route on El Capitan.”

“Our new climbing instructor just finished her SPI with the AMGA too. She’s super dialed.”

“We have so many technically skilled women starting as climbing instructors this year!”

…All of these words came from former employers or co-workers at a company where I was working as a climbing instructor. I should have been stoked. There were so many talented women to climb with and learn from! So then why did I feel this nagging sense of competition when I heard them instead?  

In my last post, I wrote about the dynamic created when women climb together. How it’s overwhelmingly an empowering experience, a space where I feel strong and supported. But there’s this other, sometimes destructive dynamic that happens when women climb, or attempt to forge their way, in male-dominated spaces. Because the guiding industry has historically been largely male, there are few mentors for new female guides. There is a scarcity of women in the industry, so female guides don’t have great examples of what guiding as a woman can look like. Because of this, women often feel like they need to prove they can “hang” or “keep up” to keep their spot in the “boys’ club.” Rather than lifting one another up, female climbers or guides can get competitive in male-dominated spaces and tear each other down. They have to prove that they are the ones that deserve the space, not these other hopeful women. It’s not that there is less work available to female guides. But the jobs that are available don’t foster retention. I’ve watched female co-workers quit, move on to other companies, or leave the industry altogether.

Top-site managing in Squamish, BC

I’m not immune to this dynamic by any means. A couple years ago I was the only returning female climbing instructor at a youth outdoor program. I had the institutional knowledge and experience, but all of the new hires seemed to climb harder than me and have more certifications than me. Rather than be psyched at the influx of new, dialed, female crushers, I instinctively felt somewhat threatened and competitive. It felt like there couldn’t possibly be space for all of us – I would definitely lose work. But there was an existing community of male climbing instructors. There was plenty of space for them. And there was mentorship for them too, formal and informal. Returning male climbing instructors invited new guys on climbing trips, crashed at our male boss’s house, were even invited by him to help him put up a new route nearby. They had community and support. Though unintentional, this is a real factor. As mountain guide Sheldon Kerr points out, “people tend to mentor those that they see themselves in.” I’ve seen this happen over and over.

Working with women is the best!

When I became conscious of my competitive attitude and its roots, I worked to counter it. I reached out to the women I was working with, climbed with them, offered them a shower and a place to park outside my place. And I still have to work on this. Those competitive feelings still creep in. Yes, obviously I want to support more female climbing instructors! But it’s difficult to offer support when I long for a stronger network too. At that point, however early in my career, I realized I would have to play a role as a mentor too, though I was (and still am!) very much in need of mentorship myself. It has been awesome to see the community of female climbers get stronger at this organization, partly due to conscious efforts on the part of the program. After hiring a lot of technically skilled women, they took steps to hire a female instructor for the technical rock training, a move that did not go unnoticed. I have also received a great deal of mentorship from male co-workers over the years, for which I am grateful.

On the job on the East side of Mt. Baker

This competitive dynamic was even stronger during my new guide training this summer. The guiding world feels inherently more competitive to me than other industries; we are all in the race for better contracts, more clients, and more interesting objectives. On top of that, for myself and the other new female guides, there was very little existing mentorship, no model to follow. There was one full-time returning female guide. My new co-workers seemed to identify weaknesses in one another and feed off of that. There are not many female guides out there. The ones that exist have felt like they need to prove themselves in the industry. They’re getting compared to male guides and to each other, both by clients or guide managers, which can pit them against one another. “I had another female guide last summer,” a male client told me this summer, “she was really good. Just a little girl, but she was tough.” With those that employ us comparing us and constantly looking at us as outliers, what other model do we have? Of course we’ll get competitive.

My co-worker on lead in approach shoes during guide training

But this feels destructive, and I’m not sure of the solution. Part of me wants to give up on the industry or work for a women’s only company. Some women and minority groups are doing just that; Chicks with Picks, SheJumps, and She Moves Mountains are a couple of examples of guide services or programs created and run by women. Maybe the more women there are, the more female guides will be normalized and competition will decrease. I hope so – working with women is awesome! When I guided with another woman this summer, we shared licorice and tea in our tent each night. She shared stories about working with weird men and gave me tips on short-roping and short-pitching as a smaller-bodied guide. There are things about guiding and climbing that are unique to women, that can only be shared among women. So I believe for women to be as successful as possible there has to be more of us learning together and more female mentorship, a model to follow for success. Part of the solution is to foster stronger communities of women within the larger guiding community. But ultimately men are the gatekeepers of the industry and need to be active in the solution as well.

After work tea time in the tent

This is a conversation that is finally appearing in the mainstream world of mountain guiding. The AMGA is talking about it. Powder Magazine is talking about it. Sheldon Kerr, a long-time female mountain guide who is on her way to IFMGA certification, is talking about it loudly, and is a major voice in the industry for gender equity. She even co-hosted a Inclusivity Forum at the last AMGA annual meeting, which sought to identify challenges women face during their guiding careers. As a first-year guide last summer with the American Alpine Institute, I was actually assigned a senior guide as a mentor, along with all of the other first year guides. The one returning female guide made a point to welcome me, sending her packing lists and offering advice. I consider myself lucky to be breaking into this industry now, as consciousness seems to be growing. But it’s also one of the reasons why I question whether this industry is right for me and others who don’t resemble a typical mountain guide. 

One thought on “There Can Be One, But There Can’t Be Two

  1. Hi Katie,

    I’m glad you write about this sortof stuff. I think it’s a classic issue faced by minorities in any group. In fact, it reminds me of my mom at high school PTA meetings. If there was another Asian mom there, it produced a tension between them. My mom would want to go talk to her, but then be flooded with confusing thoughts on how that action would be viewed (cliquey, enforcing stereotypes) and why she wanted to talk to her in the first place (just because of race). It’s hard to know how to feel and how to act when you represent your entire demographic in a group. I think in this case part of the issue is the repression of our identity as women in order to feel the same as ‘the guys’. Connecting with women in the profession means bringing that identity back to the forefront and reasserting it.

    I’ve almost never climbed just with women outdoors.Thinking about it actually makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t know what that would look like. Similarly, I’ve never climbed in a group of only POC. I don’t know what that would look like or how that would feel either. I wish I had all the time and energy in the world to unpack these feelings and make an effort to climb with more women and POC, but thinking about it alone makes me feel tired. So, I’m glad you’re thinking about it at least 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s