Friday, October 07, 2005

Women’s place

By the mid 1980s, as female climbers in Australia were beginning to establish themselves on the hard sport routes. Louise Shepherd in the early 1980s was climbing in Yosemite, Nyrie Dodd led Passport to Insanity, one of the hardest climbs in Australia, and visiting French climber Christine Gambert bagged India, even harder. It was clear that women could mix it with the men on the most difficult routes in the country. Within 12 months, American Lyn Hill would be described as the world’s best rockclimber—male or female. In 1990, Hill’s former arch rival in climbing competitions, Catherine Destivelle, soloed the Bonatti Pillar in five hours. Hill went on to make the first free ascent of The Nose on El Capitan in 1993, taking 23 hours, climbing part of the route in darkness—an extraordinary achievement. In the same year, 1993, Scottish climber Alison Hargreaves became the first person to solo all classic North Faces in the Alps in a single season. Two years later, she was the first woman to solo Everest but was killed in a huge storm on K2 along with six others a few months later. In 1991, 52 year old Junko Tabei became the first woman (and 11th person overall) to climb the Eight Summits—including Carstenz Pyramid—reaching the top of Kosciuszko. Bridgit Muir became the first Australian to climb Seven Summits—excluding Carstenz Pyramid—two years later.

Out of the gym

From the early 1990s in Australia, women returned to rockclimbing in numbers seen only in Queensland between the wars in the 1930s. It seems that the climbing gym culture played a significant role in this. Whatever the reasons for the sudden upsurge in interest, throughout the 1990s, women began to rediscover a place for themselves in Australian climbing culture. Ironically, their battle for acceptance was not so very different from the struggle by their European sisters, 100 years before. Strong female climbers were soon a regular sight on crags around the country and no route, regardless of how intimidating it might be, was out of bounds. Adventure climbing was firmly on the agenda for some, at least. One milestone in Queensland was in 1998 when Jacqui Kiewa and Wendy Steele (pictured) became the first women to climb the East Face of Mt Barney—32 years after the first ascent.

Picture: Wendy Steele collection.

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