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Thomasina Pidgeon Talks Competition and Motivation

"It doesn't matter if you are male or female; getting your ass up that project is going to be a chore. Yet there are some unique circumstances that shape and influence women climbers."

Personal will and determination are indispensable in climbing. The drive of many psyched climbers and their desire to improve stem from their love of the sport. If you lack the desire to grow as a climber, it doesn’t matter if you are male or female; getting your ass up that project is going to be a chore. Yet, there are some unique circumstances that shape and influence women climbers.

I have seen boyfriends add to a girl’s confidence level by encouraging her to try new things, to go for it when it gets tall, to give it her all. I have also seen guys do the opposite by pointing out the “girl problems” while saying “with your size hands these crimps will be jugs” followed by “girls like this problem, it’s short and crimpy.” When a guy points out beta on every single move, does it mean they think the girl isn’t clever enough to discover it for themselves? Despite these tendencies, I do see some evolution of the way men view women’s capabilities as more and more women climb harder and harder problems.

Angela Payne is one of the most motivated female climbers I have ever met. Her impressive resume of first female ascents in the Rock Mountain National Park reflects her dedication, perseverance and hard work. She hiked to European Human Being V12 and Automator V13 alone many times before her sends. She displayed similar devotion this summer on a recent project. Independence and dedication like this lead to success on the rock and in life.

And so what about folks like Dave Graham and Chris Sharma who have been a source of inspiration when it comes to first ascents? Doing first ascents requires seeking, cleaning and figuring out beta on your own. But what about women and first ascents? There aren’t as many women into the adventurous, first ascent side of climbing though it could be argued that climbing has been so male dominated for so long girls have been left fewer unclimbed options. Although we do have Lynn Hill, (and where would the status of women’s climbing be without her?), where are the women rock climbing adventurers of the 21st century? I am not just talking about sit starts or FFAs, I am talking about seeking, scrubbing and sending, regardless of grades.

Is there an inherent desire in women to go out and explore, discover and make the climbing world, or is this a more male-dominated trait? Although I have done only a few FAs, I would argue the previous statement is a valid one. I will look for and clean stuff if I need to, but I don’t have the same drive to seek new lines like many of my male friends. These guys spend hours hiking and searching for new boulders for days in a row while my first ascents were either something they found or that I found not so far away from the main drag.

Lizzy Asher on This Monkey Goes to Heaven V7, Squamish. Photo Keith Alan Peters

One climber who has been a source of inspiration for me by being as motivated to explore and new route as anyone I know is Lizzy Asher. Lizzy is not only an incredibly talented climber but she is also one of the most approachable climbers out there. This is what Lizzy has to say about women and first ascents. “Perhaps part of the reason is that women are still too preoccupied with doing what the boys have done that we don’t feel motivated or have the time to go stake out our own FAs.” That’s certainly a valid point. So is the element of seek and destroy, (or at least climb), missing from my personality or is it typically not an innate ability or desire within my gender?

Jamie Emerson, a boulderer for fifteen years and a dedicated developer, has spent hundreds of days bushwhacking, hiking off-trail through grizzly bear habitat, finding nothing, breaking holds and wading in waist deep water, in the pursuit of new boulders. This is what he has to say: “There seems to be an attraction (from men) towards physical work and a desire to develop and create things (roads, missiles, boulder problems, etc). I would never suggest that women aren’t capable of creating or building those things from either a bouldering standpoint or a work standpoint, they just seem much less interested. Climbing for women should not be defined by men, although because there are so many more men that climb than women, it often is. I will continue to advocate that women are fully capable of establishing entire areas, and perhaps if there were more women, more women would take an interest in development.”

Why girls limit themselves to ‘girl problems’ escapes me. Perhaps it is because they are considered less reachy and thuggish, but why avoid problems that don’t fit under the category “girl problem?” Sticking to one style of problem isn’t going to improve your climbing. Big moves, daring highballs and slopers sans a secret crimp, are not the types of problems most women try. Some women, however, break the mold, rather than conforming to it. Alex Puccio has been known to get on burly lines because they fit her style. Lisa Rands pushed the standard for women on highballs. Nonetheless, are most girls better at the daintier things, or do they simply limit themselves to what other girls have done and by preexisting expectations?

Then there is the competitive side of women. Recently someone greeted me with a “what are you trying, what have you sent?” type of interrogation. I awkwardly avoided answering and wished I had been wise enough to ask why she wanted to know. Perhaps she intended to find motivation in my answers, but the experience felt oddly immature. It made me ask whether women have a problem being competitive in a healthy way. If so, is it a symptom of basic survival or a fight for a fleeting moment of attention when the crown is on your head?

Some women behave like alpha males, and the approach of another woman is taken as a threat upon their territory. They don’t smile and avoid eye contact and display raw power on the rock to prove their rank. I experienced this recently, and my effort to put the climber at ease was in vain. I prefer an inspiring and supportive environment. Positive camaraderie, in my opinion, is far more motivational than negative competition.

Alex Puccio on Tequila Sunrise V12, Hueco. Photo Andy Mann

When I started bouldering there weren’t many women around that wanted to project, and so I mainly climbed with guys. I recall, however, when Lisa Dumper moved to Squamish with her friendly smile and fresh psyche. Weeks later, strong woman Ana Burgos from the dirty south made an appearance. They were accustomed to climbing with other strong girls. I felt a little of the insecurity about who was the alpha climber, but I was open to the idea of climbing with fresh faces and psych. These girls, along with other women of strong body and mind have inspired and shaped the way I approach climbing, in particular, with other women. I recall one rainy day in North Wales when I was climbing around on the wall and Celia Bull approached me. She was one of the best and strongest climbers I had witnessed at the time and was free of bullshit. She wasn’t talking to me to find out what I had done or what I wanted to do, her confidence assured me that she was no threat and that she simply had wanted to climb with another girl of similar motivation.

Angie Payne recalls her earlier climbing days in Ohio, “I grew up not really knowing how to be competitive in a healthy way with girls, especially in climbing, and I think that was mainly because when I started climbing in Ohio back in 1995, there weren’t nearly as many girls in the climbing community as there are today.  As a result, I quickly got used to being one of the strongest girls in my gym and age group.  It was the big fish syndrome, and when I moved to Colorado and into a community where there is a much higher concentration of strong women, I realized that I didn’t have a very good grasp on “healthy competition” with other women. Over the past eight years, I have definitely become much better at being competitive in a healthy way with women, and I have realized that climbing with women who are stronger than me is incredibly beneficial to my climbing.”

Thomasina Pidgeon pulling down in Squamish. Photo Mike Chapman
Thomasina Pidgeon pulling down in Squamish. Photo Mike Chapman

This is what Lizzy Asher has to say on healthy competition: “For me, it is important to distinguish between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation in climbing. I try to avoid setting goals to beat so-and-so, which won’t necessarily make me a better climber. Instead, my goal is to improve every aspect of my own climbing. To do this, a good disposition, focus, and a smile are infinitely more valuable than a running tally of who has fallen on what, where. Still, like many others, sometimes I need good friends and a healthy reminder of this fact.”

Despite some negative experiences, I think that women climbers are evolving to deal better with competitiveness. I believe women are overcoming this innate fear of threat and finding ways to support, motivate and inspire each other in a healthy way so everyone grows and benefits. Not everyone fits in a box or label. Some girls who may appear competitive may just be shy or socially awkward. Women who find themselves being unsupportive or secretly wishing for their “friend” to fall off, or being unable to deal with the success of another female could try to understand their behaviour and grow out of it. Someone else’s success doesn’t threaten our own status and well-being. Besides, wise folk say that behind every snicker or negative thought, every human being has a deep desire to see others not only succeed, but to excel, thus propelling all of us forward.

– Thomasina Pidgeon has long been one of Canada’s top climbers.