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Our Heritage

Breaking Barriers: The Pioneers of Female Climbing

December 12, 2017
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In the 1960s, women were leading the charge for change. From Liz Robbins’ achievement of being the first woman to climb a grade-VI route on the northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite to an American woman, physicist Maria Goepper-Mayer, winning a Nobel Prize for the first time, women were making strides for equality, both on the mountain and off. Here’s how a hardy group of female climbers broke records and barriers, and challenged norms on the mountain and off.

Liz Robbins and Rockin’ Women

Rock climbing was predominantly a man’s world in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, but women were making their mark along with the “dirtbags” that were hanging out in Yosemite, racing for records. In 1967, Liz Robbins established Nutcracker, a stout 5.8 route with Royal; it was the first route to be climbed completely on passive protection instead of pitons. Using camming devices, like nuts and hexes, protected the rock, unlike the pitons that were hammered into the wall. This “clean climbing” would be the future of rock climbing. It was a big year for Liz: She also climbed the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome, becoming the first woman to climb a grade VI.

Liz was not alone in breaking records. Beverly Johnson was part of the established group in Yosemite in the early ‘70s and made her mark in the sport: She was part of the first all-female climb of El Capitan with Sibylle Hechtel and the first woman to solo climb Dihedral wall of El Capitan over a period of 10 days in October 1978.

El Capitan was — and is — a Mecca for climbers, a place to break and set records. In 1977, Molly Higgins and Barb Eastman made the second all-female ascent of El Cap, the first on the difficult, sheer rock face of “The Nose.” Lynn Hill, widely regarded as one of the best women sport climbers, was the first woman to climb a route rated 5.12d in 1979 and made the first free ascent of The Nose in 1993; she repeated it the next year in less than 24 hours.

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A Decade of Change

Women were not just making strides in the climbing world. The 1960s was a time of change for women around the country, leading the charge for equality. The role of women was expanding, with more females entering the workforce. However, just as women were pushing the boundaries on the rock, women were also facing disparities in wages and dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace.

In 1966, the National Organization for Women was formed and in 1968, feminists protested at the Miss America contest in Atlantic City, arguing that the pageant was sexist. Women were demanding equality and recognition for the advances that they were making, regardless of sex.

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In climbing, there was a feeling of confidence from both genders. New climbers saw new possibilities, challenging what could and could not be accomplished, leading to even more first ascents and scaling more difficult routes. Perhaps it was the feeling of social boldness, the unrest of the 1960s, and the changing roles that contributed to this feeling; perhaps it was just being in the right place at the right time. Either way, the contributions of female climbers to the sport were, and continue to be, indisputable. We’re proud to have been part of that heritage as women continue to make strides in the climbing world and a new generation of female climbers is breaking records and challenging the idea of what is possible.

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