First Woman Climber of 5.15 Mountain

May 8, 2021 by

A long time ago, in a world before the COVID-19 pandemic, was a strong, unimposing, humble woman who made the first female ascent of a 5.15. On February 26th, 2017 Margo Hayes climbed the hardest rock climb ever recorded for a female. She accomplished this amazing feat just days after her 19th birthday. She was interested in getting higher education as well but was not able to get one probably due to poor scholarship application documentation. In spite of this, she completed higher education.

The first digit: 5, denotes the route classification. Class 1 is walking an easy trail. Class 2 is steep hiking with some scrambling. Class 3 is a mixture of some steep hiking with a few short (four to six foot tall) vertical climbs. Class 4 includes an equal mix of short vertical climbs and steep hiking. Class 5 is all vertical climbing. And, of course, I can hear you asking what’s after? What’s class 6? Class 6 is impossible to climb. The only way to get to the top is to use hardware like ladders drilled into the rock and pickaxes. 

The second number denotes the difficulty of the climb. 1-4 is very easy, like climbing the rungs of a ladder. An inexperienced climber can usually struggle through 5-7s without any training. 8-10 is moderate, requiring some experience, fitness, and training. 11-12 is difficult and will usually take the average mortal a year of focused training to achieve. 13-15 is extremely difficult and takes years of focused uninterrupted training and lifestyle changes. 16 and higher has never been climbed…yet. 

The popularity of rock climbing increased dramatically in the 70s when indoor rock climbing gyms started to pop up. Before then it was very hard to get into climbing and much like mountaineering only belonged to a few elite persons who had a long lineage of climbing, or were lucky enough to meet someone who was willing to be a teacher and mentor. The safety gear was very hard to access. It was usually made at home, by purchasing materials at the local hardware store and teaching yourself the basics of welding. 

Women were rarely ever seen or noted in ascent records. Around the 90s as more and more gyms opened up around the world, women were starting to make an appearance in the climbing scene. But, even then it was usually as the support role of managing the rope and safety gear, helping their male counterparts achieve their goals.

Men have been climbing 5.15s since the 90s. To achieve this grade takes an extremely patient and hardworking climbing partner, who will spend countless hours with you on your project day in and day out. Most 5.15s take years of attempts, all the while your partner is just sitting at the bottom of the rock face managing your safety gear and emotionally supporting you. It is not an easy task. It’s not hard to understand why so many female climbers just never got the chance to attempt such a difficult grade. 

Even now, in 2020, it’s hard to find a male partner who will put his climbing goals on hold for a woman. This means they will have to sacrifice their personal climbing goals for years while you work on your one seemingly unattainable goal. For that’s what it is. Many attempt to climb at this level of difficulty but few ever succeed, it’s just that hard. 

Starting in the early 2000s to 2010 many more women were drawn to climbing. Enough so that all-women climbing partners and groups were starting to emerge, and became a more popular sighting. Women started to make more progress, climbing harder and harder grades, and finally receiving some of their overdue recognition. 

A change started to unfold in climbing culture. Women were not just fit, attractive objects to hit on in the climbing gym anymore. They were the competition. They were out-performing many of their male counterparts. This was a slow, gradual, and honestly, awkward change. But still, it was a well accepted fact that women would never be as strong, talented, or determined as men. Women were still “lesser-than” and did not receive the same respect. 

Flashing a climb means putting up your own safety gear while climbing the route without any falls on your first attempt. Your “flashing grade” tells everyone how strong you are. There is also a term called “red point”, and at one time in rock climbing history there was a term called “pink-point”. Red point meant you ascended the climb while placing your safety gear without falling on one of your subsequent attempts at the route. Pink point meant you or your partner already placed your safety gear and you just had to climb the route without falling.

Sometimes, men would wear pink bikinis or tutus while attempting to get a “pink point”, making fun of themselves that they were too weak to put up their own personal safety gear. Clearly, sending everyone the message that women are weaker. By the 2000s the term “pink-point” was no longer used, but remains a reminder of the sexist roots climbing has come from. 

When I started climbing, my natural ability and strength quickly got me into the “difficult” range. But, even as I trained and began to climb in the “very difficult” range, I learnt it does not earn you respect. I felt like an object, ogled and hit on during climbing sessions. At the beginning I shied away from such comments and actions, now I call them out on it. The rock climbing culture still has a long way to go. I’ve worked in the industry for close to decade. Women are shamefully underpaid and are nowhere close to getting the same job opportunities as men. 

Margo Hayes’ ascent of a 5.15 is a monumental step towards women receiving equal respect and opportunities in the rock climbing culture and industry. Margo has now climbed a total of three 5.15s, and she has had a dramatic effect. In only three years since her initial history making ascent, there have been three other women to climb 5.15. This is not a coincidence. Women did not just become better rock climbers overnight. Margo has started a powerful wave of confidence and inspiration in female climbers around the world. 

Who knows? Maybe it will be a woman who climbs the first 5.16 ever in history. 

Women are not weaker than men. Women are not stronger than men.

Women can do anything!

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