I'm Fired Up: Andrea Charest on motivating more women to rope up

Andrea Charest, climbing guide and instructor as well as co-owner of Vermont-based Petra Cliffs Climbing Center & Mountaineering School, has made a practice of teaching and guiding for women-only clinics. Hers has been an effort to not just get more women tied into the rope, but get them on the sharp end, taking the lead and therefore taking ownership over their own experiences.
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Charest alpine climbing on Poster Peak, North Cascades, Washington. (Credit: Andrew Councell)

Charest alpine climbing in Red Rock Canyon in Nevada. (Credit: Andrew Councell)

It’s a beautifully sunny, January day, as I belay Izzy Lazarus up to the first pitch ice-screw anchor on Twenty Below Zero Gully (WI4+) at Lake Willoughby, VT. Izzy is a former student and employee, and she’s come back East for a short visit for women’s clinics at the Smuggs Ice Bash—now we get to spend time as friends, and she is a rising badass. I can’t wait to see where she takes her skills. It’s Izzy’s first day at the “Lake,” so we’re taking it relatively easy, swinging leads on more moderate pitches—moderate being relative—WI4+ is hard in most places, but grades at the Lake get up to 5+ with more difficult mixed rock/ice variations. As a male party rappels a route farther right, we hear them stop and comment, “Whoa—it’s two girls! Well that’s not something you see every day.”

I love challenging men’s expectations. Why shouldn’t this be something you see every day? I've taken great comfort in realizing that the rock and the mountains don't care about gender.

Men may not expect to see women out charging on their own, but how does that affect the female expectation of themselves? Have you heard of the Pygmalion effect, a phenomenon—and self-fulfilling prophecy—whereby lower expectations result in decreased performance, and higher expectations result in increased performance? There is such amazing power in positive expectations, and I want girls and women to believe in their own power, and take charge in the outdoors.

The comment came up to me several times this season: "Wow, it seems like so many more women are getting into ice climbing!" Yes, this is an awesome time. There is growth in women's-only offerings at rock and ice climbing festivals and women's-only bouldering competitions like The Heist and Iron Maiden; there have been great improvements in women's technical clothing and gear (no more "shrink it and pink it"); there are more women in climbing in general to be role models and mentors for the next generation of female climbers; demand is high and there are many opportunities for women working in the outdoor industry right now. But as I thought about that comment, I wondered about the longevity of women in the sport. I see a lot of women getting into climbing, but I see only a small fraction sticking with it and taking charge outside of the climbing gym.

St. Michael's College women's ice program, Smuggler's Notch, VT. February 2016. Photo: Andrea Charest

St. Michael's College women's ice program, Smuggler's Notch, VT. February 2016. Photo: Andrea Charest

When Izzy and I had arrived at the Lake that day, I offered to play her in rock-paper-scissors to see who would take the first pitch. She won, and I asked if she was comfortable with it. She looked at the route again and, with a little bit of hesitation but more excitement, she gave a grin and started racking up her harness with ice screws. On the first pitch, she had to hang at a screw to warm up her hands, but she was doing it. She was on the sharp end. Izzy is an outgoing person, but I don't know if she would have asked to take the lead that day if I hadn't offered. I think it can be hard for some women to assert that they want to take the lead when they're climbing with someone stronger or more experienced.

The lesson: If you’re already someone who takes the lead, mentor those as you were mentored. Offer up the lead to one of your female partners. She may not be forward enough to ask, but often times will take the opportunity if presented, and with each swing, kick, screw or gear placement, each decision made, experience and confidence grows. Being out in front can be scary, but it brings so much reward, and it is a skill that must be practiced. Some women are completely happy taking a follower role—and don't get me wrong, any participation in climbing is awesome in my opinion—but I know women who wantto get into lead climbing, or traditional climbing, or learn to build anchors. But somehow time passes and those goals seem harder to reach.

If you're not comfortable taking charge yet, I challenge you to ask your climbing partner to teach you something new or to put you in the lead. Or I challenge you to hire a guide. Sometimes climbing partners aren't the best teachers (I've had women hire me to teach them multi-pitch transition and rescue skills before going on trips with their significant others, a good move on their part), and in climbing safety, "trial and error" isn't really a great philosophy.

I teach a lot of ice climbing clinics, and I love seeing women trying something on the edge of their comfort zone. Breakthroughs are powerful when they’re shared with other women.

Charest is fired up about getting more women climbing. What are you fired up about? We welcome submissions; if you're interested in writing a column, email us at snewsedit.com.

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