Rock climbing is one of the few sports where men and women can compete on a relatively level playing field, due to the delicate balance of strength, agility and flexibility required. And yet, the world of climbing is still dominated by men.
This makes the recent achievement of 25 year old American climber Katie Lamb even more impressive. Last week, Lamb became the first ever woman to tackle what is known as “Box Therapy”, a steep bouldering route in Colorado’s formidable Rocky Mountain National Park. The route is graded at V16, currently the second highest grade given to any bouldering climb. Only three other people in the world have ever scaled Box Therapy, cementing Lamb as one of the best climbers in history, regardless of her sex.
Over recent years, climbing has risen in prominence as a competitive sport. It featured in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, where video clips of speed climbers scaling indoor walls in a matter of seconds were widely shared on social media. Climbing has also entered popular media through the medium of films and documentaries. Most recently, “The Alpinist” (2021) followed the remarkable story of Marc-André Leclerc, who gained widespread fame for climbing alone and unaided in the world’s most remote regions. In 2018, the Oscar winning film “Free Solo” catapulted climber Alex Honnold to international fame, as the world watched his breath-taking ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park using no ropes or formal equipment, other than his chalk covered hands.
However, very little is known about an American woman named Lynn Hill, who was the first person to climb El Capitan without mechanical assistance (that is, the use of some ropes but no mechanical aids to maintain momentum). She achieved this feat in 1993, 25 years before Alex Honnold’s famous free solo. A year later, in 1994, Hill set another ground breaking record by becoming the first person to climb El Capitan, without mechanical assistance, in under 24 hours. A remarkable display of strength and endurance that was unmatched in the late 20th century. Hill was a pioneer in the early climbing community and undoubtedly paved the way for male climbers of today, including the likes of Honnold.
Women are still drastically outnumbered by men in rock and sport climbing. Indeed, only 33% of climbers in the UK are women. However, as the sport continues to grow in popularity, hopefully we will see more female role models emerge from the rocks. With the help of athletes like Katie Lamb, and Lynn Hill before her, women will certainly take the sport to new heights.