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The Peak of Women's Climbing

Monday, 22 July 2013

Ruth Jenkins on Zeke the Freak (8b) in 1995. Photo: Jon Barton

Ruth Jenkins on Zeke the Freak (8b) in 1995. Photo: Jon Barton

When Ruth Jenkins climbed the Peak District testpiece Caviar (8a+) at Rubicon in Water-cum-Jolly, quickly followed by Zeke the Freak (8b) it opened a new door for female climbing in the UK, perhaps more so than any other previous ascent.

Ruth was a member of the British Competition Climbing team and so travelled extensively, mainly across Europe. This allowed her, and the other British women, to meet the continental teams and climb alongside some of the world’s best female climbers. Ruth and a number of other British women were shown that hard sport climbing wasn’t just for the men.

Old attitudes die hard though. One of Britain’s best ever climbers once argued, ‘women can never climb as hard as men, they don’t have the strength’. Ruth was part of a wave of women who were to go on and break new ground and show that they did have the strength. Perhaps women won’t ultimately climb as hard as men; perhaps they will climb harder, who knows. 

It is almost 20 years since Ruth climbed Zeke. The Peak District remains a forcing ground for women’s climbing, with female climbers operating regularly at the harder grades – whether it be sport, bouldering or trad – and bringing great style to their ascents. Ground-up ascents of Toy Boy and The Angel’s Share, and fast ascents of powerful sport routes such as Mecca and insanely hard boulder problems like Careless Torque – all getting climbed by a generation of talented female climbers.

I look back at some of those groundbreaking early female ascents: Airlie Anderson on Master’s Edge, criticised for taking a mattress up to pad out the start (imagine that); Ruth working her way through Rubicon crimp fests (which are still hard today); Fliss Butler, quietly ticking one hard route after another. I think these ascents turned a key and opened a door to this wave of great climbers we see today.

And that’s just the Peak – hard female ascents around the rest of the UK (Hazel Findlay, anyone?) and overseas would need a few more blog posts than this … !

I was recently interviewed for a magazine and the question was posed as to why we didn’t publish books by women. Now the interviewer hadn’t done their research and I pointed out the stunning Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald, and a series of excellent guidebooks from Deirdre Huston. I guess in a sense the interviewer was right and we haven’t published a book by a female climber about their own exploits – we are close with Heather Dawe’s new book Adventures in Mind – but pure climbing books, I guess we will just wait a little longer and see what British girls are capable of. The history of female climbing in the UK is still being written.

JB.

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