I recognized their fear and timidness and matched it with confidence, instruction and encouragement...
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Abbey Smith first visited Bishop in 2001, and has been a climbing guide for over a decade. Here's her take on the recent Women's Climbing Festival.
When I was asked to guide this year’s passionate attendees at the 3rd annual Women’s Climbing Festival, it occurred to me to not give them the advice that my father gave me about being an athlete. I was so young when he first said it that I don’t even remember my age. What I do remember are his words: He literally said, “COMMIT TO DIE.”
Okay, I should explain that my father was a professional bull rider, and was at one time ranked 13th in the world. So, to say he’s a tough guy is an understatement. But honestly, can you imagine a parent saying that to a child? And while the core intent of the message has indeed fueled my competitive spirit to achieve, I’ve also learned enough (sometimes the hardest ways) to never consider saying such a tough-love thing to a hopeful group of women before their first day climbing outside. To the contrary, it’s always an honor to inspire them in the best ways.
Lauren Callaway working moves on "A Maze of Death" (V12)
Before I even got the chance to meet these great new climbers, I had already experienced what it would be like to be in their shoes; climbing is always intimidating. It was day one of the Women’s Climbing Festival in Bishop—at the appropriately named “A Maze of Death” (V12)—and my father’s anxiety-inducing, “motivational motto” resurfaced in full. After a brief warm-up at the Birthday Boulders, a dozen trailblazing females between the ages of 11 and 41 marched up to this hard and isolated line in the Bardini Boulders.
At first glance, the massive moves between small polished patina crimps on a slightly overhanging concave wall looked way above even my pay grade. I felt all the signs of a now-familiar, lifelong instant moment of panic: dry mouth, sweaty hands, racing pulse, trembling knees. Fearing I was about to fall flat on my back in front of a large group of wizards — Carrie Cooper, Jenn Flemming, Lauren Callaway, Olivia Hsu, Portia Menlove, and many more — can bring out my worst stage fright. The words that were running in my head: “What if I’ve lost my edge?”
Carrie Cooper warming up in the Buttermilks
Putting all that old, bad juju forcefully aside, I joined the queue. Even though we vary in wingspan, height, flexibility, strength and style, we were able to work the problem together, observing others' efforts, sharing microbeta, attempting to emulate displays of graceful movement, and ultimately progress with every attempt. Supported by mentors, mothers, daughters, new partners—all fellow female climbers that now feel like old friends—my self-doubt evaporated. In the absence of inhibition,with perfectly placed pads, outstretched hands of spotters and encouraging cheers, I made more progress than expected. That’s the moment I realized once again why I was there: Women power women power women power women. Pass it on. Because the truth is: we do and always will.
The Sierras create an idyllic backdrop to climbing in Bishop
A little backstory to this female powerfest: the visionary founder Shelma Jun (aka Flash Foxy) introduced the Women’s Climbing Festival in 2016 to bring women together from across the country to connect and celebrate our growing community with a weekend of climbing, hands-on clinics, engaging panels, inspiring films and outdoor parties. Now in its third year, the festival has generated serious momentum, and FOMO for those following on social. There is a reason why this event sold out in less than a minute this year with nearly 500 on the waitlist. This authentic gathering is profoundly altering the lives and creating ripple effects in every community it touches.
Over the next two days, veteran climbers partnered with Sierra Mountain Guides to teach a variety of bouldering, sport and trad clinics to provide both experienced climbers and those just entering the sport, a solid foundation needed for a lifetime of adventures. The clinics covered a wide range from gear placement to route finding, movement, fear management, safety, ethics, nutrition, injury prevention and treatment, partnerships, and environmental principles, that brought a deeper understanding of the fundamentals to all in attendance.
Abbey Smith finding perfect compression on "Brian’s Project" (V8) in the Buttermilks
This was my chance to give back—with a different approach than my father’s “commit to die.” Olivia Hsu and I guided 10 passionate climbers on transitioning from indoors to outdoors. Our group expressed their desire to become more comfortable and confident climbing outdoors—for half, this was their first time placing pads and reading the natural contours of the rock.
I recognized their fear and timidness and matched it with confidence, instruction and encouragement. Just like me on “A Maze of Death” the day before, their fear too evolved into psych. It happened again — the positive collaboration broke boundaries and built confidence. By the end of the day, women were topping out problems they didn't imagine possible at first sight.
Bouldering workshop at the brilliant "Bowling Pin" (V4)
On the final day, 135 women joined the stewardship project to give back by restoring the precious Buttermilks and Volcanic Tablelands. Together, we collected over 200 pounds of garbage, removed nasty graffiti, raised $2,942 for the Access Fund and Friends of the Inyo, and still got a chance to climb one more time before the weekend wrapped.
I still don’t have the answer to why or how the simple act of women coming together and climbing rocks creates such a life-altering experience. What I have learned from this event is that women clearly power women. When hundreds of strong and forthright females gather to climb, connect, confront fears, release tears and trust another in such an intense and intimate environment, everyone becomes stronger and more confident than before; everyone wins.
Women's Climbing Festival Crew: (Left to right) Amelia Marcuson, Lauren Callaway, Jessa Goebal, Lisa Aquino, Katy Dannenberg, Olivia Hsu, Carrie Cooper, Ava Cooper, Abbey Smith, Jenn Flemming, Jules Jimreivat, Portia Menlove, Dinah Marcuson
Gatherings like the Women’s Climbing Festival offer a hard reset in approaches and values. It’s encouraging to see individual’s decisions create change and develop into substantial cultural shifts. This festival is fostering a culture of honesty, openness, inclusion, and innovation that has the energy and momentum to drive the change our community needs.
Big thanks to the dedicated Flash Foxy crew, volunteers, sponsors and participants for bridging the gap and building the framework for this event, that provides an opportunity for us release, relax, recharge and move back into the world with more strength and grace.
Photos: © Jenn Flemming
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Abbey Smith is a member of the La Sportiva Climbing Team.
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