My biggest takeaway from the Women’s Climbing Festival was confidence. Before the women’s weekend, I’d been “learning” to lead trad for more than six months. I was hesitant to lead anything outside after a nasty whipper left me bruised and battered early in the year. In the gym, I was an animal. Plastic felt safer than rock, and I trusted in the systems that were put in place by other people (metal hangers and bolted anchors) more than the pro I placed myself.
After months of exposure to traditional climbing through my own badass lady climber friends and my climbing instructor boyfriend at the time, I had learned a ton about proper gear placement and anchor building. But I never felt solid enough in my abilities to go out and put my skills to the test on real rock. I didn’t want to be responsible for an accident as a result of improper placement – I felt I had just enough knowledge about trad climbing to make me dangerous.
I was right, of course. I needed to learn more and practise my trad skills on real rock to become a safer climber. But my fear and hesitation served to hold me back from trusting in myself enough to improve my skills beyond the level of dangerous novice for months. I knew I had what I needed in my toolbox to lead trad without assistance, but every time I went out to lead my first traditional route, fear stopped me in my tracks. I insisted my partner lead or my friend climb beside me on a top rope so I would have a backup in case anything went wrong.
I was paralyzed by my fear. I was also sick of it. The Overcoming Fear clinics offered at the Women’s Climbing Festival filled up within a matter of instants, so my initial plan to think my way out of fear through a class was squashed. I thought fear was the root cause preventing me from climbing to my full potential. It turns out fear was only a small part of the problem.
I reluctantly signed up for the Intro to Trad clinic that still had space after the fear clinics sold out, with encouragement from my partner who thought a class about traditional climbing would at least be informative and useful. I wasn’t so sure – I wanted to focus on overcoming my fear, not relearning the basics I’d already spent months hammering into my brain and into rock on the ground.
I was wrong, of course. Once I humbled myself and accepted that I didn’t already know everything about trad, I was able to open myself to the lessons I needed to learn. The clinic instructors were a fantastic dynamic duo who engaged in personal conversations with each of us and admitted even they weren’t trad experts – no one truly is. Everyone has a different opinion about how things should be done, and the biggest lesson I took away from the five hour class is that there is no one right way.
Traditional climbing is not a black and white sport with right and wrong rules that must be obeyed at all times. It is a blank canvas that can be filled in with whatever splash of colour feels right to you in the moment. It is calculated and messy, a puzzle to be discovered and created along the way.
There is a fundamental infrastructure that must be understood to begin climbing trad safely and responsibly, but the foundations of the sport only lay the groundwork for a vast web of possibilities that cannot be contained by any single guidebook or instructor. This is the essential truth of trad – the slippery, uncomfortable reality that had evaded me over many months and multiple well-meaning teachers. I wasn’t afraid of the fall; I was afraid of the freedom.
The Intro to Trad clinic served as the catalyst for my entrance into the joy of traditional climbing. I left the Women’s Climbing Festival after receiving a huge boost of confidence from my badass lady instructors and fellow badass lady climber classmates feeling like I could lead anything anywhere if I just put my mind to it.
A couple weeks after the Festival, my newfound confidence in my skills was put to the test. I went out with a friend who is also fairly new to traditional climbing, which meant neither of us had the upper hand. I couldn’t rely on him like I normally would if I went out climbing with a male partner, regardless of their expertise. After years of deferring to men for no greater reason than it was what I was taught to do, I finally broke the spell and stepped into my own authority as an individual and an equal half of a previously unbalanced partnership
We were both required to be on the sharp end while climbing a short multi-pitch route at our local crag. It was a Tuesday afternoon in November, and ours was the only car in the parking lot. If anything went wrong, we would both be equally responsible for the consequences. He led the first pitch, tentatively and with great care and diligence imbued in every move.
After what felt like an eternity while I waited on the ground freezing my butt off and waiting for him to build his third-ever trad anchor, he finally belayed me up to the ledge and started passing me pieces of the rack. The whole way up, with icy fingers and fear starting to settle into my frigid bones, I had been contemplating asking him to lead the second pitch and finish the climb. “Let’s just get it over with,” “he’s better than me,” “I’m too scared,” “I’m too cold” – these familiar limiting thoughts penetrated my mind as I climbed, and I sincerely believed I wasn’t going to lead the second pitch.
As soon as I pulled myself around the corner and over the lip of the ledge, a ray of brilliant sunlight struck my eye. I expertly manoeuvred myself up the final bit of rock that was still in the dark and nearly leapt onto the gloriously sunny belay ledge to join my partner, who was clearly still shaken up from his nerve-racking lead. I knew then that I didn’t have a choice – either I led the next pitch, or we ditched gear and rappelled off his anchor. It wasn’t our gear to ditch, so without a further thought, I racked up, looked him in the eyes, and with a wide smile that radiated confidence, was off on my first official unassisted trad lead.
The exposure of the second pitch of this particular climb used to terrify me – this time it thrilled me. The exposure instilled in me a deep sense of respect for the grandiosity of the mountain. I didn’t feel an ounce of fear as I led, even when looking down and all around at the majesty of the landscape surrounding me as I climbed. The smile I had taken off with was still plastered to my face when I reached the top, running out the last 20 or so feet with a joyous bounce in my step and a sure-footedness on the rock that I had never felt before.
I genuinely enjoyed placing every single piece of pro in the receptive, unyielding quartzite. The whole climb was pure, unfiltered fun – I felt like a child dancing on the edge of the Earth! I rejoiced with abandon in the beauty and simplicity of the natural world, and felt immensely grateful that this mountain – this wild, wonderful place – was so accessible to me as a human.
Without my experience at the Women’s Climbing Festival, and the support and encouragement from my badass lady instructors, friends, and wider community, I never would’ve had the opportunity to experience such pristine bliss on the rock. The ability to be confident in the uncomfortable domain of freedom is a gift I will carry with me forevermore. Thank you to Flash Foxy and everyone who made the WCF possible. And a huge shoutout to everyone who is actively working to make climbing a more accessible and delightful sport for all. Keep calm and rock on!
Name: Briana Halliwell
Location: North Carolina