The crisp autumn air bites as I inhale my first deep breath of the season. After a few unseasonably warm months in North Carolina, it finally feels like fall has arrived just in time for Rocktober to begin. I’m stoked to climb in the cooler weather, and even more excited about a unique opportunity to connect with fellow badass lady climbers at the Women’s Climbing Festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee this weekend.
I first heard about the Women’s Climbing Festival (WCF) on a podcast called She Explores in the spring of 2017. The podcast included an interview with the founder of the festival, Shelma Jun, who also co-created an organization called Flash Foxy in 2014. According to their website, is intended to “celebrate women climbing with women and to be a place where women can come to feel inspired by and connected to each other.”
What Is the WCF?
The Women’s Climbing Festival grew naturally out of Flash Foxy’s desire to serve as a bridge for adventurous women seeking out fellow female explorers who they may not have access to otherwise. The WCF was started in 2016, with the inaugural gathering taking place in the western climbing Mecca of Bishop, California. The festival was meant to be a place where women interested in climbing (with any level of expertise, from total novice to professional climber) could come together over a weekend for clinics, workshops, and panels covering all aspects of rock climbing.
The first festival was capped at 300 participants – Shelma never dreamed they would reach anywhere close to that many women signing up for an unestablished climbing event in the desert. Much to their surprise and delight, all 300 tickets sold out within one minute of registration opening. The Women’s Climbing Festival grew from a foetus of an idea to a full-fledged festival literally within a matter of seconds.
That’s when Shelma Jun and her team of bold, empowered women realised how great the need was for spaces like the Women’s Climbing Festival. Women from all walks of life were clearly seeking a place where they could be surrounded by other “outdoorsy” women – a safe haven where they could freely express themselves and step into their own authority without the added complications that male presence can often impose.
The 2016 Women’s Climbing Festival was such a huge success that the women at Flash Foxy knew the festival had to be repeated and continued for years to come. By the next year, in 2017, a second location was added in Chattanooga to accommodate the massive influx of interest after the first festival. Now entering its third year, the WCF is still going strong and drawing more female-identified individuals from all over the globe than ever before.
The 2018 Chattanooga WCF was exceptionally inclusive. Flash Foxy clearly endeavoured to invite and welcome women of all identities, with significant encouragement and support offered throughout the weekend by fellow participants and festival leaders alike. The Saturday morning panel included a diverse group of women from a multitude of backgrounds, which meant that a wider range of women were represented than is often seen at many women-only events in the U.S. The festival openly welcomes all women (cis and trans) as well as non-binary individuals, thus creating a safe space where people of all gender identities can simply come together to climb without the fear of unchecked discrimination or exclusion based on prejudice.
My Experience of the WCF
Seven hours of driving through a pomegranate sunset over the hills of western North Carolina with an acquaintance-turned-friend landed us in Chattanooga after dark, just in time for the opening ceremony.Abby and I met through her husband and my boyfriend at the time, representing a pattern of men connecting women in the outdoor community that seems all too common still today.
Abby invited me to sign up for the Women’s Climbing Festival back in June, when I was on a climbing trip in California with my partner. In truth, I didn’t have the funds to justify buying a festival ticket, but the thought of spending an entire weekend climbing while surrounded by strong, independent women was too tempting to pass up. I charged my credit card within moments of seeing the invite and internally reasoned that I would make up for it later with a few freelance articles.
I was grateful for the time spent conversing with Abby on the drive to Chattanooga, and immediately felt a sense of camaraderie that I never felt with a male climbing partner. We discussed politics and religion, relationships and personal journeys, adventure sports and the injuries we’d sustained as a result of pushing ourselves too hard, often in the presence of competitive male partners and friends.
We tried to recall the last time either of us had been climbing with a group of exclusively women – neither of us could remember. We concurred that we both felt too busy and insolvent to justify spending an entire weekend climbing in the mountains with a group of women we didn’t know. But we also both acknowledged how important it felt that we go and participate in this revolutionary event that was breaking barriers in the male-dominated world of rock climbing.
By the time we arrived in Chattanooga, we were desperate for food and relieved to find a Mexican food truck serving scrumptious tacos at a reasonable price. To kick off the 2018 Southeast Women’s Climbing Festival, Hazel Findlay was invited from Britain to give a presentation on climbing memes.Yes, memes. Abby and I watched with fascination and curiosity as Hazel wowed the crowd through the simple medium of entertaining memes about the trials and tribulations of climbing.
Her honest sharing about her own learning curves and genuine mistakes she made when she first started climbing was simultaneously humbling and inspiring. Hazel, a world-class athlete and professional climber with a host of titles under her belt, levelled with all the ladies at the WCF to remind us that we are all in this together, and climbing is hard for everyone, no matter their status.
And so the weekend went. Panels, workshops, clinics, prepared presentations, and spur-of-the-moment dinner conversations all centred on the importance of unity and support among women in the esoteric world of climbing. Again and again we were reminded that competition is our own worst enemy and working together towards a common goal (like sending that impossible V6 at the crag or overcoming patterns of patriarchy embedded in our society) is the only way to sustainably succeed.
For me, the festival was filled with joyous laughter, spontaneous friendships, challenging conversations about race and gender equality in the world of adventure sports, educational workshops, one unforgettable clinic focused on the basics of traditional (trad) climbing with two phenomenal female instructors, and a wee bit of bouldering thrown in around the edges to round out a fun, motivational weekend centred on empowering women to be their best and support each other.
Why It Matters
I am so grateful for the collaborative efforts by the women at Flash Foxy for pulling together a climbing festival designed to celebrate female climbers in an inclusive space that felt open to everyone but men (and even some men played integral parts in the planning and execution of the event).
Women-powered spaces and events like the WCF are more necessary than ever in this time of rampant male misogyny and underrepresentation of women in all arenas of life. Women like Shelma Jun and the founders of Flash Foxy are setting an inspiring example for young girls everywhere by pushing the limits and questioning the status quo in the world of climbing.
If I got anything out of the festival it was this: we can all be as brave as Shelma Jun and Hazel Findlay. The world needs us to be courageous and supportive of our sisters, now more than ever before. We all play a part in reinforcing the damaging standards of the male patriarchy, whether we’re aware of it or not. Empowered women like Shelma Jun and all of the amazing individuals I met at the WCF are carving the way to a new narrative, one in which women stand together and support one another.
Female athletes all over the world are coming together to use their collective voice to build bridges and make connections, rather than tear each other down. The precedent being set now has the potential to radically shift the paradigm of male domination in the world of professional sports for many generations to come. The Women’s Climbing Festival is just one tiny iota of the bigger picture of transformation being drawn in the world at large by women from all walks of life.
Women are reclaiming their power and working towards reconciling the split messaging about our worth that mainstream society asserts through mediums like the WCF all across the globe. Jun and her team inadvertently hit on an essential principle of change when they envisioned the first Women’s Climbing Festival: change is a process, not a single event.
The women at Flash Foxy may not have considered that pulling women together in solidarity for a fun weekend of climbing would be the catalyst needed to initiate change in the wider social structure of male-dominated sports, but that’s exactly what it’s done. The Women’s Climbing Festival has already started to gain a reputation as a radical political statement about women standing up against the androcentric nature of climbing, but the mission at the root of the festival is far more simple and elegant: to connect women through the medium of climbing and foster relationships of trust outside the realm of constricting social norms that tend to tear women apart.
I think Sasha Turrentine, climber and participant of the WCF, said it best in a reflection she wrote for the Flash Foxy website following the inaugural 2016 Women’s Climbing Festival: “Womanhood is our bond, and climbing is the language that enabled us, for one weekend, to express and understand that bond… Stripped of the political statements, stripped of the act of exclusivity, stripped of all of the cultural stereotypes and pigeon-holing, we were just a group of women climbing together, and it felt good.”