Rock climbing has risen into the spotlight recently after its addition to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, with more people than ever tuning in and being captivated by the amazing talent on their screens.
One of the most unique and exciting features about the sport, and part of why I personally find it so compelling, is the near absence of a gender gap–even at the elite level. The top female climbers can complete routes nearly as difficult as the top male climbers, and some women have even been the first overall to complete the most difficult climbs in the world.
Contrast this with other popular sports you might see at the Olympics. In sprinting, the men’s world record in the 100 meter dash is nearly a second faster than the women’s (9.58 seconds by Usain Bolt vs 10.49 by Florence Griffith-Joyner), a nearly 10% difference in performance.
In soccer, the gap is also quite large. The United States Women’s National Team (USWNT), one of the highest performing women’s professional soccer teams of all time, once lost 5-2 to a team of boys under age 15 in a practice match, a convincing defeat.
So what’s going on with rock climbing? Why does the gender gap appear to be much smaller than in other sports?
Rock Climbing Difficulty, Explained
Before we get into the details, first, a quick primer on how climbing skill (climb difficulty) is measured.
There are two primary styles of climbing at the elite level: bouldering and lead climbing. In bouldering, you climb without a rope and your climbs–termed “problems”–are usually relatively short and low to the ground. In lead climbing, you are roped in and hook your rope to safety equipment on the wall every few feet as you climb up. Lead climbs–or “routes”–are typically much longer than boulder problems and require a good deal of strength and endurance.
Boulder problems are rated difficulty-wise using the V-Scale (popular in the United States) and the Font scale (popular in Europe). Like Celsius and Fahrenheit, they are relatively simple to convert (see the table below).
The V-Scale currently ranges from VB (V-“beginner”) to V17, with the potential for growth in the future. Larger numbers reflect more difficult problems. The Font scale currently ranges from 3 to 9A, with larger numbers, plus signs, and letters later in the alphabet all representing more difficult climbs (e.g. a 6B+ is harder than a 6B, a 7C is harder than a 7B+, and a 5 is harder than a 4). Although grades are subjective and often debated, there appear to only be two boulders in the world currently graded the maximum level, V17/9A.
Lead climbing uses a different difficulty rating scale than bouldering: the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). In this system, the difficulty ratings all start with the number 5 (representing a “technical climb”, since the YDS rates all different kinds of terrain), followed by a decimal and then a second number. The larger the second number, the harder the climb. Like the Font scale, the YDS also incorporates letters for climbs at the elite end of the scale. The YDS currently ranges from 5.1 to 5.15d, the rating of the world’s current hardest climb: Silence.
The Elite Women of Rock Climbing
Now that difficulty is hopefully a little more clear, let’s look at how both women and men have performed at the sport.
On the men’s side, the hardest boulder problems ever completed, to this date, are Burden of Dreams (V17, completed by Nalle Hukkataival in 2016) and Return of the Sleepwalker (V17, completed by Daniel Woods in 2021). No other climber has been able to repeat either problem.
The hardest men’s lead climbing routes ever completed were Silence (5.15d, completed by Adam Ondra in 2017) and Bibliographie (also 5.15d, completed by Alex Megos in 2020).
Although not quite matching the maximum difficulty of the men, women come in close behind. Five V15 boulder problems have been completed by women–Horizon, Sleepy Rave, Kryptos, Byaku-Dou, and Satan I Helvete Low (some of which were climbed by girls who were only 13 years old!)–alongside three 5.15b lead climbing routes (La Planta De Shiva, Ali Hulk Sit Start Extension Total, and Eagle 4) and a handful of 5.15a routes.
In some cases, women have even come out on top of the men. Perhaps the most impressive example is Lynn Hill, who was the first ever person to successfully climb the now iconic climbing route, The Nose, at Yosemite National Park.
In the early days of rock climbing, The Nose–a nearly 3,000 ft vertical climb up the front of El Capitan–was considered impossible to climb using only a climber’s strength and no mechanical assistance (termed “free climbing”). It consists of 31 pitches, which you can think of as individual climbing routes that climbers string together to get to the top. While most of the route it wasn’t that difficult in the scale of elite climbing, two pitches stopped everyone in their tracks: the “Great Roof” (graded 5.13c) and the “Changing Corners” (graded 5.14a/b), due to their almost complete lack of usable holds. Though routes more difficult than this have been completed many times in the last decade or so, it was almost unthinkable in the late 80s and early 90s. That is, until Lynn Hill came along.
Hill first attempted The Nose in 1989, alongside Simon Nadin, but they were unsuccessful. After four years, however, she came back–this time with Brooke Sandahl–and became the first ever person to complete the route by free climbing. It took her four days. Then, in an incredibly impressive feat, she returned within the year to complete it a second time in only one, setting the world standard for what could be achieved in big wall climbing.
Women are already performing at an elite level in rock climbing, and the gender gap only appears to be getting smaller There were next to no elite female climbers in the 80s and 90s, but now there is an entire women’s division at the Olympic Games. And every year, women seem to be inching upward in difficulty, breaking new records by climbing harder and harder routes.
So what’s going on here? Why are the women of rock climbing matching up to the men better than in other sports?
There does not seem to be one primary factor, but rather a collection of things that work together to help out the performance of female climbers:
Rock Climbing is a Bodyweight Exercise
One factor is that rock climbing is purely a bodyweight exercise. The sole goal of a climb is to move your bodyweight–and only that–to the top of the rock successfully. Pure strength and muscle size–where men have a clear advantage–are not necessarily an advantage. Since muscle is very dense, those who have a lot of it have a lot more weight to pull up the wall than those who do not. If their muscles are not optimized for the movements involved in rock climbing, they could essentially just operate as dead weight dragging the climber down, and actually be a hinderance to performance.
Elite rock climbers do not work to maximize strength, but rather to maximize their strength to weight ratio. Female climbers, who are typically relatively lightweight, can perform at the same level as significantly heavier male climbers as long as they develop strong muscles for their size–despite the fact that those muscles are lower in pure strength output.
At High Levels, Technique Is More Important Than Strength
A related factor is the importance of technique. At the lowest, beginner levels of bouldering and lead climbing, climbers can often get away with poor technique and just use their brute strength to get up a climb–a setup that favors male climbers. But at the intermediate level and above–particularly at the elite level–technique becomes much more important. A strong climber who can blaze through a 5.7 route will have no hope on a 5.12 unless they also know how save energy, place their hands and feet on small holds, and position themselves to where they can reach the holds they need.
Although men have an advantage with pure strength, the same can not be said for technique, where everyone is on an equal playing field. Women, in some ways, might even have an advantage. When learning to climb, it can be easier to rely on strength as a crutch, rather than focusing on technique, since easier climbs do not prioritize technique as much. As a result, women–who have less ability to rely on pure strength–are often forced to focus on technique starting earlier on in their climbing careers.
Evolution May Favor Equality
It has been argued in scientific research that sports involving actions that were critical to survival earlier on in human evolution tend to see a smaller gender gap than those that didn’t use evolutionary survival movements.
Climbing falls into this category due to its similarity to tree-based movement, which was essential in our ancestors’ lives long ago. Before humans became bipedal, we used a mix of ground and tree movement. We’ve evolved to be good at climbing, with short torsos, long arms, strong hands, and upright postures, features shared by men and women.
Since all of our ancestors needed to be able to climb trees to survive–not just the men–through selection pressure favoring tree-climbing skills, everyone–regardless of sex–developed these same features that now prove useful at rock climbing.
Women Excel at Endurance Sports
A big part of rock climbing–specifically lead–is endurance. Lead climbing routes, which can be over 50 feet tall, often require a sustained output of high strength and focus to climb without losing grip and falling. This need for endurance is an advantage for women, who have been shown to have higher resistance to muscle fatigue. Women can exert at close to maximum force for a lot longer than men before their strength weakens, giving them a relative advantage on the longer routes.
This advantage does not apply as much to bouldering, where problems are typically closer to 10 feet tall and only require a small number of moves.
Higher Levels of Motivation
Motivation is critical in the achievement of challenging athletic pursuits. Motivated climbers will go the extra mile to train harder to combat their weaknesses and will be less likely to give up when they’re struggling on a particular route or problem. Rock climbing is not an easy process–it can take dozens of tries to successfully complete a route, sometimes over multiple years of training–and if you are not motivated, you’re not going to get very far.
A study from 2018, which focused on competition climbing, found that women appear to do better than men in this category, with higher average motivation levels. This can give an advantage–particularly at the highest levels–in completing the hardest climbs in the world.
Looking Ahead: The End of The Gender Gap?
Despite the many factors helping women to success in the climbing world, there still appears to be a small gender gap, even if it’s noticeably smaller than in other sports. The hardest boulder and lead climbs ever completed by men are still several grades harder than the ones completed by women.
One reason for this is that there are simply a lot more male climbers than female climbers. In the early days of climbing, it was pretty much a men’s only sport, and while that’s no longer true, the men still outweigh the women by a lot. Go to any climbing gym–you’ll probably see at least 70% men there, and potentially even more. More men overall means more men at the top, plus men have had a longer time to complete these hard climbs and progress compared with women.
However, as the years go by, more and more women appear to be gaining interest, in part be due to the recent popularity of indoor climbing gyms which have made the sport much more accessible, but also due to the influence of talented female climbers making a name on social media.
If trends continue and more and more women get into the sport, we may see our first female ascent of a 5.15d in only a few years, and who knows what might come after that. It’s hard to know whether the women will ever fully equal the men, but all the factors at play certainly seem to put that in the realm of possibility.
For more posts on women crushing it in sports, see the Femme FITale collection.