One of the women asks, "Why should we enjoy gravity?" As climbers, we're fighting gravity most of the time. We're fighting not to fall, to stay on the climb. We're afraid of gravity. Gravity causes accidents. Gravity causes injuries.
"I don't fight gravity. That's a mess! I don't want to be a mess. I want to have a good time. I want to enjoy gravity," Steph says.
It's raining and we're huddled under a shelter at Lyons Park in Moab, eating lunch. Steph is talking about fear while climbing. But instead of chatting just about fear, she's covering all emotions—and how we feel all of these different emotions while we're out climbing. Sometimes it's excitement, sometimes it's joy, sometimes it's fear. It’s the vast array of human emotions.
Steph climbs to feel it all. "Enjoy gravity" means enjoying the process. Steph has climbed some incredible things in her life, and accomplished goals that many of us can only dream of. But while she tackles these feats, she's out there appreciating the process.
"You look around and you always see people at their completion. You see the person doing the amazing thing, you don't see that it took the person 15 years [to get there]," says Steph. "It's taken me 30 years to do these things and it's never easy. Sometimes it doesn't work out. There's tons of stuff I'm working on right now that I'm kind of like 'Will I ever do that?' It could be another eight years."
In mid-September, 10 women gathered in Moab from all across the country to connect, climb, and learn. Participant ages ranged from mid-20s to 50+. Experience levels ranged from strong gym climbers to those who had only climbed outside once or twice. Many came in groups, with friends or family. One had attended several of Steph's clinics in the past and was back because she loved the experience that much.
The common thread was the deep-seated desire to climb with more women. For most of the women there, their main climbing partners were men. Either their romantic partners or friends.
Throughout the two days of climbing, there was a constant conversation thread about how different it is to climb with only women.
"I only have brothers, and I adventure with a lot of guys," says Ashley Swanson, who drove out to Moab from Seattle, Washington, "and there has been this shift of seeking out women. There is this unique energy you get when you're all women and I've realized how important that is."
When a group of women comes together in the outdoors, especially in climbing, it feels like something magical happens. Words of encouragement echo off the walls. Laughter rings out through the valleys. There's rarely any pressure to try something that you don't want to try.
This is not to say that climbing with men is the opposite of this feeling. But in my own climbing, I’ve found that there’s just something different about climbing with women. Women are often socialized from a young age to put others first. Which, while not a great thing in many contexts, makes for a great climbing partner.
There is a difference between being a good climber and being a good climbing partner, no matter your gender. Being a good climber often means putting yourself first — and prioritizing "harder" climbing. On the other hand, being a good partner often means creating a space where vulnerability is welcome. Because climbing is incredibly vulnerable, you’re out of your comfort zone if you're pushing yourself.
And in my experience as a woman in climbing, getting out of your comfort zone can look like a lot of things: crying, screaming, frustration, and fear. It's a lot of big emotions. And if you don't feel safe enough to express those emotions, it can lead to nervous system overload and shut down.
It's really hard to pin down what the actual difference is when climbing with all women. But it's probably the same as any affinity group. Coming together with people who have similar life experiences to you is validating in so many ways. There are conversations you can only have with people who have also dealt with the same biases that you’ve faced. With people who have experienced similar microaggressions or traumas.
There's safety in knowing that you're not alone.
That was the true joy of the clinic. Sure, there was lots of technical learning. From crack climbing, to rock rescue, to mock leading, to cleaning an anchor, it seemed like everyone took something away to further their climbing ability and technical skills.
Learning more technical skills gives any climber more confidence. When you know how to build an anchor, you're able to take people out climbing who don't know how to build an anchor. If you are depending on other people's skills and knowledge, you're limited to only climbing with people who know more and have more experience than you have.
So spending time working on these skills can create more communities of women who climb together. It’s always hard to be what you can’t see. The more women that are out there, confident and competent, the more that will see that and know they can be the same.
For us women in the climbing community, we would love to continue to foster more equitable access for women in climbing moving forward.
We spent the first morning of the clinic climbing at a crag along the Colorado river. The muddy brown water meandered through the valley as we hiked up to our first destination. Siobhan Pfaff, who attended the clinic with her cousin, Jamie Williams, started up a climb, saying it was harder than anything she had climbed outside before. After encouragement from the guides, she climbed it easily and smoothly with no issues.
Once the sun hit the wall in the morning, we headed to Wall Street, a popular roadside crag to chase the shade and practice crack climbing. Mary Harlan, one of the guides, walked everyone through the process of learning to hand and foot jam. "Put your hand in my crack," she says as she guides each woman to put her hand or foot between Mary's outstretched hands.
For many people, the technique of flexing your hands to climb the spaces in between the rock was a brand-new experience. Instead of climbing the features of the wall, you're climbing the spaces in between—the air. It's a tricky and strange style of climbing to learn, but the Moab area is well known for perfectly parallel cracks and is a great place to practice crack climbing techniques.
After our first full day of climbing, Steph and her husband, Ian, cooked us dinner. Steph Davis needs to publish a cookbook, because that dinner was so incredible, especially after a long day outside. The whole meal was vegan, but you would never know it if you didn't know that Steph is vegan. We ate rice, curry, and salad, and for dessert, she made the silkiest smooth, delicious tofu chocolate mousse(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre).
Throughout the whole clinic, there was obvious growth in everyone who attended. From technical skills to actual climbing ability. Everyone tried climbs that were challenging and felt safe to give it their all or back off. Both take a lot of courage. In any context, saying “no, I don’t want to do that” and backing off of something is setting a boundary. Setting boundaries is hard. Luckily, during this clinic, there was no pressure or need to push through anyone’s boundaries, whatever they were.
But the whole time, Steph emphasized that everything takes time. She's a true example of a lifelong climber, and she made me see how true that phrase can be. We have our entire lives to get to the places we might dream of today. It doesn't have to happen fast. It won't happen quickly, even if we wanted it to.
We have our whole lives to enjoy gravity.