Ain’t no mountain high enough: women climbers are on the rise

Scotland has a proud history when it comes to strong and adventurous women. We’ve had political firebrand Winnie Ewing, feminist poet Liz Lochhead, and Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson, to name but a few.

But all might acknowledge their uphill battle in succeeding in a man’s world. Indeed, it was only 21 years ago when Fort William-based Alison Hargreaves – not only a woman, but (whisper it) a mother of two young children – had the audacity to create history, and quite a lot of sexist controversy, by scaling Everest unaided. She died on the descent from K2 later in 1995.

Now, it seems, the glass ceiling Alison pushed against is under a wider threat. In the last five years, there has been palpable evidence among the climbing community that the number of women scaling Scotland’s rock faces has risen considerably.

Neil Reid, of Mountaineering Scotland, welcomes the increase and also a noticeable cultural shift. “I think it’s pretty fair to say that mountain climbing and hillwalking have traditionally been perceived as male-dominated activities, but our experience has been that this is changing quite substantially, both in terms of perception and actual numbers.

“This increase is perhaps even more pronounced with the younger generations of climbers, with the trend being for young people to start on indoor climbing walls.

“Among these young climbers, the gender split is now a lot more even, and over the last five years ClimbScotland competitions – in the younger age groups at least – have shown more entries from females than from males.

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“Our membership over the last four years has shown a 5% increase in women, who now comprise 28% of our members.”

This increase in young female climbers is exemplified by Ewa Monteith-Hodge and friends Stephanie Boyle and Merle Ahrens, who spend almost every weekend out on the hills.

Each has their own theory for the increase, but all are delighted that women are now properly represented on Scotland’s highest peaks.

Ewa credits a large part of that increase to social media and the photographs people post there, and the proximity of so many challenging and accessible hills to large cities in Scotland.

She began climbing because there was a Munro right on her doorstep, which at 24 she set out to conquer, and has witnessed a significant change in the last five years.

“I definitely have noticed an increase in who I see on the mountains. When I started, if I saw anyone at all it was usually lone older men or groups of men, I was often the only woman out there. Now many more young people are taking part and the ratio of women:men taking part is closing.”

Ewa took part in breast cancer charity Think Pink’s Munro Challenge this year. Perhaps not surprisingly, the charitable element has proved a spur for women.

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Think Pink’s Rachel Alexander and team about to climb Cairn Gorm

Organiser Susanne Hill, reflecting on the numbers taking part since 2009, said: “Out of those registered to take part each year, half of participants have consistently been women. In those years we have had 578 people take part, of whom half were female.”

Stephanie and Merle credit Muriel Gray, the journalist and presenter of the popular 1990s BBC television programme, The Munro Show, as a strong influence on how they viewed the sport as younger women. In the last few years, other women have come forward as role models and helped to change perceptions about mountaineering.

Stephanie said: “Back then the only woman there was to look up to was Muriel but there are quite a lot more female pro climbers, skiers, etc nowadays so I’m sure that helps more females to go. I think it used to be seen as quite a lad thing and it’s not any more really.”

Merle agrees, adding: “I also think that our generation was brought up differently. Women know that potentially we can do whatever sport we want without feeling intimidated.”

The burgeoning popularity of the pastime among females has not gone unnoticed in the mountainwear sector, with many outdoor stores increasing their range of women’s wear.

While this boost in numbers seems to be welcomed across the climbing community, many will also see it as simply more evidence of the confidence exhibited today by women across Scotland.

David Gibson, CEO of Mountaineering Scotland, confirms: “We are delighted at the changes we are seeing in gender balance, and it is one of our strategic aims to attract even more women into the tremendous range of activities covered by mountaineering. Our new brand and logo, just launched, are more inclusive and welcoming.

“We also encourage families to go hillwalking together. The last few years especially have seen the old stereotype of men going mountaineering while their wives stayed at home and looked after the children are increasingly being challenged.

“You can see that when you go out on the hills and you can see it reflected in social media, with many hillwalking and climbing Facebook groups showing that more and more women are enjoying mountaineering at all levels.”

What goes up…Ewa, Stephanie and Merle have fun on the hills

For more information on Mountaineering Scotland, go here

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