International Women’s Day Post: Women climbers who kicked ass

So as Lucy had to explain to everyone over post-climb beers last night, it is INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY. Which I guess is providing the final kick of motivation to write this post, which I’ve been thinking about for a while.

Photo from

Alison Hargreaves

A couple of weeks ago at the Ledge we were all blown away by a pregnant women who was climbing (hard) with a special uterus-sparing harness, possibly this one. On the topic of pregnant climbing I told Lucy to google Alison Hargreaves.

Hargreaves was basically Reinhold Messner with ovaries, achieving such out-of-this-world feats as soloing the three great north faces of the Alps in a single season (which she wrote a book about) and summiting Everest without oxygen, solo and unaided. At the time the only other person who had done that was Messner himself! She died on K2 attempting to become the first women to climb the three highest peaks in the world without oxygen.

But she had one achievement which will never be equalled by any male mountaineer. She soloed the north face of the Eiger. Whilst pregnant. Sexist comments about “poor parenting” aside, Ueli Steck and Dani Arnold will have a hard time beating that one.

Photo from Chockstone

Louise Shepard

“I mean there wasn’t even something special about there being a first female ascent. That wasn’t something that was even mentioned. There was no such thing. It was just like “oh, you did that climb, you’re a climber, other people have done it”. You know? The fact that you’re a female was not even considered to be particularly noteworthy. So I didn’t make a big deal of it, because no one around me made a big deal of it.”

Perhaps the most influential of Australia’s female climbers, as well as being as hardcore a member of the Mt Arapiles crew as you’d find in the 80’s. She onsighted Separate Reality and Tales Of Power for the first female ascents while in Yosemite (see her interview in Rock Magazine No. 82 and over at Chockstone). There used to be a jaw-droppingly hilarious 80’s climbing video of her in action at Araps and Mt. Buffalo on Youtube, but it got cop-blocked by EMI, those shitheads.

Nyrie Dodd

A little-known Australian climber who did the first free ascent of a little route you may have heard of called Passport To Insanity. I did have the awesome Rock magazine article about the history of this route, but I seem to have lost it…probably lent it to Bultitude. Perhaps it’s best to repeat the legend unsourced, it’s more legend-y that way.

Anyway, the tale goes that on the first aid ascent, Joe Friend left a wine bottle in the crack above the roof, containing a message offering $500 for the first dude to free climb the route. After Dodd freed it, when some people tracked him down, he didn’t pay up, with the excuse that the bet was for a man not a woman. Chris Baxter also claimed that because his manly man hands couldn’t fit in the crack in the roof, it would be grade 28 for him, while Nyrie’s tiny physic was an unfair advantage, making it only a grade 24 for her. Revenge of the shorty climbers? We didn’t hear any complaints from the ultra-muscley HB when he did the second free ascent…

Photo from RussianClimb

Several recent all-female big wall teams that sent the gnar

Let’s start with the Women At Work team, who went up to the Cirque of the Unmentionables to free a Royal Robbins and Jim McCarthy route on a remote 2000 foot alpine wall, and made this video about it.

Then the Ukrainian-Russian team who spent 38 days on Great Trango Tower climbing a new route, Parallel World. They won this thing called a Piolet D’Or, first all-female team to do so apparently. 38 days in portaledges, to emphasise that point.

Finally there’s the Spanish team that spent some time in the Masherbrum Range in the Hushe Valley, climbing a 850m rock route on an unnamed spire which they named Las Damas Primero (lit. ‘Ladies First’). They then did the possible first ascent of the 5,810m Baush-ul by a route they named ‘Spanish System – Very Good System’, which I’m sure sounds better in spanish. Read about it on page 275 of the 2011 American Alpine Journal.

Silvia Vidal

Photo from Vidal Collection

Puts up remote new big wall aid routes, solo, which is about as crazy as it gets. Did the third ascent of the Reticent Wall on El Capitan, held to be the benchmark for new-wave A5 grade. To be graded A5, a route has to be so dangerous that if you fell, you’d rip the entire pitch Vertical Limit-style, take a factor-2 fall and almost certainly die. Basically, the Reticent is one of the scariest, sketchiest, blankest, hardest, most dangerous pieces of rock ever climbed by a human. Has an interview at the Alpinist magazine website over here.

Freda Du Faur

Photo from wikimedia

Arguably Australia’s first great mountaineer, Freda learned to climb by bouldering in Ku-rin-gai National Park north of Sydney, which as any sucker who got sandbagged by Peter Balint’s descriptions in the Akuna Bay section of the Sydney Bouldering guide will tell you, prepares you very well for climbing appalling choss above dangerous fall potential. Her father Eccleston, meanwhile, was off getting bits of the Blue Mountains named after him while running Bohemian artist retreats in the Grose Valley, and inadvertently helping the Blue Gum Forest become Australia’s first conservation reserve.

So it’s a pretty awesome family. I recently had a minor epic descending Bell Creek Canyon and Du Faur’s Creek Canyon. It’s a quite underrated one near Mt Wilson and you should check it out.

Anyway, Freda kicked off her first season in the Southern Alps (in 1910) by climbing Mt Cook in six hours, before doing a few other climbs including the first ascent of Mt Chudleigh. She came back the next year to do the first ascents of Mt Du Faur (named after her), Mt Nazomi, Mt Dampier, and the second ascents of Mt Tasman and Mt Ledenfield. The year after, first ascents of Mt Pibrac and Mt Cadogan, which she named. But in 1913 she achieved her coup de grace: the first grand traverse of the three peaks of Mt Cook, the classic climb of the New Zealand Alps. They also did the first traverse of Mt Sefton for good measure.

Seriously. That’s like half the freaking mountains in New Zealand, if you’ll excuse my hyperbole.

Sadly, Freda killed herself in 1935, after her partner Muriel died. Did I mention she was also a lesbian? About as radical a life you could live in Australia in the early 20th century. Read about it in the ‘Legends Of Adventure’ feature in Outer Edge Magazine No. 21.

Photo from TRAQ

Dot Butler

Dorothy Butler, the Barefoot Bushwalker, is perhaps one of the few people who qualify as a bushwalking ‘celebrity’. As a member of Sydney Bushwalking Club during the golden age of the 30’s and 40’s, she did many epic walks in the Blue Mountains including the first exploration of Arethusa Canyon (from the bottom!) and stuff like 3-day traverses of the Wollemi.

All while barefoot. Crossing the Blue Mountains in three days. Barefoot. My soles are tingling in sympathy right now. Fucking crazy.

But the reason she’s in this blog post is the first ascent of Crater Bluff in the Warrumbungles in 1936, with the father of Blue Mountains climbing, Dr. Eric Dark.

“Inch by inch we edged along, clinging to scarcely perceptible ledges of grey, lichen- covered rock, feeling our way in those places where we couldn’t turn to see for fear of upsetting our balance by a fraction of an inch, pausing now and then on some relatively safe ledge to draw a deep breath, for the suspense kept us so tense we hardly dared to breathe, and then on again, high above the giant Eucalyptus which, in the valley below, appeared to our wide-open eyes no bigger than match sticks; and always the huge eagles, wheeling aloft, surveying us from their untamed heights with fierce, contemptuous eyes. If they chose to attack us as we clung like limpets to that stark rock face, we knew who would come off best. About two thirds of the distance across brought us to a narrow slit in the rock face, not more than a foot wide, into which I wedged the lower part of my anatomy while I collected my breath, the Doc. meanwhile draping himself over a jutting piece of loose rock, which, in contrast to the dizzy ledges just passed, was as safe as the Bank of England. Here we stuck, body half attached and half free, like exploring leeches, while we took in the next stretch of our journey and discussed our prospects.”

After a day of old-school climbing winding up the side of this remote volcanic spire, complete with hemp ropes, waist belays over terrible spike anchors, and zero protection (and Dot is barefoot remember) they discovered a hidden world: the summit of the spire was a hollow crater filled with ferny rainforest. They promptly set the rainforest on fire after trying to light a small one to signal the rest of their party at the base, and Dr. Dark had to carry Dot over the burning embers (barefoot, remember?). They fixed their rope on the south face of the spire (which was shorter but steeper) and rapped to the ground. The rest of the party prussiked up to the summit the next day.

You can read the full story about Crater Bluff and about the rest of Dot’s incredible life here.

Photo from Harper Collins

Lynn Hill

“It goes, boys”

and (paraphrased)

“There’s no such thing as a reach problem, only a power problem.”

I just find so, so sweet the irony of a 5’1” woman being seriously considered by many as the greatest rock climber of the 20th century, male or female. First free ascent of the one of the oldest, proudest, most historied,  and truly epic rock climbs in the world, blowing the minds of all the old bearded Camp 4 Yosemite locals. Then she turned around and did it in one push in 24 hours. What more is there to say.

You can still watch the original ‘Free Climbing The Nose’ documentary over at what’s left of Google Videos. I also really like this John Long story about their first free ascent of one of the earliest and most iconic big sport multipitches, Levitation 29 at Red Rocks.

I’ll finish off this post with what is probably the actual original reach problem quote:

“Man or woman, you have to have the mental characteristics, the ability to concentrate, the focus, the flexibility, where women have the advantage, and strength-to-weight ratio. It does depend on the raw power.”

And a reminder that ovaries are, after all, larger than testicles.

Next week in Huck & Dyno History, I’ll talk about the epic feats of Australian mountaineering, followed by the history of the infamous Carrot Bolt!



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