Women's climbing class boosts confidence

Posted: Friday, October 01, 2004

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho -- Lisa Fountain likes to rock climb. But her boyfriend doesn't know that -- he just knows she doesn't want to climb with him.

''He doesn't have enough experience and his testosterone gets in the way, which leads to poor decision-making,'' Fountain said. ''But I can't tell him that, or his ego would plummet.''

Instead, the 27-year old youth counselor joined an all-women climbing class offered as part of the International Climbing Festival in Lander, Wyo., last month. While the 15 other women in the class ranged from beginners to highly skilled climbers, they all shared an interest in learning from other women in a less competitive atmosphere.

All-women climbing, skiing, hiking and other outdoors classes are becoming more and more popular, said Laura Tyson, director of the Women's Wilderness Institute, a Boulder, Colo.-based group that offers outdoor classes for women and girls.

''I see a difference in the comfort level and laughter,'' in all-women classes, Tyson said. But the differences don't stop there. The Institute's course leaders include in their courses more time for women to talk, form friendships and ask questions, she said.

''Women have a different style of learning, generally speaking,'' Tyson said. ''They like to be very comfortable with one step before moving on, while men are more willing to jump into the middle.''

That can be especially important for women who want to learn to climb, a sport that has been traditionally dominated by men, and requires having a partner to control the rope that prevents the climber from falling.

Only about a quarter of rock climbers are women, but more and more are being drawn to the sport since the advent of a faster, more accessible sport version, and a dispelling of the myth that it takes strong arms.

''Women tend to be natural climbers, especially athletic women,'' said Laura Schmonsees, a climbing, hiking and skiing alpine expert with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. They often have better footwork and balance, because they usually can't rely only on their upper body strength, she said. However, women who learn with men, especially boyfriends or husbands, can reach a point where their partners hold them back.

''I think if women learn from a guy, it's very easy for them to stay in a role of the second,'' said Karen McNeill, a professional alpinist who helped lead another all-women climbing class in Jackson, Wyo., called ''Women That Rock.''

Tyson agreed.

''There's a step that women need to do with other women, so they feel ownership. Then, when they go back to the boys, they feel even,'' Tyson said.

Meg Noffsinger, 27, an expert climber, said she was lucky enough to find a group of women who climbed together in Fort Collins, Colo., where she used live, including her current climbing partner, Lisa Barrett.

''Men want to take charge, so when you're feeling a little scared and they step in, you don't get the full experience,'' Noffsinger said. ''With Lisa, when I say I'm tired and don't want to lead, she says, 'Tough.' -- I still have to.''

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