Women at the crux
Durango Women’s Climbing Club leaves the ground

Maria Santiago, center, checks her footing as spotters wait at the ready during a Durango Women’s Climbing Club outing at Sailing Hawks. Several local women started the club last October with the mission of educating and empowering female climbers ready to hit the rock on their own./Photo by David Halterman

by Anna Thomas

How many women climbers out there learned to rock climb because they became a belay slave to a boyfriend? How many of those still have that boyfriend? How many still climb? Ask a lot of gal climbers, and they all sing the same song: their initial foray into climbing invariably involved a male counterpart. For some sad souls, the frequency with which they lace up their La Sportivas drastically diminishes with the lack of said male.

Well, no longer are these unfortunate ladies doomed to be confined to the sweaty, stale atmosphere of a climbing gym or the mercy of a pack of guys headed out for a testosterone- and profanity-infused day of 5.12 sport routes. In October of last year, Susan Clapsaddle, 24, along with several other local women, formed the Durango Women’s Climbing Club, whose stated goals are “to educate and empower, and to serve as a social networking system for women climbers.”

Clapsaddle, a yoga instructor, is a 5-foot-1 bundle of muscled energy. She began climbing two years ago when she met her boyfriend, who is currently training to be a NOLS instructor and is often out of town. “I feel like I’ve used my boyfriend as a crutch,” she confessed. “I was not an independent climber.”

When she moved here last fall, she wanted to find the confidence, and the climbing partners, to be able to climb in her boyfriend’s absence. The idea was shelved during the long, relentless winter but was recently resurrected as the region’s climbing areas, and climbers, thawed out. On May 3, the club held its first official event, a meet-and-greet day of climbing at X-Rock, a popular climbing area north of town. The abilities of the women at that kickoff day ran the gauntlet, according to Clapsaddle. Some had years of experience leading traditional and sport routes, while others had only touched rubber to rock a handful of times. Some, like Clapsaddle, were recent transplants to the area who relished the opportunity to meet climbing partners.

“Everyone was saying, ‘I want to be more independent,’” Clapsaddle recalled.

Susan Clapsaddle warms up on a boulder at Sailing Hawks recently./Photo by David Halterman

The situation was much the same at a recent outing to Sailing Hawks, the bouldering area on the flanks of Animas Mountain. Several ladies in attendance, with borrowed shoes on tentative feet, made the beginning moves to climbing independence, while other, more experienced climbers provided coaching and a spot.

At one elongated boulder, three women worked on three different sections of a traverse simultaneously. Words of encouragement from onlookers and spotters floated on the breeze with the chalk.

Heather Gregory, an active member of the club, was one of those climbers. She described the experience of climbing with so many women as “fantastic.”

“It’s very different climbing with women and actually being able to work on the same things,” said Gregory. Often, she said, she is defeated by boulder problems that her boyfriend works because they require too much brute strength. She said she enjoys analyzing a route and finding the best way, for her, not for anyone else, to get up it.

This notion that the fairer sex brings a different set of skills to the table is shared by Clapsaddle.

“Climbing plays to womens’ strengths,” she said. “It takes focus, balance and grace to climb. When you become a better climber, you’re not just muscling your way up.”

One way the club helps women achieve their climbing goals, Clapsaddle said, is by providing clinics on various topics. Talks are in the works with Southwest Adventure Guides to host a lead-climbing clinic in late June. A professional female climbing guide will be on hand to instruct women on the ins and outs of life at the sharp end of the rope. The clinic will be open to all skill levels and will cover the basics of leading both sport and traditional routes. Topics covered will include selecting the proper gear for a route, safely and effectively placing protection in natural rock features, fixing and equalizing anchors, and managing fear and anxiety (i.e. steadying the “Elvis leg”).

Several other clinics are planned for the summer. “Yoga in Climbing” will help climbers apply the lessons of yoga practice to the vertical world. Clapsaddle will use her experience as a yoga instructor to teach mental and physical balance, strength and the centering effect of proper breathing in climbing. A planned self-rescue clinic will be geared toward what to do when the inevitable you-know-what hits the fan. A technical clinic, also taught by a professional guide, will provide instruction in knots, anchors and safety systems.

In addition to clinics and afternoon crag sessions, the club serves as a staging area for extended climbing trips. The first big trip of the season was to Penitente Canyon last weekend. The beautiful, and popular, sport climbing destination lies at the western edge of the San Luis Valley and is replete with a Virgin Mary painting 40 feet up a volcanic tuff wall. All skill levels were represented, including beginning lead climbers, as the grades of routes in the canyon range from beginner to moderate to very hard.

For those women who have kicked the climbing habit for want of a partner, or for those who currently climb but want to get out more often, or for those who just wonder what all the fuss is about, the Durango Women’s Climbing Club is a good place to get started. •

For more information, or to be put on the club’s email list, visit the Durango Women’s Climbing Club online at http: //groups.google.com/group/durango-womens-climbing?hl=en

A spotter offers some security to Sterling Shaw as she works a route at Sailing Hawks. Last weekend, club members, many of whom were once belay slaves to boyfriends, hit the road to Penitente Canyon for the first big trip of the season. /Photo by David Halterman