Students walking past the NAU climbing wall in the Health and Learning Center (HLC) may stop to admire the skill, athleticism and strength of the climbers. They may also notice that most of the climbers are men. While this may be true most days, every other Thursday the men are kicked out and women get two hours to climb in the company of other like-minded women.
The Thursday night event runs from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and are open to any individuals who identify as female. Caity Miller, the climbing wall and challenge course coordinator, said there is no payment, sign-in or commitment required to attend this ongoing event. There are usually three employees working during the women climb time who help assist attendees with gear and climbing tips.
Miller, along with Caroline Varie, senior and student manager for the climbing wall, helped get the program started last semester. Miller modeled the program after one that she was exposed to as an undergraduate student at Oklahoma State University.
“Coming here, we didn’t really have a program like that,” Miller said. “We had a lot of really strong female climbers but not really a space for them to be together and climb, or for new people to come in and climb in a very non-intimidating space. So that is why I brought it here.”
Miller said she plans to expand women-specific programs to include group excursions where women can attend outdoor climbs together. She said a recent women’s backpacking trip was a huge success and she wants to announce a women’s climbing trip by next fall.
Varie said climbing can oftentimes be a very intimidating sport to get involved in. She said it takes a lot of practice, and is done while others watch from below. She said that climbing is often a male dominated sport and can be intimidating, especially for new climbers, but that is why the women’s climbing program is so important to her.
“This program provides a different set of resources that women may not have been comfortable pursuing if it had been a different environment,” Varie said. “A lot of the girls that come have said that a lot of the moves and routes they try, they wouldn’t have done in the normal room full of guys.”
Junior Sarah Higgins said climbing tends to be a sport where people really need to prove themselves to gain respect. She said the women’s climbing program aims to achieve two things: create a comfortable space for women to climb and foster a group of women within the climbing community.
“I think, for me, that’s why climbing is so special,” Higgins said. “It’s my friends who all go climbing together, not just the climbing part.”
While many of the women who climb at NAU enjoy climbing with both men and women, having space and time dedicated to just women is important. Varie said that men are more inclined to give unsolicited advice to women. She said while they often have good intentions when doing so, a lot of women would rather have the opportunity to figure it out on their own.
Higgins said she often has to prove herself in front of male climbers because they tend to assume they know better when it comes to the sport. These women explained that having a more patient and encouraging community has helped them to improve their skills even more.
“I’ve been able to make relationships with people who know climbing,” Higgins said. “I think that it is super sweet when someone can teach you instead of telling you what to do.”
Higgins is also a part of the NAU Climbing Club and said that through this branch of the climbing community, she has an opportunity to teach others and support their growth as well as her own.
Varie said while women in climbing still notice a difference in treatment between genders, the community as a whole has made a lot of progress in the past few years. She said that there are a lot of organizations and programs for women and minorities in climbing now. She said that while this is positive for the community, one would still find mostly men climbing in a normal gym, and that is where there can be an improvement.
Higgins mentioned a women’s climbing group that she found to be inspiring when visiting Bishop over spring break.
“There is this social media outlet called Flash Fox, which is a group of women from Brooklyn who created a climbing group,” Higgins said. “They hold the Women’s Climbing Festival every year in Bishop, California.”
There are a lot of ways for NAU students to become involved in climbing. There are fitness classes that allow students to either learn bouldering or rock climbing. There is also the NAU Climbing Club, which is open to all students. Students can make use of the wall in the HLC during normal climb time hours or by attending a program such as the women’s climbing night.
“NAU and the climbing wall has really given me the opportunity to climb consistently with people I really enjoy,” Varie said.
Climbing, like any new sport or activity, may seem intimidating at first, especially if it seems as if gender may impact the respect an individual receives. However, Miller said the staff and students involved in climbing at NAU are welcoming if newcomers are open to trying something new.
“Just go to the wall,” Higgins said. “I know several people who didn’t know anything about climbing and they went to the wall and just started to talk to people. There are so many climbing opportunities here.”