Saturday, May 16, 2009

Does a Woman Have to Be One of the Boys to Excel in Climbing?

By Abby Watkins
"Your lead," Vera says as she hands me the rack. She's just led the last five pitches and now it's my turn to do the same. I look at the upper dihedrals towering above us: still so far to go.

Vera takes a break on the Captain
Vera on belay on El Capitan
Gasping, I belly flop onto the glazed, sun-drenched ledge at Camp 5 on the Nose of El Capitan. Evening light softens the stark lines of Yosemite Valley, which makes the meadow below seem even further away. I'm bone tired. Since 5 A.M. (was it only this morning that we were on the ground?), Vera and I have been tackling the sheer, unforgiving lines of this magical monolith.

"Thanks." My weary reply reveals the fatigue engulfing my body and mind."How's your water supply?"

"Gone." Monosyllabic responses are easier to muster and are all our partnership requires after climbing acres of rock together in many countries over the past few years.

We're out of water and food. This is when we must dig deep. Somehow I drag myself to my feet and start climbing. The first move is sheer will, but slowly my body takes over where my mind is too tired. My body understands the intricacies of granite climbing and moves instinctually across its smoothness. Soon I am 100 percent engaged, and the rock slowly passes beneath me. Four hours later I am crawling onto the summit under a full moon. The Nose in a Day: A dream come true.

Abby Watkins is an award-winning dancer, a decorated gymnast, and a world class climber on rock and ice. She set the Women's Speed Record on the Nose of El Capitan with fellow Australian, Vera Wong, in 1996 and placed first in the 2000 Ouray Icefest. Most recently, she co-founded Ascending Women, providing women-only clinics for aspiring climbers.

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