Within Reach: A Documentary About Women’s Equality in Climbing

“I’d rather hang out with men than women.”

“My experience with other women in the outdoors is that they’re hostile and competitive.”

“Guys are more relaxed and laid back.”

I’ve heard some iteration of these phrases at least a dozen times from women over the last several years. It’s actually something I would have said myself ten years ago. Growing up as a self-proclaimed tomboy, I didn’t feel uncomfortable in a group of just boys. To be completely honest, I was proud to be the only girl. I wasn’t one of “those girls” that can’t hang with the boys. I was stronger, braver and cooler—not prone to overreacting, complaining and cattiness, as women are often stereotyped.

Shelma sending a boulder problem.

But I was wrong.

I wasn’t better than those women I looked down on and I wasn’t as comfortable as I claimed. I unwittingly reinforced these stereotypes by opposing myself to them. By stating “I’m not catty, I’m cooler than that,” I was reinforcing the female stereotype that women are catty.

Shelma looking at a climbing route in a climbing gym.

And well, the quest to be the “cool girl” also has other costs. If you are trying to show that you are different, that means there is a constant pressure to prove your worth and that you belong. In addition, it fosters an unhealthy sense of competition amongst women. After all, if you’re an anomaly among typical oversensitive, weak women, there can’t be too many of you, right?

My friend Taylor shared a similar sentiment with me at the first Women’s Climbing Festival in 2016: “It occurred to me yesterday that I gotten so used to being the only girl in a group of climbers, I didn’t know how that had affected me until now. When you’re the only girl, there’s this pressure. Like you have to try hard to prove yourself as the cool girl. And here—it’s all girls. So I don’t have to try to be anything.”

Shelma hiking through the desert with her bouldering pad

Anything…other than just who I am? I have felt the pressure to assimilate to social norms, often defined by men, in many aspects of my life—at the office, at parties and the gym to name a few. This does not exclude climbing but what I have found in the climbing community is my girl crew.

Climbing with women allowed me to share empowering and positive experiences with other women. And women-only spaces like the Women’s Climbing Festival provided the chance to have honest discussions about barriers that women face in the outdoors from men, society and themselves.

Shelma pushing climbing a boulder

Once I was able to stop looking at other women through the lens of destructive stereotypes or as the competition, my relationships with women changed into something beautiful, supportive and strong. Women climbing with women isn’t the end-all solution to eradicating sexism. But it is creating an opportunity for us to see that negative social norms and pressures do exist, which make women feel in competition with one another to prove themselves strong enough, good enough, tough enough to hang with men in the outdoors (office, gym, etc).

A group of women walking in the desert with bouldering pads to climb.

I hope that this film and the continuing women’s movement in the outdoors show women that we are already strong, bold, beautiful and capable.

And we have nothing to prove.

Editor’s note: Learn more about how the co-op is declaring the outdoors the world’s largest level playing field in a movement called Force of Nature.