More women tackling ribbons of ice |

More women tackling ribbons of ice

Megan McCloskey
Photos by Nathan Bilow / The Associated Press / A climber makes her way up the ice through Uncompahgre Gorge at the Ouray Ice Festival in January, as spectators watch from a bridge.

OURAY, Colo. (AP) – There already has been a woman in space, female chief executive, senator, race car driver – not much opportunity for firsts as a woman these days.

For Ines Papert, a feisty, petite woman from Germany, the male-dominated world of ice climbing was where she found her firsts, and she’s carved out quite a few: Mission Impossible in Italy. Tomahawk and Vertical Limit in Switzerland. These are some of the most difficult routes to climb in the world and until Papert, only men had tried.

Now, more and more women are joining her in a sport that long has been limited to adventurous men.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but anecdotal evidence and those involved in the sport say the number of female climbers has jumped in the last few years, perhaps tenfold. And with balance and agility more important than brute strength, women are starting to make their mark.

Last year at the Ouray Ice Climbing Festival in this southwestern Colorado mountain town, Papert beat her male counterparts in the competition by more than 3 minutes. She won the female competition earlier this year.

“For me there is no question, can I do it or not. I just do it,” Papert said.

Melissa Rajkowski, an ice climber of eight years, says along with persistence and patience, a willingness to be humbled (“You could be doing everything right and a chunk of ice can fall and hit you in the face and make you bleed”) is a key to doing well in the sport – not necessarily a trait you’d associate with men.

“Women do better right off the bat because it’s all about detail,” said Dave Remsberg, a Boulder guide who leads climbs around the world and gets paid by gear manufacturers. “Women are more technical. They don’t just hack away like men.”

The Ouray festival is one of the highlights of the season in North America, offering mixed terrain, speed climbing competitions that attract the world’s best and dozens of hands-on clinics on everything from avalanche training to climbing expert ice. Women still were outnumbered by men at this winter’s session, but quite a few competed and took advantage of the clinics.

“Ooh, it’s so nice to see another woman out here,” Michelle Brock cheers in a slight Georgia accent to another woman approaching a group getting ready to hit the ice for the first time.

“My friends recommended ice climbing. It was time to try it,” answers Dianne Hummel of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The two chat about being the only women in the group and then turn to their crampons, the metal spikes that attach to the boot for help in clambering up the ice.

“I’m afraid I’m going to kick into the rope and cut it with my crampons. Ahhhh!” Hummel says, arms flailing as she mimics a fall.

“Did you get one of these?” Brock asks through a pink-lipsticked grin, holding up a harness belt as Hummel nods. “What do you do with it, do you think?”

A short time later, a single-file line of would-be climbers heads down a narrow path along the Uncompahgre Gorge, leaving a trail of claw-like footprints as they descend to the bottom and arrive at the “School Room.” As the name suggests, this part of the gorge is beginner friendly.

The ice in the 1.5-mile-long gorge – the result of 10 million gallons of water piped in and spilled here when the temperatures are just right – is the blue color of toothpaste. The climbers, wearing crampons attached to their boots and ice picks leashed to their wrists, peer up at their task.

Scratch, scratch, twack.

Good stick. The pick is securely in the ice.

Tap, tap, tap, crunch.

Another step up the ice.

Looking like a cat on curtains about 15 feet up the frozen wall, Shannon Heringer lets out a little whoop.

“This is so fun,” comes cascading down from above, along with small chunks of ice.

Yells of “ice!” can be heard wrapping around the slow curves of the narrow gorge, a climber’s heads up and a courtesy to the partner minding the harness ropes below.

Remsberg calls out tips to Heringer, who drove in from her home near Colorado Springs: “Use your wrist” … “swing the pick like a hammer” … “hit the ice with your crampon a couple of times to make a good ledge for your foot.”

Heringer works her way up by hooking into the ice with the pick in her left hand, then the right. She pulls herself up as she follows with her feet for more support. Hand, hand. Foot, foot, like the rhythmic steps to a dance.

This is 37-year-old Heringer’s first crack at ice climbing, and she’s all grins.

“I like being able to handle myself in different situations,” she says.

Companies are banking on more women feeling like Heringer, and are starting to make woman-specific gear, including ice picks easier for small hands to handle.

Rajkowski, who works at Ouray Mountain Sports, has noticed the sport slowly being promoted more to women and has seen an increase in the number of women coming into the store for their own gear. But many are the wives or girlfriends of male climbers.

Papert herself got started in the sport after ascending a peak in Peru with an ex-boyfriend.

“But it was not my success. I just followed,” she said. “And I don’t like to just follow.”

Kim Reynolds, a veteran ice climber from nearby Ridgway, got tired of seeing women content with just following. So she started Chicks with Picks, which offers five ice climbing clinics each year for women by women in Colorado and New Hampshire.

“They weren’t taking control of the situation,” Reynolds said. “They weren’t lead climbing or setting up anchors.”

Sandy Heise, another Ridgway climber who works with Reynolds and got into the sport at the behest of a boyfriend, thinks the sport’s list of prior-knowledge-required tools, such as ice screws, keeps women from trying the sport.

“Women are intimidated by things that are gear intensive,” she said. “Guys are the ones typically seen as the gearheads.”

When Chicks with Picks started in 2000, Reynolds led one clinic with 18 women. Now about 80 participate.

“When I started, women ice climbers were as rare as ice climbing in summer,” said Will Gadd, a world champion who has been climbing for more than 20 years and written books about techniques. He said he thinks more women have become involved as the sport has grown in general and as gear has gotten better, not just for climbing but for keeping warm.

“Women are generally smart. They don’t like to be cold and miserable,” he said. “They’re not like men, who’ll be like, ‘Urrgh, I can handle it.”‘

Garrett Kemper, a representative for climbing outfitter Black Diamond in Salt Lake City, says he’s watched over the last few years as women have soared past many men in skill level.

“Finesse overcomes the brawn,” he said.

Papert smiles with a slight wink when talking about beating the boys last year.

“Nobody expected that women can do the same as men,” she said.

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