India's Female Rock Climbing Festival
Nutan Shinde writes about CLAW, its female founders and how her experience went beyond the rock.
“Why do you need an all-ladies climbing event?” asked many in the Indian climbing community. “With such women oriented initiatives you are yourself creating a divide in genders. How is this helping bring more women?” Along with the men in the field, I too questioned the need of a women-specific climbing festival.
e dominance in the climbing field is relevant, even in 2021, all over the world. Because of it, I have always climbed with men - and many women would relate to this. Despite being nurtured by the men, I never felt the need for feminine energy. Male climbers have always respected and motivated me to push my limits. There were never those comparison games or ego clashes.
I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that there are fewer women in climbing and I wanted to do something. But, I didn’t reconcile that that equality comes by empowering women. And that powerful female role models can create a change. It was only after I attended Climb Like a Woman that the true realisation of women-empowerment was sowed in my life.
Climb like a Woman (CLAW) is India’s women-focused climbing event that started in 2018. The idea behind this initiative is to reduce the gender gap in the climbing field, to introduce more women to the outdoor climbing scene and provide an equal space for them. It was founded by Gowri Varanashi, a climber with a decade of experience and an outdoor expert. She observed that ladies tended to straggle behind in the outdoors. Having dealt with her own share of struggles, she decided to build a secure platform for other women to overcome their barriers.
“In my early climbing days,” said Gowri, “I would be the only female among the male climbers. Although the men were supportive, I felt the need for more women. I knew I had to do something to get more women into adventure sports. Organizing an all-ladies gathering and educating them was the best solution.”
Other female climbers, Lekha Rathinam, Prerna Dangi, Vrinda Bhageria and Mel Batson, who also envisioned an equal adventure world, laid the foundation of CLAW with Varanashi - the five powerful pillars. The first two editions of the meetup (in 2018 and 2019) were held in Hampi, a tiny village in North Karnataka. Hampi is the most renowned bouldering destination in India, featured in Chris Sharma’s Pilgrimage movie.
Climb Like a Woman 2021
For the year after the pandemic lockdowns, 2021, the festival was held in the Himalayan village, Sethan (just 20 km away from Manali in Himachal Pradesh). Sethan is a rising Indian bouldering destination. And it was my chance to meet the encouraging lady-legends of the CLAW crew and feel empowered (along with the participants).
Over the course of five days, we were taught the basics of climbing. There were enough practical sessions for us to grasp the skills. Finding holds on rocks, trusting footholds, spotting efficiently and taking safe falls were some of the topics the mentors focused on. We were also introduced to slacklining and nature meditation. Early morning yoga and late-night bonfires were the perks of being in a nature camp.
Over the time, with endless chats, mutual empathy on “gender stereotypes” and profound admiration, we participants developed a bond that made the occasion affable. Dangi, an experienced climber who started her climbing career in the 2010s, said, “Climbing is a sport that makes you vulnerable. You feel delighted, scared, sad or angry while sending a route. And it is normal to be vulnerable, we shouldn’t be embarrassed about it.” She added that women are generally scared to show their weaknesses in front of others. “They fear judgement. In the all-ladies group, it is different. Women naturally bond over their struggles. There is a comfort.”
Going Beyond Rock Climbing
Climb Like a Woman is not just about boosting women in climbing; it is about creating independent women. By breaking the stereotypes around girls in sports, the organisers aim to instil confidence in the participants that will replicate in their personal life. “We women are really good at putting ourselves down,” said Gowri. “We stop ourselves by not trying new things or believing we are weak. I get this from a lot of the girls. All our false ideas are based on societal biases or our upbringing, but we have to overcome those notions.”
Every evening, in the group discussions, the mentors would gradually introduce the taboo conversations around femininity. With various perspectives around female qualms in the Indian society, everybody tries to find the causes of these reservations and the solutions to overcome them.
“Why do you think you are weak?” or “Why are we scared to try outdoor sports (or something new)?” Their questions forced us to probe our inner feelings. “I have seen beginner male climbers progress faster than me,” I thought to myself. “I still can’t do five pull-ups in a row after a year of climbing and boys do pull-ups in just one month. I haven’t shed a gramme and I see men losing weight instantly after training. Obviously we women are weak.”
Since the day we are born there are constant reminders about our fragility. “You shouldn’t travel alone.” “Why don’t you join singing classes instead of climbing?” And the typical: “Who will marry you if you roam like this in the outdoors?” These were the constant obligations put on me by my family. I had to prove my worth at every step and earn my freedom after rebellious fights.
Just like me, the other ladies at CLAW spoke about their personal journeys - where they were restricted and deemed as the ‘weaker sex’. “We try to tackle many prejudices,” said Gowri, “provide a secure space where the girls share their experiences and try to find answers to their doubts… One girl mentioned she was considered weak by male players in basketball. This stayed with her, hence she always underestimated her strength. But here (at CLAW) with the encouraging energy of sisterhood, she felt motivated.”
Sarena Beriwala, a fire flow artist and founder of IndieFlow, was a CLAW participant in 2019. She came back in 2021 as a volunteer, moved by the camaraderie and the life-changing influence it had on her. “I am scared of heights. I am scared of most things. I think CLAW was best for me to challenge myself. Everyone around me tells me I have come a long way since the event. Just being surrounded by so many strong women and watching them try hard has been instrumental.” Sarena has picked up highlining and climbing post the meetup.
Things are in Motion
I could relate to every story of the fellow ladies. Be it fear of judgement on wearing sleeveless clothes, body image concerns, family restrictions or societal pressure. Seeing these females boastfully overcome their struggles, I found new strength. In the coming days, I wore my first sleeveless tank top. I learnt to accept my fear of heights. My lesson was to not be apologetic of my vulnerabilities. The confidence germinated in me has made a better climber and an empowered woman.
The event of 2021 was a breakthrough for me, when I saw two mother-daughter pairs as the attendees. One said, “Being a mother to two kids, I never really imagined I could climb. I don’t really listen to what people have to say about me travelling with my daughter to the mountains. This is such a great opportunity for her to witness sisterhood and learn from them.”
In just three years of CLAW, there is an incredible rise in the number of women in the climbing scene all over India. A few have already tapped the high grades of 7b, some have stepped in climbing competitions and some are supporting other novice climbers in their region. Most importantly, all are consistently climbing.
Having witnessed this progressive change and magnificent support of the proficient mentors and members, I am in awe of this all-women event. I can now relate with the vision of CLAW: the end goal of CLAW is to not need a ‘Climb Like A Woman’. To have a climbing community where everyone is a different body type, size and gender - and everyone is included. But until then, we need such events and many more women-empowerment movements!
Nutan Shinde-Pawar is a climber, hiker and freelance writer. She writes for outdoor companies like UKClimbing, ExplorersWeb, Rock and Ice, Gearjunkie and others. She also works as a Social Media Manager for major adventure companies and explorers. She is either climbing or writing all the time - each day living her outdoor dream.
You can find out more about Nutan on her website nutaneer.com
To find out more about CLAW, visit their website climblikeawoman.com
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