Why Rock Climbing Is A Great Sport For Women- Evolution And The Performance Gap

When I first started rock climbing twenty years ago, there were a lot more men doing it than women. This wasn't particularly different from many other sports at that time, but it was still very noticeable. I remember being at Paines Ford (it was spelled with a 'y' back then) and belaying Mayan Smith-Gobat on Dancing On A Skewer (28). Some young male wandered around the corner at the Globe Wall and looked up, surprised. 'Woah, what's that route?' I told him it was Dancing On A Skewer, grade 28. His jaw almost hit the dirt, 'But, she's a girl!' I was so stunned at this openly derogatory comment that I was unable to summon a witty response, which I regret to this day. You could write this guy off as just some neanderthal, but his attitude was probably fairly representative of the times. Thankfully, things have progressed since then and while the journey is far from over, there are now many more women enjoying rock climbing and attitudes have improved.

Speaking of neanderthals and evolution, there's a recent trend in sports physiology that casts an interesting light on elite rock climbing. This trend looks at the so-called 'performance gap' between genders in different sports at the elite level. The fairly intuitive approach is that where the performance gap is smallest, the physiological traits involved are likely selected for across sexes as being key for survival throughout human pre-history. In sports where the gap is larger, the physiological traits involved are likely less-integral to our basic survival and a bit more like the tail feathers on a male peacock.

Climbing graphicWhat does this have to do with climbing? Well, a recent paper by Collin Carroll in the scientific journal Current Research In Physiology (Volume 4, 2021, p 39–46) has used this approach in relation to elite climbing, with interesting findings. The paper 'Female excellence in rock climbing likely has an evolutionary origin' compares the performance gap in elite sport climbing versus other well-known sports and finds that women's potential to achieve at the highest level in climbing is likely as good as nearly any other sport out there. In both the 100m sprint and the marathon, which are usually considered examples of a small performance gap (because running away from predators was undoubtedly a useful survival skill) the best women's records are outside the top 2000 times for men. While the metrics in climbing are more subjective than in sprinting or long distance running, the performances of climbers like Laura Rogora, Julia Chanourdie, Angela Eiter, Josune Bereziartu, Margo Hayes, Barbara Zangerl, Ashima Shiraishi, Oriane Bertone,  Lynn Hill and many others who have performed at or very near to the very hardest levels of difficulty in our sport show that the performance gap in climbing is in fact quite slim, perhaps even non-existent. Because difficult rock climbs require flexibility, stamina and a high strength-to-weight ratio, there are some natural advantages for women—who tend to have some physiological advantages over men in these areas. Of course, there are other areas where men have advantages, but it speaks to the richness and diversity of the challenges in climbing that performance at the top level draws on a range of different physiological proficiencies.

Climbing the very hardest routes and boulders isn't the only way to enjoy rock climbing, but it is good to learn that the gender separation in other sports is perhaps less relevant to climbing. Maybe one day soon we'll get to see Janja Garnbret compete on the boulders set for the men's World Cups.

The abstract for the paper is below, and for the full text head here.

The human body is exceptional for many reasons, not the least of which is the wide variety of movements it is capable of executing. Because our species is able to execute so many discrete activities, researchers often disagree on which were the movements most essential to the evolution of our species. This paper continues a recently introduced analysis, that the performance gap between female and male athletes narrows in sports which most reflect the movements humans evolved to do. Here, I examine the performance gap in rock climbing. Female climbers are some of the best in the world irrespective of gender, a trend that is not found in any other major sport. I conclude that the exceptional ability of female rock climbers relative to male rock climbers is further evidence of the existence of sex-blind musculoskeletal adaptations, which developed over the course of human evolution – as a result of external (non-sexual) selection forces – to facilitate essential movements. These adaptations abate some of the general physical sexual dimorphism which exists in humans. This paper provides more evidence that the human body was shaped, in part, by pressure to climb well.

Pertinent to this topic, on July 11th New Zealand's first-ever Women's Climbing Summit takes place in Christchurch. The summit features guest speakers on a range of topics from performance, to strength conditioning and nutrition. The event is already sold out, surely a good sign for the future.

-Tom Hoyle