A Women's Rock Climbing Camp Was One of My Most Empowering Travel Experiences

This camp taught me a lot more than just the skills needed to scale a big rock

Author rappelling down a rock face

Jess Worley

Climbing as a sport has seen a significant increase in interest over the past few years. You’ve probably watched (or at least heard the buzz about) “Free Solo,” the Academy Award-winning documentary about Alex Honnold’s climb up the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Sport climbing will also debut at this year’s summer Olympics in Tokyo, broken into three disciplines: speed, boulder, and lead climbing. 

Regarding amateur participation in the sport, the American Alpine Club’s 2019 State of Climbing Report showed that outdoor climbers are predominantly male—67 percent of outdoor climbers are male, and 33 percent are female. That’s where my rock climbing experience comes in.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a rep from 57Hours, a platform that connects people with certified guides for outdoor activities, asking if I’d like to participate in an upcoming All Women’s Climbing Camp in Colorado. Save for a handful of times climbing in a gym, sport climbing was pretty new to me, especially outdoors, but I was immediately interested. I’m usually game to try new things, especially when presented with the opportunity in a location that’s so emblematic of the sport; in recent years, I’ve gone coasteering in Wales, surfing in Montauk, and paragliding in Switzerland, all iconic places for each of those respective activities. And this opportunity would take me to crags outside of Boulder, Colorado, a location that draws climbers from around the world. 

How 57Hours Connects Adventure-Seekers With Outdoor Opportunities

The company originated as a way to make the outdoors more accessible to people; the founder was trying to book a climbing excursion in Jackson, Wyoming, and securing a day’s outing took 20 emails back and forth. As a result, 57Hours was born in 2019 with the mission to make the outdoors more easily accessible and doable in the span of a weekend. (The company’s name represents the amount of time you have from 3 p.m. on a Friday to midnight on Sunday.) 

The platform works as a sort of Airbnb that acts as a bridge between adventurers and providers to help people find an outdoor adventure—you can search by type of activity or location, browse the available courses, and connect with a local guide directly through the app. Some are one-on-one bookings, and others are group courses you can join.

As part of the company’s mission to promote diversity and inclusion in outdoor spaces, 57Hours recently began offering All Women’s Camps, the first one being a deep powder ski camp in Jackson in March 2021. That one received such positive feedback that it inspired more female-led camps.

After learning more about the company and this women-forward initiative, I read through the activity page to learn more about this particular camp. It was designated a “Gym to Crag” camp, ideal for people who have climbed in a gym setting previously and want to transition to outdoor settings—me! I also read through the FAQs to note what I would need to bring, what a typical day would include, and other important details, and I booked my spot in the course. 

Learning to coil ropes on the ground after climbing

Jess Worley

Conquering the Crag and Self-Doubt

Almost one month later, I was driving to the first day’s location, Eldorado Canyon, with coffee in hand—it was 6:30 a.m. and 45 degrees outside. I met my group near the entrance to the canyon—the other participant, Tess, who had a bit more climbing and bouldering experience than me but was looking to hone her technique; and our instructor, Jess, a guide for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, whose climbing resume and kind, encouraging personality immediately put me at ease.

We began with a brief meet-and-greet to introduce ourselves and go over our goals and questions for the weekend. I learned that my co-participant, Tess, had recently moved to Colorado from New York City, so we had a lot in common. Jess is working toward her master’s degree in social work, in which she hopes to help people who suffer from mental health issues through rock climbing. (As Jess explained, one can work through fear response to the perceived risk in a scenario where the actual risk is quite low, such as the controlled and safe environment on a rock wall. In other words, rock climbing in the appropriate context is an ideal environment for practicing positive coping strategies, such as breathing techniques. Fascinating, right?) 

Then, we moved onto learning some of the basics, such as the necessary gear for climbing. In short, your checklist should include a harness, helmet, ropes, chalk, technical rock shoes (I rented mine from REI for the weekend), carabiners, and a GriGri (more on that later). And then moved onto elementary skills, such as how to tie various knots, how to complete a safety check with your fellow climbers, and how to position your body against the wall.

After about 30 minutes of groundwork, we moved to the rock face. Jess lead the climb first, which means she tied herself into one end of the rope while Tess belayed her. (To belay means to feed the rope through a device, a Gri Gri, while the lead climber ascends.) If the lead climber falls, the Gri Gri grabs the rope. As Jess climbed up, she put gear (called camalots or “cams”) into cracks and then clipped her rope into them to protect herself if she were to fall. Once she reached the top, she affixed the rope to a permanent anchor there and was lowered back to the ground by Tess. By doing this, she set up the climb so that Tess and I could top rope climb, a safer and easier style of climbing because we're attached to the rope from the top. But, of course, the skilled climber that she is, Jess made this look breezy and effortless. 

Then, it was our turn. I looked at our route—Play Time on Supremacy Rock (routes and rocks are individually named similarly to runs and peaks at ski resorts)—and started to climb. Unlike gym climbing, there aren’t obvious and colorful holds identified to grab or step onto (I know, duh), and this face looked pretty darn smooth to me. I spotted small crevices or cracks, but nothing that looked like it would be able to support my foot or weight. So that was my first lesson: Trust your rock shoes. Technical rock shoes have great precision and grip that even when it felt like I was going to slip from my chosen step due to a flimsy-looking ledge or vertical angle, I never did. Plus, Tess and Jess were watching from below, offering advice and options for me. “Look to your right!” or “There’s a ledge to your left you can reach for,” they would say whenever I looked stumped. 

To my complete surprise, I made it all the way to the top and at a fairly quick pace. (Well, at least I think so for my first climb!) When I belayed to the ground and expressed this to my group, Jess asked why I was skeptical of my ability from the start. She explained that of all the climbing camps and lessons she’s taught, women climbers are typically the quickest to cast doubt on their abilities, whereas men she coaches are usually far more sure of themselves.  

Author climbing while partner belays

Jess Worley

Building Confidence and Community Through Climbing

I wasn’t too surprised to hear that. We hear so many examples in life of how women tend to shy away from confidence or opportunities they deserve and talk themselves down—in other words, imposter syndrome is a common problem. This was the first moment of the camp in which it became clear to me why having all women’s camps is such a great offering for female adventurers. 

Of course, this is not to say that men don’t feel this way as well. Still, it’s typically not as visible, especially in areas or fields traditionally male-dominated, including sports. 

In a way, that was a great rock climbing lesson in itself. So much about the sport is mental—it’s confidence, quick judgment and decision-making, focus, and risk assessment. In fact, Jess recommended a book to us, “The Rock Warrior’s Way: Mental Training for Climbers,” about honing your mental fitness for the sport. By tearing myself down before even tying in and then being surprised when I accomplished it, it definitely wouldn’t help my climbing ability, and it could only harm it. And throughout the two days, we progressed to climbing longer and steeper rock faces, so I needed every bit of focus and confidence I could muster up.

Throughout the camp, several other benefits of an all-women’s camp became apparent. There was constant verbal encouragement from the two women I was with—they cheered me on, congratulated me when I found a strategic hand or foot placement, and let me know that I was doing great. If I started to shake or get tired mid-climb, I would yell to warn that I would come down—not because I was scared or didn’t want to keep going, but because I felt like I was wasting their time. Instead, they shouted back, urging me to simply let go and rest for a moment, suspended in mid-air while they supported me below, until I was ready to resume. This emotional and literal support truly kept me going throughout the two full days of climbing.

I would have still been game to join the camp had there been men included as well; I’ve learned and played other sports in a co-ed setting before. But I do feel there could have been more of a potential intimidation factor. Are they stronger than me? Will they be annoyed if I climb too slow or too low? (All thoughts I’ve also had in the other co-ed sports I’ve played.) These mental doubts would certainly make for a less successful and enjoyable day. 

Had this been a co-ed course, would other male participants have been just as kind and welcoming? Sure, absolutely. But would they be quite as verbally encouraging or be able to recognize the place in which I was coming from? I’m not so sure. Later that same day, I was telling a male acquaintance about my rock climbing lesson and how much fun I’d had learning the sport, how it boosted my confidence, and how I really enjoyed the company of the two other women.

His response? “Rock climbing isn’t that male-dominated; I know a bunch of girls who climb!” followed by other statements dismissing my experience. (And as mentioned above, the stats negate his claims about the gender split in the sport.) The next day, I was on the phone with the same person, and he sarcastically asked me if there was lots of cheering again that day. I hung up feeling so deflated and actually started to question whether I was exaggerating the benefits of an all-women’s camp or feeling too sensitive toward his remarks.

I know I’m not the only woman who’s experienced this when participating in an outdoor sport, especially as a beginner. Throughout the second day of the camp, the three of us exchanged stories of times when men discounted or underestimated our interests or abilities or generally made us feel uncomfortable.

Jess, an accomplished guide who has taught outdoor climbing courses and coached youth rock climbing for five years, told us that she will occasionally go climbing with her male partner. Other climbers at the crag will approach them and talk to them about climbing, but their questions and eyes will be directed at her partner as if she’s simply the girlfriend who tagged along. Tess talked about climbing with men who would demonstrate overly friendly tendencies that would make her uncomfortable and distract her from her time spent climbing.

Our stories weren’t all doom and gloom, though. They told stories about some of their favorite climbing memories. For example, when a climber is about to start climbing, they’ll say “on belay” to let the belayer know they’re ready, and the belayer responds with the reverse phrase, “belay on,” to confirm they’re all set to begin. However, a version used by Tess and her friends was tweaked to be “B*tch on rock!” followed by “Rock on, b*tch!” Each of the two days was full of learning new rock climbing techniques and skills and plenty of fun conversation and bonding, which added to the joy of it all. 

And 57Hours also has several testimonials on the site from women who have participated in their all-women’s climbing camps, and their takeaways completely aligned with my own experience. For instance, a testimonial from Elyse: “I took the Women’s Weekend Rock Climbing Clinic recently and am still daydreaming about it! It was the first time that I took a group climbing class and loved the energy of all the ladies. I especially enjoyed hearing the stories about our guides, as they provided motivational and inspiring words to encourage us all. We experienced a variety of climbs, and the days just flew by!” Another reviewer mentioned: “The Women’s Trad Clinic was a safe space to move at my own speed, test my own skills, and receive feedback in a way that felt appropriate and applicable. Overall an excellent experience, and just what I hoped for. Not to mention the group was kind, and there was lots of laughter.”

Is the empowerment I felt strictly related to rock climbing? Of course not. Trying anything new and then mastering a part of it can have that invigorating result. I felt amazing the first time I stood up and rode out a wave while surfing, the first time I landed a jump on a snowboard, and when I scored my first goal in a soccer game. But I would say that this two-day rock climbing experience was the most empowering one of them all. Because I learned alongside two other incredible women? I’m not sure, but I do know this first all-women’s adventure of mine definitely won’t be the last.