The room is full of women encouraging one another to succeed: spotting people, advising newcomers and exhibiting strength and flexibility equal to (and often surpassing) those of many male rock climbers.
Climbmax Climbing Center in downtown Asheville hosts these women-only sessions at least once a month. On this particular evening, "Climbing Toward Confidence" -- a program for middle-school girls funded by Our VOICE -- runs from 4 to 7 p.m. Meanwhile, women of all ages start filtering in, and before our session starts, we gather in a circle to talk. More than half are beginners, according to the climbing coordinator, Courtney Leigh Johnson. "This is a really positive environment for women to climb, [as] opposed to walking into a roomful of burly dudes," she notes.
Others echo that theory. "Climbing is intimidating," says Sarah Smith. "It's a lot less intimidating when it's a roomful of women."
The strategy seems to be working: Kelsey Green maneuvers across the rock like a pro, though she's been doing this for a mere two months. Watching her girlfriend almost make it to the top of a route, Green laughs and calls out, "You gotta scream like a man to get that last one!"
Mainly, we're bouldering -- climbing without ropes and harnesses. Different routes are marked with colored tape. Among the more technical routes is "the cave," which has you groping for handholds while hanging upside down. I soon learn that your feet can grip with just as much force as your hands. Tracy Martin jams her entire foot into a hooked rock so she's stable enough for a longer reach with her arm.
When it's my turn, Martin leads me across the ceiling, telling me to "match on that rock." I arch backward to ask her what that means, and we all laugh. "Matching" usually means getting both hands or both feet on one spot. I also learn that it's better to hang with arms stretched out rather than bending them and depending on the biceps. A few women effortlessly crawl across the walls and ceilings like monkeys. Others are awkward and hesitant, but nobody has a bad time.
"I have no cardio!" one woman exclaims. And after repeatedly trying a difficult line, I, too, find my heart is pumping as if I'd just jogged up a hill.
"I have no upper-body strength!" another laments as she jiggles her arms to get the blood flowing again. We beginners tend to overrely on our arms, causing them to quickly fatigue. But once you get the hang of it, this sport strengthens the whole body. Everywhere, women are stopping to stretch out muscles so they can go at it just a little longer.
About 45 minutes later, my forearms are so tight that my hands are clawed into a perpetual grip. As I climb, my thumb catches in a spasm -- just when I need that little extra oomph to get beyond the crux. So I bail, jumping down onto the crash pad. I try again, letting a group of women guide me across the rock and help me see where to grab next.
During the last hour, Hannah Gaebler leads a free yoga class. Besides helping soothe our aching muscles, it increases flexibility, which is crucial for making those difficult reaches.
Theme nights -- such as "Ladies of the '80s" and the "Boulderers Ball" (when everybody climbs in their fancy dresses, often augmented by tights) -- further encourage a laid-back atmosphere and help attract newcomers. Johnson, meanwhile, greets everyone like a friend, observing, "Women's night really does a lot to build the climbing community."
For more information, go to http://womensonlyclimbmax.blogspot.com.
[Bettina Freese lives in Asheville.]