AUTHOR: Reinhold Messner


Both sexes are "riders on the storm" whenever they face the exposed conditions on a mountain with wind and weather, danger and difficulty.

Have women climbers caught up with the men?

Haven't both sexes conquered the hardest climb in the land?

Haven't they reached the summit? Men and women!

Although the paths their development took have been different, the sexes today climb almost as equals. At least on the rock. Though women did not set out in search of targets until much later they have now caught up. Today's discussions are not about the first women to tackle such-and-such a route but on "on-sight", "flash" and "free".

For 200 years alpine clubs and mountaineers mocked, limited and hindered women on the mountain. Today it's men who encourage, support and facilitate the "race to the top". Thanks also to the elimination to a large extent of the fear of death on the mountain. Which is down to men again. On the other hand, the hordes that swarm over the eight-thousanders and the mania for safety that alpine clubs and tourist operators are afflicted by have caused classic extreme alpinism to be lost to view. Danger and suffering were once par for the course in the realm of high mountains where the forces of nature subject people to a tougher ordeal than civilization. The likes of us undertook the ascent to ultimately doubt ourselves. And doubts are an expression of our humility. The current status of modern alpinism not only reflects the progress made in training methods and equipment, it also promotes tolerance and the sporting aspect. And sometimes our arrogance with regard to nature. As if this attitude drew its legitimacy from millions of imitators, the number of people following the trails is increasing all the time. All of them in search of an experience that cannot be had there. Because a person cannot make a new discovery if he or she does not make his or her own way: paths laid out by others never lead to the heart of our existence. This means that women are not emancipated either until it is as natural for them as it is for the most imaginative climbers to go where the masses do not. And we mountaineers, whether male or female, are not equal until we all respect each other as peers.

None of the many outstanding woman climbers have shown so clearly what emancipation is as Lynn Hill. When she succeeded in free climbing the Nose Route, the world's most famous climbing route, she wasted no time offering her colleagues an incentive: without any trace of arrogance, condescension or self-importance she said, "It goes, boys!". Yes, it goes if we all respect each other as equals and send any kind of conceitedness — towards members of the opposite sex, towards people with different origins, a different skin colour, with different points of view — to the devil!

It's time to put a stop to all this fuss about women: women's rope teams, ascents by women, the first woman on the face of the Eiger, the first woman on all 14 eight-thousanders!

It is not the many expeditions undertaken by women's libbers with a passion for rock climbing that have accelerated emancipation, since in most cases Sherpas were at least tolerated as assistants; emancipation is accomplished when it is no longer talked about. When men and women — irrespective of their achievements, style or skill — are judged and admired with a total disregard of their sex. And unlike all other sports, where the competitors are split into two categories, this now happens in rock climbing and, to a large extent, in classic alpinism too.

Girls and women who are good climbers are now legion and a not inconsiderable number are leading the men. Phenomenal free climbers, climbing couples, all-women rope teams on the world's hardest routes are now to be found in many countries, not just in the USA, France, Italy, Germany and Spain. Like the Spanish model climbing couple Rikar Otegui and Josune Bereziartu, for example: free climbing on routes with little protection and mountaineering on classic rock faces is their passion. For instance, they went back to the 400m-high technical route Zarathustra on the Cotatuero in the Ordesa National Park in the Pyrenees, graded 8a/8a+, and climbed it free. Rikar Otegui was able to climb the crux — a horizontal roof — on-sight, wedging nuts between the old bolts for protection. Josune, one of the best girl climbers in the world, flashed the crux. She had already climbed an 8b+ in 1996, following on from Lynn Hill, Robyn Erbesfield, Susi Good and Mia Axon.

Achieving the next step up became an obsession. But for her, it was not about competing withthe men — comparisons with others were utterly irrelevant, what mattered to her was purely the question of what was possible beyond what she had accomplished so far. That's how it's been in rock climbing for the last 100 years. It is not the question: "Can women do something that men cannot do?" that counts, but the question: "Can I, Josune Bereziartu, climb something I could not climb yesterday?"

I am amazed on the one hand by the high degree of climbing skill, and on the other by the self-assurance with which girls and women participate in the climbing scene. They are part of it — there are no two ways about it. They express themselves by doing what they can do with the same commitment, training and obsessiveness as their male colleagues. Dörte Pietron climbs up the west face of the Cerro Torre in Patagonia. Ines Papert and Lisi Steurer spend a few weeks climbing in the Cirque of the Unclimbables in northwest Canada — one of the world's most beautiful climbing regions with Lotus Flower Tower, Mackenzie Mountains, Middle Huey Spire — where they achieve first ascents and the hardest of repetitions. All free and as if it was the most natural thing in the world, so that the question of whether women should be doing this tough "men's sport" does not even arise. Both sexes are "riders on the storm" whenever they face the exposed conditions on a mountain with wind and weather, danger and difficulty.