Why Teenage Girls Are Dominating Climbing

Fifteen-year-old Ashima Shiraishi became the first woman, and the youngest person male or female, to climb a V15 last month. Credit: Parker Alec Cross

If you aren't a competitive rock climber, you may have missed a very interesting trend in the sport: Teenage girls are dominating. In January, at USA Climbing’s 2016 Bouldering Open National Championships, an 18-year-old named Megan Mascarenas handed reigning women’s champion Alex Puccio her first loss since 2006. In March, 17-year-old Margo Hayes from Boulder, Colorado, won the women’s sport climbing division at USA Climbing’s 2016 Sport & Speed Open National Championships. Her fiercest competitor was another 17-year-old, Grace McKeehan from Texas. Simultaneously, Claire Buhrfeind, 17, also from Texas, captured the National title for Speed Climbing, setting a new U.S. women’s record for 10 m in 5.64 seconds.

"In the past few years we've seen a growing field of young women climbers pushing limits to the highest level and beyond,” says Dave Burleson, Petzl’s athlete manager. “For 2016, for the first time ever, we have teenage girls standing as national champions in bouldering, sport, and speed — all three disciplines of competitive climbing.”

Competitive climbing is booming right now, with the biggest growth among teenage women whose numbers have nearly doubled in the past five years. It’s no wonder the sport is experiencing dramatic leaps in progression (look at snowboarding in the early 2000s), but why the dominance among young women?

Many think that at least part of it is physical. In climbing, the strength-to-weight ratio plays a huge role in an athlete’s success. It could be that small, lightweight teenage girls who’ve already gone through puberty — and therefore possess the strength and coordination that comes with an adult woman’s body — have a unique advantage.

This is the case in gymnastics, where teenagers often outperform their adult counterparts. “I remember reading that a 13- or 14-year-old female gymnast has the best strength-to-weight ratio of any athlete in the world” says Garrett Gregor, head coach of Team ABC, a competitive youth team based out of ABC Kids Climbing in Boulder, Colorado.

But in climbing, unlike gymnastics, there's a level playing field between the genders. Men and women train together indoors, and outside they aspire to climb the same lines. So will women soon be out-climbing men?

If you take Ashima Shiraishi, the 15-year-old from New York as an example, they already are. Shiraishi became the first woman, and the youngest person male or female, to climb a V15 last month (a 30-move bouldering problem named Horizon, located at Mount Hiei, Japan). Shiraishi is already the first female climber ever to send a 5.15 sport-climbing route, which she accomplished when she was just 13 years old. Only a handful of adult male climbers have succeeded in sending routes at this level — which is at or near the limit of what’s currently possible.

For now, however, Shiraishi is something of an outlier. The website 8a.nu, which tracks self-reported ascents in the outdoors and ranks climbers worldwide, still shows a performance gap between junior women, defined as 18 and under, and junior men. In bouldering, for example, Megan Mascarenas, the reining U.S. National Champion in the discipline, is ranked 1st among junior women worldwide, but drops to 5th when you add in the junior men. “It’s certainly true that there are a lot of young ladies pushing the sport right now,” says Alex Honnold. “But so are the boys.”

Some contend that the dividing line isn’t gender, but rather type of climbing. “My prediction is that in the future, women will prove to be the best on certain styles of climbing, and men on others,” says professional climber Tommy Caldwell. 

When you look to what's happening on the big walls outside of competitive climbing, the general consensus is that there are too many variables to crown any one person king (or queen). “You’ve got people like Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson — guys in their 30s — making the first ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Capitan, considered the hardest free-climbing route in the world,” says Robyn Raboutou, former World Cup Climbing Champion and the founder of ABC Kids Climbing. “How do you compare that to, say, Ashima being the first woman on earth to send a 5.15, and doing it when she was just 13-years-old?”