Girls on Granite: Climbing Classes in the Sierra Specifically for Women

Since 2006, climbing guide Miranda Oakley – the first woman to rope solo the 3,000-foot Nose route on El Capitan in less than 24 hours – has called Yosemite home. Over the years, she’s witnessed firsthand how rock climbing remains a sport practiced primarily by men. She aims to shift the balance by teaching climbing courses specifically for women.

“Climbing is still dominated by men. They’re still doing the hardest lines,” Oakley tells ASN, while sitting across from me and munching on a salad in her tiny studio in the center of Yosemite Valley. Her place is void of a kitchen and bathroom, and is just big enough for her to catch up on sleep between her many outings with the Yosemite Mountaineering School (YMS). But it’s her own place, which is a rarity in the park, as most local employees have to live with a roommate.

“My room is smaller than some people’s vans,” she jokes.

Oakley during her one-day ascent of the Nose on El Cap. Photo: Courtesy of Taylor Sincich

Oakley, originally from Kensington, Maryland, began climbing in the gym at age 15 with her brother, who quickly lost interest, leaving her the only one in her family to climb. She moved to Yosemite after earning her degree in international studies from St. Mary’s College in St. Mary’s City, Maryland.

“My parents were skeptical at first. Now that I’m making a living off climbing they’re pretty excited,” she says. In addition to her work as a guide, she’s also a sponsored climber, with support from Mountain Hardwear and Metolius. To date, she’s ticked El Capitan more than 20 times. She’s also one of the stronger local climbers, having sent 5.13 and climbed, with a partner, both El Capitan and Half Dome in the same day (a combined 5,500 feet of vert).

Two years ago, Oakley became the first woman to ascend the Nose route on El Cap in less than 24 hours. (Steve Schneider became the first person to rope solo the Nose when he completed the feat in 1989.)

Oakley (right) with a group of women climbers in the East Side of the Sierra. Photo: Courtesy of Miranda Oakley

I met with Oakley to learn about her work as a guide, specifically about the women’s courses she teaches through YMS called Girls on Granite – she’s taught two courses this year so far – and her women’s climbing courses she has planned later this autumn in the Eastern Sierra, in the Alabama Hills and Owens River Gorge through the guide service Whitney Basecamp.

She doesn’t always fill all six slots in her Girls on Granite courses but she believes that will change as mainstream-climbing films inspire new people, of all genders, to get into the sport, along with the proliferation of the new gyms opening up throughout the country.

“People know what El Cap is now,” she tells ASN. “They know whom the stars are. Up to a few years ago, they didn’t know. Now I see I can teach more outings and that they’ll fill up. At least that’s what I’m hoping.

Oakley’s group learning anchor building in Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite, California. Photo: Courtesy Miranda Oakley

“I think there are lot of awesome female role models that are stepping it up. Women sometimes just need a little nudge for a little motivation. If you’re a little girl, and you only see grown men climbing, you may not think it is for you. If you see a women climbing, you may want to go and do what they’re doing.”

Two years ago Oakley began teaching women’s climbing through YMS, and since then climbing has gained popularity in part by films like The Dawn Wall, Free Solo and Break on Through – the latter starring 19-year old Margo Hayes as she becomes the first woman to climb the elusive grade of 5.15. Chris Sharma’s Biographie (aka Realization) is the world’s first confirmed route of that grade, which he established in 2001. (Spoiler alert: In the film, Hayes also climbs Biographie.)

“Now I see more women climbing. It used to be women with their boyfriends. Now it’s a role reversal and women talk their boyfriends into climbing with them; other times women sign up with their other girlfriends,” Oakley says.

As Lynn Hill – the first person of any gender to free the Nose – says in Break on Through, “[if] you think that 5.15 belongs to men … then that little bit of weakness can cause you to fail.”

Through her courses, Oakley teaches how to move over the rock: how to edge, smear and high step in climbing shoes; how to crimp face holds, palm the rock; and how to jam cracks without putting a strain on hand and foot bones.

She also teaches how to identify safe anchors, how to place and remove clean protection including nuts and cams, basic knots, how to rappel, and self-rescue. Her group outings allow for peer critique on anchor building. Additionally, she teaches proper etiquette in the backcountry including Leave No Trace principles.

To learn more or sign up with one of Oakley’s Girls on Granite courses, check out her website.

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