The Strongest Woman in Climbing is 10 Years Old
Ashima Shiraishi, the 10-year-old prodigy who has torn through some of Hueco Tanks' hardest problems over the past two years, notched another landmark ascent on Tuesday when she completed the V13 testpiece Crown of Aragorn. The climb, which took Shiraishi two days, means that she is now tied for the hardest ascent by a female boulderer of any age.
No woman had ever climbed a confirmed V13 before 2010, when Angie Payne made the first female ascent of Dave Graham's The Automator in Rocky Mountain National Park. Few women have repeated the feat—between three and five others, depending on whether you count problems on the extreme low end of the grade. To see a 10 year old join those ranks is nothing short of incredible. Shiraishi, though, is clearly no normal 10 year old: in the past two years, the New Yorker has climbed at least eight problems rated V10 and above. In early March, she won her age division at the ABS Nationals by flashing every problem. As her coach Obe Carrion said in "Obe and Ashima," the film about Shiraishi released last year, "She has 'it'."
None of that has stopped her detractors. Something about seeing a child take down double-digit problems appears to inflame some adult climbers' egos: when Deadpoint Magazine posted a video of Shiraishi climbing Power of Silence (V10) in 2010, commenters zeroed in on the fact that the then-eight-year-old girl had gotten a boost to the start holds. A similar scenario took place last year, when some climbers argued that Shiraishi's ascent of the Hueco roof problem Right Martini (V12) was invalid because her foot had brushed against a sapling growing inches from the face.
The most recent objection is also the most bizarre. While Crown of Aragorn is a consensus V13, some climbers, including Jens Larssen of 8a.nu, have suggested that it might have been easier for Shiraishi because she is a young girl. The thinking goes like this: most climbs were established and graded by men. Women and children are better at certain kinds of climbs, like endurance problems. Therefore, we should adjust grades to reflect that.
The idea that if a girl does a hard climb, it must be because she has some natural advantage—not because she's good, or trained hard—is more than a little chauvinistic. But even if it's true, it just doesn't apply here. The climbs Shiraishi has done aren't hard for adults, or hard for men. They're just hard. I've seen kids and adults climb on Right Martini, and tried the other problems in the Martini Cave myself, and I can confidently say that the reaches and throws would make them harder, not easier, for a small climber.
The corollary to this idea—"She's only good because she's a kid. Let's see her climb like that when she grows up and gains weight."—is also bunk, because it goes against all available evidence. David Lama and Chris Sharma both climbed hard when they were kids, and they've improved, not slipped, as they've gotten older. Adam Ondra onsighted his first 5.13c at age 11. He's now 18, and onsighting 5.14c. There's no reason to expect that Ashima Shiraishi will be any different.
I'm not suggesting that Shiraishi deserves a break just because of her age. She climbs harder than most adults, and deserves to be held to the same standard. But that also means giving her credit where credit is due. At 10 years old, she climbed a problem that's turned away adult professional climbers. No amount of rationalization or arguing can change that.