Climb Like a Woman: A Bouldering Festival in the Himalayan Foothills Empowers Indian Women
The Indian climbing community is predominantly male. These women aim to change that.
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“Climb like a woman means to own it—being a woman—and to say, ‘I am proud to climb like a woman. Yes, I am that badass!’” said Sara Vetteth, 47, a mother of two and an entrepreneur who attended the 2021 all-women’s climbing event Climb Like A Woman (CLAW) with her 13-year-old daughter, Anya. The gathering, now in its third year, was held in Sethan, a hamlet set amid the pine trees of Himachal Pradesh, 12 miles from Manali, India.
CLAW is the country’s biggest all-ladies climbing event, organized by female stalwarts in the Indian climbing community. Its goal is to reduce the gender gap in climbing by providing a secure place for women to learn the sport and overcome stereotypes. CLAW was founded in 2018 by Gowri Varanashi, who was later joined by four valiant female climbers: Prerna Dangi, Vrinda Bhageria, Lekha Rathinam, and Mel Batson.
In India, the climbing community is primarily composed of men.
“When I started out, I was the only female on outdoor climbing trips,” said Varanashi. “Later on, there were women coming outdoors, but they were only a handful compared to male climbers.”
Varanashi discovered climbing in 2011 and later became the third Indian woman to climb a 8a (5.13b), Samsara in 2019.
“We need women’s events to enable us,” said Anya. “Women are of different builds compared to men. We need to see someone of the same physique to show us how it is done. Someone who is relatable. Then it is easy to understand, and it’s inspiring.”
In India, women face prejudice daily. Daughters are traditionally brought up as inferior to their male counterparts. They are fed the conventional beliefs that women must get married, give birth, and look after their families—not pursue sports or other hobbies outside the home. Some years back, before joining the CLAW team, Batson saw this firsthand when she visited a school in the remote region of Bihar. There, while the boys played in the playground, the girls sat off to the side, chatting. When Batson asked about this disparity, the kids told her, “Don’t you know girls are not supposed to play?” Said Batson, “These young ones were not even aware of their fundamental rights. They didn’t know there are thousands of women competing internationally in all sports. It is unbelievable to see the contrast in one nation. We must change this mindset.”
When women in India, in rural areas or cities, try to excel beyond traditional limitations, there are usually more furrowed brows than proud claps. At CLAW, “Many participants tell me, ‘I can’t do this,’ or, ‘My upper body is weak,’ even before trying something. We have a lot of stories in our minds about why we can’t be in sports. Probably that is ingrained while growing up or we have generated those false notions,” said Varanashi. “We can’t really blame anyone, but we have to fight the negativity. With CLAW, we try to break all these hidden reservations.” Varanashi hopes to create independent and confident women through climbing, and to help them rise above the myth of women as “the weaker sex.”
During the CLAW gatherings, women of diverse backgrounds—from cosmopolitan cities and remote towns, schoolkids and middle-aged mothers—come together to tackle their “girl problems” during the five-day event. Apart from climbing (bouldering only), there are slacklining, yoga, and nature meditation sessions. As the participants spend every moment with one another (with shared rooms and meals), they are exposed to sisterhood like never before. Evenings are spent in heart-to-heart conversations with the mentors, who start discussions on gender disparity in society and in climbing. It is during these colloquies that the attendees face their inner doubts and overcome their misconceptions.
Dangi, a CLAW instructor and mountain guide with a decade of experience in the sport, believes that facilitating such conversations leads to a multifold revelation. She said, “When we asked, ‘Why do all-girl groups feel different?,’ one girl mentioned how male players would never pass the ball to her while playing basketball. They assumed that since she was a girl, she would be weak. I had faced the same biases in my early climbing days. Likewise, a number of participants share their experiences, and we cater to them … as a group.”
“I refrained from wearing sleeveless tops because people around me would make me conscious about my big arms,” said Sonam Gogia, an event participant and a new climber. “But I finally wore a sleeveless top on the last day of the event. These girls became my cheerleaders.” Ria Andrews, another participant, said, “My parents tell me to find a ‘women-friendly’ sport where I won’t get tanned or scratched. I feel this burden every time. But with the female affinity, I could climb freely.”
Tejaswini Gowda, another attendee, spoke about overcoming her timidity. She said, “You hear about these senior climbers and watch them in the gym crush hard climbs. I used to get intimidated when Gowri, Prerna, or other strong climbers were around. I always felt I could never be their friend, that I am not strong enough. But now I know I can hang out with them; they are normal like me. It is liberating and also inspiring when they climb with me.”
CLAW provides a space for women to be themselves, to fall without judgement, rise with the support of fellow members, resolve self-doubt, and become stronger. Said Vetteth of the 2021 festival, “We all were novice climbers, starting at the same level with no presumptions. We could be ourselves, wear whatever we wanted. That is why CLAW was best for my daughter, too. In her savage teen days, she could witness not-so-mean girls.”
For 2021, after two successful meetups in 2018 and 2019 in Hampi (a village in Karnataka, featured in the bouldering film Pilgrimage, with Chris Sharma), the organizers expanded their scope to the Himalayas, whose foothills are littered with boulders. Their motivation was twofold: first, to promote India’s mind-blowing climbing potential. And second, says Varanashi, to show participants that “by traveling alone to remote locations in the mountains, they are already becoming self-reliant.”
During my own time at CLAW in 2021, I learned one way to be empowered is to be yourself. On the first day of the event, Varanashi was demonstrating how to find the holds on a technical problem, a 12-foot-tall boulder with a mantel topout and no feasible downclimb—the only option was to jump. The moment Varanashi topped out, she realized her predicament. She panicked and wouldn’t come down. Terrified to jump, she was being vulnerable in front of beginners—neither embarrassed to be herself nor scared of judgment. The participants helped calm her down and readied her landing. Varanashi trusted her spotters, took the leap, and landed safely on three stacked crash pads.
This moment at CLAW, along with many others, sowed the seeds of confidence in the participants—to be themselves and to be empowered.