Climbing Needs More First Ascents by Women
High-altitude alpinist Masha Gordon says it's time women claimed more peaks, and she has a plan to make it happen
In early December 2017, Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, along with her brother and two other Sherpas, set off to attempt Mount Langdung, an unclimbed peak in Nepal’s Rolwaling Valley. They’d do it alpine style—without the use of fixed ropes and big camps—carrying everything on their backs. After a few days of climbing, they stood on top of the 20,856-foot peak, successfully completing a first ascent.
That’s exactly the kind of moment mountaineer and businesswoman Masha Gordon had in mind when she founded nonprofit Grit and Rock’s First Ascent Award, which gives out $10,000 annually to women-led mountaineering teams. Nearly 99 percent of first ascents on high-altitude peaks are done by men, according to Gordon’s figures, and only 5 percent of the 7,600 ascents of Mount Everest have been made by women. The nonprofit is an attempt to start leveling that playing field.
“When I looked through at the Piolets d’Or [the Oscars of alpine climbing], I saw there have only been two women who have won it, and they were part of male teams,” says Gordon. “I’m a businesswoman. We’ve had this situation in the boardroom and in management. We call it the glass ceiling. Here we have an ice ceiling.”
Gordon, an accomplished mountaineer herself, holds the female speed record for the Explorer’s Grand Slam (summiting the highest peak on every continent and reaching the North and South Poles). She believes in the mission of Grit and Rock so much that she has personally endowed the award for ten years. And while the award is where Grit and Rock has received the most attention, Gordon’s primary focus is on interesting teenage girls, many of them in the United Kingdom, in climbing through a yearlong mountaineering program. Between the two initiatives, Gordon hopes to tip the scales of female first ascents by creating role models for young climbers, who will then apply for funding opportunities to make big climbs and then become role models for the next generation.
The award is open to women-led teams (the team must be at least 50 percent female) of all nationalities. Dawa Yangzum Sherpa was one of the 2017 award winners in the “apprenticeship” category, receiving $1,500 to put toward her expedition. She had climbed serious peaks like K2 and Everest in expedition style; the award gave her the chance to up her alpine-style skills for future first ascents.
The winners are chosen by a panel of four judges, including Gordon, in three categories: performance, exploration, and apprenticeship. Grit and Rock announced the 2018 winners in February; each will receive between $1,500 and $4,000. This year’s list includes a three-woman international group that will attempt Nepal’s Mugu Peaks, two 7,814-foot spires that have never been climbed.
In the performance category, last year’s winners were Marina Kopteva, Galina Chibitok, and Anastasia Petrova, who planned to summit the 19,268-foot Cameron Peak in China’s Sichuan Province via a new route. “It was an epic, seven-day journey,” Gordon says. After climbing a nearly 1,000-foot ridge, on day three they lost the haul bag that contained most of their food. Instead of turning back, they pressed on, even when it became clear the route was more difficult and would take longer than expected. Four days later, they reached the summit.
The exploration category is meant to help fund expeditions to remote areas for the purpose of finding a new route or mapping the region. Last year, Natalia Martinez and Camilo Rada set off on a three-week expedition to explore the uncharted Cordon Aysen, an unmapped part of the northern Patagonian Ice Cap. They made a first ascent of Cerro Enroque and created a topographic map of the area for public use. “We like this category because it allows women to just go explore,” says Lydia Bradey, who in 1988 became the first woman to climb Everest without oxygen. “They don’t have to climb 5.14; they could just be competent mountaineers going into a remote area where there is no map. We can give them the experience of figuring it all out.”
This year’s winners of the exploration award are U.S. alpinists Katie Bono and Ilana Jesse, who will make a first ascent in the Hayes Range in Alaska. Bono set the women’s speed record in 2017 on Denali, and Jesse has climbed several major routes in the Alps. The mission of Grit and Rock is especially appealing to Jesse because she recognizes how the cycle of inspiration can have a real impact. “I find myself inspired by other women who are hard-charging in the mountains,” Jesse says. “I hope to one day inspire other women, including my daughter, to explore the unknown, to challenge fear, and to build a respectful relationship with nature.”
The rest of this year’s winners:
Anna Toretta (Italy), Cecilia Buil (Spain), and Ixchel Foord (Mexico) received $4,000 to make an attempt of the Mugu Peaks in Nepal. Josie Mckee (U.S.), Whitney Clark (U.S.), and Caro North (Switzerland) were awarded $3,000 for a new route on India’s 20,439-foot Mount Arjuna. Twenty-year-old Alena Panova (Russia) and 22-year-old Nina Neverov (France), both from the Siberian town of Irkutsk, won $1,000 to attempt a new route on Chon-Tor in Kyrgyzstan.