In ‘Free Solo//(s)He Solo’, Emily Rudling tracks the differences between her surfing and climbing experience and examines gender in the film Free Solo
‘I love the twinkling sound of a trad rack.’
‘Same,’ replies Sinead. ‘It’s soothing.’
We’re at a local crag and Sinead’s teaching me how to lead sport climbs. It’s raining, and no one else is about, and we’re talking about all the things we love about the sport we met through. We look up at the route and I clip her quickdraws onto my harness. ‘It sounds like some harmony of calm singing through fear, or the key to solving a problem.’
‘Ha, we are the big keys moving up the routes.’
We go through the staccato exchange of checking ‘biners and knots and safety. Chalk on hands, and I sink into the first holds.
A few months prior, Sinead, Anne and I had had an epic day out in Arapiles. An easy multipitch trad climb – the classic Siren, a good one to learn to lead trad. It was 30°C, blaring sun, and at five pitches long we thought we’d be done in a couple of hours, so we didn’t take any food and only a litre of water. Seven hours later, we topped out. One of us had gotten their period when we hit the rap station three pitches in. ‘Stuff going down’ they said, ‘we’re finishing this.’ Rather than bail, we played Irish jigs on the tin whistles Anne had insisted on packing. Food may have been more sustaining, but not much beats heat stroke delirium and learning how to trad climb to the sound of ‘When the saints go marching in.’
About ten years ago at a heavy East Coast Tasmanian beach break, I sat out the back rolling through the peaks and troughs of adrenaline. The water’s surface mirrored my thoughts: fractals of blue, green, silver, split against possibility, and a desire to surf. Beneath that enticing surface lurked a precarious and hollow sense of belonging. When the first of the set hit, I took in my surroundings. Half a dozen men. The second wave surged under me. Another thought: I’m the only one shorter 6 ft 5in and under 90kgs. The third wave passed. Claustrophobia can hit even in the clearest of sea air. Exclusion slapped my face like frigid sea spray. The fourth wave was nastier, with a steep face breaking further out, I swung forward and paddled. As I crested the wave, I looked over my right shoulder to watch the face crumble beneath me. Foamy streaks fell into the inky pit.
After the second pitch of Siren, we took the wrong route and had to down climb. One of those incidents that happen when you’re a novice, but the beauty of it was that there was no one to save us: it was up to us.
In the water, there’s no saving either. Only separation. On that day a decade ago, I saw the rest of the set close in. The mountainous sea raced up to meet me. The men closed in on the take-off spot in a huddle of comradery. I floated off to the side, and as the set swelled, the only route to safety was to catch a wave. I saw the ugly, foaming fifth wave surge and I took it from outside the take-off. And I ate shit.
There were many things that went wrong on Siren but we were not excluded from the community. There was no underlying assumption that we couldn’t work it out. Unlike surfing, I had a sense of belonging and an understanding that I deserved to be there. Contrarily, the surfing culture lacked gender equal schooling, support, community. In the absence of belonging, a deep feeling of inadequacy spurred my wave-riding. I had to be perfect: there was no luxury of learning. Older male surfers saw me in the take off and, only once they were satiated, would begrudgingly mutter, ‘Oh love, I guess I’ll let you have this one’.
It is difficult to participate in your sport without a supportive community. In 2012, Laura Fendt and Erica Wilson inquired into the motivations and constraints experienced by Australian women surfers in and out of the water. Not knowing what to expect and being in the minority ranked as the top two personal concerns discouraging women from surfing. There were also logistical constraints – travel and financial pressures. My boards collected dust.
Women surfers have been positioned as an accessory to the sport. As novel and exotic (for a Tasmanian) as palm-lined beaches with tropical, warm, crystal-blue water barreling over reefs. Women surfers have been advertised for their attractiveness rather than their athleticism: an object of the culture but not a participant. Surfing is being called out for not supporting gender equality in competitions, sponsorship and in advertising. It is now one of the few sports where women surfers are offered the same prize money as male surfers. These shifts happened after I stopped surfing. But on Siren we were all huddled on the ramp atop the first pitch assessing whether the anchor was bomber. The first move of the second pitch is a spicy step out over a significant drop to a thin ledge with some crimpy holds. Unclip safety and go – she led us across the void.
We reached the third pitch of Siren at a rappel station and the three of us shared a sip of our dwindling water. A few other parties were checking us out, the weirdos with the tin whistles. ‘Bugger.’ ‘What?’ ‘Just got my period.’ ‘Ah dang, wanna climb down?’ Periods are ostracised across society, and especially in sport. The hellish moments as a teenager where you learn to hide your body, or hide yourself, for a week a month lest you show the world you are a woman. ‘Nah, let’s keep going.’
Women are the reason I stopped surfing and the reason I started climbing. At the last pitch on Siren, exhausted, hungry, sunburned and with frayed nerves, one of our ropes (we had two) dropped and snagged while the other climber was somewhere above, out of sight and sound, finishing off the last section. ‘Shit’ we breathed in unison, and our eyes flickered over our set up. I let out my awkward laugh saved for tense moments: ‘I’ll downclimb?’ Not again.
The Siren climb is minor in the scale of anyone’s sporting life, but it is major when your experience of sport has been downgraded in importance based on gender. Surfing has a brutal undercurrent: that women are just mucking around, and the real waves are for the men. The justification goes: men are stronger, fitter and more adversarial than women. Women are just not strong or aggressive enough to catch waves properly. Climbing at the local gym with a male friend I mentioned strength and stature as a difficulty. His response: ‘I disagree that men are better. Some women may be shorter or may have less upper body strength but that’s a stereotype and not a truth. It also means that women can often be technically better climbers. Men who rely on height or strength are lazy climbers, that’s not good.’
A supportive community is developed from the ground up but is also strongly influenced by the elite leading the sport. The representation of women surfers in the late 1990s and early 2000s – Layne Beachley, Chelsea Georgeson, and Stephanie Gilmore, combined with the more recent social media critique of the sport has begun to shift the culture. The media representation of sporting women is critical to developing a sense of community and belonging.
The documentary Free Solo is a landmark moment in the climbing world. Like the dreamy surf cult films of the late 1990s and early 2000s, it may mainstream the subculture sport: National Geographic has picked it up, and it has won an Oscar. People who don’t climb are paying to watch it at the cinema. Yet the representation of women in Free Solo reminds me of why I stopped surfing, rather than the reasons I started to climb.
In it, women are a device.
There are three women featured in the documentary other than a brief glimpse of the producer Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: Sanni McCandless (Alex’ Honnolds girlfriend), Becca Pietsch (the wife of Tommy Caldwell), and Diedre Wolownick Honnold (Honnold’s Mum). The Bechdel Test is a test to measure whether a film is gender equal. There are three questions: Do they have names? Do they talk to each other? Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?
The obvious counter-argument to this line of questioning is that Free Solo is a film about the masterful climber Alex Honnold and not any of these women. Then why have the women in there at all? The limited purpose of the three women is to add a hysteric and domestic voice. Behind the scenes, there are no women climbers involved, no women journalists, and no women film crew in the actual footage. The only empowered women obviously involved is the producer Vasarhelyi.
The portrayal of gender inclusion in climbing is hugely important to who participates in the sport and how they are represented. There are scores of other climbing movies with adequate representation of women. The annual ReelRock adventure film tour highlights women, with Madaleine Sorkin, Margo Hayes, Savannah Cummins, Anna Paff, and Claire Buhrfeind all recently having had films included. However, a key difference is that ReelRock shows short films: FreeSolo is a two-hour feature film on Honnold that has won multiple awards.
Returning to the Bechdel Test, McCandless is an accessory to Honnold. She is positioned as the emotional partner imposing on Honnold’s life. He is superstitious about her: blaming her for accidents and things going wrong. He says she ‘isn’t a climber’ and talks her abilities down (she is on Freeblast, that’s a pretty reasonable climb). He is annoyed at her concern over his excessive and deliberate risk-taking. He looks irritated when she expands his world by suggesting different adventures (hiking, boating). It would have been better if she wasn’t portrayed in the film at all.
Instead, she is a device through which the producers can add an emotional element. As the story develops, the emotions are scaled higher. In one scene, Honnold is climbing well, and then the film cuts to an intense scene where they are discussing risk taking. Next, Honnold is climbing poorly because of the emotional pressure. The viewer immediately links McCandless as the issue. In the lead up to the focal climb we see a blunt exchange about risk taking, tears and tense emotions, and then we see Honnold bail off the climb half way up. McCandless.
McCandless has little opportunity to redeem herself. Like any supportive partner, she develops an interest in her partner’s vocation (but she ‘is not a climber’). In one part, McCandless is belaying Honnold who falls because the rope slips through the belay device and he suffers a compression fracture. Serious, yes. But Honnold is one of the best climbers in the world, he carries a significant portion of the responsibility of setting up a safe climb. Instead? Honnold says he wants to break up with her.
Oh McCandless, won’t you just step aside and look pretty! Women partners of elite male athletes have a limited voice and a misogynist would say McCandless is lucky she was represented at all. In one scene, we see Pietsch, the wife of Tommy Caldwell. Caldwell is driving into Yosemite Valley. It’s pre-dawn and the camera switches to the back of the van. Pietsch is silent, shrouded in darkness, sitting on the bed feeding a baby while the older child silently eats muesli. Piestch is relegated to the duty of motherhood. In a pumpkin carving scene involving several of the families in making the film–Pietsch and McCandless are given some sort of other voice: a domestic one.
Rather than celebrate McCandless’ support and devotion to Honnold, the viewer becomes weary of her. She tames him (they buy a house together!) and his dirt bag van living days are over. She cries. She is obsessed by the relationship. He yawns when they shop for a fridge together. She cries when he climbs. We start to wonder if Honnold is crazy (this is covered by an MRI test and an interview with his mother). But even if he were crazy, that’s no justification for the voice given to McCandless.
In comparison, Valley Uprising and the Dawn Wall show incredibly risky climbing, but the story of climbing does not deliberately patronise and exclude women. Valley Uprising is a historical documentation of climbing in Yosemite Valley. There are few women in it, but their representation increases alongside key historical and socio-cultural changes around women in sport more generally. Lynn Hill features heavily. From the 1990s, and in the 2000s, we see more and more women climbing. We also see more non-Americans and more diversity of people of colour as the sport becomes more global and wealth (climbing is a leisure activity/pursuit/obsession) is spread out.
Another contrast is the Dawn Wall, a documentary covering Tommy Caldwell’s climbing life before his scaling of the Dawn Wall with Kevin Jorgeson, which is also more gender inclusive. Initially, the film focusses on Caldwell’s relationship with professional climber Beth Rodden. Importantly, Rodden is not an addition to Caldwell, she is portrayed as an elite climber in her own right. When Rodden and Caldwell divorce, Rodden is treated (in the film at least) with respect. Caldwell later marries Becca Pietsch who is represented as a loving, supportive partner of his climbing.
Contrarily, when Honnold finally starts the final climb McCandless has left and is six hours drive away. She leaves the evening before, in tears. The ‘boys club’ is exceedingly clear on the day of the climb. All the film crew are men. The climbing journalists are men. The old climbers interviewed are men. The day of the climb is for the men. The women have been cleared out, let boys be boys. What about Lynn Hill? What about Steph Davis? Catherine Destivelle? Beth Rodden? Alex Puccio? Pamela Shanti Pack? Why were they not involved?
What irks me the most is that this boys club is not my experience of climbing. I started climbing because of the women. Women are crushing it. Yet this crucial moment in the representation of the sport represents women as an accessory.
I write this critique in support of climbing and women climbers. Free Solo is not an adequate representation of the women involved in climbing and does more damage than what is perhaps intended. My experience is different. Climbing is empowering for women. There is a wonderful and inspiring community of women climbers demanding equality. The expectation is that you CAN do it. That you WILL do it. That you will pull equal weight, that you will, at a minimum, have the same technical knowledge and thirst for adventure sport. And perhaps more critically, that men will support you in achieving your goals and vice versa. That men respect you and your voice. There are challenges, as in any sport, but the moments of sexism (in my experience) are the exception not the norm. It’s disappointing and infuriating that one of the big climbing films, the one which may mainstream the sport, is sexist.
When we topped out on Siren, hot, bothered, hungry, menstruating, making music, and incredibly happy, there was this deep feeling of belonging. And anything is possible when you have that.
 Fendt, Laura Sophia; Wilson, Erica (1 April 2012). ”I just push through the barriers because I live for surfing’: how women negotiate their constraints to surf tourism’. Annals of Leisure Research. 15 (1): 4–18. doi:10.1080/11745398.2012.670960. ISSN 1174-5398.