Women’s Mentor Group WHY?

Women’s Mentor Group WHY?
February 6, 2018 Nathalie Drotar

Ladies L-to-R: Karla Kuharic, Susan Twitchell, Lisa Hunka, Beth Duak, Hilary Wong, Leah Neigum, Sue Steckle, anne drew potter, Jackie Smale, photo Anne drew Potter

The women’s climbing mentorship group recently had a fantastic weekend at Beauty Creek, bringing together seasoned (ahem!) leaders with some women who swung tools for the first time, and all levels in between. We spent 2 fruitful days at Tangle Falls and Balfour Wall getting in laps, mock leads and several leads on beginner-friendly ice, with one party adventuring out to climb Meltout on Sunday.

I started the women’s climbing mentorship group (WMG or WCMG) after moving to Calgary in 2015. I wanted to share my love of traditional climbing and encourage more women to lead on gear, partly because I have found leading to be a tremendously positive experience in my own life with many ramifications beyond climbing itself.  Though I am still a relative beginner in the ice arena, ice climbing has become as central to our group as rock. There is tremendous interest in this sport.  Thanks to the encouragement of some of our more experienced members, especially Susan Twitchell & Nathalie Drotar, we’re now having some great times out on the ice.

Personally, I have experienced plenty of sexism and heterosexism in my own pursuit of climbing knowledge and climbing partners, sadly moreso than in other arenas of my life. These experiences fuel my motivation to organize this group.  I have also experienced a lot of denial about these “isms” in the climbing community – which many of us like to believe is more culturally evolved than society at large. In some ways, the denial is more troubling than the sexism itself.  I also find that mentorship is an extremely important yet often evasive component of teaching and learning that fills the gap between that “introduction-to” course and achieving the confidence and competence to take on team membership.

 If you’re not sure what the value could be of a women’s-based group, my first suggestion would be to explore this question for yourself.  But to help those thoughts along, let me share the words of some of this weekend’s participants when asked why they signed up for a WMG event:

“A women’s group is valuable to me for so many reasons- not just that I can feel safe and supported as a beginner, but to see role models that show me what other women are accomplishing.  For an activity that I am nervous or uncomfortable with, I might be more likely to try a women-only group to explore it.”  – BETH DUAK

Anne drew leading the easy line, photo by Karla Kuharic

“Women’s mentorship groups/trips are invaluable when it comes to developing leadership and skill development in mountain activities. There can be fundamental and widespread differences in the way that men and woman communicate and assess risk, logistics, skill and comfort levels, and the roles and responsibilities involved in group dynamics for mountain activities. It is not uncommon for input from a woman in a group of men in the mountains to go unnoticed and a man’s identical suggestion to be acted upon. This can create a barrier for women to develop leadership skills and to be confident in the skills that they already possess.

Women’s mentorship groups/trips:

– empower woman to be active participants in their own skill development and confident in the skills they already possess

-inspire woman to be committed to the learning of other women

-create an environment for objective, honest and transparent communication about skill level, abilities, and goals

– create an encouraging and less intimidating environment to develop leadership skills

On a final note, I would like to reiterate that the goal of WMG is not to encourage gender exclusion. Rather, the WMG is a mechanism to foster an empowering place for learning, and leadership development for a group of people that have been historically underrepresented in mountain sports.” – LEAH NEIGUM

Leah on Beautiful Balfour, photo by Anne drew Potter

“For myself, living in a small town with a minimal amount of people in general, it is really tough to find partners even more so female partner(s). The closest crag is 100km away and even though it sounds close finding a suitable partner isn’t so easy regardless of gender. My urge to climb, mountaineer and get better in the mountains overall takes a lot of my time, thoughts, and energy.  I get discouraged, depressed and at times just feel like I’m never going to get to my fullest ability.  

When I became an ACC Calgary member life changed drastically.  The first time I laid eyes on the activity page and saw the Women’s Mentorship Group I was so so happy!  I said to myself FINALLY!!  I signed up immediately!  I became instantly hooked, dedicated, and I think most of you recognize that with all my travels out your way. If I didn’t make that commitment and effort I probably would never get out doing what truly means everything to me.  Thank you to all the ladies that take the time to share their knowledge in the mountains, it really shows that women can conquer anything we put our minds to.  Please keep this group going especially for the younger generation where it can be that much more intimidating.

We are a strong group of woman and no matter what discourages us, it just encourages us that much more to push through our barriers.” – KARLA KUHARIC

Nathalie at a one-hand rest, photo by Karla Kuharic

“The WMG events are a unique opportunity to level-set the differences in communication styles that exist between genders in mountain activities.  This is important when building confidence in learning or improving one’s skills. Many of these pursuits have historically been predominately male and the representation of these activities in culture and media can leave many women to believe you must be brutally strong and have no fear.  Because of this I personally missed out on taking advantage of getting out and doing some of these activities in my younger years and I would hate for a younger woman to miss out as I did.  There is no negative judgment of ability, and the support and encouragement for one’s learning is prevalent at these inclusive events.  It has now given me more confidence that I do have something to add to the group in mixed company where before I felt like the slowpoke muse.” – LISA HUNKA

Belay and Lead Demo, photo by Beth Duak

“Thank you everyone for being such great mentors! I’ve been reflecting for a week about the trip and whenever people ask how it went, I say “Good! Equal parts fun and scary! Okay maybe a little more scary than fun…” But it’s a good thing! I’m all about personal growth and doing one thing a day that scares you (it’s the wisest thing I know). I was outside of my comfort zone for a full 48 hours, and I’m glad that I got to do it with the amazing women in our group. Though not necessarily related to women, a trait I find that is pervasive throughout the WMG is the atmosphere of consideration for one another and the environment for learning. I was outside my comfort zone, but the kindness that people showed one another made it so much nicer.” – HILARY WONG

Hilary in the discomfort zone, photo by Jacquelyn Smale

“I moved to Calgary recently, and the Alpine Club’s welcoming environment has been a wonderful way to navigate the sea of established partners. However, I was exceptionally excited when I saw the WMG on the upcoming events calendar, and I signed up immediately.  While I am excited to climb with any partner, the women’s mentorship group is an introduction to women who not only know what it is like to be in the gender minority, but also want to connect with others who have had similar experiences. I saw the potential of a supportive, welcoming community, where I would not have to worry about feeling out of place or navigating gender dynamics. The weekend was exactly what I had hoped for, and I met a spectacular group of people I could relate to in both climbing and personal endeavors.  I come away from it with a renewed love for the outdoors and a fire in my belly to accomplish things I, only days ago, felt were impossible. “ JAQUELINE SMALE

Mmmmm….burritos, L-to-R: Beth Duak, Leah Neigum, Susan Twitchell, Lisa Hunka, Sue Steckle, Chelsea McCune, Hilary Wong, Jackie Smale, anne drew potter, Karla Kuharic, Rebecca Haspel (missing: Nathalie Drotar, Vi Pickering),  photo Sue Steckle.

Texts and photos by Anne drew Potter – Winter, 2018



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