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Making climbing more gender-inclusive, one ice tower at a time

Elizabeth Harlow
Ice towers at Peabody Ice Climbing Club

Mai Hitotsuyanagi is an avid rock climber. Depending on the season, you can find her teaching yoga at her rock gym, driving to the Red River Gorge’s famous sandstone in Kentucky, or scaling ice in Munising. But she said that climbing hasn't always offered her the kind of environment she finds most supportive as an athlete.

“I get really intimidated by all the really strong bros broin’ out. And it's just nice to have women who are like, 'Oh, have you tried this?'”

Hitotsuyanagi is far from the only climber to navigate finding her space in the sport in recent years.

Climbing has exploded in popularity over the past decade, growing from a niche outdoor activity into a mainstream fitness option. The United States now has nearly 600 dedicated climbing gyms, about twice as many as existed in 2012, according to the Climbing Business Journal

Michigan has dozens of indoor walls in addition to its outdoor destinations. Interest in climbing is continuing to expand rapidly, thanks to easier access. It’s also drawn widespread attention from sport climbing’s Olympic debut last summer and the popularity of films like the Oscar-winning climbing documentary Free Solo.

But climbers’ demographics have broadened more slowly than their ranks. Sport climbing is still overwhelmingly white. And according to survey data from the American Alpine Club, outdoor climbing, especially, remains disproportionately male.

In response, new groups are popping up to make all aspects of the sport more welcoming and inclusive.

In pursuit of the community she wanted to have, Hitotsuyanagi founded a small group three years ago to cultivate gender-inclusive climbing in southeast Michigan. Its name, Send Friends, is a nod to the positive tone Hitotsuyanagi said she wanted to set. “Send it!” is a common cheer of encouragement among climbers.

In addition to connecting women and nonbinary climbers with outdoor climbing through Send Friends, Hitotsuyanagi also organizes gym-based events at Planet Rock in Madison Heights and Ann Arbor under the flag of Send Sisters.

The groups provide community space for non-male climbers to connect, encourage each other, share techniques for their bodies, and be guaranteed a space free of machismo.

This year, the group took its first excursions to explore a type of climbing that might seem inaccessible but that happens to be excellent in Michigan: ice climbing.

The frozen waterfalls of the Upper Peninsula are world-class destinations for winter climbing enthusiasts to scale vertical ice. But the artificial ice towers at Peabody Ice Climbing Club in Fenton also offer a unique setting for those who live farther south.

“If you've never done ice climbing before, it gives you access to it without having to drive eight hours,” said Hitotsuyanagi.

The movements are in some ways very similar to climbing on rock, and in others, very different. Because ice is so cold and so slick, you can’t grip it with your hands or reliably stand on it in boots. Instead, specialized axes and foot spikes allow climbers to dig into the ice.

What does that sound like? Take a listen to a first time ice climber’s experience with the Send Friends — it’s crunchy, windy, and full of encouraging shouts and sends.

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Elizabeth Harlow is an Assistant Producer for Stateside.
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