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Celebrating women climbers

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women climbers, greenpeace, shardSurprised that all of Greenpeace’s activists were women? You shouldn’t have been.

Anyone near the Shard last week would have seen an interesting sight: six Greenpeace campaigners scaling the building in protest at Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic.

At the top of the 310-metre highbuilding, the tallest in the European Union, they unfurled a ‘Save the Arctic’ flag for all to see.

All six campaigners were experienced climbers and also, as it turns out, women – a fact that has escaped few in the media.

They were Victoria Henry, 32, a Canadian living in Hackney, Ali Garrigan, 27, from Nottinghamshire, Sabine Huyghe, 33, from Belgium, Sandra Lamborn, 29, from Sweden, Liesbeth Deddens, 31, from the Netherlands and Wiola Smul, 34, from Poland.

The Telegraph’s Toby Young, somewhat inexplicably, referred to the decision to cast an all-female team for the climb as ‘sexist’, because in choosing women to do something which requires female strength, Greenpeace were  ‘implicitly accepting that women are the weaker sex.’

Perhaps they were simply the best people for the job?

Trollish comments on twitter, predictable as always, asked whether the women could clean the windows while they were there.

Yet people shouldn’t have found it quite so surprising that the climbing team was all female. After all, women have been climbing mountains, rocks and buildings for centuries, not only meeting men’s achievements but surpassing them.

The following is not even close to an exhaustive list, but merely a lightning quick snapshot at some of women’s extraordinary achievements in climbing history.

Marie Paradis was only 18 when she became the first woman to reach the top of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe, on 14 July 1808 (or 1811, sources differ).

She was working as a servant in a Chamonix inn when her guide friends persuaded her to go along with them. The climb was hard, and she had to be assisted part of the way, but she made it. She didn’t become a media sensation, but Alexandre Dumas, author of the three mousketeers, recorded her story on one of his visits to Chamonix.

Paradis also featured in Mark  Twain’s novel, ‘A Tramp Abroad’.

Gertrude Bell is one of the few women to have a mountain named after her: Getrudspitze in the Swiss Alps, after she climbed the mountain in 1901.

Bell became the first person to climb all the mountains in the Engelhorn range of the Swiss Alps. She later became better known for her political work in the Middle East and involvement in the creation of the state of Iraq at the end of the first world war.

Annie Smith Peck was 58 years old when she set the record for the highest climb in the western hemisphere in 1908, having been the first person to climb Mount Huascarán in Peru.

Women were already using climbing to reflect political stances in her day; she unfurled a ‘Votes for Women’ banner at the top of Mount Coropuna in Peru in 1911.

In 1975 an all-female Japanese climbing team set out to scale Everest. Although they were hit by an avalanche during their ascent, they reached the summit twelve days later and Junko Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of the mountain.

Women fare just as well in rock climbing.  In a list by Camp Roxx of the world’s top ten rock climbers, three are women.

Lynn Hill is perhaps one of the most famous women rock climbers. She broke climbing records for men and women alike and encouraged more women to pick up the sport.

In 1979 she became the first person to free climb Ophir Broke in Colorado, at the time the hardest route to have been climbed by a woman.

This was really only the beginning. She continued climbing and competing throughout the 1980s, encouraging more and more women to join the sport, before becoming the first person ever to free climb the Nose in 1993.

The Nose is one of the climbing routes up El Capitan in the California’s Yosemite valley. Hill completed the ascent in 23 hours, a record which she held for over a decade, until Tommy Caldewell bested it in 2005.

The future for women’s climbing looks bright.

Today’s best female free-climber is only 19 years old. Sasha Di Giulian ranks number one in the world for women’s outdoor climbing and is reigning US champion, having won the US championship three times in a row.

These trailblazers represent only the smallest fraction of women climbers.

With that in mind, is it really so surprising that the Greenpeace climbing team turned out to be all women?

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