Women gather in Hellgate Gulch to climb, build community
By Gabrielle Gasser
TOWNSEND – Shouts of encouragement fill the air and several pairs of women dominate the routes on the Winter Wall at Hellgate Gulch near Townsend as their peers cheer them on from below. Each woman in view sports a green wristband, a subtle cue that they are all connected by a common purpose: to build a community of female climbers.
This birds-eye view from the top of Winter Wall was Kristen Neithercut’s favorite part of the first ever Montana Women’s Climbing Festival which ran Sept. 10-12.
Neithercut was one of four women who banded together to make the festival a reality. Joining her in leadership were Anju Samuelson, Becky Switzer and Karly Rager Priest. A desire to create a more tight-knit community for female climbers in Montana drove the idea for the festival.
“The goal of coming together was to encourage women not only to continue in their growth as a climber, but encourage growth as a friend, a spouse, a mother or a sister,” Switzer wrote in an email to EBS. “There are so many ways we use climbing as an analogy for life; the more we work to overcome challenges and difficulties in climbing, the more confidence and clarity we gain.”
Organizer Samuelson was inspired by the same goal.
“I knew there’s all these great women out there but they wouldn’t really … meet each other randomly at the crag,” said organizer Samuelson. “I just really liked that idea to have all these women coming together and even new women just meeting them, because it is so hard in Montana to just meet randomly people at the crag.”
The organizers secured permits from the Forest Service this past winter and worked on planning the festival all summer. About 40 participants attended the festival along with 10 to 12 instructors and volunteers, all women. Attendees varied from young climbers just getting into the sport to local icons like Meg Swanson, who put up a lot of the routes at Hellgate Gulch.
Women at the festival spent the weekend attending clinics, climbing, and most importantly, building community. Throughout the two days, climbers also got to hear from a roster of accomplished speakers.
The festival was put on entirely by volunteers and almost $1,000 was raised and donated to the Inge Perkins Scholarship a fund offered in partnership with Montana Mountaineering Association in memory of local climber Perkins who passed away in 2017. The scholarship provides financial assistance to female rock climbers in Perkins’ home state of Montana.
“Seeing everyone together on the first night of the event was a beautiful thing,” Switzer said. “Our state is so big that we tend to develop little islands of people that correspond with major cities and climbing areas. Triangulating in one location, Hellgate, was the perfect solution to try and make travel easier on everyone. It was refreshing to come up with a venue and a structure that provided a welcoming environment for everyone.”
Four speakers presented as part of the festival’s programming. On Friday, Sept. 10, Steph Bonucci, environmental engineer, spoke about Native American History at Hellgate and Lorca Smetana, a resilience teacher, gave a talk titled Resilience in the Mountains.
“The first night when everybody got there, we did some programming, and had some people speak, and it created an environment for vulnerability and also acceptance of us as women and us navigating risk as women,” Neithercut said. “We had a woman speak about resiliency and resiliency for females in the mountains and what that means. And I think that that helped set the tone for the rest of the weekend in that we’re all out here to build community and climb hard or not climb hard and connection and community was the thread that held everything together.”
For some attendees, these talks added even more value to their experience of the festival expanding the focus beyond climbing.
“I would say Lorca’s talk was really memorable for me,” said Jeannie Wall, participant, presenter and co-founder of women’s online climbing forum Broad Beta. “It really pivoted my experience into one of a richer, fuller experience of wanting to get to know different women there, being more open. For me making climbing the least important of the things that I was there for.”
Wall used the opportunity to introduce the women in attendance to Broad Beta as a place where they can post their stories and connect. The vision for this new forum, according to Wall, is to “embolden women through our shared stories” and create a safe space for women to share with each other openly.
On Saturday, Sept. 11, Anne Gilbert Chase, Patagonia Alpine Climbing Ambassador, gave a talk titled the Power of Female Partnerships followed by Kate Rutherford, Patagonia Alpine Climbing Ambassador, who gave a talk titled Understanding the Environmental Impact of the Climbing Industry.
“What made the festival really unique is seeing that in different women, the little peaks that they had, the little pearls that they took home or the sparkle in their eyes that you hadn’t seen before for some reason or the epiphany that one of us might have had in different ways for different reasons,” Wall said.
Both Neithercut and Samuelson are confident that the festival will continue into the future, possibly with a new venue.
“I think that being able to create these spaces for women is important,” Neithercut said. “Festivals and gathering places for people that identify as underrepresented [are] so important. And whether that’s in any field, but feeling underrepresented and being able to use whatever resources you have to build community around it, I think is really important.”