Émilie’s blistered fingers probed the granite wall. The wind whipped her rope around. Her pulse was racing. Perched a hundred metres above Baie Éternité, she kept telling herself that she could do it—that she would conquer La Cavale, a 5.13b climbing route on Cap Trinité. “This is a really treacherous route. There are only a few bolts. You secure yourself as you go,” remembers the climber.
Although she ventured on this climb just for kicks away from the competition scene, Émilie Pellerin is one of Quebec’s most accomplished female rock climbing athletes and is pushing the limits of what it means to take to the sky. And she’s not alone—Quebec boasts several other talented female climbers. The seasoned Annie Chouinard also has several harrowing 5.14 climbs under her belt, including the challenging Come On in Orford. She makes up for her five-foot-one-inch reach with her iron will, creativity and focused training regimen.
“The way women can move their hips, their flexibility, is a real advantage,” notes Matthieu Des Rochers, Sports Director for the Fédération québécoise de la montagne et de l’escalade (FQME). He mentions the incredible focus and balance they display on their gravity-defying climbs. Mélissa Lacasse, who was a rock climbing coach for over 15 years, adds that beyond physical abilities, having technical foresight is key—if you can’t break down the climb, then you won’t get very far. With so much going for them, our only wish is to see more high-level female rock climbers scaling the rock faces of la Belle Province. Where are they hiding?
More Female Rock Climbers? Great, But…
Indoor rock climbing gyms in Quebec are actually overrun with women. In fact, they make up more than half of the clientele, according to Geneviève de la Plante, co-owner of the indoor climbing gym, Allez Up. However, outdoor rock climbing is a whole different ball game. In May 2020, women only accounted for 38 per cent of the FQME members subscribed to outdoor rock climbing sites. How can that be when Quebec is teeming with so many mountains and cliffs that are just begging to be explored? Go see for yourself—the Laurentians, Charlevoix, Saguenay and Bas-Saint-Laurent, to name but a few, are filled with notable rock walls.
“With so much going for them, our only wish is to see more high-level female rock climbers scaling the rock faces of la Belle Province. Where are they hiding?”
Since rock climbing has long been associated with mountaineering, a male-dominated world, many aren’t rushing to conclusions just yet. Change takes time. Émilie and Mélissa are unanimous: Chauvinism isn’t preventing women from putting themselves out there. “I can’t recall that many times when I felt out of place,” states Mélissa. As a matter of fact, the rock climbing community in Quebec is one of the most open and welcoming she has ever encountered.
Passing the Torch
Developing skills from a young age is what seems to be the crux of excelling at the sport. There is some good news—climbers are getting younger and younger according to Mélissa, who noticed a shift when the FQME started organizing provincial competitions in 2009. Rock climbers under the age of 12 currently make up the majority of the women who compete. Matthieu Des Rochers even drops a “things look promising.”
But the battle isn’t won just yet. The old saying “monkey see, monkey do” really holds true to its meaning here. Matthieu believes that creating a fair representation within the rock climbing community is key—it’s going to take a lot more female coaches, routesetters and judges to tip the scales.
That is exactly what Geneviève de la Plante was thinking when she created Bring In The Girls (B.I.G) in 2019, a not-for-profit organization that aims to create more gender equality among decision-makers in the sport. To do so, a series of workshops for routesetting—the placing of grips on the climbing wall—were offered to female climbers across Canada last year. “That’s how different rock climbing styles take root. Things become stagnant if there is little or no variety in routesetters,” explains Geneviève, who also wants to see more female coaches out there. “They [female rock climbers] are twice as likely to quit the sport between the ages of 15–16 than their male counterparts. They need to be able to talk to their coach about what they’re struggling with. It would probably be easier woman to woman.”
A new generation heeds the call, a shared vision and the means to get there—the sport now has a solid common ground to build upon. Hopefully, this newfound momentum will give us more Émilies, Annies and Mélissas ready to soar to new heights. Because they’re freaking good at it.