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Women-only adventure clinics offer challenge and support

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Inga Mader of Chicago, Ill., descends after a climb with Chicks with Picks in New Hampshire. (Photo by Dara L. Miles)

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Inga Mader (in blue) of Chicago, Ill. hangs on a curtain of ice at Chicks with Picks clinic in New Hampshire. (Photo courtesy of Dale Edwards)

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Liz Craig-Olin of Brookline, Mass., is roped and ready to climb at a Chicks with Picks clinic in New Hampshire. (Photo by Dara L. Miles)

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Inga Mader of Chicago, Ill., works the ropes for another Chicks with Picks clinic participant. (Photo by Dara L. Miles)

Inga Mader was not feeling like an ice goddess.

Twenty feet in the air, she clung, spread-eagle, to a pockmarked wall of sloping ice, hanging by the front points of her boot spikes and the ice tools she clutched. Despite the safety harness and rope held tight by a guide below, Mader froze. A muffled sob escaped.

“Inga?” Her guide called. “Everything OK?”

“No,” she sputtered, then wailed. “Oh my God, I’m terrified of heights!”

Half a dozen helmeted heads swiveled upward, and an enthusiastic chorus rose:

“That’s OK, Inga! Caroline’s got you!”

“C’mon, Inga, you can do this thing!”

And that’s how Inga Mader, a 41-year-old Chicago chef, learned to ice climb. On a frozen waterfall in New Hampshire, Mader, not all that athletic and a self-described fraidy cat, faced her fears under the tutelage of some of the best ice-climbers in the country and in the company of other newbies.

There wasn’t a man in sight.

More women than ever are seeking hard-core outdoor adventure instruction in the company of other women. All-female excursions have been around for years, but these are not your grandma’s vacations. Ice-climbing clinics, rock-climbing camps, and alpine mountaineering seminars are physically demanding endeavors that inspire fear and require a first-timer to take a certain leap of faith.

The outdoor adventure industry has figured out that the leap is easier when the landing is softened by the support of other women. Female guides get the credit for the trend, but they say they just listened to what their clients wanted: a place to challenge themselves away from the scrutiny of men, with female instructors and an atmosphere of collaboration rather than competition. At these clinics, it’s OK to cry.

Mattie Sheafor, an instructor with Exum Mountain Guides in Wyoming, is widely held to be the first to create a successful women’s climbing program, in the late 1980s. For years, Women That Rock had girls who didn’t know a chock from a carabiner flocking to the Tetons’ granite walls, boosting the sport’s popularity. Chicks with Picks followed in 1999 and did the same for ice climbing. Now, a Google search for “women-only climbing” turns up hundreds of programs at crags, ice walls and rock gyms from California to Maine.

Although most clinics welcome experienced climbers and newbies alike, the programs appeal particularly to first-timers, who often worry that they’re too old or too weak, or that they’ll look foolish—-fears that escalate when men are in the mix.

“A lot of these sports can be very testosterone-driven,” said Angela Hawse, 45, an instructor for Chicks with Picks in Ouray, Colo., and Exum, Wyo. With men, she said, “there’s a lot of competition, and that can be healthy, but it's not necessarily conducive to learning.”

Susan Cram, 43, a climbing instructor and owner of Uprising Adventure Guides in Joshua Tree, Calif., calms fears by reminding her clients they don’t have to be in perfect physical condition to climb.

“I’ve had clients who were way overweight, but who have done really well because they had strong legs and good balance,” Cram said.

Women’s climbing groups get the same expert instruction in skills and safety, but with more emphasis on the basics. Proper technique is stressed over brute strength, and the pace may be slower to accommodate varying abilities. The instructors, naturally, are women, something that Liz Craig-Olin, of Brookline, Mass., found comforting when she decided to try ice climbing at the age of 56.

“Women talk to each other differently and they teach each other differently,” said Craig-Olin, a high school English teacher. “There’s just something about learning from a woman. Men don’t know what’s going on inside your head in the same way.”

Moreover, all-female clinics tend to focus on the “whole woman”--clients are encouraged to talk about their reasons for being there.

“We have women who’ve never tried to climb before, or who are going through some life transition, who see this as a way to push themselves and move on,” Cram said. Their stories inform the instruction and foster a collaborative approach to the challenges.

Emotional support abounds at women’s clinics, and success and satisfaction can turn on it, Cram said. Women tend to celebrate even the smallest successes—-which boosts confidence and paves the way for mental toughness. As Cram puts it, “Climbing is 80 percent from your neck up. It’s your head.”

Emotions can run high when the body is under the kind of intense stress it encounters in rock, ice, or mountain climbing, and women may feel compelled to rein in emotional displays around men. When it’s just “the girls,” tears are almost expected, and they don’t always spring from fear or pain, guides say. Some tears are shed in amazement--at an unexpected accomplishment, or when a mental barrier is broken.

With women, “you may laugh, you may cry, and we’re all there to support each other,” Cram said. “It’s about doing something out of the ordinary, outside of your comfort zone.”

Those are the very words Mader used to describe why she tried ice-climbing, which showed her she could face her fears.

“I learned something about myself, and also about the other women, who I saw just as they were,” she said. “It was a nice intimate thing to experience, and you can’t do that with guys in the group.”

E-mail: dlm2142@columbia.edu