Monique Forestier started climbing in her early 20s… and went on to become the first Australian woman to climb a 31, 32, 33 and 34.
These days, when she’s not casually crushing the kind of climbs that terrify mere mortals, she coaches climbers at all levels in Sydney and the Blue Mountains. She recently chatted with Wendy Bruere about her climbing career, how the sport is changing for women and girls, and her own moments of facing sexism at the crag.
Wendy: How did you get into rock climbing in the first place?
Monique: I won a free pass to the St Leonards gym and immediately got hooked. I’d just finished university, I’d been swimming through uni and prior to that I was a gymnast. I had been very much into training with the gymnastics, so there was that part of my life that was critically missing. Swimming kept me sane through uni, but it certainly wasn’t going to keep me sane afterward. When I discovered indoor climbing it was an immediate attraction. It was very physical and I liked the problem solving aspect of it.
So quickly I went from climbing one day a week to two days a week. Then when I started going three days a week I improved exponentially.
It took me a while to get established outdoors. When I first started going outdoors, to be honest, I found it quite frustrating, time consuming and boring. Indoors I was able to push myself to my physical limit, but outdoors there were a whole lot of skills I needed to learn and everything took a long time.
I pursued it because I wrote myself a tick list of all the climbs I aimed to do, and that made me focus on new climbs, new crags, and not just doing the same things all the time. It meant I started pushing my comfort zone, and that was initially the real turning point in my outdoor climbing. Then my skill set caught up to my climbing ability, and I could really start pushing myself physically on rock.
It must have been quite male-dominated back then in the late 90s. Did that affect the culture of the sport in terms of sexism and equality?
It was certainly a male-dominated sport, but initially I didn’t have an awareness, of it. I was just part of the group who were going out climbing.
Regarding gender equality and inequality though, once I started pushing the grades on rock, although I didn’t realise it at the time, I did cop a lot of male machismo, and I was a victim of some not so great behaviour from men. Many of the harder routes I climbed were later downgraded by the men who had also climbed them.
At the time I didn’t think much of it. I thought, ‘sure, that’s going to happen’. I expected it almost. But when it continued to happen, it started to get tiring. Though at the same time I thought, ‘Well, I don’t care. I know what I’ve climbed – and to be quite honest I’m doing it harder anyway because I’m smaller!’ [laughs]
Monique Forestier, Mr Mean Goo (31) at Diamond Falls, Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia.
Do you ever look back and wish that you’d confronted the people doing that?
It’s interesting. The thing is, some of these things happen subtly, it’s not like I finished a route and someone was there saying ‘That’s only a 31!’ It would happen weeks later, because the online scorecards would get changed.
Do you think it affected your climbing at all?
No, I was just more determined.
Would it still happen these days?
If females were climbing routes these days and they were getting downgraded, personally I’d stand up, and I believe a lot of females and their peers would stand up and say ‘This is not right’. And I think the boys have grown up a bit too.
I would hope it’s not happening anymore. In terms of my experiences, it’s water under the bridge. You can’t rewrite history, so let’s move on.
You’ve climbed a grade 34, but you didn’t start climbing till you were 23 – do you ever wonder if you’d started earlier, like kids do these days, where you would have got to?
I think I would have just got to the same point sooner – and I would be hopeful to say I would have climbed 35.
Is that something you still aim for?
I remember you had a story about going to a crag and a group of young men climbing in the low 20s saw you approach and one helpfully pointed you towards some nice 20s. Did you ever look back on situations like that and wish you had said something, or thought of the perfect retort later?
Well, I just had an internal smirk. You know, it was just like, ‘Okay, thank you for that’. Because then I stopped at the next wall, and one of the guys looked up when I was trying a grade 34 and said ‘Oh! I didn’t see that coming!’
I wasn’t proving a point – that was just the climb I wanted to try that day – and I didn’t really have any interest in correcting him or telling him he was being a bit presumptuous. But perhaps he won’t do that again. I know myself that with climbers you can never judge a book by its cover.
How did your climb, Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor– a 26 at Shipley Lower – get its name?
I was given that project by a friend, Chris Coghill bolted it. I did it fairly quickly – it was a bitterly cold day. And to cut a long story short, that song was on the radio on the way home and at the same time it was a reflection of my thoughts on the people that had screwed me over with the grading. There really were just too many dicks on the dance floor, and naming the climb was in reference to that. It was me finally saying ‘Screw you!’
Is there actually any difference of natural ability between men and women in climbing? As a coach you’d have some insight into that.
Men, in general, seem to climb more confidently initially, but once women get that same confidence, their climbing takes off. When women start they are more calculated and hesitant, but once they start to believe in themselves and go for it they really progress.
At the elite level is there that difference?
Good question. If you’re looking at world cups, then the guys would be climbing about a grade 33 or 34, and the women would be at least 31 or 32. There’s still a difference at that elite level, and I don’t see that closing, because the guys are stronger and taller, and the problems are set more dynamically, bigger spans, more powerful moves.
What about outdoors?
It already has closed to some extent. You’ve got women climbing 36 now, and I think Adam Ondra has done a 39.
Monique Forestier, To Bolt or Not to Be (14a), Smith Rock, Oregon, USA.
I saw a line in another interview that you didn’t think you’d climb at an elite level after you had your daughter. Why was that? Men never say that.
Well, they don’t take care of a child in the same way. Unfortunately, it comes down to the mother – they’re the ones breastfeeding, they’re up late at night. And, I must admit, after having my daughter, Coco, because I wasn’t working I also thought I couldn’t justify climbing. I put myself on a bit of guilt trip, and I felt awkward asking for someone to mind my child so I could go climbing.
It took me several years until Coco was a lot older that I got to the stage where I said to myself, ‘Well, I often look after other people’s children, I have to start asking for favours back’. I started owning it, and saying, ‘I’d like to go climbing, would you mind Coco?’ So rather than just saying I had something on and hiding it, I owned it, and it felt really empowering to do that.
That sounds like such a typically female response, to feel guilty about prioritising any of your own needs.
Yes. So I struggled with that for quite some time, thinking everything else has to happen before I got a chance. And your chance rarely comes around unless you make it happen. It’s a big shift in mindset to say, ‘I deserve my time. Now it’s my turn.’ But that’s the thing when you keep waiting until it’s your turn – the time is ticking away.
As a coach, how do you see things changing these days compared to how it used to be?
If anything women and girls are on the rise – their confidence is growing, and they’re being supported by their peers, including their male peers. It’s like a new energy; the bouldering competitions are a very supportive and engaging environment – in the past this wasn’t so evident.
The retention rate of junior female competition climbers is on the increase – previously, the drop off rate across the sport for girls and young women has been huge.
And the sport has really grown in Australia in the last five to ten years, because of the explosion of indoor climbing gyms – the gyms are gaining popularity and attracting new people to the sport. We’re also seeing outdoor climbers coming back to competition climbing. It’s almost groovy, with the Olympic push as well, making it quite a drawcard.
‘Your chance rarely comes around unless you make it happen. It’s a big shift in mindset to say, ‘I deserve my time. Now it’s my turn.’
What did your parents think when you took up climbing?
My family have always been incredibly supportive over the years, however I feel that they still sometimes wonder when I’ll give this climbing caper up and get a real job.
It wasn’t until I did the 34 that the whole family paid attention. I think that was because it was on par with what men had done in Australia at the time – no Australian male had climbed a 35 at that point. I’d equaled what the men were doing, and I think that’s when the family realised I must be good.