Women’s Trad Festival

Q&A with festival organiser Gilly McArthur | 06 August, 2021

This August, the Women’s Trad Festival returns to the Peak District to celebrate its sixth year with a fantastic weekend of climbing for all abilities, ages and genders, bringing together an ever growing, inclusive network of beginners and mentors all psyched to get outside. 

Since the beginning of the Festival in 2016, DMM have supported WTF as one of its key sponsors. Before the madness of the weekend begins, we caught up with one of its directors, Gilly McArthur, for a chat about inclusivity, community, and what she is most excited for this year.

Behind Women’s Trad Festival lie three core values which underpin everything you do – can you tell us more about these aims and values, and the different ways people can get involved?

The first of our core values is based around mental wellbeing in the outdoors. In the past few years we have spoken at the festival about what climbing means to us as a community. It’s something more than just topping out – it’s digging deeper into why we find climbing so powerful for our mental wellbeing and how it shapes our lives. Being outside is a great vehicle for change. 

Our second core value is sustainability. We feel really strongly about this as a group of organisers and want to run a festival as close to zero waste as possible. This year we have eco loos and there is no single use plastic on site – everyone has to bring their own plate, fork and cup. The site itself is very quiet as everything is powered by solar panels. The groups and instructors wear different tees and we have these made with a company in Sheffield called ‘Printed By Us’, a wicked charity who provide work and training for homeless people. We strive to run a festival which is carefully curated to reflect our values, without the plastic wrist bands and single use ‘stuff’ that nobody needs. We carefully calculate our impact of every aspect of the festival to help us achieve our goals.

Our final core value is accessibility – if you want to come to the festival but need extra support, we can make that happen. We have extra provision for disabled climbers and work with AMI to provide correct instruction to make the experience a positive one for everyone. This year we’re delighted to also have subsidised spaces available for those who can’t afford to come, whether that be money for gear, a tent or a train ticket to Sheffield for the weekend. None of these requests are means-tested as we don’t believe that one plea is more valid than another and places are picked by random. It’s simple – if you win a ballot place, you can come.

For the past six years WTF has brought together climbers from all over the country, of all abilities, ages and genders – why is it so important to have female-led festivals such as WTF?

The outdoors needs more female led teams and groups. This creates role models, which in turn inspires others to take that leap. I think professionally it is also important to highlight the fact that there are so many amazing outdoor female instructors out there at the top of their game, completely smashing it.

Whatever space you are in, if you want to create an event, brand or community that aligns with your values, then I would say – follow your dreams and crack on and do it. It is impossible for us all to champion everything! We have four directors at the festival – each one of us brings a different set of strengths and the end product is a collaborative effort.

Whilst the festival is female led, around 20% of the people attending this year are male. The men who do attend always comment on how supportive and uncompetitive the atmosphere is at the festival. As soon as you come on site, you can feel that – a strong sense of community. 

Gemma Louise Davies enjoying DMM's crack climbing clinic. © Ray Wood
Gemma Louise Davies enjoying DMM's crack climbing clinic. © Ray Wood
Crack climbing tools of the trade. © Ray Wood
Crack climbing tools of the trade. © Ray Wood

Last year we saw the release of ‘Over the Edge’, a film which tells the story behind the creation of the festival. During the film you speak about trad climbing as a kind of antidote to modern life – how would you describe your relationship with trad, and why is it such an important tool in encouraging women climbers to get out of their comfort zones?

I can only talk about this from my own perspective, but what’s so lovely about climbing with other women is that it often feels, if not always, more collaborative. You really see that at the festival. It doesn’t matter what grade you are climbing at – there is a tacit understanding that perhaps the rock can be climbed a similar way between the two of you.

In terms of getting people out of their comfort zones, I think an adventure managed by yourself and your own understanding of safety is really beautiful and empowering. This sense of self-assessment has been stripped away in the past few years because of Covid. There is so much joy to be had in finding your own edge, pushing on and assessing something safely for yourself. After a period of time when we’ve been told that we can’t and mustn’t go out climbing, there is something freeing now about rocking up at the bottom of a crag and saying, we’re doing this. Climbing is a wonderful tool which takes us away from our screens, inspires confidence and encourages people to try new things – there is a beautiful relationship between trad and freedom.

The festival is all about inspiring confidence and creating safe and supportive communities for climbers – why is connectivity so important and what changes can we make as individuals to help those around us feel more included in the sport?

I’ve already spoken about our values, but our festival also has three main aims. Firstly, we want to raise each other up by helping beginners transition from indoor to outdoor climbing. As individuals we can do this on a smaller scale too. For example, if somebody is at an indoor wall and you want to make them feel more included, perhaps look at taking them outside.

Secondly, we hope to encourage more women and marginalised genders into outdoor leadership. This bounces from the first one really – if you want to do this you absolutely can, and we hope to show that this is possible with people authentically doing it. Whether you are acting a role model or ally, championing those out there already or sharing your own story will do far more than you would imagine.

Finally, we want to create an inclusive network of trad climbers. After the festival, we want people to go back to their climbing wall or local group and share their experiences with others. Every person remembers their first ever trad route and it’s important to us that we are able to provide that positive mentorship and get people outside. Our partnership with AMI this year will really help cement this.

Escaping the system as part of the DMM self-rescue clinic at WTF 2019.  © Ray Wood
Escaping the system as part of the DMM self-rescue clinic at WTF 2019. © Ray Wood

After last year’s festival had to be postponed due to Covid restrictions, what are you most looking forward to in WTF ‘21 and what are the things you have missed most about climbing?

I’m really looking forward to seeing people coming together in real life! Because of lockdown, people couldn’t get to the crags and didn’t have that sense of community in something that was already quite niche. The coming together of these two things for one weekend will be very powerful, and there is always a special energy in seeing all our hard work as organisers coming together to make this happen.

For me, the thing I’ve missed the most about climbing is travel. Not being able to go to different places. After almost two years of lockdown the outdoors has become very important for everyone and everywhere is quite busy. It’s great to see people psyched about spending time outside, but I have definitely missed visiting my favourite hidden pockets of trad across the UK.

Since starting the festival six years ago, in what ways have you seen the outdoor community embrace diversity? What barriers still need to be broken down?

We were slightly ahead of the curve setting up the festival 6 years ago when there was a real need to create space and listen to the experiences of female climbers. Since then, the outdoor industry has caught up and everyone is singing off the same song-sheet now.

My biggest bugbear however is that there is an awful lot of tokenistic stuff which is not really meaningful. In terms of more marginalised communities getting into the outdoors, a lot of work still needs to be done and what we are doing at the festival is just one small part of a much bigger picture. I would like the outdoor community to look at the impact of their actions, not just focus on their words! Another issue I’ve noticed is ‘greenwashing’ – instead of looking at how we are consuming and relentlessly hammering the environment, loads of buzzwords are being thrown around with no direct measures being taken to reduce our carbon footprint.

It is really important for us to generate genuine collaborations which are heartfelt between organisations and brands, rather than signing with a group because it ‘makes us look better’. To make positive changes in the outdoor and adventure industries, we need to actively platform marginalised voices, rather than using peoples lived experiences as marketing campaigns. Unfortunately, this is still a pretty big issue and something we need to work together on to change.

What are your hopes for the festival and where do you see it in six years’ time?

I want everyone to leave the festival feeling that they’ve had an engaging and empowering experience with a community of people they feel part of and connected with. I want people to have a lovely time, regardless of gender, age or body shape, and create connections with those around them in more heartfelt and meaningful ways.

As for the future of the festival, we would potentially like to partner up with outdoor centres and expand into different areas like swimming and mountain biking. Ideally, in 6 years’ time I’d like to see more change in the outdoor industry as a whole – I hope that 50% of all climbing and outdoor instructors are female and that anyone can rock up at a climbing wall and not feel like they shouldn’t be there. If we can do that, then we’ve done our job. Until then, we will keep pushing on.

Gilly McArthur addressing the 2019 Women's Trad Festival. © Ray Wood
Gilly McArthur addressing the 2019 Women's Trad Festival. © Ray Wood