Are Female Mountaineers Better Decision-Makers?

A pro weighs in on gender differences at high altitude.

Posted Oct 11, 2019

In big-mountain climbing, every footfall counts. Every handhold. Every piece of weather demands action. Do you dig in, or turn around? On the world’s highest peaks, there’s no time to ponder. Decision-making is king. You have to hit it or quit it. 

Every climber lives (or dies) on his or her decisions. And speaking of his or her, who makes better decisions at altitude, men or women? 

I was unable to find studies on cognitive gender differences displayed during mountain climbing. However, the differences in how women and men make decisions under stress has long been established. Men tend to make more reckless decisions under stress, apparently driven by the possibility of greater rewards.

Due to the historic underrepresentation of women in the world of mountain climbing, this area of study is mostly a big, snow-capped unknown. But one professional climber has been noticing the differences between women and men at altitude and concluded that women are better suited to be in the “death zone”—above 26,000 feet in elevation. One of the world’s leading alpine climbers and guides, Adrian Ballinger, knows more than most about how decisions, good or bad, affect outcomes on the world’s highest mountains.

Courtesy Alpenglow Expeditions.
Adrian Ballinger.
Source: Courtesy Alpenglow Expeditions.

Ballinger is the only American who has skied two 8,000-metre peaks, was the first person to ski Manaslu, the eighth-tallest mountain in the world, and in 2011 became the first person to summit three 8,000m peaks in only three weeks—Everest twice and Lhotse once.

He says that women are better decision-makers at high altitudes. Last spring,  Ballinger’s guiding company, Alpenglow Expeditions, supported its first all-female team. 

I caught up with Ballinger recently to ask him about ego, gender, and decision-making in the high mountains.

Alpenglow Expeditions.
Alpenglow Expeditions' all-female team.
Source: Alpenglow Expeditions.

Ned Morgan: Why in your opinion are women better-composed for the high alpine?

Adrian Ballinger: Over many years in the big mountains, one of the things I've observed is that many of my male clients are oftentimes a lot more tied up in ego. They're not as good perhaps at listening to their bodies. And at altitude what that means is they might go a little bit faster than they should and they might not take a rest day when they should. They might not drop back down lower on the mountain when they should. Instead they try to keep up with the group or be in front. And in the big mountains you can't really recover when you go into a deficit. So if you push too hard one day, if you red-line yourself, it can have effects days or weeks later. Over more than two decades of full-time climbing and guiding and in the high mountains around the world, what I see is that women have a tendency to listen to their bodies and to be a little more respectful of what their bodies are telling them. 

Alpenglow Expeditions.
Adrian Ballinger.
Source: Alpenglow Expeditions.

NM: Could you give examples of times when you observed women climbers displaying better decision-making?

AB: This is something I've seen over and over in my climbing in the big mountains and that I've personally experienced with my partner Emily Harrington as well. Emily’s a professional climber like me; she specializes in rock climbing and I specialize in the high mountains. But at this point we've also done climbs together, whether big walls in Yosemite or 8,000m peaks in Nepal. I consistently watch Emily: With very little ego, she knows when she needs to slow down or take a day off. And that's worked out for her and given her the strength to be successful on summit day or on the final push on the big ski descent.

NM: Would you agree that an excess of ego frequently gets people killed on Everest and elsewhere?

AB: I think ego is one of those really important things to recognize and acknowledge in the big mountains. I think to be truly successful in the mountains there is often some ego there and it's probably reinforced: If you don't get yourself killed, that starts to tell you that your decision making was "right," which it often might not have been. You might have just gotten lucky. So it might take some ego to be able to push through the unknowns and the risk, and continue pushing for these big goals. But at the same time, ego—for the wrong reasons, whether it's fame or money—can definitely get you killed in the big mountains. 

NM: Have you ever perceived ego as a factor in your own decisions at altitude? Or in the decisions of climbers you know?

AB: I would certainly say that some of the death we see on Everest has to do with ego, not listening to our bodies, and not listening to people with more experience who recommend turning around. And just not being willing or able to turn around because our egos might not be able to handle failure. I don't think it's about getting rid of ego; it's about acknowledging it and recognizing it when it might be causing us to make dangerous decisions. 

I see it not so much in my guiding, since we as mountain guides do have the last word with our clients about safety. But in my personal climbing with friends, that's where I sometimes question people's decisions. And for myself as well. Looking back at 2016, when I failed on Everest without supplemental oxygen, had a lot to do with my ego—wanting to keep up with my partner, Cory Richards, and ultimately making some poor decisions based on that because he was faster than me above 8,000m. And I had a really hard time with that. And ultimately I ran out of energy and put myself in a really dangerous situation trying to keep up with him.

So certainly I've perceived ego as a factor in my own decisions. Ego isn't all bad. But recognizing and acknowledging it I think is absolutely essential to safety in the mountains. And I often think my female partners and peers often come to that more comfortably than a lot of my male partners and peers. 

Alpenglow Expeditions.
Carla Perez.
Source: Alpenglow Expeditions.

I also spoke with Alpenglow Expeditions mountain guide Carla Perez—the first South American woman to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen. (Only a handful of women worldwide have accomplished this feat.)

NM: Could you talk about how the experience of training and climbing with an all-female team? Do you notice a difference in group dynamics as compared to mixed teams?

Carla Perez: Yes, I feel different dynamics on an all-female team. I feel less pressure to have to show "something" to be valued, which is a very common situation on a team of men where normally they all compete for who is the best or the strongest. On a female team it's easier to be yourself—sensitive, sweet, etc.—but at the same time having the determination and the strength to accomplish your goals. I could not say that an all-female team is better than a mixed team. I like both and I daresay that climbing in mixed teams is the best, because I feel that if all the members can handle their roles with the right emotional intelligence, we can achieve the perfect balance of the feminine and masculine and that is optimal to achieve any great goal.

NM: Do you think women are more mindful on the mountain?

CP: I could say that in general women are more mindful and sensitive. But I feel that these attributes come more from the degree of "awakening" of every human being. In the mountains and in life I have known both men and women with or without these attributes.