Essay: Looking for a Partner, Pants Off Limits

You’re lucky to be a girl. You can show up at any crag and find a guy to climb with.

I hear this often, and it’s true. I pedaled my bike to the Hidden Valley campsite in Joshua Tree National Park with no rack, no rope, no guidebook. Carrying only shoes and a harness, I had no problem finding men to lead me up cracks of the mountainous lumps of granite that mingle between yuccas and the juniper trees.

Two years later, I found myself on a plane headed for sunny Vegas, escaping the cold, dark Fairbanks winter. I was meeting the guy (let’s call him Fred) who had taken me up one of the rare multi-pitch routes in Joshua Tree. We had emailed less than a handful of times over the previous couple years, and it was negative 20° outside my window when he invited me to climb with him in Red Rocks, Nevada.

Half of me is a permanent pessimist, and I worried about spending a week with guy I didn’t know very well. What if Fred had started climbing less safely? What if we didn’t get along after two days? What if things happened that are too scary to even put on paper?

The other half of me is constantly fighting to overthrow the fears. Pushing me to work in rural Ecuador for half a year, move to Alaska, or bike from New Mexico to Washington with so little planning that I bought a map the day I left. All were good choices; following your fears is no way to live.

When I called Fred to check in before actually buying a ticket, I said “Are you okay with me not being as good of a climber as you?” He said it wouldn’t be a problem. I didn’t say,

To be clear, I don’t want anything romantic with you.

The first time we met he made a couple passes at me, but I made it clear I wasn’t interested and didn’t remember him being pushy. Instead I told funny stories about the guy I met in Joshua Tree who said he wanted to touch my ear at the top of a climb. I figured the climbing-only clarification would be unnecessarily confrontational.

 

Related: Being Strong and Fragile: A Discussion on Sexism, Racism, Exclusivity, and Privilege in Climbing

 

I landed in Vegas at lunchtime and before I had even placed a rubber sole on the deliciously grippy sandstone, the advances started. I changed from plane pants to climbing pants behind an open car door.

Fred: “Are you changing right now.”

Me: “Yes”

Fred: “I’m a little uncomfortable, but also kind of excited!”

Me: “Let’s stick with the uncomfortable.”

That afternoon we squeezed in three short sport routes before it got too dark to see the colors on the candy cane striped rocks. When we walked up to Cannibal Crag, Fred had a small bong in one hand and a box of Lucky Charms in the other. I figured this would be another funny story.

He told me I had cute toes. I buried them in the sand. He offered that I sleep in his tent. I pitched my own. I woke up the next day to rain splattering my tent.

With a no good, very bad forecast, climbing in Red Rocks would be impossible for at least two days. I was getting uncomfortable, but still hoping to salvage the trip, so off to Death Valley we went. He told me that he thought I looked better than I had two years ago, that I had “embraced my womanhood.” [My value as a woman has nothing to do with looks.] I told him I wasn’t interested because I don’t do well with short term things.

Six hours later he asked me,

so actually, why aren’t you interested in me?

I reiterated that I don’t do short term. Was I supposed to list all of the reasons I found him unattractive at this point? You’re too old I should have said. Because you’re overly impressed with your own alpine climbing abilities. Because you hate on people who guide for money, yet it’s becoming obvious that you are expecting non-monetary payment from me. Because I’ve spent the last day and a half getting progressively more and more scared of you.

While watching me make a tortilla with peanut butter and raisin snack:

“I bet you bought the hippie peanut butter with no sugar.”

“You’re right. That’s what the raisins are for.”

“You’re my [climbing] partner you should be giving me some sugar.”

“Do you want some raisins?”

While walking in the sand dunes he said, “I really want to tackle you right now.” I stepped farther away from him. “You wouldn’t like that would you?”

I shook my head.

20 minutes later, I was walking ahead of Fred. Then I felt his hands on my waist. Fear. Adrenaline.

No, PLEASE.

He let go. It was only a moment. I controlled my breathing.  It was just playful, right? If someone doesn’t accept no for an answer in smaller ways, when is it appropriate to be terrified of escalation?

I felt trapped. I was in the middle of Death Valley. I had discretely asked a park ranger if there was any public transportation. Nope. I’d never hitchhiked before. I hadn’t counted on needing to be compact, so had more stuff than was easy to walk far with. I made the choice to try to keep playing it cool. To get Fred to drive me back to Vegas. And it ended there.

I showed up at a rental car agency, tried not to cringe at the last minute price, and drove immediately to California on unlit roads through a torrential el Niño downpour. If we’re being logical and data driven (I’m a scientist, it’s my nature), this was probably the most life threatening part of the whole trip. But logic isn’t always useful, and questioning if I ever want to put on a harness again has nothing to do with 4 hours of driving in the rain.

I should have known better. I should have clarified the expectations beforehand. I should have bailed sooner.

But HOLD UP.

You know what should have happened: I should have had a fantastic week climbing on some of the best rock in the world. I should have been respected as a human, respected for the not-very-good-but-eager-to-try-my-hardest climber that I am. I should have had the same opportunity as male climbers who had male mentors that weren’t expecting any “sugar” in return.

Finding a dude to climb with is easy, but it comes at a price. The men that I climbed with in Joshua Tree, fall into two categories: the ones who hit on me, and the ones who told me about their girlfriends. I compare this to all of the male climbers I’ve met who have no problems finding partners on Mountain Project. They can post,

looking for a climbing partner,

and don’t have to specify,

but please don’t try to get in my pants.


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Essay: Looking for a Partner, Pants Off Limits

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  • EliRivers

    Amen, sistah.

  • Tisne

    The writer mistakingly forgets that being treated human by a man is in fact being seen sexually IF the male finds the female attractive. The intellectualized social boundaries of sex are a repression based on social contract. Evolutionary social structure may not be ideal, but it is indeed a structure and not a construct.

    Should the guy have taken the hint… sure. Is she being treated less than human though? Not at all. Very human.

    There is no abstracting out the most deeply engrained evolutionary trait of mans condition. By this it is meant that there is no great “human-ness” which is above sexuality. Sexuality IS human.

    • feeeeesh

      Seriously?? I think you may be missing the point here. Do you typically equate “treating someone as a human” as demanding sex from them in return for climbing and getting continually more aggressive despite their saying “NO”?

      Whatever your answer, perhaps you should step back from your fixation on this one sentence and see the bigger picture about this experience the writer had to deal with, and also understand that this is not a one-off experience, but a frequent occurrence that takes shape in soooo many inhumane ways in our effed up evolutionary social structure where men feel so entitled to women.

  • Johnny Kipp

    As the father of two daughters this frazzles me. I’m torn between wanting to lock them in a tower Rapunzel style and setting them on their own path with some sound self awareness advice. This is a sad and unfortunate reality in any situation and one that I can only warn my daughters of. The sad part is that it instills distrust in them and because of it they can and will miss out on some good solid relationships.
    Of course there will be a natural attraction between people, however, if you have to say “not interested” more than once, it’s harassment and hit’m with the bear spray…

  • Ms M

    i am REALLY glad i have been through this exact situation and know how to avoid it now!!: #1) don’t climb with men. #2) don’t climb with boys #3) if i have to climb with a man, make sure he is a PAID guide and we are under a written contract with liability clauses.