Essay: How To Climb When You’re Not Alex Honnold

The first time I saw an image of someone climbing they weren’t rising into the vertical world but being lowered on rappel. That image hit me right away.

It presented the same semblance of touching the void and hanging in the vastness of space that I experienced when reading comics as a kid. The image created the notion of some kind of order within chaos, of the climber recognizing the absurdity of cheating death, gravity, and reason; of somehow rising above.

This is what comics do as well, isn’t it?

The bright colors on glossy paper that depict the hero as a paradoxical figure, both an other (whether that be alien, billionaire scientist, or teenager bitten by a radioactive spider) and an individual accepted for what they can bring to society. The heroes of these pages have always represented something better, a voice rising above the fray.

The joy of this comparison though, at least for me, is the devilish grin that both the mountaineer and vigilante share. It is the look of getting away with something fantastic and terrifying, of absconding from the regular day while everyone else stays busy cleaning out their desks.

It is a certain smugness I have always associated with traditional versions of masculinity, mainly because deserving it seems oddly linked to a certain level of physical fitness I have never related to.

Whether it be Royal Robbins finishing the first ascent of the North America Wall in 1964 or Iron Man redirecting a nuclear warhead, you know these men turn around and just have to say, “Goddamn that was cool!”

As with many stories, this is one led by words.

Hearing or reading the right words at the right time to feel like those moments—ascents and adventures experienced by the heroes I loved most (fictional or real)—were accessible not just to me, but to everyone.

***

All great myths start with a meeting. Frodo encounters Gandalf. Obi-Wan trains Luke. Robin becomes an apprentice to Batman. And this was the first line of mine:

“Look at this dude! That move was absolutely sick, brother!”

Hardly mystical, I know. I had just stuck part of a moderate boulder problem I had been working on for a short time when I saw him: short, stout, and utterly grinning from ear-to-ear, my Gandalf the Grey with chalk on his hands.

After relocating to North Carolina from Colorado I had joined the local gym to ease away the anxieties of moving somewhere new without a job or a place to live, as well as to assuage my nostalgia for sport climbing in the Rockies.

New to the Smoky Mountains, I had been excited to transfer my love of climbing, forged in Colorado and still fledgling in many ways, to a new place when my partner and I moved. However, I soon learned from local climbers—everywhere from the taco shop to the gym itself—that while finding moderate sport climbing in North Carolina wasn’t entirely impossible, the heart of NC climbing could only be found between a cam and a hard place.

Without the gear or the knowledge to climb trad I had found myself here: floundering on a boulder problem inside a humid gym, house music lightly thumping in the background, with torn skin from pulling on too much neon plastic. Moping sheepishly and internally clocking the time it would take to drive back to Denver, I sat on the crash pad as the new member of my one-man cheer squad scuttled over.

“My man! You’re working too hard brother!” he beamed. “Try this out! With your body type, you don’t have to work it like that, man!”

In Colorado I had grown accustomed to the dirtbag parlance of vaguely meaningless enthusiasms perforated with “brother” or “my dude!” but had never heard a fellow male climber talk about body type so directly. He led me through the sequence of the problem with my specific build in mind, telling me to rest here, throw there, and complete the problem.

Beginning to walk away he turned, still grinning like a yogi in a terrible Bollywood film, “You’re strong brother! STRONG!”

***

If I had heard this same statement during middle school, I would have known beyond a doubt that one of the cool jocks on the kickball field was getting a rise out of me for being pudgy, into comic books, and always in just the wrong location to catch the ball in the outfield where I knew I belonged. My body type still, in that moment in the climbing gym, could be solidly deemed worthy of “Dad Bod” status, while my new bouldering sensei more closely resembled a hybrid of Michael Phelps and a Dothraki Bloodrider.

I have always defined masculinity in these terms of resistance; not by what I am, but what I am against.

I existed in contrast to men like these in the climbing gym, not of my own accord. And, of course, as is the tired trope of traditional masculinity, at the end of the day this existence could always be summed up to a comparison of body types.

It was as if I knew at a young age that there was some secret male conversion chart that equated strong jawlines and abdominal rigidity to simply being a better person. I just could never get the math quite right.

Enter comic books.

The geek factor was cranked up to 11, sure, and while there were definitely the traditionally chiseled heroes then … then there was Spider-Man.

Peter Parker was the reigning king of the nerds and punching bag for all those with washboard abs at his high school, but even as Spider-Man, he was a different kind of hero. He was smart, liked computers and science, and whooped ass after school as the most sarcastic, wisecracking, superhero Marvel Comics had yet to introduce. I was hooked. Of course, he gained the chiseled physique after that fateful radioactive spider bite, but he never lost that sense of being an underdog, a hero of the disenfranchised and socially stigmatized.

To top it all off, he had freedom.

I’ve always loved superheroes because they defy the laws of physics, both scientific and social. While he could get pushed into lockers all day long at school, Peter Parker could seemingly float through the cityscape at night; performing the aerial gymnastics of the oppressed and socially awkward in technicolor. Those sheer ropes of webbing were his tether to liberation and I remember distinctly thinking,

‘Why can’t there be something like that for us?’

***

As time passed I begrudgingly gave up reading comics and proceeded to accomplish vaguely more adult tasks like going to college, traveling, and finally landing a job in Colorado. This was still a few years before my final awakening in North Carolina.

It had been years since I had picked up a comic book, but the déjà vu I felt upon moving to the Rockies to work at an outdoor education center rekindled the spirit. I was meeting Peter Parkers everywhere.

There were social workers running from heartbreak in the city to the freedom of the hills. Nerdy field biologists stoked on teaching kids about wildflowers. Men who were gangly and soft spoken, talking in humble tones about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Badass women who could quote entire Beyoncé albums and start bow drill fires.

Not to mention the bodies!

Small bodies, large bodies, thickskinned, rhinestoned, calloused, wide-hipped, chicken-legged, broad-shouldered, 4’5”, 100lbs soaking wet, tall and wispy, short and brutish, desert-tanned, black, porcelain-white, strong, nervous, confident bodies. All absolutely beautiful. And all of them, climbers.

This was also one of the first times that it truly dawned on me that while my marginalization had mainly taken place in my mind, for others the constraints were much more tangible. I met women who had been consistently told their whole lives that they simply couldn’t: couldn’t talk about bodily functions, couldn’t ski or climb hard, couldn’t be in leadership roles. I worked with Hispanic middle schoolers who had been taught by others that the outdoors was a realm only for the white and middle-class; that despite living quite literally underneath Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, the mountains might as well have been the world away.

What an utter lack of consciousness it took, I see now, to never before second guess why neither my climbing nor comic heroes were anything but white men.

Of course these students I worked with felt that this beautiful world of the outdoors was not for them; why should they? If I had literally never seen someone who looked like me before doing these things would I have the thought to step out and try?

Climbing, among many other things, is a wonderful and elaborate dance with fear. I would like to think that the first real step to overcoming fear or oppression of any kind is the imagination. After all, the beating heart of many fantastic social movements and political revolutions throughout the world have been rooted in the imagination which beckons for something new.

Climbing itself is an act of resistance, in defiance of gravity and sometimes of reason, but it demands absolute acceptance in order to be accomplished well. Acceptance of the materials you use to climb, of nature and its whims, and, perhaps most of all, acceptance of one’s own body.

However, acceptance need not be conflated with acquiescence. If I have learned anything it is that acceptance is at the heart of resistance; one cannot push forward before taking account of exactly what ground is being stood upon. I remember someone telling me once, “You want to lose twenty pounds? That’s awesome, you should go for it. But know really deep down that right now you’re already okay.”

A person can’t fight for the right to vote, speak, live, breath, or even climb without realizing where they’re standing at that current moment; which wrongs must be righted and hurdles overcome.

I would suggest that it is hard to be a very good climber (which I am not but can still hypothesize) and hate your body or yourself. The climbers and students I met in Colorado had faced all manners of roadblocks and ceilings, yet at their collective core that was a fire burning bright that promised resistance. It seemed, wild as I thought at the time, that they actually loved themselves, and that climbing was a natural expression of the joy they believed life was naturally imbued with. Each body was merely a different vehicle to the summit, there was no one that was objectively better with exclusive access to the experience.

This is not to say that we were fantastic at the sport. Some of us surely were but I think that little contingent of climbers was to Yosemite what the Ramones were to Mozart, or Peter Parker to Captain America.

I’ve never thought about climbing as a sport really, which is perhaps how athletes that truly love their craft view what they do. It is perhaps only a shift in perspective that transforms the tyranny of recess kickball for an unathletic kid to find a love for climbing as a twenty-something kid looking for adventure.

***

So, imagine my surprise that after this entry into the climbing world out West, I could ever land in a place where this vehicle of empowerment and freedom felt out of bounds to me.

Whether it’s something in the water, the gym, or just how stout the climbing in the Tar Heel State is—I can’t exactly say—but the climbers in North Carolina just look different.

They seem burlier, stronger, and overall much more Thor than Ant-Man if you catch my drift. Whereas I was used to climbing moderate sport lines whilst casually drinking PBR, these southeastern climbers were preparing for war. Their bodies were weapons, being trained and expertly crafted for that final cumulative mission.

And then, of course, there is the rugged ethic of traditional climbing, which while I certainly respected in theory, made climbing outdoors seem just out of reach. The worlds of kickball and climbing had finally begun to conflate, I was losing that freedom that had once been so tangible and had begun to pre-emptively mourn that loss.

Though here, all of a sudden—like the great wizard Shazam speaking to young Billy Batson before he becomes Captain Marvel for the first time—was this guy in the gym in North Carolina telling me I was strong. It was the word I needed to hear.

While thankful for this moment, I was hard-pressed to find real joy in it. The entrance into that informal brotherhood of men grinning about a big day out was relatively easy for me as a middle-class white man. Still there remained certain questions:

Where were the racial minorities at the climbing gym?

Why did a compliment to a woman at the gym have to be prefaced with, ‘most girls can’t do that’?

Why do heteronormative climbing relationships always seem to involve a guy leading the routes and a woman following?

These are real things to consider the next time you climb—whether outdoors or indoors— questions I would urge you to ask your friends or yourself at least to get the conversation started.

The essence of social responsibility, I think, is being aware of the narrative we are creating together; the tone, characters, and lessons we include in the collaborative story of our family, community, or society. This is a world where the two best young climbers in the world are a young black man and an Asian-American young woman. This is a world where Ta-Nehisi Coates is penning Marvel’s Black Panther comic book.

We find ourselves lucky to live in such a time where our children may learn that heroes—both from myth and reality—are really for everyone and not just the few. And that for us climbers, there is nothing out of reach.


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