We Are Not Immune

The sun was just beginning to peek out for the first time all weekend. It was our new dog’s first climbing experience, and she gleefully chewed a stick as I belayed my partner up a particularly fun pitch of traprock. I had been feeling angsty all weekend, but looking from our pooch to my partner and feeling the sun on my face, my mood was beginning to brighten.

As the climber on the adjacent route struggled up the wall, his feet slipping off the thin face and his grunts and curses echoing through the small space between his route and ours, I rolled my eyes. Sometimes it’s hard to keep my mouth shut when I see a man using the wall as a proxy for his manliness, first talking up the beta, then struggling through the climb, then afterwards attributing his sub-optimal performance to the route being sandbagged, harder than the grade, or having received poor beta. It’s always the route that’s the problem, or the beta, or the belayer, but never the climber. If he does attribute the difficulty of the climb to himself, he’s always pumped out (did you see how big his muscles are?)

So I rolled my eyes, disappointed (but not surprised) that this little bit of sunshine was being clouded by the patriarchy.

Then something happened that I have never seen before, and hope to never see again.

After yelling victoriously that he had conquered the crux, the climber humped the wall and proclaimed, “Take that, bitch! I’m humping your face!”

At first I thought maybe I had heard him wrong. I looked around for another witness, but his friends either hadn’t seen or weren’t bothered by it. My dog chewed on her stick, clueless.

I wanted to vomit, to yell, to do something. But I just stood there dumbfounded, belaying my partner.

I thought about all the reasons he might have done it. He probably wasn’t a genuine woman-hater, but then again, most people aren’t, and somehow he still thought it was okay to hump the wall as though it was a woman’s face.

In a country where the President of the United States has boasted that he can just “grab [women] by the p****,” dozens of public figures have been accused of sexual assault, and reports released recently detail rampant sexual assault in the National Park Service, these routine, seemingly harmless acts of wall-humping have become normalized, undermining the violence that many women face every day.

The climbing community has taken steps in recent years to welcome more women and break down some of the barriers imposed by the sport’s male-dominated history. The Never Not Collective, an all-female production team, has plans to release a film, Pretty Strong, in 2019. @browngirlsclimb, a community of women of color who motivate and support each other on and off the wall, has gained enormous traction.

Groups like these are doing tremendous work to give the face of climbing a little less man-bun and a little more ponytail. But still, the culture of conquest and domination on the rock is deeply rooted in a male-centric understanding of the world, the very same framework that allows the conquest and domination of female bodies.

Most climbers I know are thoughtful, down-to-earth people with no intention to harm anyone. But we’re all complicit in some way or another, like when I praise my partner for “killing” or “crushing” that route, or when I go climbing with a new male partner and it’s assumed he’s going to lead.

We must start by simply noticing these moments. Then we begin the slow, deliberate process of re-learning.

It starts off simple, like asking your female climbing partner if she wants to lead, and then becomes bigger, like telling the wall-humping man that what he did was unacceptable. I wasn’t brave enough to confront him that day, but I want to challenge myself, and especially men, to step up the next time something like this happens.

Holding ourselves, and each other, accountable is an act of love. It is a rare invitation to growth, creativity, and open-mindedness that has the power to make our community not only more inclusive, but stronger.

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