Is Mountaineering Sexy?

I think there’s nothing that feels more rad than picking your way up a ridgeline, trailing a rope, pulling your hood over your helmet and having the wind whip your backpack straps in your face while you’re watching clouds form to the west and you know you have to climb fast and efficient or risk getting nailed by a storm. But I know this is totally incorrect—based on an informal survey of climbing images and videos over the past five years, the truth is there is nothing more rad than leading a hard sport route while climbing shirtless. Possibly even taking your shirt off mid-route, which no one does on the fourth pitch of a 5.7 alpine route while wearing a pack and a helmet.

I don’t know if I’m just imagining this, but it seems like mountain climbing isn’t that cool anymore. (Perhaps I think this because I am not cool, and I like mountain climbing, and I’m just projecting.) Stand up paddling, yoga, sport climbing, road cycling, triathlons, Crossfit, surfing—that’s the stuff we pay attention to; not so much the folks hanging their figurative balls out there in the big hills, roping up and trying to climb lines on dangerous peaks (and they’re all dangerous).

I feel like 10 or 12 years ago, my favorite thing about Outside was Mark Jenkins’ column, The Hard Way, which most of the time dealt with climbing- and mountaineering-related stuff, because that’s what Jenkins did/does. Fifteen years ago, Into Thin Air was the hottest outdoor/adventure book in the country, dealing with the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. In 2000, we watched Chris O’Donnell try to rescue his sister on K2 in Vertical Limit (which wasn’t a good or accurate movie, but it was a mass-market movie about mountain climbing). But now, it seems like the people on the covers of men’s magazines are all cyclists and surfers—assumingly because that’s what we’re into, cycling and surfing.

A friend of mine said a few weeks ago that he was a little down on climbing lately, because he didn’t feel like he was ever going to crush it. I said, What’s your definition of “crushing it”? Because mine is leading 5.8 with a pack on in the mountains. I like climbing single-pitch routes as much as the next person, but what really gets me hot is getting out on a climb five or six miles from a trailhead and getting in a position where I really can’t fall. I have pulled 5.7 moves in the mountains that made me stop and take a few breaths beforehand, because I rewinded in my head what would happen if I broke a handhold or slipped out of a crack and fell 15 feet onto a ledge and broke an ankle there, 300 feet off the ground and 5 miles and 3,300 vertical feet of trail away from the car. And I think that’s the good stuff. But does anyone else?

Here’s an e-mail conversation I had with the editor of a climbing publication last year, chatting about the photos accompanying a story I wrote:

Editor: Were you bothered by the lack of climbing photos in the piece? We had a really hard time tracking down any good action photos.

Me: I think the kind of person who will like that article is someone who’s more motivated by photos of mountains and ridgelines, not as much by seeing photos of other people pulling hard moves. Like I don’t want to climb the Petit because Chris Sharma looks good doing it with his shirt off; I want to climb the Petit because it’s so pretty.

Sometimes people point out that climbing magazines hardly ever print photos of helmeted climbers (this includes the ads, which aren’t an editorial decision). Helmets are mandatory for mountaineering and alpine climbing, and we think helmets aren’t sexy, whether they’re for cycling, riding motorcycles, or climbing. And helmet designs have come a long way in the last 10 years, and are not the ice-cream buckets of the past—they actually don’t look too bad. But they’re helmets. And as streamlined as you can make a helmet, it’s still not likely that anyone will ever say, “Honey, can you leave your helmet on while we … make out?”

How many photos in the 2012 Women of Climbing calendar show women with helmets, or gaiters, crampons, or ice axes? Zero. Actually, there’s only one photo of someone wearing sleeves (I checked). And that’s probably our foremost example/attempt at sexiness in climbing.

One friend told me he thinks in 10 years, 90 percent of the climbing population might never climb outdoors. Which I think is just a goddamn tragedy. I mean, people climb for all kinds of different reasons, and they’re obviously not the same as mine, but damn, I just want to shake people and remind them that the mountains are amazing, and if you know what you’re doing with a rope and a rack (and maybe an ice axe), you can find yourself in plenty of wall calendar-worthy places. And if you understand how to clip bolts in a gym, that stuff is within reach (obviously with lots more learning about how to place gear and not kill yourself out there).

But who’s going to be out there in 10 years? Because it seems like it’s just a handful of people, predominantly men, doing something that’s increasingly less relevant, year by year. But that doesn’t mean I love it any less.


[Photo of Southern gentleman Brian Williams bringing sexy back on the summit of Wyoming’s Gannett Peak by Jodie Banks]

33 replies on “Is Mountaineering Sexy?

  • Dave Sandel

    This may be my most favoritest post of your ever. Mostly because my interests are turning towards the way of the mountains. Trad lead and alpine climbing are mostly what I’ve been daydreaming about lately. *sigh*

  • Derek

    My friend directed me here because he thought that was a picture of me… or close enough.

    And your article stole the words right out of my mouth. My sportie friends ask why I don’t want to come project a .13 with them with my shirt off and beanie on. I tell them I have bigger things to “crush”.

  • @brodyleven

    it doesn’t seem to bother me at all, though.

    aside from a distinct lack of attention, promotion, or caring, the mountains are as fun now as ever, they cater to climbers who (should/shouldn’t) leave their shirts on, and to those of us who can’t do a series of 5.12 moves.

    let them sit in the gym and we’ll keep the biggest (literally) secret to ourselves.

      • Kerry

        As a female who swoons at dirty approach shoes and warn-in softshells, I don’t think it has to be extreme in anyway to be sexy. There is something about someone pushing, getting scared and finishing a climb that makes you go hot damn, no matter the climb. And anyways, someone who respects himself enough to wear a helmet, re-apply sunscreen, and carries enough water to share, now that’s the real deal.

  • Jamie

    There may not be any pictures of ice climbers/mountaineers etc in the 2012 Women of Climbing, but there definitely was one in the 2011 edition. The picture is on my roommates wall.

  • Justin Roth

    Did you think about how much you dislike single-pitch cragging while we were out getting spanked on bolted granite last week? If so, I don’t blame you.

    Still, I see plenty of popular media on the mountains these days. Everest still gets more ink than any sport crag (cover of the newest R&I, anyone?). Cerro Torre and its discontents are still big damn deals (not to me, but to lots of people, anyway). Alpinist is still viewed by many as the apotheosis of climbing mags. The upcoming movie about the FA of the Meru Shark’s Fin route is going to blow your mind. The short movie Cold won all kinds of awards. In short, I think adventure in the mountains is still “sexy,” but you just have to go to the right place to find it.

    • brendan

      Ha! No, but our conversation influenced this. And the single-pitch cragging made me realize I am not sexy doing any type of climbing. Good points on media — I left out Alpinist because it is exactly like you said. Can’t wait to see the Shark’s Fin movie.

    • Christa

      Who even cares if it’s “sexy?” The term “sexy” implies that it appeals to others is a way that stimulates sexual desires. I loved what you had to say in this post Brendan and I think in the end, the point is the same because it’s not about doing something that makes you more sexually appealing, it’s about doing something you love and that feeds your soul. So I think asking if mountaineering is sexy is moot point.

  • Tommy

    My brother looks at me while on a climbing trip at The Gorge, the temp was in the 90’s, and says to me ‘Sun’s out gun’s out.” At a glance we were the only climbers with their shirts on. So I think we’re in agreement sport climbing is making up the mountaineering deficit on sexy. At least in the Middle West any way.

  • Jean

    I think mountains are sexy. So mountaineering is hot. A photo of someone covered from head (helmet) to toe (gaiters, crampons) in the mountains leaves EVERYTHING to the imagination.

    I’m not climbing mountains (yet, I hope). But I sure lust after them all the time.

    I like big mountains I cannot lie!

  • Tiffany

    Mountaineering is damn sexy. Give me a guy with an ice ax, gaiters, glacier glasses, sunburned face and a helmet, and I’m weak at the knees.

    I used to rock climb. I used to think that it was incredibly bad ass to rock climb. My ego had a hard time though with the fact that the boyfriend at the time was crushing it and I was barely holding on – and deep down, I didn’t know if I really wanted to hold on anymore to rock climbing. I loved it but just didn’t have the passion for it that others seemed to have and it REALLY bothered me. I was much MUCH happier with a pack on and hiking 1,000 feet a mile to the summit. I didn’t necessarily even need to rock climb in the mountains (I recognize that limits me a little), but I just wanted to get out, away, hike up hills, hit a ridge, scramble and have a 360-degree view. Some of my favorite memories aren’t the alpine rock climbs – they are the scrambles, the ridgewalks, standing above everything else, naming an unnamed peak you just climbed with your friends using a mishmash of your last names.

    Guess I got a little ranty here, sorry. Guess I’m a traditionalist – the best photos of my friends aren’t of their ass and legs splayed across a rock face – it’s the looks of bliss and confidence on their faces after summitting a peak in the middle of nowhere. That’s sexy.

  • Justin!

    If triathlons are cool… I don’t wanna be cool!!!

    The romanticized idea of mountaineering is sexy – Man vs. Nature (really: himself), overcoming obstacles, the tug of DEATH, etc.

    The reality of mountaineering is usually a bunch of stinky people going up some crumbling rock in crap weather. Which is TOTALLY fun! Don’t get me wrong, but wearing a harness that compresses your groin like-a-so, is not so sexy.

  • Tom Mrotek

    When I am kicking steps up the side of a volcano, clad in baggy Goretex that hides my spindly arms and legs, helmet perched atop my scraggly ‘fro and thick bespectacled head….


    When I am pedaling an ungodly heavy bicycle whilst wearing tight lycra shorts and bright ass jersey that show off my utter lack of muscle definition and slathered in sunscreen, bug dope and B.O….


    Or at least I keep telling myself though I don’t give a fuck either way 🙂

  • KatieSue

    Loved this. I felt vindicated reading it. Sometimes I feel like a lame week girl because I don’t want to climb anything over a 5.9, ever. I’d really prefer 5.7 for a dozen pitches or so with some great exposure. I was in CO all weekend and after a day clipping bolts in Clear Creek, my day in Lumpy in a howling wind wishing I had brought a jacket up but still sweaty from the hike in, racing lightning and crossing our fingers for luck during the entire technical downclimb deproach then finding animals had chewed into our packs…that day felt like magic!
    I also get asked why so few of my climbing pictures on facebook show any climbing. They’re all of the views from the summit, they’re amazing! How many butt pictures do you want?!?
    Mountaineering and backpacking are so sexy. A guy 5 days from civilization in a tattered patched puffy who knows exactly where you are on the map offering you some of his water and a bite of his apple before he consumes the core…fairy tale worthy in my book.

  • Mark Bryan

    Thanks for spelling it out so clearly, Brendan. I moved to Austin, TX from CO a few years ago, thinking I’d still climb, because, “there is a lot of limestone climbing around central Texas.” There IS a bunch of good sport climbs, but it’s just not my thing. I can’t get stoked climbing a short one-pitch route… I really miss alpine starts, long days, and scarier-than-they-should-be 5.easy’s. From now on, when friends ask why I’m not climbing as much anymore, I’ll send them this page.

  • Laurel

    I never wear a shirt when alpine climbing. Those things weigh like 4 ounces, and if I’m not sweating I’m not moving fast enough, right?

  • Kim Kircher

    Maybe you should start posting shirtless summit photos, that might bring mountaineering back into the short attention span of the North American Crusher. But then again, who cares about “crushing it” when you can just go out and enjoy it. More climbers in the gym means more space for the rest of us.

  • Scott

    Hey, Brendan: Got turned on to your work from the Enormocast. Love your work.

    Re. sexy mtn. climbing: I get yer point, but if in a few years 90% of people never climb outdoors, I consider that a HUGE win! I’m a selfish old skool bloke who’s been at it for over 35 yrs. Too many climbers, if you ask me. I’ve tried a couple of times to get on Frogland at Red Rocks and given up because of the ridiculous lines, like parties of three with two total newbies. Arrrgh. We’ve all been newbies, of course, but do you have to line up with two of them in tow, and the leader pushing his own limits, too? Fewer folks wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. I understand there are conga lines up on the Hulk and other back country classics, too. I’m not overly concerned about a deserted, post-apocalypse back country world, certainly not in my lifetime.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Jo Daddy

    Just stumbled across this article. Wonder if you still feel the same? And your friend with his made up statistics are laughable. I hope everyone stays indoors, but social media is teaching the plastic pushers how sexy hard trad is and rhetoric can get dime piece girlfriends if they have a sponsor.

  • Lindsay

    If only we could post photos here…. I’ve got some damn sexy mountaineering pics!
    Take someone who is humdrum, put her or him on top of mountain with gaiters and an ice axe = suddenly sexy.

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