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]