The New (Not-Quite-So-Masculine) Mountain Man

I was trying to start a campfire a couple weekends back and grabbed a fat piece of wood with a crack at one end, ripe for splitting into two smaller pieces that would burn more easily. I searched my van for something to split the wood with, and came up with: A 55 cm mountaineering axe. I pulled it out of the back, turned it around in my hand once, and said to myself: A real man would have a hatchet. Or a real axe.

I have all kinds of somewhat manly items in the back of my van: crampons, ice tools, ropes, things I use to sleep on the dirt, shit in a hole in the ground, climb mountains. No axe, though. I thought back to 2008, in the midst of my divorce, standing in Home Depot by myself and realizing at 29, I was about to buy my first hammer. Because my soon-to-be-ex-wife brought all the tools to our relationship. Or, I guess, all the ones that didn’t say “Park Tool” on them.

I can probably tune your bicycle, but I can’t tell you what’s wrong with your car when it breaks down on the side of the road. I can’t be the only one, I think. A lot of friends and acquaintances seem to be a type of new-school mountain man, good at mountain things but not so much typical “man” things.

My friend Justin has a master’s in poetry from Sarah Lawrence. He climbs pretty damn hard and works for one of the biggest climbing gear companies in the world. I asked him the names of some of the hardest routes he’s ever climbed, and he said:

Hardest redpoint was a 13b in Rumney called Stone Monkey. I also did a 13a there called Butt Bongo Fiesta. I like the name on that one better. Did a few V10s, including Squeenos, in the Gunks.

I have never changed the oil in my car.

I have at certain times of my life drank whiskey, driven a pickup truck, worn steel-toed boots to work, and had a chewing tobacco habit. I also own a couple Camera Obscura albums and sometimes eat salads for dinner. One time last year, a friend said to me,

“If you’re going to have hair long enough for a ponytail, you should grow a beard.”

“I can’t grow a beard.” No hatchet, no beard.

Lots of folks have speculated that the global economy is shifting to favor femininity, or theorized about the “End of Men” or the “death of masculinity” (or that hipsters are the end of masculinity). Maybe what we’re talking about is the end of age-old gender stereotypes, which is a good thing.

But do men gravitate toward mountains because of “masculine” heroes? Most mountaineering stories are written by men. A lot of lofty, noble quotes about climbing are attributed to men, Because It’s There, et cetera. What’s the difference between Steve House and Jim Bridger, or Jeremy Jones and Jeremiah Johnson? Or the difference between the Brawny Paper Towel man and my friend Alan (pictured above)?

Or is our new definition of a “mountain man” a sandal-wearing, station-wagon-driving, yoga-practicing rock climber who tries to split wood with ice axe? Which doesn’t work that well, by the way.


[Photo courtesy Burnham Racing]

21 replies on β€œThe New (Not-Quite-So-Masculine) Mountain Manβ€œ

  • Mick

    A few years back I met the International Tree Climbing Champ at the annual Arborist Convention…..: a woman from Germany. Since then the event has been divided into men’s and women’s competitions, to give the men a chance, I believe.

    I also recall a moment in Zion with a climber exttaordinaire and a Warrior that wouldn’t start. I was happy I could prove my worth by getting the damn thing running again, since I couldn’t lead a pitch to save my ass.

    Good article, as aways. Whoot!

  • Dave

    I drink whiskey, used to on a pickup truck, wear steel-toed boots to work, sometimes eat salads for dinner, have a beard and three axes. I draw the line at Camera Obscura albums and chewing tobacco.

  • twoeightnine

    Personally I’m a big fan of the new hipster mountain men movement. Spending $200 on a flannel shirt, selecting an axe based on whether or not the handle will look good above your couch, buying a tent that matches your trucker hat.

  • James

    Question: Did the wood split?
    While at certain times, ala that morning when you’re already late and my 1998 4Runner wont start, having at least a wee bit of mechanic’s knowledge would serve paramount. However, it’s a sorry gauge of manliness as we’ve unfortunately been Americanized to believe. I can throw a mean spiral, I can probably take down most men twice my size in the matter of a second, and I’ve run multiple marathons. I can also whip up an mean spinach-walnut salad, I love a good Malbec, and the very few times my trusty ole gal decides she doesn’t want to start in the morning, after a diatribe of choice four-letter words, I accept the fact that I know less about my current situation than my 81-year-old grandma would.

    And you know what, I’m pretty damned cool with that.

  • Tim

    ‘Nother good post . . .

    I wonder if the “End of Men” was not (at least in part) brought about by the spectacle of half-naked men clutching their hatchets (or pistols or knives) to their chests and chanting manly things around bonfires in the 1990s? (Which was too bad because Robert Bly, a poet and one of the founders of the men’s movement, had an interesting take on being a man in the modern world–see Iron John for example.)

    I do yoga more and more as I get older, but I like my Suzuki Samurai because I don’t have to be a yogi to change its oil (and because it takes me places where I can do manly things).

  • Aaron F

    Why put a label on it in the first place? It’s the judgment by others that make us feel insecure about what we can or can’t do. Ef-em, that’s what I say. Do what you want & let the haters be haters. Hike your mountain in sandals, have trouble starting fires, write your poetry, listen to your rap music, hug a tree, struggle with fixing your car, and live your life……and when it’s all said and done still wag your finger in the face of the republicans who tell you its wrong.

  • Sarah

    I keep a hatchet in my truck. my boyfriend drives a corolla and is hatchetless. still climbs harder than me though πŸ™‚

  • Steve

    Hey Brendan,
    You don’t need a hatchet to be a man. A little white gas and your lighter will teach that log who the man is!

  • Rebecca Tracey

    I drink whiskey, I swear, and, sometimes, when I’m feeling up to it, I fix my own shit with my own tools.

    My boyfriend, on the other hand, wouldn’t touch scotch ( or even beer for that matter) with a ten foot pole, is afraid of rollercoasters, and, as I recently learned on a 7 month road trip with him – has absolutely no idea how to fix a car.

    He climbs 13+ and will skip clips all over the place, but I can’t get him to ride a horse with me, to go to an amusement park, or do most other things that involve any kind of danger or risk.

    But he’s the most honorable, considerate, guy I’ve ever met. Maybe this is what makes the measure of a manly man – one who isn’t afraid of showing a little emotion now and again.

    As a lady, let me tell you men – we’d MUCH rather you be able to hold a conversation about something important than be able to fix our broken car.

  • carp

    Either all messed up on an ice pitch or tieing a tarp up, making a water pump belt out of your cordelette or digging the earth out from under your tire because your buddies girlfriend doesn’t have a jack in her car. Why not?

    Excuses,quitters and cowards all suck.

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