I’ve never considered any subject to be automatically excused from a healthy dose of critical examination. Even subjects as vain as rock climbing are meaningful enough to invite deep analysis.
Over the last 15 years that I’ve been covering climbing, a lot has happened and some things have changed. Perhaps the most profound difference that I can identify has been in regards to how we communicate and share ideas with each other. One thing that hasn’t changed is that climbers are an opinionated and surly lot—something I certainly appreciate and find endlessly interesting.
Social media, however, has played a large role in exacerbating some of these latent proclivities, and in some ways, it has caused the extinction of healthy disagreement in our community—though, I’m sure, other factors are to blame.
The era of writing letters to the editor of a magazine are long gone. So is our desire to seek out face-to-face conversations with folks with whom we disagree.
Now we wage our ideological and pseudo-intellectual battles online, where it’s easy to be brave—not just in one place, either, but absolutely everywhere. People seem content to while away entire afternoons to arguing in the comment fields on multiple blogs, forums, and on dozens of different Facebook pages, where the same fundamental arguments about the same exact issues take on slightly different flavors in terms of the particular congregation of commenters.
From what I can tell, the result of waging war on so many digital fronts all at once is taking a toll. Primarily, it’s exhausting. But it has also resulted in closing our minds, shutting out people whose opinions we disagree with, and pushing us further and further into the most narrow and uncompromising version of our own ideas and beliefs.
(And if this is happening in climbing, it’s 100 times worse in our political discourse.)
Pretty soon, the big picture gets lost to a nasty type of internecine digital argumentation of ideas among a group of people who, by and large, all share the exact same values and desires in their hearts.
I witnessed some of this dynamic take place last week following the publication of Davita Gurian’s controversial op-ed on this website (though, it should be said, there were also many productive, congenial conversations that took place online, as well as in person).
My overall sense is that many people are weary of this topic, but I do want to offer a few follow-up observations since, perhaps, I’m in the unique position to have seen a majority of the feedback, both the really positive reviews as well as the really negative ones.
My first observation is that readers’ response to and characterization of Davita’s story defies generalization. About half of readers interpreted Davita’s essay as a positive message of inclusivity, and a step toward creating more gender equality in our sport—though their reasons for this interpretation were quite varied. The other half disagreed with this positive interpretation, and instead saw her message as undermining a movement toward more equality in our sport—likewise, the reasons cited for this interpretation were also quite varied. Most interestingly, a reader’s gender, age, or climbing experience seemed to have no bearing whatsoever on the opinions expressed.
My second observation is how much core common ground there is among climbers on this topic. If you read between the lines, you will see that a near majority of climbers believe that sexism exists in society and therefore exists to some degree in climbing as well; that creating gender equality in our sport is a good thing; that we all benefit when there are more opportunities for female perspectives in climbing media; and that women climbers are kicking ass, and that the performance gap found in most other sports is, incredibly, much, much smaller in rock climbing.
My third observation is that much of the disagreement over this topic is primarily one of semantics. No one denies that there are examples of climbers behaving badly/inappropriately to each, nor does anyone deny that gender plays a role in group dynamics. The debate, it seems to me, is primarily over what do we call these examples, and who gets to decide what they are called?
When I say that this is an issue of semantics, I’m certainly not trying to belittle the significance of the debate, nor am I trying to undermine the very real emotions and experiences of those who’ve been affected. My point is that, clearly, words matter, as is argued in this great response. And so, so much of this discussion is simply about whether the use of loaded, complicated terms like “sexism” are appropriate when discussing certain climbing situations, climbing media, and even climbers themselves.
By and large, I see this debate as a semantical question of whether the application of some of these loaded terms is useful, necessary, and just—or is it, perhaps, unfair at best, damaging at worst?
My fourth observation is that bringing in abstract academic theories and boundless social/historical contexts can be interesting, enlightening, and beneficial. But too often these erudite tangents become obtuse hammers used to try to squash online foes. The result is that conversation can quickly get derailed and lost in hypothetical possibilities.
In other words, it can be derailed from a conversation that is specific to climbing, to one that is broadly about social justice. Certainly, there is a Venn diagram between these two topics. It’s just that so much of the conversation diverges from the original topic and instead becomes a disagreement over where the Venn diagram’s intersections are located.
Speaking of greater contexts … holy hell, Davita’s article couldn’t have run during a more inopportune moment in America as, last week, we witnessed the sickening inauguration of a sex offender and malignant narcissist who seems hellbent on turning the clock back a hundred years. As a publisher, the decision to run Davita’s story, and with such an arguably inflammatory headline, was certainly bad timing on my part—although I do hope that most climbers were able to ingest Davita’s essay on its own merit.
Like I said at the start of this post, I’ve never considered any subject to be too sensitive for deep critical analysis. More than anything, I’m really happy to have provided a young woman with a forum to voice her opinion about a much-debated topic in climbing. As a guy who has worked in climbing media for a long time, I have always believed it’s important to do what I can to encourage and amplify more female voices in our discourse.
That said, in the spirit of this historic weekend—in which millions of amazing women marched in protest of our vile and sexist president …
In the spirit of our own progressive climbing community, which I truly believe to be more united about the important stuff in regards to gender equality in climbing than I think some of the recent, heated debates may suggest ….
And in the spirit of simply putting up a positive post about women on Evening Sends in light of the heated online debates, I wanted to give a big shout out and thank you to all the women who have been very influential and inspiring to me personally.
There are dozens more, but these climbers are ones who, for one reason or another, stand out to me on this weekend of women’s empowerment.
First, I should probably thank Davita—for her courage as a writer in taking on such a tough and important issue. I’ve never met her, but I feel like I’ve gotten to know her over the course of the last two months as she sent me unsolicited drafts of her essay and asked for casual feedback. It was a cool experience for me to see a relatively novice writer take on such a complex topic, remove her ego from the equation, and really pour her heart and soul into crafting a strong essay. Sharing her point of view took a lot of courage, and it was rewarded by all the men and women who found her message to be positive, and even by those whom it challenged (in a good way) to clarify and potentially even re-think their own positions on this topic. I didn’t originally foresee her story appearing on Evening Sends, but I’m happy it did. More than anything, I’m happy to have made a new friend in the process.
Thank you, Emily, for being one of the most determined women I’ve ever met. I first met Emily in Rifle, when she was a teenager being belayed by her father. I remember seeing the occasional tears that she shed during those years—and, more importantly, how little they seemed to deter her from stopping until she sent. She became the first woman to climb a 5.14a in that canyon, first with the 7 P.M. Show and, later, Zulu. Emily and I have since been on trips around the world together—Venezuela, China, Greece, Spain—and she’s one of the best, funniest, and most fun travel companions you could ever ask for. Lately, what’s been so impressive to me is to watch how Emily’s strength of character has transferred over, from comp and sport climbing to big-wall free climbing, big-mountain skiing, and high-altitude mountaineering. Emily’s achievements and fierce brand of attacking impossible challenges remind me that it’s OK to chase big goals and show emotion when you fail, just so long as you are determined to succeed.
My friend Wendy has been one of my favorite climbing, training, and slam-dancing partners. She is always stoked to go crush, whether that’s crush rocks or crush a bunch of basic bitches on the dance floor who are dropping too many elbows in her direction. She’s easily one of the strongest (physically) people I’ve ever met. “Muscles on women are attractive!” she often hollers, to no one in particular. It’s a point of view I most certainly agree with.
My friend Lindsey is a super model by trade, and a rock climber by passion. She’s simultaneously salty and sweet, and she is a naturally gifted and fearless rock climber whose achievements in this sport belie the number of years she’s been practicing it. One of the things that I appreciate most about Lindsey is how her approach has opened my eyes to seeing how the worlds of high fashion and rock climbing can be compatible pursuits—something I know I never would’ve caught myself saying ten years ago.
Beth is one of the most important and influential female rock climbers of my generation. I occasionally wonder to what degree her legacy was partially, if very much unintentionally, overshadowed by her longtime partner, Tommy. She’s a legend who remains a superlative testament to what women can achieve in climbing. The fact that she’s become a very close friend and confidant in recent years has felt like a gift. To see someone who is so strong and yet sometimes also struggles with sharing her fears is something I appreciate. She teaches me that there’s nuance in life, and it’s worth delving in to try to understand the whole story.
Back in the day, Kate would come home from a multi-day shift as a neonatal nurse, sleep for a few hours, and then show up at some national climbing competition and absolutely crush the rest of the field, which was usually half her age. She’s one of the most obscenely intelligent and strong-willed people I’ve ever met. But the thing I think I appreciate most about Kate is her ability to chase down climbing goals, professional goals, and family goals all at once. It’s not always smooth. It’s not always pretty. But striving to bring all of these things together is actually what’s most important. Years ago, Jen and I spent a week bouldering with Kate, her husband, and their two young daughters—carrying the kids around by wedging them in the folds of our crashpads. It was one of those moments that made realize that I wanted a family one day, too. The fact that Jen and I and our daughter, Piper, got to spend a week climbing with Kate and her family in the Red River Gorge last year brought all of those feelings back full circle.
Steph is the bravest person I know. There’s not even a close second. The boldness to be a free soloist and a wingsuit BASE jumper is one thing, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m referring to Steph’s courage to live a life full of clarity, freedom, and of her own design. Having a close friend like Steph who thinks about life with as much precision and critical analysis leaves me feeling a kind of gratitude that I don’t even know how to begin repaying. The inspiration to maximize freedom and chase passion as fearlessly as Steph is something I think about daily.
Colette is one of the first climbers I ever met, and we’ve been friends ever since. In all the years I’ve known Colette, I’ve literally never heard her say a bad thing about anyone else. In fact every time I go off on one of my insane, overblown rants, she’s always been someone who brings me back down to earth and insists on forcing me to see the good in people. Plus, she’s a damn good rock climber, and one of the most gifted and creative photographers I know.
The first time I got to climb with Sasha, it was on some multi-pitch 5.12 in China. I think it might have been Sasha’s first time ever climbing a multi-pitch route, too. Since then, Sasha has become an unstoppable force in climbing. Her social-media presence might actually have its own gravitational field. But deep down, beyond all of that superficial stuff, I know that Sasha’s heart is always in the right place in terms of her love for climbing and our community. I think there are many people who, were they ever to find themselves in Sasha’s position, would be too afraid to use their platforms to speak out about issues that might be deemed too political or controversial. To Sasha’s credit, she has routinely used her celebrity to advance important political, environmental, and social issues in America. That’s not just courage—that’s responsibility.
Of course, I wouldn’t think of compiling this list of women without naming the person with whom I’ve climbed the most over the last 10 years, who is my best friend, my favorite climbing partner ever, and my biggest inspiration. The first time I met Jen, she had already climbed a bunch of 5.13d’s and I don’t think I’d even climbed one 5.13a—whatever male ego I might have had back then, had to be quickly shelved if I were ever to going to partner up with this impressive woman.
She mentored me as a climber while simultaneously supporting and respecting me as an equal. I tried to return that respect and support in every way I could. I belayed her when she climbed her first 5.14a, and later, her first 5.14b (becoming the first woman to reach that grade in Rifle)—all while holding down a full-time job. I’ve never met anyone else whose incredible natural talents and self-confidence are balanced by such humility. I’ve never met anyone else who is so respectful of others. And I’ve never met anyone else who quite makes me laugh and smile as frequently and fully as Jen does. And all those years of working together as climbing partners, and giving each other what we need, are all coming full circle as we enter this new phase of being parents together. Love you, babe!
OK, hope this post wasn’t too cheesy—actually, I’m sure it was, but fuck it. Given the spirit of this historic weekend, I wanted to make sure to give a shout out to all of these climbing partners who have made me a better climber and a better person. Thank you to these women, and to many others.