Meditations on Climbing and Intimacy

Overlooking Squamish from the top of a pitch at the Pillary

I put a lot of faith in language– the language we speak the language our bodies speak for us. But, like any translation, definitions can slip slightly out of whack. A hand placed, just so, means only a hand placed, just so. I like to think I’m learning that trust can mean different things, and intimacy is not the same as caring.

I’ve been thinking a lot about climbing lately, and I’ll slowly get to the point.  A new friend directed me towards a blog he wrote a year ago, why Climbing is the Best Sport. I agree with a lot of his points, but there was still something missing from his write-up for me. Trust and intimacy.  Yes, there are plenty of times when it’s you and the rock. And, like running, you only have your own body to count on.  But what I love about climbing is the way you learn and trust your friends that do this crazy thing with you.  I think that’s why climbers can get a bad rap for being a crowd that only talks about climbing- put two climbers in a room together and they’ll try to figure out if they would be good partners or not.

Unless you’ve done it, I’m not sure you can understand the intimacy of watching your partner on rock.  It helps, I think, that I started climbing with my best friend. I knew him well, and I could tell when he was getting scared, or frustrated, or confident enough to get through a tough sequence.  I learned to anticipate his next moves and to watch his breath.  He knew me well enough to know when to push me and when to let me come down, defeated.  For the most part.   It’s a double-edged sword, and I still have a scar on the back of my hand from a frustrating day that culminated in him shouting “Did you think this was going to be easy? It’s supposed to hurt!” because he was frustrated at his own fall earlier, and we were tired and knew each other too well to stop from squabbling.

Dad climbing

My dad, working a crack.

This, of course, circles back to my parents.  They met climbing but stopped when I was born. I grew up knowing that climbing ropes were good for tug-of-war and to always have three solid points of contact before moving the fourth while you climb trees, but knew only the names of crags without ever getting on them.  I came to climbing later in life, across the country from where I grew up, with people who’d never met my family.  My father helped me buy my first rope and my mother sent me a helmet for my birthday, but they have never seen me climb. My father died last summer.  The last trip home to see him we talked about going out to the Gunks or somewhere to crag– I wanted to show him what I could do so badly.  I wanted him to belay me as I moved across rock, his daughter following a path he knew so well. He was too sick, and I left everything in Seattle so I wouldn’t be tempted to push him.  Climbing had finally give me a common language with my father, but he died before we had a real chance to share our experiences.  And so, climbing becomes another intimacy– a re-connection to history and family.

I think one of the reasons I don’t like bouldering is because I like having a partner to watch and to watch me.  I like working something with someone, and the sense of shared accomplishment as you summit. You have to trust your partner. Your partner literally has your life in his or her hands. This summer, I confused life-trust for love-trust. Though it resulted in many wonderful climbing adventures, when I finally understood the difference the realization was stupidly painful.  Intimacy on rock is not the same as intimacy elsewhere. There are many parallels, but it is not the same– you can trust someone’s skills and still be unsure whether he will show up for dinner as planned. You can know someone’s body so well as to anticipate their failure, but this is not the same thing as understanding someone.  Climbing with lovers is a tricky thing– both amazing and dangerous. It’s something that has come up frequently with my friends– do we want to date climbers? On one hand, they have similar passions and understand us. On the other, you’re out a climbing partner and dividing draws at the end– alternating gym days and sorting out who gets to keep guidebooks.  Partly because you’re so vulnerable while climbing, I think it’s so easy to let intimacy on a rock slide into intimacy elsewhere– to let trust seem like trust.  It’s hard for me, because I have the rosy romantic history of my parents.  They loved each other, and climbed together, and I am here because of it. And yet it took them years to be able to speak to one another after divorcing.

Intimacy is what I love about climbing, but it’s such a multifaceted word.  Intimacy with the rock, with yourself, with your partner.  The deep trust you have to have for your own body and the person below or above you. I’m still sorting out what that means off of a cliff, and I suspect I will be for a long time.  I am so lucky to have so many wonderful friends that are sorting it out with me– and I do trust that we’ll all figure out whether we should date each other, other people, climbers or people who are afraid of heights and think us crazy.  As I write this, I’m running late to meet a friend at the gym, and later today I’ll do a few more Spanish lessons to get ready for El Potrero Chico where I’ll be meeting a friend in December.  I’m pensive this morning, but at the end of the day, I love my partners, my friends, my people.  Time to send!

At the top of Wherever I May Roam, Smith Rock

At the top of Wherever I May Roam, Smith Rock



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