How many people have seen you tremble with fear? If you’re a climber, the list is probably unusually long. If not, it probably doesn’t extend beyond your very nearest and dearest. After all, life gives us few people with whom we can be vulnerable. If you’re a cis-dude, this is doubly true. Boys don’t cry, after all—or so we’re taught. That, at least, has been my experience.
I haven’t cried in front of a climbing partner, but only because I’m bad at crying in general (typical, right?). I last shed a tear when my grandfather died and even then, I had to wring them out. I’ve exhibited every other imaginable emotion while climbing, though. I’ve shaken, terrified; I’ve whimpered; I’ve sworn at the rock, at myself, at my partner; I’ve apologized; I’ve burst with elation and been crushed by failure; I’ve survived sketchy raps off alpine big walls amidst encroaching weather and felt the speechless relief of being alive; I might even have fallen in love.
You may have seen that TED talk by Helen Fisher wherein she theorizes that feelings of love are associated with dopamine rushes and that attachment is provoked by the release of oxytocin and vasopressin. I haven’t done the science, but it’s well-documented that intense experiences—and I think rock climbing qualifies—prompt the release of dopamine. Fisher’s idea is that when shared, these experiences offer up a key ingredient for romance. Spiked hormone levels predispose us to feelings of attraction and desire. Maybe this explains the heartbreak of discovering that your long-term climbing partner has found a new fav crag buddy. Maybe it even explains why people upend their lives and move into a van. People do crazy things for love, after all.
It’s not just Fisher’s research that feeds this speculation, either. Perhaps you read that viral article in The New York Times profiling psychologist Arthur Aron, creator of a questionnaire that, when shared, would lead two complete strangers to fall for one another. If not, check it out here. The driving force, in my estimation, is vulnerability. Over the course of 36 questions, participants progress from establishing trust to sharing their deepest, darkest, and most tender—in effect fast-tracking the development of shared empathy. Climbing partners engage in a similar exchange. Trust is a prerequisite for roping up with someone new and sharing intense experiences is inevitable. Even on a routine cragging day, climbers accompany one another through the gamut of emotions ranging from the quiet nerves of tying in at the base of a project, to the focussed desperation of trying hard, the elation of sticking a crux, and the heartbreak of dry firing, or blowing a foot, or messing up beta, or melting down before the chains, or of any of the other minor tragedies we regularly experience together. The most mundane of climbing days packs more emotion than even the wildest of coffee dates.
This aspect of our sport has far-reaching consequences. Studies have shown that bouldering can treat depression. Projects such as the Centro de Escalada Urbana in the Rocinha favela of Rio de Janeiro demonstrate climbing’s potential to provide positive emotional outlets for young people and offer a secure space for learning to navigate life’s challenges. In my personal experience, climbing has been one of the few places I’ve been able to build supportive relationships with other men. As simple as this sounds, it is no small gift. Society doesn’t look nicely upon men being vulnerable around one another and the ability to be vulnerable is essential to feeling supported. As a kid, I rarely felt at ease hanging around other dudes because I rarely felt secure. Insecure kids get bullied—or do the bullying—and so adolescence sucked. Volumes have been written about the relationship between insecurity and toxic masculinity. Here, I’ll just say that climbing was the first place I felt OK being both masculine and vulnerable.
My point is not that climbing offers some kind of special back door that frees us dudes of toxic tendencies without having to talk about them (wouldn’t that be convenient). On the contrary, I think climbing, with its innate demand for shared vulnerability, provides a forum where this subject becomes, maybe, just a little easier to address. Speaking personally, I know the safety of being able to shout “watch me” to my homies down below and receive “I’m with you, man” in response has opened the door to showing those same friends real caring in other ways, too. This is powerful because caring for one another is the first step to holding each other accountable, and god knows there’s an awful shortage of that both in climbing and the world at large.
While climbers often talk of our sport as existing in a parallel universe removed from so many of society’s ills, incidents like the objectification of women’s bodies at the 2021 Innsbruck Bouldering World Cup or 65% of women reporting having experienced microaggressions while climbing in a survey conducted by Flash Foxy prove otherwise. These events are a call to act and it’s nice to think that the groundwork for doing so has been laid in part by our sport’s very nature.
It might be a stretch to propose that love permeates climbing, and yet I think there is some truth to this notion. Anyone who has spent any amount of time scaling rocks big or small can attest to the sense of community that runs through our sport. I haven’t experienced anything like it anywhere else and I think it boils down to deep connections. This is critical for straight, cis-dudes like me who so rarely know how to express affection for one another and who, as a result, disproportionally burden others with this all-too-human need.
It doesn’t stop there, though. All of us need to feel loved, and not just in the context of romance. Western society does a terrible job of addressing this. We lean too heavily on those nearest to us because there are precious few other places wherein we find support being vulnerable. Climbing is one of them. Imagine if at every crux in life you had a community below you shouting, “you got this, c’mon, breathe!” Imagine if all climbers treated one another like the family we so often claim to be. Now, as much as ever, we need that.
Born in Alberta, Canada, Christopher Schafenacker now lives in Granada, Spain, where he writes, climbs, and runs educational, language- and culture-centered training camps for youth climbing teams.
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