I was halfway up a 5.7 route, top-roping it to clean it so my students could move on and try a different climb. It was day six or seven of a two week rock-climbing course I was instructing at Smith Rock State Park. My co-instructor Amber had set up the top-rope on this route, and our group of three girls had spent the last couple hours taking turns climbing the route and cheering each other on. There was a two-pitch climb next to our single-pitch route, but there was a separate two-bolt anchor for it just to the right of ours, and other climbers had been using that anchor all day as they headed up the multi-pitch.
As I got a bit higher I discovered that a climber on the multi-pitch had built an anchor on the rappel rings of our anchor and was belaying up his second there, rather than using the now-empty anchor meant for his climb. I squinted up at him, trying to figure out the mess he had created.
“Am I going to be able to rappel?” I shouted up at him.
“If you know how to clean a climb.” He shouted down at me.
“…no…I mean…” I stuttered, surprised and frustrated, “you built your anchor on the rappel rings.”
He looked down at his anchor. “Oh. Yea. I guess it’s a little crowded up here.”
I finished the climb, arrived at the anchor. After a few sweaty minutes hanging too close to this climber as he adjusted his anchor so I could use the rap rings, I finished cleaning my anchor and rapped the route, growing angrier by the second. When I got down to the ground, my students could tell something was wrong.
I’m used to having people doubt my abilities. First and second, I’m young, and I’m female. I’m regularly told I look five years younger than I actually am. I’m small. I’m not very loud. People make assumptions based on my appearance and identity, just like this man did when he assumed I was not technically competent, perhaps similar to the way women in tech industries experience skepticism from male counterparts. But expecting the doubt doesn’t make it hurt any less, doesn’t make me question my skills less, doesn’t make me feel more included in this often intimidating world of climbing. The shaky, angry, anxious feeling stayed with me the rest of the day as I played the scene over in my head.
Micro-aggression: an act of aggression based on someone’s identity, often unintended, nuanced, and pervasive. A co-worker of mine describes them as “death by a thousand cuts.” Often they are expressed without the intention of causing pain, but their effect over time can silence, exclude, and diminish.
And, to the surprise of me and my co-instructor Amber, micro-aggressions toward our all-female group abounded at Smith Rock State Park. Amber had spent years climbing at Smith (with mixed-gender groups) while going to school in Portland and said she had never experienced treatment like we did during those two weeks. Male climbers telling us not to be “scared” as we cleaned top-ropes, questioning our technical skills, and many other weird, hard to pinpoint interactions that left us feeling shitty and unwelcome. (I should mention that micro-aggressions appeared in our group’s own language as well, which we addressed in a conversation later in our trip. For one student, it was particularly hard to grasp why her claim that “gay men are so cute!” was a problem. “But they are!” she responded.)
That’s the hard thing about micro-aggressions: they are so hard to pinpoint. Pointing them out is rejected by many, including our current president, as “political correctness,” a term that has been used as an accusation to demonize the practice of bringing micro-aggressions (and macro-aggressions) to light in an effort to create more inclusive language and communities. Labeling these efforts as too “politically correct” allows those in power to brush them aside, not take them seriously. Anti-PC arguments often claim that “political-correctness” silences free speech, but dismissing concerns as “too PC” effectively allows those in power to maintain their power by silencing others who are trying to claim their voice and their space. I’m sure that climber above me did not intend to hurt me, but I also think I would (and maybe will, by sharing this story) be dismissed as being whiny, overly sensitive, or, worst of all, politically correct if I share why his words made me feel so angry.
I am a climber. After years of imposter-syndrome, self doubt, studying climbing textbooks, taking classes, leading pitches, placing good gear and bad gear, practicing building anchors, training, living out of my car and eating months-old tortillas, doing pull-ups, getting scared, and finding joy on the rock, I identify as a climber. Heck, I would even call myself a climbing instructor, which I get paid to do most of the year these days, both inside and out. And yet when I am doing my job, which I am trained to do, I’m operating in spaces and cultures that still question my ability based on my appearance. And then my all-female student group gets to witness this, and be reminded of what kind of spaces they exist in too.
But they can draw power from this too. And power from one another.
A few hours later, we were setting up one last route for the girls to try, near the entrance of the state park. At this point we were about halfway through the trip, and our climber “lingo” had started to rub off on the girls. While they climbed, Amber and I often yelled,
To which at first they responded,
They had since figured out that “crushing” was a good thing, “stoke” was what they had when they finished a climb or when we bought them popsicles, giving them “beta” did not mean they were having fish for dinner, and a “send train” did not have any wheels.
As I led the climb to set up a top-rope for the girls, I got to a tricky sequence and hesitated. Amber yelled some beta, I tried some different moves. And then I heard Jacqui yell,
“CRUSH THE PATRIARCHY!”
Jacqui from Oakland, who had never rock climbed before this week, giving me the best climbing cheer I had ever received. First I laughed, because what a great pun, right? Then I sent the route. They got it. These wonderful, young, fearful, small, strong girls got it. She saw me and knew where I was and what had happened because she lives it too. She also knew that climbing can be part of the answer, even though what had happened on an earlier climb made me feel like shit.
Climbing can be part of the answer. Absolutely. It makes me feel powerful and purposeful. Forces me to greet my fears. Brings me ever closer to the tipping point between failure and success. And it strips every last one of us down to our core, revealing the vulnerable creatures we all are underneath. If we could all see and hear one another at our cruxes, could we let go of the words that divide us? If we all had one another on belay, could we listen and find the best ways to support and love one another? Can the whole climbing community be part of the answer as we are critical of ourselves and who our community includes?
Maybe. For now, I still am sometimes angry and defensive. And these are some of the reasons why.