Have you ever seen that show “Rock of Love” where Bret Michaels of Poison fame sings “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” over and over ad nauseam to woo a gaggle of 30 women? No? What about “The Bachelor”? You know, one lonely Dudley Do-Wrong emotionally manipulates a few dozen women who are dressed to the nines, while at the same time he tries to convince 3.2 million viewers every Monday night that he’s not a total piece of shit while he makes out with all of them in the span of a real-world week. Both parties “just want to find true love,” and clearly going on reality television—where “true” is a relative term—is the best method. Anyway, if you’ve seen either of those shows, imagine the exact opposite and there you have the Oklahoma climbing scene.
Even though I haven’t been an acting member of that particular scene in more than a decade, it’s where my climbing roots are and the only reference I had to a climbing community for the first few years of my vertical career. Because of an abundance of Y chromosomes and a dearth of Verve Magico shorts, I can accurately name each and every woman I came across while climbing outside in Oklahoma. We college-aged, hormonally fueled hetero fellas often joked how we got into climbing “because of the babes,” while weeping internally at the twisted pathetic lumps of loneliness we’d actually become. The outspoken actress and writer Lena Dunham would say we were young and didn’t know how to respect women for the individuals they are. That we instead were reducing them to mere objects. No matter how much my youthful self might argue that these lovely women were the objects of our adoration, Lena would say with exasperation, “Yes, but despite your good intentions, we are not OBJECTS!”
And I would agree. Well, now I would. Back then though, I was but a pup slowly turning into a full-grown canine. I’m not here boasting about some feminist enlightenment that occurred independently. It’s not like that. This is more like an abrupt reappraisal of what women meant to me. Who they were to me. Also tripping over the realization that they didn’t care what they meant to me or who they were to me. That I was nonessential.
A decade ago, fresh out of a relationship that I would continually jump in and out of (until recently, when I finally put a ring on it), I was rabid with desire to share a rope with young, hard-bodied coeds. Luckily, I had secured an internship for the summer with a certain climbing publication in Carbondale, Colorado, and would be spending those few months writing, learning the craft of journalism, and hucking sick sends in the steep and cryptic limestone fortress of Rifle Mountain Park.
Of course I was mistaken about much of that. Almost all of it. Journalism is a thankless profession, and moreover, editors don’t sit with a cup of coffee, watching the morning sun rise while jotting down wisps of brilliance that float freely through their brains. They actually just do a crapload of editing—meaning taking a lot of garbage and weaving it into slightly better-sounding garbage day in and day out. If you’re an editor who has the misfortune of working for a strapped magazine (in reality this is most of them) then you will be writing, but not with any sort of creative satisfaction. Instead you’ll write to save on the pittance of a freelance budget you might have. But even then, you’re filling most of your pages with writing from other people. [Just ask Editor Julie Ellison. When I wrote this article, it was about dogs at the crag, and now it’s about this. Go figure.]
I did learn the ins and outs of the magazine world, how editors interact with designers, and the careful tightrope that publishers walk with ad sales. I also learned that if you’re an outgoing, gung-ho intern, then the editors will take that to mean you’ll agree to do anything. So when Andrew Bisharat dropped a miniscule Euro-type Speedo over my whirring laptop and said, “You’re wearing this at an event, and we’re going to auction you off on a date for charity,” I could scarcely say no. What followed was yours truly stripping on top of a bar while getting oiled up by a lady in a Wonder Woman costume.
I didn’t manage to climb well until the end of the summer. Rifle is an unforgiving place when you come from a state whose idea of rock climbing is runout granite slabs and flaring, cheese-grater cracks. I was psyched, but absolutely unprepared for the pump afforded by equally overhanging and confusing limestone. I couldn’t even belay the right way. Showing up with an ATC and the firm belief that my main priority was keeping my climber as far from the ground as possible, I spiked Bisharat for the second time whereupon he firmly elucidated both what would break his ankles and my face should I do it a third. Apparently long falls are better than broken ankles. How foolish I was to think my experience meant anything to anyone out there in any capacity.
Did I mention I was living in my car? My diet consisted of Pop-Tarts and Guinness almost exclusively. If I thought I was going to impress any kind of girl in any kind of way, I was sorely mistaken. A few women took me in out of motherly pity, providing a couch or spare bed and a meal rather than a night of carnal passion. They were clearly blind to my raw sex appeal and promising future. So when David Clifford, a local professional photographer, asked if I wanted to meet Caroline Treadway, Aly Dorey, and Emily Harrington for dinner, I fell prostrate, renewed with a sense of duty to serve myself above others. Accomplish something for the summer I could brag to my bros about. If anything, I could say I spent time with three women I had seen in climbing magazines, no matter if I never saw them again. Confidence was not my problem. Decent-looking with no major facial deformities and a charming, small-town attitude, I had no trouble talking to girls. Doing anything else was much more difficult.
I showed up for dinner (at the same bar I had stripped at a few weeks earlier—a good omen) at the time I was requested, but there was no Dave. Anxiety flushed through my veins like pee at a water park. I had a drink while I waited. And then another. As I was about to order a third and resign myself to yet another night of lonely drinking with neither Dave nor the three crushers I so desired to fraternize with, I saw Vanessa Compton walk through the door, followed by Aly and Caroline. My heart sprang into my throat. I considered just bolting. They didn’t know me. I could disappear. But I couldn’t give in to weakness.
I meekly walked up to the group of girls and introduced myself as Dave’s friend, the new intern. A kinder greeting you couldn’t find anywhere. We lamented Dave’s lateness. Typical. Laughs all around. We sat down and ate, talking climbing, writing, Rifle, hometowns, everything. It was my first “Celebrities! They’re just like us!” moment. I asked about Emily, wondering if she would be coming, but no one could say. Was she supposed to? It was that moment when I realized that Dave, the scoundrel, had just baited me then ditched me. Right then, the girls invited me to climb with them the next morning. I thanked Dave silently.
Slightly hungover from the nervous beers I’d put down over dinner the night before, I was even more nervous about climbing with girls who—it was safe to say—I absolutely adored. The short version of the day is that they climbed circles around me. The longer version of the day is that they climbed circles around me while encouraging me, belaying me, teaching me, and supporting my paltry accomplishments. They were incredible. They were kind. They were out of my league. In the 10 years since that wonderful day, I have come to realize that the only thing I did truly right was be smart enough to understand that at the time.
That summer was one of enlightenment. I came into the Western Slope a hormonally charged, short-roping, gumby-tron. I returned home, well, a hormonally charged, short-roping, gumby-tron, but I had taken with me an expanded view of the women within our climbing population. Yes, of course, I find them wildly attractive—I know I’m not the only one who has an entirely visceral appreciation of the athletically developed body parts that female climbers have spent hours earning. Sorry! But lady climbers aren’t just hot stuffs. They’re man-eating, route-leading, FA-claiming superheroes. Many of my climbing idols are women, but guess what? It has nothing to do with their chromosomes.
They are strong. They are smart. They are sometimes much better at climbing than men. Sometimes they aren’t better. Ultimately I learned that none of it matters. If I’m honest with myself, and now with you, I know that my objectification of the fairer sex will be a constant in my life until the day I die. I am not so good that I will not privately appreciate a hot climber. But I can in fact control what I project, and I choose now to project the same gift of acceptance, respect, and encouragement offered to me so many years ago by those Rifle lady crushers who had no reason whatsoever to give it to me.
Andrew Tower traded in a core-climber life for a cushy desk job in San Francisco where he fills his time climbing in the gym and complaining about it.