I was trying to start a campfire a couple weekends back and grabbed a fat piece of wood with a crack at one end, ripe for splitting into two smaller pieces that would burn more easily. I searched my van for something to split the wood with, and came up with: A 55 cm mountaineering axe. I pulled it out of the back, turned it around in my hand once, and said to myself: A real man would have a hatchet. Or a real axe.
I have all kinds of somewhat manly items in the back of my van: crampons, ice tools, ropes, things I use to sleep on the dirt, shit in a hole in the ground, climb mountains. No axe, though. I thought back to 2008, in the midst of my divorce, standing in Home Depot by myself and realizing that at 29 I was about to buy my first hammer. Because my soon-to-be-ex-wife brought all the tools to our relationship. Or, I guess, all the ones that didn’t say “Park Tool” on them.
I can probably tune your bicycle, but I can’t tell you what’s wrong with your car when it breaks down on the side of the road. I can’t be the only one, I think. A lot of friends and acquaintances seem to be a type of new-school mountain man, good at mountain things but not so much typical “man” things.
My friend Justin has a master’s in poetry from Sarah Lawrence. He climbs pretty damn hard and works for one of the biggest climbing gear companies in the world. I asked him the names of some of the hardest routes he’s ever climbed, and he said:
Hardest redpoint was a 13b in Rumney called Stone Monkey. I also did a 13a there called Butt Bongo Fiesta. I like the name on that one better. Did a few V10s, including Squeenos, in the Gunks.
I have never changed the oil in my car.
I have at certain times of my life drank whiskey, driven a pickup truck, worn steel-toed boots to work, and had a chewing tobacco habit. I also own a couple Camera Obscura albums and sometimes eat salads for dinner. One time last year, a friend said to me,
“If you’re going to have hair long enough for a ponytail, you should grow a beard.”
“I can’t grow a beard.” No hatchet, no beard.
Lots of folks have speculated that the global economy is shifting to favor femininity, or theorized about the “End of Men” or the “death of masculinity” (or that hipsters are the end of masculinity). Maybe what we’re talking about is the end of age-old gender stereotypes, which is a good thing.
But do men gravitate toward mountains because of “masculine” heroes? Most mountaineering stories are written by men. A lot of lofty, noble quotes about climbing are attributed to men, Because It’s There, et cetera. What’s the difference between Steve House and Jim Bridger, or Jeremy Jones and Jeremiah Johnson? Or the difference between the Brawny Paper Towel man and my friend Alan (pictured above)?
Or is our new definition of a “mountain man” a sandal-wearing, station-wagon-driving, yoga-practicing rock climber who tries to split wood with ice axe? Which doesn’t work that well, by the way.