The Feminization of the Modern Mountain Man

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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.

Brendan Leonard is semi-masculine at Semi-Rad. Photo courtesy of Burnham Racing.

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{ 9 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Andy

    I fail to see the major difference between “new-school mountain man” and “typical man” things. 20 years ago your car broke-down all the time so needing to know how to fix that was a requirement. Cars rarely break anymore but Mountain Bikes break all the time and knowing how to fix that is the difference between riding home or walking 10+ miles back to the trailhead.

    Different times, different skills.

    Granted there is a lot of pussification out there, but skills are still skills, and using any means to advance and improve your skills is probably, at the core of it, manly (even if that means doing yoga…)

  • Bob D

    A lot of car functions are so computerized that the “shade-tree mechanic” is a difficult thing to become anymore. That said, learning to change brake pads or do basic maintenance isn’t too prohibitive — you just need someone to teach you.

    I can hang drywall and texture it, but don’t let me near your plumbing or wiring. I can fix my garage door or cut wood to fit, but can’t climb anything tougher than a 5.7. Or fix a bike. I guess I’m neither Brawny nor Rad.

    Great piece!

  • Bob H

    Don’t worry, i can’t climb a mountain and my car maintenance skills are limited to wiggling things and putting the right fluids in, but I can build a kitchen and rewire a house, yet I am a desk jockey in my daily life.

    As was said above, it is all about what skills you need in your life, you are an outdoors person, a mountain man as you say, and as much as I love the outdoors my scope out there isn’t broad, I just hope I know enough to survive an apocalpse. I currently plan to ‘retire’ at about 55 and move to a mountain village, hopefully there I can learn that life as the next challenge in my life. What is important to your life now? Only you can know that.

  • Ned

    Not having a hatchet doesn’t make you a wussy. Not being able to change the oil on your car doesn’t make you a wussy either.

    Pondering all of this and putting fingers to the keyboard – to tell the whole world how unmanly you are – does make you a wussy. A manly man just knows he is a manly man. He doesn’t ponder things like feminization of modern man.

    Go buy some damn wrenches, craw under your car, take out the drain bolt at the bottom of the oil pan. Wear you big girl panties because your balls are gonna grow.

  • Danna

    Once I desperately opened a can of frijoles negros with an ice axe. Was I less feminine for not having a can opener? I was pretty proud of myself before noticing I had dulled the hell out of our lightweight axe. Gotta say I feel mighty lucky to live in a time and place that is somewhat unencumbered by gender roles.

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