Take Candy From Strangers, No, Climb With Strangers, Yes

One of my climbing partners really loves to rock climb. She loves climbing so much that she drove nine hours and spent a week at Indian Creek even when she didn’t have a friend to climb with. She loves climbing so much that she sat on the bumper of her car with a cardboard sign in the parking lot at the mouth of Donnelly Canyon that read “Looking for partner. I’m very nice. Great belayer!” written in chicken scratch black sharpie. I picture that moment as not so different from the iconic Fred Beckey “Will Belay for Food!!!” photograph. But this climbing partner is so blissfully disconnected from media that I’m sure she’s never even seen the image and came up with the idea all on her own.

I often hear about how much people enjoy climbing because of all of the people that they meet. They warmly invite folks they encounter at the crag to Superbowl Campsite #26 at night for beers around the fire and offer to belay one another the next day. Or individuals like this particular partner who love climbing so much they’ll go to areas without people but with camalots and hearts full of stoke. Even at my home crag in Lander, some folks will come up the hill without any climbing plans, hoping for a catch from any willing human.

I had the realization that we were having an array of more intimate conversations than I’d had with some of the people I consider good friends.

That is not me. I’ve always preferred a different M.O.– climbing with friends. Rock climbing is so special to me because it’s social and such a nice way to spend intimate time with people that I love. Sure, I’ve made friends through climbing, but usually, I’ve known them a little already. I do enjoy meeting new people, learning from them, and lending camalots when needed. But mostly, I want to make dinner with my husband at night and learn more about him. Or I want to go for a walk with my friend in the morning while the cliff warms up and help her process her breakup. Or I’m there with a mission and don’t feel bad asking a good friend to belay me on one pitch for 45 minutes while I figure out a sequence. Climbing’s a venue for building on relationships I already have. Well, historically that’s been the case.

Last month, I headed to the Dolomites to report on Arc’teryx’s new ‘Trips’ program. Go rock climbing in Europe and drink four doppios a day? Sign me up. I was elated to get to go to Italy (Buongiorno PIZZA!) and, frankly, a little hesitant about climbing with a bunch of people I didn’t know.

Arc'teryx, trips, Arc'teryx trips, Italy, Dolomites, Cortina, climbing, rock climbing
The author, feeling confident in the company of strangers. Photo: Hugo Vincent.

I’ve only ever climbed with people I know really well (or friends of friends) or strangers that I am hired to teach and guide. It’s such an odd sport where you’re putting yourself out there physically (it’s not natural for humans to recreate in the vertical!) and psychologically (there’s something performative in nature about climbing, that’s different than biking or running. You tie in and others watch you go up). It was a new and intimidating experience to fully trust strangers with technical elements, which may seem like a silly feeling given that they’re all IFMGA guides. And it was a new and intimidating experience to trust other strangers (the other journalists on the trip) with creating a safe emotional environment for climbing.

Once we arrived to Venice, we drove the windy roads two hours to Cortina. The mountains were surreal– layers and layers of stunning jagged peaks with thousands of feet of vertical relief as far as I could see. The scene was so iconic alps it was almost comical– cows grazing with bells around their necks, Italians sipping espresso outside of cafes, herds of sheep. I kept having to pinch myself– I get to be here right now? And yet the peach pit in my stomach had grown to a peach. Tomorrow I needed to go climbing with all of these people I didn’t know.

Soon, my worries began to wane. The environment was warm, friendly, and our guides were super competent. I even learned and got to practice a few new to me technical skills like a fixed point belay. But climbing with strangers offered more than I could have anticipated. On our second day of climbing, another journalist and I set out to follow a guide up a long, moderate, beautiful multi-pitch in the Tofana di Rozes area.

At the third belay station, we watched as our guide floated up the dolomite limestone like he was out for a leisurely stroll. After about four minutes, my conversation with the other journalist turned to our hopes for children. A few pitches up, we put on our wind jackets and shared Austrian cookies and looked out the expansive views. Throughout the next sixteen belays, we covered when we wanted to have babies, abortion, the intensity of romantic partnerships, privilege, money, politics. I had the realization that we were having an array of more intimate conversations than I’d had with some of the people I consider good friends. I can be intensely fearful of ruffling feathers of my close friends with hot, less straightforward topics. But with a near stranger, what did I have to lose by sharing some closely held and potentially controversial beliefs? And the setting of a long, all-day multi-pitch, the intimacy of that shared experience, cut through all of the bologna (we were in Italy, after all) of superficial conversation.

New climbing partners, new friends. Photo: Vincent

I was at a wedding after my trip to Italy, and a remarkably intentional and reflective friend named George sat down on the arm of my adirondack chair around a fire pit. A few minutes into our conversation, George shared that he had made a commitment to himself not to engage in any small talk. Ever again. Even at this 200 person wedding, he was asking real questions and offering vulnerable information about himself. On my way to refill my dessert plate for the 13th time, I walked by him and a man he had just met going deep about leadership. No fake smiles, no bull shit “do you know so-and-so?” games. No conversations about the weather or comments about the dress someone was wearing to the wedding. He had cultivated what I tasted in Italy in perhaps the most challenging of circumstances. He didn’t need to be on a 14-hour multipitch. He moved with the same intention in the front country as on a rock wall.

So go to Italy or Moab or Lander or your climbing gym. Go to the place where you can expand your world a little bit and meet people with shared values or even better, with values different from your own so you can learn from them. Go climbing with strangers (but safe strangers who back up their rappels!) and practice getting to the heart of life. I hope that I can channel what I learned in Italy and emulate George. I hope that I can learn to create meaning in every interaction, rock climbing included.

KATHRYN MONTANA PERKINSON is a writer living in Lander, Wyoming. Find more at kathrynmontana.com and @kathrynmontana.



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