Fifteen meters up Rutabaga, a moderate 5.9 splitter at the base of Squamish, BC’s Stawamus Chief, stretches a traverse between cracks. The move crosses jugs and offers fine, slabby feet, but still, I find it exhilarating. In fact, for reasons related only slantwise to climbing, it is exactly the sort of move that I seek each time I rope up.
I have been climbing outside for only three years, but already I possess—am possessed by—a very particular moment, one that I chase even though it often scares me enough to have me considering other pastimes, such as pickleball. The moment goes something like this: I’m well off the deck, on the sharp end with my belayer out of sight. I might be on a dicey slab, midway through a tricky traverse, or just below the apex of an insecure bulge pull—any place where a little bit of extra tact is required, but also where the moves are not so difficult as to become all-consuming. I am not pumped; my mind has wiggle room. As I take a single breath, my feet learn their weight. They feel heavier, suddenly more grippy, but also more improbable in their hold, bound as they are by gravity to be ground seeking. My body’s precarity becomes palpable, almost absurd. Does this really work? I wonder. I look down at my rope’s weighty swing, watch it bob in the catch of my last piece of protection. I feel alone and vulnerable but also self-reliant and, paradoxically, supported, protected by both rock and friend. Trusting my ties, I reach onward to the next move.
by North Bennett, this story is published in the new zine, Volume 20, which is now available
Banner photo: Nat Bailey and cams by Irene Yee
I have used Tinder for about as long as I have enjoyed climbing, but it was only this past summer that I realized how the activities might be related. The idea hit me at the kitchen table, a few weeks after graduating college, in my parents’ house. I had returned home for a summer of nighttime bartending and daytime climbing and in my unoccupied moments found myself more tethered to my smartphone than ever before. At the smallest interval—be it the walk from one grocery aisle to another, the pause between customers at work, or even the page flip of a book—my phone beckoned me with promises of stimulation and connection. Tinder, charged as it is with the possibility of romance, proved to be the most irresistible app. One morning, however, it delivered something different:
“There’s no one around you,” it said. “Expand your discovery settings to see more people.”
There’s no one around you. Above the text is my image, bound by a circle, pinging out amorous search signals like a lone satellite. Below, a button labeled Discovery Settings asks for my touch. Broaden your range, it suggests, or this isolated longing might suspend you forever.
I stay on this page for quite some time. The pings ring out at a languorous pace, lagging enough to elicit my doubt about what will happen next. Transfixed by the thrills of swiping, a back-brain voice begins furnishing dubious explanations. Perhaps, it suggests, more people will appear after the next ping or the one after that or after another again. Maybe the app is buffering or loading or rendering or glitching. Maybe the internet is too slow. My more deliberative self discounts these absurdities and recognizes that this screen means something positive, that I now have an actionable reason to stop wasting so much time on my phone. If this is all I’m going to see, then there’s no reason to open the app. A third party, the one sitting alone at a table set for six, understands both of these logics but also, and more poignantly, feels just plain lonely and cannot help but identify with that yearning, circle-bound avatar of isolation, thinking yes, that is exactly how I feel, again and again and again.
Tinder knows how to engineer an addiction. The next day, my stack offers several new cards to swipe through, but only enough to fuel my desires without satisfying them. Every sunrise, sometimes every few hours, it replenishes the deck with a handful of new profiles to keep me coming back. Some of the cards represent recent arrivals to my discovery area, but I notice several as repeats and more than a few that live farther away than my app preferences supposedly allow. Nevertheless, I become hooked, thoughtlessly checking Tinder first thing in the morning and constantly throughout the day. Always, I swipe through the stack and tumble into the same hole: There’s no one around you. It is a fall that I can’t seem to resist. With the words echoing in the space around my image, I look my picture in the eyes. Is that a smile or a grimace? I wonder. Mesmerized, we drop together, and my stomach lurches, expecting a catch that isn’t there. My circled self pings again.
With time, it begins to occur to me that Tinder has stolen the stage upon which my hopes for connection dance. This is despite the paucity of real dates that I have successfully parlayed through the app, as well as all the real-life places where I might more easily meet a real-life human being, such as the climbing gym where I train or the craft brewery where I work. In fact, as I use the app more, people at these places begin to feel excessively real, lively, and dangerous. Rather than risk conversation with someone nearby, I let my imagination start wandering to that person with a mountaineering photo who has not responded to my joke about the strange grammar in their bio, or to the other one who seems, vaguely, to like art? Each profile’s mix of text and image gives me just enough information to spin out lengthy fantasies and futures, all of which I know are fictitious, but whose appeal I nevertheless can’t deny. Of course, these imaginations only confirm the holes in my everyday reality, one where I’m feeling increasingly alone as I drive from gym to work to home, sitting at my kitchen table and every day becoming more occupied by my phone.
Luckily, cell data does not (yet) cover the whole map, and swiping can’t happen everywhere. That summer, my college friends and I skipped town at every opportunity to convene at some Northwestern crag, soaring from our disparate outposts like pigeons homed to each other and released at long last. The practice manifested a summer at once joyful and disorienting, constituted as it was by extremes of loneliness and friendship, plastic and rock, the virtual and something verging more on the real. At a time when my nonclimbing self felt so frequently dazed and digital, I sensed that the sport was becoming redemptive in ways that I’d resisted letting it be in the past.
Half a year earlier, my rope buddy Gabe had begun teaching me how to place trad gear, yanking me up multipitch climbs and graciously fiddling with anchor examples over camp dinners. Our summer outings functioned as a practicum of sorts, each one presenting new challenges for him to help guide me through. I got scared pulling his gear out on insecure traverses; I froze up on leads where I failed to find solid placements; I took a few subdued falls, and on the way down, I unearthed a lot about myself and this unique form of sports craft.
The most basic lesson of multipitch climbing might be: never detach yourself from the system. The rope, although sometimes untied, illustrates this point well. On the wall, the rope links climber to rock to belayer—it’s what keeps everything off the ground, connected together in one protective system. Every rope recognizes that you and your partner are mortal individuals but also stretches to transcend that narrowness. Its length measures not only distance but trust, too, and so long as you’re on the wall, you’re not alone: you have the solidity of the rock, the friction of your placements, the careful catch of your partner’s hands. Ropes draw lines of relation and dependence; as a climber, I can tie in and reach beyond my virtual bubble. I can feel autonomous and in possession of my fate but not totally so.
“Got me?” I yell.
“Got you, North!” yells Gabe, without fail.
During my more ruminative Tinder moments—those wasted wallowing in sympathy with my digital image—I began locating some of the uncomfortable frictions between the realities of the app world and those of my embodied one. It seemed that my pain stemmed from an attachment to ideas, especially those centered on people: mute ones who reciprocated desire without any threat of exposure, malleable ones who could be shaped to fit any fancy. Maybe, I wondered, it was an illusion to think that I wanted to meet anyone at all. Maybe I wanted nothing more than for all of my rightward swipes to be reciprocated by the simulacrum of a stranger, images of whom my imagination could co-opt for visions of its own. Maybe the flimsy, digital profiles of people were enough, and anything greater was too real or too unpredictable.
A while ago, I asked my friends to send me some of their most notable Tinder chats, and what’s most striking about them is their one-sidedness. Reading them, it seems as if many folks can’t—or won’t—comprehend that real people live on the other side of their chat boxes. Instead, matched Tinder users often write to some sort of robot designed for personal satisfaction, perverse entertainment, or both.
“u hot. u would look hotter bouncing on my dick,” read one.
“have some drinks and fuck?” asked another.
“hello you look very exotic,” chimed a third.
“oh man I have a bad back from motocross and can’t sleep alone,” complained a fourth. (Befuddled, my friend didn’t reply.)
“you’re totally blowing it,” the guy said.
There are, of course, also many mundane instances of objectionable objectification (which I will spare you) and a fair share of dick pics. People seem convinced that, having swiped right, the person on the other side of their screen is already theirs for the taking; indeed, each has moved into the other’s private stack. Conversation follows accordingly—that is, badly, with the sort of effrontery that I associate most strongly with narcissistic dicks, mostly male ones.
This sense of entitlement is only heightened by the geographical distance separating Tinder users. Few real-life connections bind you to your matches—that’s why the app exists in the first place—and anyone who’s ever had a bad first date with a coworker or with a friend of a friend knows that this can be a boon. Only in our inboxes, however, are we realizing that this distance can form a sort of terrible armor, one that’s just protective enough for people to reveal their empty reserves of empathy. One sees this not only in messages but in actions outside the app too: it isn’t rare to be stood up, as a friend of mine was. When she checked the chat for an explanation, she had been unmatched. Usually confident and self-assured, she was obviously hurt and pissed that someone would so brazenly waste her time. The guy who unmatched her probably didn’t think twice about it, though, and no mutual friend could berate him for his poor behavior. Tinder permitted him to act selfishly without any of the usual fallout, and he did, and he probably still does: the consequences remain invisible.
The climber cannot act so carelessly; each of her decisions has its particular set of repercussions, and nearly all of those affect someone other than herself. When Gabe runs out a traverse, he exposes not only himself to a swinging fall but he does so to me, his follower, too. The same rule holds each time he chooses a bad line or an unfortunate belay stance or if I lose my focus to the birds or the clouds or the shimmering leaves. A climbing partnership can blossom only on a fertile ground of trust, and trust requires mutual accountability. Neither Gabe nor I can forget that both of our lives hang on the same line. Each of us must remain real in the other’s imagination. Any lapse and our trust might fray.
When I redownloaded Tinder this past spring, my friend Katie offered to make my profile. We were housemates at the time, and I trusted her, so I handed my phone over and let her run wild. Having done this for several friends, she had developed a formula: one clear headshot, several photos showing interests (climbing, skiing, etc.), and one or two attention-grabbing images that attest to personality (unicycle jousting at the Renaissance Faire, a photo of my rad spring break bowl cut). For the caption, she wrote something silly, offhand, and short, the details of which I now forget.
I did not get many matches with this profile. Disappointed, I decided that the photos must not tell the right story, so I scavenged iPhoto for the plot points of a new one. I became a skateboarder, one who rides bowls and carves longboards on country roads, to little avail. I became a backpacker, hale and wholesome, who tends pygmy goats and casually ropes up every once in a while: better but still not great. How about a traveler who enjoys film and literature? That works okay, depending on who you’re trying to match with. What if I throw in a photo of me hanging out with cool-looking friends? Will that imply social status and, by association, make me more attractive? Yes, to a degree.
While Katie asked, How can I portray my friend as best as possible? I realized that I had begun chasing a new operating question, one that might go, How, using photos of myself, can I portray a person that will be likable at first glance? I began looking at all the photos of myself through the eyes of a distant, distracted stranger, wondering not only what story they might tell but also how quickly and forcefully they might be able to tell it. The stakes felt high, as any bad profile would be seen once, rejected, and never seen again. It seemed that the answer to my new question would be whatever abbreviated, cultivated version of me would receive the most attention. It was whoever was pleasant and appealing, a touch interesting even, but essentially—like anything designed for mass appeal—empty and bland, nothing more than an easily recognized type.
Months passed, and after many unsuccessful attempts to furnish an answer, I was left not only with the sense that I was unwanted but also with the conviction that I couldn’t even appear as someone who could be. It seemed that, somewhere in the app ether, there existed a panel of harsh judges, ruthlessly subjective yet unpersuadable and authoritative, who would not give me the results that I wanted. With enough of my solo stewing, these feelings seeped out from the app, leaving me with the twisted belief that my real self, the one that existed beyond my screen, was somehow essentially unappealing to others. The more time I spent absorbed by myself on my phone the truer this feeling would become, I worried. A person who broods this much on Tinder is certainly not an interesting person to be around. They can’t even appear to be.
Swipe after swipe, I realized, I was vanishing myself into digital bits, imagehood. Any robust sense of self that I previously possessed had faded away to considerations far more feeble, malleable, and vain: appearances. In a psychic way, Tinder had corralled me into that circled image at the bottom of my stack. It is frustrating and demeaning to feel this small. In time, I felt as if I might be dispensable, expendable into cyberspace with but a leftward flick of someone else’s thumb.
Climbs do not subject their courtiers to such abstract assaults on self-esteem; as a type, they are more straightforward and immediate in their judgments: a person can either get up a pitch or she can’t. As a climber, I meet the rock with my inescapable particularities, the strengths and frailties of both body and mind. There is no distortion, little adornment. Rocks don’t care about looks.
No matter how I appear to Squamish’s Cobra Crack (5.14), it will hiss at me for the novice that I am. My fingers cannot grasp its thin lines; my skill cannot accommodate its steep pitch. I could take a picture of myself on its crux and share it everywhere, and people might believe it. They might see effort in my eyes, even strain in my forearms, but ultimately the image would be vacant, a single moment robbed of its truthful context. In any robust sense of the word, the image would lack meaning.
The photographic theorist John Berger writes that “a photograph isolates the appearances of a disconnected instant…and in life, meaning is not instantaneous. Meaning is discovered in what connects, and cannot exist without development.” I like to think of the climbing rope ascending, steady yet unsure, and how it tells a story. The meaning of a climb arises move by move, pitch by pitch, as a team works through a challenge together.
In other words, meaning is not a pixel but a line, a continuation that requires context and that demands a story anchored in truth.
There is a tendency among my peers to feign a lack of seriousness on dating apps. It is both tragic and unhip to get caught caring too much about them, and only people new to the internet are brazen enough to risk any sort of sincerity. Seasoned users, by contrast, guard themselves with ironic distance. “I don’t know why I’m here”; “my friend made this for me”; and “not sure why I redownloaded this app” are all common bios to encounter among Tinder’s stacks, which is curious, since one can always delete the app or simply stop opening it. And yet, the profiles remain up, active, searching and swiping.
It seems that a base level of FOMO is associated with abstention—a quite high one, in fact. I know many people (myself included) who have deleted and redownloaded the app several times, exactly for fear of missing out. A person can only hear so many success stories before the allure of the swipe becomes again irresistible. In August, I discovered that one of my best friends had been on several dates with someone new. I asked them where the two had met each other. “Where do you think?” they scoffed. “Where does anybody meet anyone these days? Tinder, ya dummy.” Even here, I could sense a bit of sheepish irony.
Still, their success made my recent decision to delete Tinder feel childishly unwise, as if, having learned that the rules of the game were unfair, I had quit rather than bend them to my advantage. I had been made a fool by a line of code. A few weeks later, my brother met someone on an elite version of Tinder. They are still together, six months hence. That I must pretend that this doesn’t bother me a little makes for a second-tier, private pain that only twitches my fingers toward the app again. Were I to download it, though, you can be sure that I wouldn’t allude to any of this. In fact, even this essay would be too embarrassing to mention. In my bio, I might instead write something vague and ironically self-aware, something like, “lol i guess this is where people meet each other now?”
I don’t know if it is possible to climb something with ironic distance. If irony requires a friction between two levels of signification, then I suppose that one could ironically scramble up something easy while feigning great effort; one could throw unnecessary heel hooks and scream superfluous tsahhht!s, but that sort of performance would less protect one’s ego than reveal it as indelibly assholey. The opposite performance—that is, making a hard climb look easy—is simply called skill, and there is nothing ironic about skill at all. Skill is the gift of earnest effort, the very sort of application that opposes ironic distance and reveals something of the self. You cannot master anything if you do not bring yourself near to it.
For me, this makes slab one of the most sincere forms of climbing. On a trip to Index in Washington’s Skykomish Valley this summer, Katie, Gabe, and I roped up for Spineless (5.11a), a gently sloped granite arête that is as bare as it is beautiful. Gabe, calm and confident, slithered up the route with little issue, setting a toprope for Katie to follow, which she did. Watching her, I became nervous; usually, I’ll try leading 5.11 sport without hesitation, but I am notoriously uncomfortable and unskilled at slab climbing, and this route challenged all of my weaknesses. I pictured my feet popping and my face grating down the granite. I imagined blowing a clip and swinging off into the nearby dihedral. I wondered how embarrassing it would be to lower down unsuccessfully and whether Gabe would climb it again to collect the draws if I did.
“Should I pull the rope, North?” asks Katie, startling me out of my stressing.
“Uh, what do you think? Was it hard?”
“Just a little techy,” she says. “Like it’s definitely slab, but it’s doable.”
I look up at the arête again. It seems almost hikeably low angle but also decidedly smooth. In all of its eighty feet, there are maybe four or five things that one might actually grab.
“C’mon, North. You can lead it,” urges Gabe. He knows that I often undercut myself.
“Leave it up,” I say. “I’ll just give it ye old toprope go, janahwahamean?” I don’t feel good saying this. Secure on toprope, I now have little excuse for bad climbing or silly falls. My palms begin to sweat, and I can feel my back tense. I tie in.
What follows is fifteen minutes of sliding, cussing, and hanging. Although it’s morning and we’re in the cliff’s shade, nervous perspiration drips down my neck and out my armpits. The rock only gets more slippery. Halfway up, I wonder aloud whether I can even finish the route.
“Just trust your feet more,” yells Gabe. “And get yourself closer to the wall. Move slower too.”
“Let’s go, Norte,” I hear Katie say, her tone a mix of amusement and boredom.
I grunt and keep trying a set of moves that takes me off the route’s one small shelf. I pop a tiny crimp and skitter my knuckles down the rock, stretch below the ledge, swear, and try again: no dice. Embarrassing. I hang for a minute, inhale, close my eyes, exhale, reopen them. I try to forget that anyone is watching, focus on my hands chalking in my bag. With all the serenity I can muster, I cradle the arête and step my left foot out onto the slab: it holds. I raise my hand up to a corner nob, lean in on it and smear my right foot higher. Each move urges my face closer to the rock; soon, my eyes can focus only on the undulations at hand. With slow attention, I keep bending and stretching my body up the arête, trying not to overgrip and keeping my cheek as close to the wall as I can. Its cool texture feels solid, supportive, equanimous. I keep the distances short. I climb. As far as I can imagine, nobody is watching.
By the time the anchor welcomes me, my more acute frustrations have dropped away, evaporated into the space between my feet and the ground. Still, though, I feel sheepish, first for climbing so poorly and second for being so unbearably conscious of being seen climbing so poorly. I focus on cleaning the anchor, threading the rap rings, and loading my ATC for the rappel. Coming to dirt, I ask Katie and Gabe what we’re climbing next.
When fall came, Katie and I went tufa climbing in Leonidio, Greece. There, in Sector Mars, limestone tufas hang from the wall in rocky dreadlocks, dangling from their overhanging roots, and connecting to the base wall with cartilagelike flanges. On some climbs, such as Babouki (6b+), you might climb not only on tufas but between them too. Only skiing powder has ever elicited so much simple joy in me. Quiet by nature, I began hooting as I lifted one leg into stemming position, leaned back on an undercling, clipped a draw, and then hit a gaston pinch before swinging my feet over to the same side for a meaty smear. It was climbing in the most three-est of Ds, and I couldn’t get enough.
“I’ve never seen you this excited,” shouts Katie at one point. “Except maybe…” she trails off.
Shaky at the end of the climb, I take and have Katie lower me. I bounce down along the tufas before I’m hanging in space, swinging, smiling. Looking out across the river valley below, I realize that, so far from home, family, my work, and my friends, this might be the closest I get to embodying that stranded image at the base of my Tinder stack. If I let myself think about those distances, I could get really lonely. But then the rope bobs, and I remember how it runs from my harness to its limestone anchor, and how my friend Katie holds the other end, keeping me up and alive, connected. When my feet touch the ground, I begin to fiddle with my catch-tightened knot, a figure eight that, I notice, looks kind of like infinity, a form for love. It tightens even as it strains.
North Bennett reads, writes, and recreates in Southwestern Montana. He likes activities that go whee! and was once given the Energizer Bunny Award by his preschool sports team. Friends observe that he hasn’t aged a bit.
An audio version of this story is included in episode 25 of the For The Love of Climbing podcast by Kathy Karlo. We are also grateful to Kathy for sharing North’s story with us!