The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If you’re married to adventure, is there room for anyone else?


My boyfriend picked my black lace sports bra off the floor as if he were handling a dead mouse — and stared at it.

“Isn’t this dangerous?” he asked, fingering the safety pin attaching the broken strap.

“I’ve only been stabbed a few times,” I said, shrugging, which seemed to amuse him only slightly more than it concerned him.

“But … it’s not safe, baby.”

I rarely think about getting physically hurt. For the past 20 years as a climber I’ve put my life in the hands of dozens of men, some of whom I didn’t bother to ask their names until I was halfway up a rock wall and they were belaying me down below. The threat of death forces a rare kind of intimacy at lightning speed. Despite the intensity of those situations, I was never that scared. Rather this is what terrifies me: A man I know rather well and care about deeply, realizing how brutish and imperfect I am.

My boyfriend is embarrassingly romantic; he’s one of the smartest, kindest men I’ve met. But he’s never slept outside or climbed, nor lived in a truck for years on end like his half-wolf girlfriend has. So how we get along so well, or even found each other, baffles me.

Being a Patricia Pan — a grown woman who lives for adventure and sees commitment as imprisonment — I’ve always assumed I’d end up with a Peter Pan, or more likely no one at all. Patricia Pans don’t need no man! We’re too busy rafting down Class IV rivers and couch-surfing around South America to be bothered with such nonsense.

But in the past few years, I’ve finally been willing to date seriously, and I’ve noticed myself swiping left on the adrenaline junkies I used to go for. Especially if they’re proud “dirtbags,” meaning climber-types who drink wine out of recycled bean cans and repair our down jackets with duct tape.

Was I a jerk for not wanting to date climbers despite being one? Or have I morphed into someone else entirely since ditching my life as wilderness adventure guide, rock climber and truck-dwelling nomad? I miss living on the road and hanging in harnesses on rock walls. But at this point in my life, the idea of dating a man who sleeps in people’s driveways and spends most of his time tied into a rope repulses me. Am I getting old, or is it something else?

I started asking current and former dirtbags, and even non-climbers who’ve dated folks like us, what they thought.

Most hardcore climbers in their 20s, like truck-dweller Jenna Balinski, love the freedom as much as I used to. She will date only fellow dirtbags. “I’m just not compatible with anyone who doesn’t also live in a van and care about climbing as much as I do,” she says. Her last relationship ended because he just wasn’t cut out for van life.

I get it. When I was a dirtbag, I wasn’t attracted to men who kept their clothes on hangers instead of plastic bins in a car. Male climbers, on the other hand, date non-wolf women all the time.

My roommate is a prime example — a fiercely independent urbanite who’d much rather spend her weekends exploring museums and brunching on restaurant terraces than watching a bunch of climbers monkey around on rocks and talk endlessly about their gear. The wilderness bores her, so she’s stopped joining her boyfriend on climbing trips. Over the years, she’s also realized that, to make things work, it means “revolving your entire relationship around the weather.” Eventually most non-climbers grow frustrated with how hard it is to make plans with them. Some even feel like they’re competing with the weather to get the time and attention a relationship requires.

Steve Grossman, who’s been climbing since 1970, says this is pretty common. He has tried dating non-climbers, and it’s never worked out. “My wife climbs, so she gets it,” he says. “But when one person doesn’t climb, it can be incredibly problematic.”

Unlike most hobbies, climbing is an all-consuming sport requiring huge commitments of time, resources and planning. Spending three hours at a football game is much different from committing to days or weeks on end in the middle of nowhere. Because of this, it makes us a bit greedy and protective of our time.

Since my creative life has taken priority over climbing, it makes sense why dirtbags don’t appeal to me anymore. What I found fascinating, though, was that single climbers my age who haven’t stopped climbing hard seem just as turned off by Peter Pans who live in their vans. “You always come second with these type of guys,” said my friend Lara Thoreson, who’s been climbing for 20 years. “It’s always something.”

Women told me countless stories about men who’ve ditched plans with them to go climb with someone else (even a stranger sometimes!) despite the fact their girlfriends were equally strong climbers. They thought it wasn’t always about climbing so much as keeping their lives separate and their girlfriends at arm’s length. Younger women tend to tolerate this more. But by 35, most women won’t put up with being repeatedly ditched for an adrenaline fix.

Grossman thinks this is because climbing almost requires you to be self-serving, because it’s you versus nature. And he thinks men aren’t socially conditioned (yet!) to be as balanced and future-thinking as women are. In fact, the very mind-set of climbing is centered around being hyper-focused and living in the now.

“Climbing is a meditation like no other,” Thoreson says. “That’s why we do it. It quiets the mind and forces us to be in the moment.” When you’re focused entirely on not falling to your death, all your real-world problems seem trivial and fall away. It creates a false sense of fearlessness. This strange cocktail of peace, bravery and adrenaline makes for quite a high. Like any drug, it can become a problem.

“Climbers are incredibly passionate people,” Grossman says. Addictive-type personalities are particularly drawn to the sport. “We’re spiritually driven. And ego-driven,” he said. “Climbing helps a lot with our self-image,” he said, making us feel strong and more powerful than most humans.

“People attracted to dangerous sports are often overcompensating for their fear of other things,” Thoreson tells me. She thinks a lot of us use climbing as a way to deal with, or avoid dealing with, past trauma. Similar to dating an alcoholic, dating a die-hard climber can feel like dating someone in perpetual pursuit of a fix, though #notallclimbers obviously. For a handful of us, it’s not about challenge and adventure so much as running from something. Or someone.

I took up climbing immediately after giving up extreme drug and alcohol use. Shortly thereafter, I moved into my truck and committed to this lifestyle and image for years.

Like most climbers, I can become quite obsessed with the things I love. When channeled positively, this fire can lead to amazing things. But, as Grossman says, “that level of passion can turn in on itself and be incredibly destructive.” Not just destructive toward ourselves but our relationships, too — if we’re even willing to have relationships.

Grossman and Thoreson were basically describing me years ago. I’d hang off a 1,000-foot wall and trust my life in the hands of friends or strangers, yet I never let myself date or fall in love until age 36. One-night stands, expiration-dating or, more often than not, complete abstinence was how I rolled. I didn’t need a man; as a tough climber chick, I refused to be attached to anything or anyone other than adventure.

Once I parked my truck in New York City and moved into a home without wheels, though, I couldn’t run from people or myself anymore. Nor could I throw myself into my usual adrenaline-laden vice. It forced me to finally come out from behind this tough-girl facade. It took years to work through the things I faced once I couldn’t escape myself anymore.

I still love climbing and do it when I can, but I don’t need to anymore. Which also means I’m not compatible with most climbers now. My fire is channeled into multiple things — mostly my creative life, which I find far more rewarding. Plus, I’m getting older, and Patricia Pan’s wings are tired.

I’m also digging this new form of intimacy I’ve discovered. One that comes from facing things other than death, but are oddly more terrifying — such as being abandoned, hurt or even loved. Or of having someone see you and hold a mirror up for you to see yourself. Apparently, I’m the kind of woman who wears bras that need to be held together by safety pins because I’m cheap and lazy.

As I watched this beautiful man fix my bra with an overpriced sewing kit he bought at the hotel front desk, I appreciated having someone who looks out for my safety better than I do.

I have different kinds of belayers in my life now.


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