I recently had the privilege to be an Alpinist social media guest contributor for their #alpinistcommunityproject. I was able to share some images from my big wall trip to Africa, which eventually led to my first aid solo of Touchstone in Zion National Park on their Instagram.
To clarify on their comment page, Alpinist wrote: “We began offering this social media takeover of the Alpinist feed to readers in 2015. By sharing the work of climbers from a wide range of ages, technical abilities and perspectives, we hope to enhance the sense of community and broaden awareness of issues within the climbing life.”
This comment appeared on one of the posts:
Georgie Abel, writer and yoga teacher in the Bay area, was another recent contributor. One of her posts received the following comment:
Another Instagram user responded with her thoughts, which spurred yet another comment:
I actually think that Georgie addresses the first part of the user’s comment in her article “Confessions of a Spray Queen” quite well. Not to digress from the point, I will simply add that if you are proud of sending a route, whether it is 5.7 or 5.13, making a public post about a personal accomplishment is your own exclusive right. No person has the right to take away that joy, regardless of agenda. And if something as simple as an Instagram post helps pay your gas bill or goes towards rent, then good for you for finding a way to support your dirtbag lifestyle. If you’re just really excited about doing something you love (be it rock climbing, baking, nursing, or hula hooping), then spread that love. Enthusiasm is infectious and the right people will share in your joy (and maybe it will rub off on some of those in need.)
But something beyond the male chauvinism, blatant stereotyping, and lack of proofreading of the general comments stuck with and bothered me:
“This is rock climbing it’s not supposed to be nice or safe or accepting of who you are and your ~feelings~”
As Reddit users in the past have observed, my blog generally “walks the line between poetic and overly saccharine”.
Some of my favorite comments in general:
“Climbing is a contrivance. Sport climbing even more so. There is nothing profound about climbing in the rain. The day Lulu Lemon and Adidas greased their way into climbing was the day it died.”
“Why does every climbing video feature someone babbling about their philosophy/lifestyle/overcoming challenges/etc/etc. I don’t need a motivational speech from someone who lives in a van. I clicked on a climbing video to see some bloody climbing, just climb.”
“I might be a curmudgeon but it feels to me like the video is someone very new to climbing who is saying those things that she feels she needs to say to be ‘a climber’….or something like that.”
“Yeah, I’m an asshole who, while spends a lot of time thinking about climbing (philosophy major…), also recoils against this……It’s climbing and you aren’t a better person because you do it and don’t have a moral high ground over people who prioritize work and ‘traditional’ success.”
“Happiness is a choice. Break the lease you share with your boyfriend. Throw away the college degree your parents sacrificed to fund for you. Stop making payments on the car you now live in.”
“I dirtbagged for a bit (all self-funded). I got some nice sends but it became depressing after awhile. Climbing is a leisure activity like golf; there’s nothing special about it.”
“Maybe I’m getting bitter as I get older, but I can’t stand all of this fake and manipulative altruism.”
“Everyone is on a journey to something. Weight loss journey, climbing journey, school journey. It’s tied in to people’s need to make mundane things seem extra important in their own little story. You’re right, climbing, at its core, is fucking stupid. I still don’t understand why I like it or waste my time with it.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, what is with all this self-realization. Climbing is still as useless as it has always been. It’s not your fucking journey to enlightenment, it’s just…climbing.”
“Climbing doesn’t change you.”
After the video, For the Love of Climbing, came out, comments like these flooded the Internet and I chuckled good naturedly as I read through some of them, eventually banning myself from forums (mostly because it simply wasn’t worth my time. As a side note, most of the comments came from usernames such as “v12wannabe”.)
What is it about sentimentality, an overly nauseatingly sweet emotion that embodies excessive tenderness, that turns people away? Why is sentimentality considered such a “sweet fear”? It can portray an overly saccharine and false portrait of the world, for one. And as many have declared, that sentiment has no place in climbing.
In general, there are plenty of professions that we don’t want to be overly sentimental (such as brain surgeons, air traffic controllers, lawyers, astrophysicists, and probably aerospace engineers). We generally can’t afford sentimentality when it comes to financial bigwigs or professions in similar fields, as they require reason and rationality. The most successful people are cold and pragmatic, right?
Yes, and no. Every education must be a sentimental one, in a sense. Why else do we choose certain career paths, if not for a love (on some level) for the work? When I consider sentimentality, based solely on the definition of “sentiment” as an emotion, I think about that tender expression of emotion (i.e. pity, sympathy, fondness, compassion).
And yet, it’s still seen as a weakness for an easy emotion. It’s a critique that says that being overly emotional is some sort of cheap experience, one that causes a collective shame about feeling it in the first place. Childhood seems to be the only time that a sentimental outlook is truly appropriate. As an overly sensitive child myself, reactions from my parents and peers always made me wish that I were not. However, as an adult, I appreciate now that it was a wonderful trait. We progress into adolescence and then young adulthood. Most of us as children were not so sensible and realistic (although I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t imagining eight-year-old me in business casual attire and nerd glasses—I still have the nerd glasses.) So, as adults, what makes us disenchanted?
On some level, I do understand the user’s original comments. In a time of social media platforms and quantified selves, the utilization of sentimentality has certainly grown. People post pictures saturated with inspiring captions that often have nothing to do with what they’re doing in the photograph, but you know what? If it gets ONE person psyched to get outside or do something differently, then who cares? That dopey, inspiring caption is the thing that separates us from the automated bot comments: “Nice shot! Well done! You did the thing. This is a great capture!” Thanks, bot.
My own personal love of rock and ice has been a life changing experience for me, having shaped so much of who I am as a person today. Learning how to place a cam or how to build a gear anchor didn’t shape who I am. It did make me a better climber, but who I am is credited to my understanding of the importance of vulnerability. It has little to do with the rock climbing and so much to do with myself and the partners who chose me. A great trait of sentimentality is being able to be so vulnerable with your feelings. If it is, in fact, a true reflection of how something is important to you, then I think that is an extremely beautiful trait. It’s within those vulnerable moments where I have learned the most.
Writing gave me a structural way to understand my vulnerabilities through my own experiences and allowed me to share that with others. What climbing does is weave together a personal experience with nature. It’s an emotional exercise when we say that we learned so much through climbing and can later apply those lessons in order to empathize with strangers and people in everyday life. I have seen this often, but maybe I’m hanging around the wrong kind of people.
Navigating through my own emotional grooves and complexity turned into a chronological story, my blog, but is not completely singular and unique. Probably most people have shared similar experiences and just don’t write about it. Truthfully, everyone’s story is exceptional. Telling your own (while it may seem indulgent) is not easy. I grew hesitant to share my personal experiences, often uncertain of how I felt being dubbed as an overly “sentimental” person. Perhaps, writing my experience for all to see would be seen as dwelling in my wounds of the past. Perhaps I was implying that I was weak and not reasonable, or that my experience was not all that hard at all. Perhaps I was just another “female climber” who talked less about the rock and more about her “feelings”.
The truth is, writing my own personal narrative helps remind me that sentimentality is not just for children. It helps me dwell in that sweet spot where I realize the value of a particular moment when I feel something so big that maybe words will never do it justice. That feeling is humanizing to me, and it’s there that I start to see that maybe there is a balance between the importance of not putting a filter on everything and letting a story unravel the way it’s supposed to. Some things cannot be put into words, no matter how hard we try (but we try, anyway.)
For me, anything that causes sentiment is worth taking stock in. If it’s worth taking stock in, it’s profound enough for me to share because of the connection it builds with others. When you connect with somebody, a sort of intimacy is felt. That’s how you can feel close to people you’ve never even met in real life, something I learned from years of composing letters to a pen pal I would meet later in my adult life. The same goes for social media platforms; I like to think of things like Instagram and Facebook as tiny notes and letters between pen pals I have yet to meet.
Perhaps sentimentality is not a distortion of the real world, but something that allows us to see life from a different perspective, one that appeals to a softer side of us. It’s an appeal for feeling things freely in a tender moment—it’s what provokes and inspires us. Mankind has written everything from love songs to great literature because of it for centuries.
Oscar Wilde said, “A sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.” but what he didn’t realize is that life is absurd and it’s up to each individual to give it the meaning we want.
I find that the smell of a certain dish wafting through the air or the way the earth looks after rainfall, sopping wet and glinting with newness (new hope, new beginnings, new buds) is carried with me long after the moment is gone. It’s there in my memory bank, so far away and yet as close as yesterday. I love these memories that are chaperoned back to me because I stopped to acknowledge and remember it in the first place. The sound of clanking gear above me as I hold the rope in my hand, belaying my partner up makes it feel like a Christmas morning. The feeling of fear before a swinging, airy fall and then taking the plunge. The sweet smell of sagebrush that will always remind me of Wyoming.
Any person who thinks that it’s a waste of time to treasure these things is welcome to their own opinion—but they’re missing out. We all have emotions that eventually bring us to self-awareness (if we let them). Beneath every curmudgeonly old soul is the ability to share a passion and appreciate something that makes us feel deeply, often in ways we can’t quite explain. It’s true—climbing does not change you. But having a passion for something will.
Cover photograph courtesy of Tim Foote