You haven’t heard this story yet. But, maybe you have. Maybe it’s a sister, a girlfriend, a best friend. Maybe it’s you. Survivor stories like these are creating a global framework for how to end sexual violence–by talking about it. If there is any hope for having meaningful, nuanced discussions about this, transparency is our greatest ally. This is one survivor’s story, out of millions. This is episode one of For the Love of Climbing.
This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Evo Hemp, Outdoor Research and Dirtbag Climbers. Music by: “Jazzy Frenchy”, “Retro Soul”, “All That”, and “Funny Song” by bensound.com, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “Feelings”, “Faith”, “Brave”, “We Are Saved” and “Buying Presents” by Borrtex, “Black Wattle Walkabout” by Krackatoa, and “Decompress” and “Curiosity” by Lee Rosevere.
Update: since the release of this podcast, an initiative driven by climbers called #SafeOutside has launched within the outdoor community. You can contribute to #SafeOutside by sharing your own stories and showing our support for people who have experienced these damaging interactions. Please support this effort.
(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Stay tuned for a new line of women’s climbing packs, coming out any day. I can’t tell you which one, but stay tuned for more about Gravity SL line–made by women, for women.
Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.
You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast and I’m your host. My name is Kathy and before we begin–first off, hi everybody! Hi, Mom. Did you figure out how to download podcasts yet?
I also wanted to let you know that this episode will contain graphic sexual violence, discussion about suicide, and it’s going to be really hard to listen to. But, not only are we super proud of this episode, it is incredibly topical–because, in less than six months, a simple hashtag went viral and the MeToo movement uncorked women’s stories, worldwide. Stories like these are creating a global framework for how to end sexual violence–by talking about it. And if there’s any hope for having meaningful, nuanced discussions about this, transparency is our greatest ally.
MeToo is not just a hashtag. This episode is not just one woman’s story. It’s the start of a larger conversation that needs to be had.
(CHRISTA MELDE): I almost quit climbing. I really, really thought: I’m done. I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to take up darts or bowling or (laughs) hangman or something! But I can’t do climbing anymore. But, I’m still here. It’s taken a lot of really, really hard work–not only for myself, but for my friends and my family and a community that rallied around me to support me, in any way that they could.
(KK): This is Christa. Christa is a rape survivor. According to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, otherwise known as RAINN, on average, there are (are you ready for this?) 321,500 survivors, ages twelve and older, of rape and sexual assault every year, just in the United States alone. Christa is one of them.
As of 1998, an estimated 17.7 million American women have been victims of attempted or completed rape. It’s important to mention that men and boys are also affected by sexual violence. Christa has endured what so many women, men, and children should never have to endure. But, she is opening up an important dialogue and breaking the silence that so many people live in. And, she’s still here. She’s still climbing.
(CM): So, I got into my job because I wanted to make a change in my own bubble the best way that I could. I love climbing. It has such a unique community and I thought if I could change one aspect of it, that I could do something good with my life. So, I committed to it and I’m still here (laughs). I’m still here.
(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.
(CM): I’m from Phoenix, Arizona and I am about…I just turned twenty-six. So, almost forgot my age there (laughs). But I have been climbing for about eight years now, started in 2010 when I was eighteen years old (went on my eighteenth birthday), and I work at a climbing gym. I run the daily operations for it and I do all of the human resources. I teach all of the lead classes. I run a small group of adaptive athletes for the visually impaired, do all of their safety stuff, their kids programs–a little bit of everything. So, very involved in the community. I love it, I love my own community in Phoenix with all of my heart and I’ve just been trying to grow it.
During the past year, I’ve really concentrated on programs for women and how we can empower female climbers and get them comfortable, get them crushing on the wall, and give them a safe space–not only to climb but just to talk to one another and open up these really unique dialogues among female climbers. My favorite movie is Indiana Jones. Just want to pop that in there (laughs).
(KK): When Christa reached out to me a few months ago, I asked her to sit down with me. She didn’t hesitate. She said yes, almost immediately; she was ready to talk about this on a bigger platform. Before we met, I stalked her Instagram (as you do) and I immediately wanted to know everything about her. We talked a LOT (I think for several hours.) We talked about how nerdy she is,
Did you say you were playing Dungeons and Dragons the other day?
(CM): Yeah, I love it.
(KK): I actually don’t know how to play that game.
(CM): I’ve been playing for a year and a half.
(KK): Oh my god, that’s awesome.
(CM): Yeah, definitely a nerd. It’s one of my favorite hobbies (laughs).
(KK): her amazing boyfriend, alpine starts, her love of coffee, fear of open water and other various things that scared her:
(CM): Actually, the movie that scared me the most was “The Blair Witch Project”. I saw it when I was a kid. It came out in the early 90s. And I did a lot of backpacking and hiking. I grew up in an outdoorsy family. So, at one point, my older brothers knew that I had seen it and there’s that scene where, like, they’re in the tent and the tent starts shaking and there’s giggles outside. Ok, well my brothers did that to me when I was a kid after I’d seen the movie, and it still scares me! Every time that I go pee in the woods at night, I’m, like, convinced that the Blair Witch is going to get me.
(KK): I don’t think I’d even get out of my tent.
(CM): Fortunately, I have a dog now, so he protects me from the Blair Witch.
(KK): And then, we talked about something else that’s scary. What makes it so terrifying is that it isn’t a horror film about noises in the woods; this is real life.
(CM): What if I came out and nobody believed me? You know, I’m a woman. I’ve grown up as a female. I see the disbelief towards women and their stories. What if that happened to me? What if the community ostracized me? What if I was called a liar? What if people just didn’t care? It was a terrifying thought and it was one that followed me for years before I started talking.
(KK): But Christa did start talking. This is what she had to say:
(CM): It was really hard and there are still people to this day in the community that when we walk past each other in the gym, they look down instead of up. Because they don’t want to make eye contact with me, especially with all of the programs that I’ve started to put into place and how outspoken I’ve become in the last year. I am the villain in their eyes. And that is not just a climbing problem–it’s a society problem.
We tend to think that we are above reproach, as a sport. That we don’t have sexism or misogyny or, you know, what happened to me, “It just, it doesn’t exist in our sport.”, “I’ve never experienced it, so it can’t be true.” or “I’ve never seen that happen. That doesn’t happen in my gym”. But it does. It does, whether you realize it or not. Every woman in your gym or in your community or at your crag has experienced some type of sexism at some level at some point in their career as a climber, and as a human. Mine was exasperated by this really terrible event and it made me open my eyes dramatically to some of the problems that plagued our sport and our community and, you know, at first I didn’t know what to do with that. I felt totally alone in the world.
(KK): The year was 2013 and Christa had just taken a job at her local gym.
(CM): I was a bartender before that and I hated it. Bartending is only fun for so long until you just can’t handle it anymore. Especially when you are bartending in a city like Scottsdale, Arizona, which is a little high maintenance if you don’t already know that (laughs).
So, I started working at a gym. Got really involved in the community, started really pushing myself, training really hard. I was about to start to break into the low 12s at this point and I was really just psyched on life. I had found something that I could be good at. And I met a very terrible person that I didn’t realize was a monster at that point. (long pause) It’s pretty crazy, the disguises and masks that people can wear.
I had a co-worker; his name was Chris. That’s what we’ll call him. He was a little bit older than me but had been in the community, like, since he was a kid–been on the climbing teams, he worked at the gyms, he built home walls for members, and he developed local areas. So, if you were in the climbing community, you knew him, or you knew of him. Friendly guy, very social, very open to teaching people and taking people outside. Kind of as a beginner climber, a resource that you immediately gravitate towards. He was also dating a close friend of mine at the time, so I got to know him pretty well. We climbed together for about a year and I learned how to sport climb, I learned trad placement. I learned a lot. And I trusted him.
(KK): You spoke about how he was really immersed in the climbing community, and you know, everybody saw him as this great guy, like, he bolted routes and he took people out and showed them how to climb. It’s almost like he had a totally different life that nobody knew about.
(CM): You know, the funny thing about sociopaths is I think that they all do a bit. At some point, something changed. His true colors came out a little bit more and I got to see the monster that he really was and everything for me, my entire life, changed in an instant.
(KK): This is where we’ll take a little break. This seems like a good place to take a break, right? Listen to this.
(MALE VOICE): It was partially a lack of perspective with ironic truth of living a privileged life. I quit my corporate job to live out of my van, climb to my heart’s content, and sustain myself with remote work. I was living the dream-and yet, felt empty. I see-sawed from one end of the scale to the other, neglecting the balance that makes life so rich. Climbing is my life, but my relationships and the world that I’m so fortunate to be a part of is what makes me whole.
(KK): Hey, we’re back. We are still in 2013 and Christa is crushing it in her climbing. She started climbing more and she met somebody–Chris, a mentor. He was a beloved member of the climbing community and everybody knew him. You probably know somebody exactly like this at your gym: charismatic, friendly, knowledgeable…normal.
(CM): Things seemed normal that day. But, I could see when he came in that there was something different in the way that he looked at me. It shifted from seeing me as a human to seeing me as an object. I wasn’t the first woman that he assaulted and I wasn’t going to be the last, either. It was something that he had thought about. It was clear that he had planned it. I don’t know if he thought about it from the moment that we started climbing together or how he saw that opportunity as one that he wanted to take, but it was a choice that he made that day and things have never been the same for me.
(KK): Chris came over like it was any other ordinary day. He had been dropping off some climbing gear, but this time, something was different. Christa knew it the instant she saw him.
(CM): The way that he looked at me was utterly terrifying. I was home alone, he was in a position of power, not only physically, but in our community, and I didn’t know what to do. And, you know, I don’t think that any woman should ever have to qualify the reasons why she was assaulted. We make decisions out of our survival instincts, and I didn’t know what else to do but let it happen and hope that it wouldn’t happen again.
It was horrible. I remember afterwards, sitting in the shower, thinking that I couldn’t take enough showers to feel clean again. It (long pause) totally messed up my life.
After I was assaulted, he threatened me physically. To drive his point home, he pulled up his previous arrest record of a time in about 2008 where he tried to strangle his ex-wife to death and was caught for it. I don’t know how he was able to work in our community and not have a background check. I don’t know how it slipped through, but it was a prior and he was proud of it. So, once I knew that he was willing to kill someone to protect his own identity, what do you do?
(KK): At this point, I’m hoping that you’ve never had to research how to report a sexual assault and never will. If you don’t know what to do after being attacked, Christa can tell you.
(CM): The statistics are terrible. Sixty percent of sexual assault goes unreported, for various reasons. But one of the main reasons that led me, not only for the protection of my own life, was the fact that only three percent of perpetrators will be incarcerated.
(KK): That’s right, three percent. And that’s not all. It gets worse.
(CM): Only, like, ten percent goes to court. So, at that point, I have all of these crossroads that I need to think about. If I report him and nothing happens, will he kill me? If I report him and we go to court and then, nothing happens, will he kill me? If he goes to court and gets incarnated for maybe a year, two years, six months, three months–what happens after? He knows where I live. He knows my phone number. He knows my family, my friends. Will he kill me? Somebody that I love?
There are all of these options that you have to weigh and self-preservation is the only thing that I could think about in that time, so I just hoped that it would stop. I didn’t tell anyone; I was terrified. He worked at the gym. He was in a management position. He was a developer in a position of power, and what if I came out and nobody believed me?
(KK): In a world full of rampant misogyny, coming forward with the truth about having been sexually harassed or assaulted means facing intimidation, having to re-live traumatic experiences, the unlikelihood of justice, and so much ridicule from the public. You could be called a whore, or a gold digger, or worse: a liar. The result is that so many survivors would rather keep silent than expose this terrible, awful truth.
(CM): So, I shut up and I went to work the next day and just pretended like everything was ok. I wanted to feel normal. I wanted to feel like I could continue with my life with this horrible thing and it would just go away. And I walked into work the next day and he was there. You know, I had been threatened, I had been raped, and I was at work just going about my normal business.
(KK): But none of this was normal, and life didn’t go back to normal. Not only that, it didn’t stop at one time.
(CM): I have been raped in my car. I have been raped in my local gym. I’ve been raped at home. I have been raped in his house. I had been forcibly choked. I had been raped vaginally and anally. I lost count at some point how many times I’ve been raped, and I can’t remember all of it.
Over the next three months, I was habitually raped multiple times a week. He threatened my life so many times that–there’s only so many times you can take being threatened before you feel like you don’t have anything left to fight with. There’s almost this feeling of giving up. There are very few people out there that I feel have truly experienced rock bottom, and I can raise my hand and say that I’ve been there. I’m in the rock bottom club.
(KK): I’m the mayor.
(CM): Yeah, right?
Things are an evolving process. It re-wires your brain. It re-wires how you process your fight or flight responses. Everybody processes things different, and trauma changes everything about your brain chemistry. So, to protect myself, my brain started to disassociate and I repressed a lot of my memories. I say that there are a lot of my memories that are locked away in this file cabinet that is in the basement of my brain and the door is locked. And the file cabinet is locked. And every time that I, you know, I take another step down the basement, something else pops up. And I don’t know if I will truly get everything back. I’m not sure if I want to. But you know, therapy is awesome and it’s done wonders for me.
So, over that time that I was being assaulted, people started to think that Chris and I were this really awesome climbing partnership. It reinforced that I couldn’t come out. People had this perception of me, that I, you know, I was really climbing up the ranks of the climbing community. I was starting to climb harder, learn all these cool things and–it’s really hard to live behind a mask. And it’s not a mask that I made. It’s a mask that was forced upon me.
They saw us as friends, they invited us out together a lot. I just continued to climb. I just wanted some degree of normalcy in my life. I was convinced at a certain point that if I couldn’t hold onto something normal, something constant, something consistent, that I would lose everything. Rock bottom is a place where it’s really easy to make rash decisions. It’s really easy to get to a point where you no longer value your own life and think that the only way out is death.
(KK): Ninety-four percent of women who are raped experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, during the weeks following the attack. Thirty-one percent of women report symptoms nine months after. To give you a better idea, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are approximately 96.3 million adult women in the United States. If thirteen percent of American women have been raped, and thirty-one percent of those survivors have developed PTSD, then that’s a whopping 3.8 million adult American women who have had rape-related PTSD.
3.8 million women.
The numbers for suicide are just as grisly. Thirty-three percent of women who are raped contemplate suicide. Thirteen percent will attempt suicide.
(CM): It’s something that we all think about in some regard, at some point. I’ve been there. So, I just kept climbing. I just kept pretending that everything was ok, and climbing started to become very painful for me because it was fake. It wasn’t real, in comparison to what was really going on in my home life.
At a certain point, I stopped regarding my own life. I had truly, truly given up. I did not see any way out of my situation. It–he stole a part of me. A lot of me. He took it from me. He took my identity from me and I had nothing left at that point. That’s when I started making more rash decisions. I, at that point, I didn’t care if anybody was going to find out and I started looking for resources. You know, there was a glimmer of hope in the abyss. I thought about going to the police at this point. I had nothing left to lose. I wasn’t going to involve my friends or my family on it because I didn’t want to bring somebody into the darkness. I didn’t want to bring somebody into a situation where they could possibly get hurt. You know, I would rather get hurt. And then he started to threaten my friends and family.
There was nothing I could do. That took the cake. There was nowhere for me to go but stay in rock bottom. At that point, I couldn’t do it anymore. Every part of my humanity had been stripped from me. I had no agency. I felt powerless, weak, insecure, worthless. The list could go on and on and on. This continued on for about a month, and this is where things get a little fuzzy for me. Like I had mentioned earlier, I repress some of my memories, and this is where things got really bad.
(KK): Most people would have found their rock bottom one year ago, when this had all begun. But for Christa, the worst part was when her loved ones were put in danger. When he started to threaten her friends and her family, and there was nothing she could do.
(CM): I’ve always considered myself to be a pretty caring and sometimes overly compassionate person. My friends and my family make up my identity and my life. They are everything to me. They always have been. So, when he moved his targeting system from me to them, it no longer just involved me. It now involved good people that I cared about: people that made differences in other people’s lives–that were parents, that were uncles and aunts. People that have these really vivid, important lives, and I couldn’t do that to them. In my headspace, at that point, my life weighed less than theirs. And that’s an easy decision for me to make, even now. I would easily sacrifice my own life for somebody that I love and I think that most of us, if it came down to it, I think that we’d make the same call. So, that really was the point where I felt like Chris had won.
(KK): Hey. We’ll be right back.
(FEMALE VOICE): I screamed falling, but it was too late. I fell about eighteen feet onto a boulder onto my side. After that, I realized that fear doesn’t leave. You just have to learn how to harness and control it.
(CM): It’s important, as you’re listening, to remember that this is your local setter. This is your local developer. Take a second to realize that this is a member of the climbing community and really humanize this story. This is not just some crazy, off the beaten path guy. This is a member of our community.
(KK): During this time, were there any friends who confronted you, like what is going on, this isn’t you.
(CM): During this time, I still kept up my persona–that I climbed a lot, that I had just suddenly only hung out with two or three people, mainly Chris. He isolated me. I pushed everyone that I cared about as far away from me as possible. The farther away that people were from me, the safer they were. If Chris thought that I didn’t care about them, he wasn’t going to follow them or find out where they lived or find out where they worked. He would leave them alone.
It was about six-ish months. It felt like years, holy crap. It felt so long. This destroyed all of my friendships. It destroyed all of my relationships. My family started to think that I didn’t like them anymore, maybe I was going through some type of addiction, that I just stopped caring–that I stopped loving these people. The decisions I made were to be a good friend, but I was the only one that knew what was really going on. I blocked people’s numbers. I deleted people from Facebook. I avoided them in the gym. I made sure that if Chris was in the facility, that I was as far away from them as possible. I kept my distance to the people that I loved most. He found a way to isolate me, which is what all sociopaths do. It’s what all abusers do. They make it seem like it’s your only choice.
(KK): In the wild, predators will isolate prey from the rest of the herd to better attack. That’s precisely what sociopaths and abusers will do to their targets. They will isolate their target from their friends, their colleagues, and family. Christa found herself locked in an abusive relationship, one that she never signed up for. One that she didn’t know how to get out of.
(CM): My life, at that point, was forfeited. During this time, I was still climbing. I was still going to work every day. I was still going out and doing my normal thing, like drinking chocolate shakes, and drinking beer and making dinner. But, every single day, I just hoped that there wouldn’t be the next day. I really wanted everything just to end. And, it just kept going.
(KK): And so did Christa. Until one day, an old, yet close, friend of hers started to notice that something was up.
(CM): He’s my current boyfriend. His name’s Aaron
(KK): A quick update: now fiancé!
(CM): and I have known him since about 2011, 2012. We were really, really close leading up to these events. We had class together back in my undergrad. He was a climber at the gym too–just an all around pretty stellar person. I mean, I think I can boast about him now.
Aaron did notice. He noticed that I was being distant, manic, angry, irritable with him–and again, it was purely so that I could protect him, I thought, in the best way that I knew how. He pulled me aside one day and asked me what was going on, and at first, I brushed it off and I told him to get away from me. Aaron has this really strong moral compass where he came back and he started to just validate who I was as a person. It was the first time that I had been validated in almost a year. He tried to make me feel human again, that I was strong, that I could be courageous. That if I could send all of these crazy hard climbs and push through the fear of falling–if I could do all of these things which most people can’t–that whatever I was going through, I could overcome.
It seems like assaulting one person is, like, way overly enough, but for Chris, I was getting boring. He was assaulting two other women at the same time. I think that when I hit rock bottom and stopped caring, that the responses were no longer what he deemed desirable. I was no longer fighting. I had given up.
It’s a hard thing–a hard thing to bond over, that you’ve both been assaulted by the same person. All of our experiences are very valid and all of our emotions are valid and our experiences vary in different ways, from where to how to how many times, but all of these women that I have gotten to know are some of the strongest women that I have ever met. And they’re all such badasses for going through what they’ve been through. I’m one of them too, I guess (laughs).
(KK): Fuck yeah.
Another woman, outside of the climbing community, who had also been assaulted by Chris, started to raise some attention. Over the course of three months, Chris was arrested, tried in court, and incarcerated–on one charge.
(CM): He was charged with abduction. Every other charge was dropped for a plea bargain. He was only incarcerated for a year. And during that timeframe, I was terrified of what would happen when he got out.
(KK): So that year wasn’t really a relief.
(CM): I thought that it would be, but it was anything but. I thought that the recovery process would start when it stopped, but the recovery process for my life didn’t start for at least another year. The time that Chris was in jail, I counted down the days, which is totally not healthy, but I was terrified of what would happen when he got out, and not even the highest level of restraining order could make me feel safe. Because when does a psycho killer or a psycho rapist listen to a restraining order? What good would that do me?
(KK): At this point, Christa still hadn’t told anybody yet. Chris had just…disappeared. He disappeared from Christa’s life, and from the climbing gym. Everybody wanted to know where he went, and the one person they wanted to ask was Christa.
(CM): Because I was the person he chose as his front, as his normal human front, his human mask. And that sucked. At first, I told them that I thought that Chris had moved away. It would change from time to time, depending on my trauma responses and how anxious I was that day. If I was already starting to disassociate, I would trip up over my words and, you know, “He moved away; you know, oh I don’t really know, I think the went into the military; I think he’s on a climbing trip.” And they would all be like, “Oh, that’s such a big bummer!” Like, “He seemed like such a cool dude and we’re going to miss him!”
You know, when you hear somebody validate the person that’s been abusing you for almost a full year, there’s no way that you can come out of that conversation feeling good. It just drives the point home, that he was in the right or that this guy’s better than I am. So it took a really long time to be able to start coming out about things. I slowly started to come out in very vague snippets to some of my close friends, to Aaron who I was able to reconnect with, to a couple of close girlfriends, some cousins–people that never left, that were truly unconditional friends to the end.
(KK): Some of the fears that kept Christa from coming out became realities for her. She started telling people that her relationship with Chris wasn’t consensual, and it wasn’t what it looked like. And there were people that did not believe her.
(CM): There were people that told me that I was lying, that Chris could never do that, that he had been in the community for so long, and you know, “I’ve known him for nine years. He could never do that.” Needless to say, those people are definitely not my friends anymore. That was when my recovery was first starting and to get those setbacks was emotionally devastating. You know, I sat down after a few of those and just thought, “What’s the point? Why am I talking about this? Why am I coming out if people are just going to say nasty things about me?”
(KK): Or just believe in the goodness of this person? It’s like, if you’ve done x amount of things with your life, you know, you get, here you go, one free rape. You know. Like, you’re a good person.
(CM): Yeah. Get out of jail free card, a little bit?
Too many convicted rapists are put on trial and receive amnesty. These judges will often receive letters from their loved ones, pleading that they are inherently good people who made a bad decision. Some even imply or directly suggest that the survivor is to blame for the assault. These things contribute to an entire system that is failing rape survivors, each and every day.
(CM): Not only was I recovering and was I being diagnosed with PTSD at that time, but I was so angry at society for allowing these things to happen and brewing this victim-blaming culture that puts it on the woman. There were people that asked me questions like, “What did you do to make Chris think that you wanted to have sex with him? What did you do to make him think that your relationship was ok? Why didn’t you tell anybody sooner?”
(KK): We tend to believe that, as a whole, climbers are really great people. That we care so much about access and the environment, and, for the most part, are fairly moral. And yet, there were these questions that were so offensive and toxic to the cause, and to Christa’s life. Again, these are people who also campaign for climate change and all of these really progressive ideas, and yet, at the same time, were asking her, what she did to get raped.
(CM): So, what do you do with that information, once you have it? I felt absolute disgust with my community, to anger, to passion to do something. But, you know at the same time, I was struggling with being able to climb again and being able to be a part of a community, because at this point, climbing–it was a trauma trigger for me. So, every time that I touched the wall, every time that I put on my harness, I would have full on panic attacks. I would start to feel like my skin was crawling, like, I needed to take a shower. Nobody could get near me or touch me. I would just start crying because it was triggering my PTSD, hard. I couldn’t climb. I couldn’t climb the beginner wall at my gym on top rope. I couldn’t lead or lead belay because I would have dissociative panic attacks and if I tried to climb, I wouldn’t know how I got to the top. I would have no memory of the climb, between the ground and the top. So, I couldn’t climb. I worked at a gym, I ran climbing programs, and I couldn’t climb.
I didn’t know what to do with it. I went outside once with a group of friends because they pulled teeth to get me out there. And I decided to try to climb this route that was a jug haul to the top and I couldn’t get past the first bolt on top rope. I came down from that route wanting to tear off all of my clothes and my own skin because I felt so disgusting. I ran down to the bottom of the crag and I cried for, like hours. I decided, in that moment, that I was quitting climbing. I was done. I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t strong enough. I couldn’t move past it. That was something that he had successfully taken from me which was my whole life. How I identified as a human was through climbing. You know, we all have our own lenses that we relate to the world through, and mine was climbing. And, at that point, I had no sense of my own identity. I had no idea who I was or what I was going to be. I, straight up, just wanted to burn my harness and my shoes and just light everything on fire.
(KK): Christa came home from that trip and had to take almost a full week off of work because she couldn’t be in the gym–she couldn’t even see climbing. She contemplated quitting her job and just…moving. Like, maybe if she could just have a fresh start, she would be able to live a normal life. But ultimately, she knew that her demons would chase her, no matter where she went. And there was a part of her that didn’t want somebody to forcibly make her quit climbing. If Christa was going to quit climbing, it was going be on her terms. She was going to make that decision.
(CM): I decided to climb the beginner wall and have these crazy panic attacks and know that I was gonna be taking work off a lot and that nobody was going to know why I was going through all of this.
You know, a lot of climbers have this discussion about grades and elitism in the sport, you know–if you’re not leading it, you’re not climbing it. And I had gone from this really grade-chasing lead climber to somebody that couldn’t even top rope a 5.6. People didn’t know what to think of me. I had retracted from the community. I couldn’t climb anymore. People didn’t want to climb with me because I couldn’t lead belay them and I would shy away from it, even though I was teaching lead classes at the time.
It took years to be able to start leading again. It took years to be able to start training or projecting, or most importantly, climbing for fun. Because every time I was on the wall, I would have a trauma response. And if you’ve ever had any type of trauma response, you know how terrible they are. They are not fun. They are debilitating. So, I concentrated for a while on just learning to love climbing again. I top roped everything that looked fun to me. I didn’t even worry about grades for a while, even though it didn’t make me feel good to be climbing the beginner wall. And I watched all of my friends progress as I stood stagnant.
(KK): At this point, some really strong women came into Christa’s life. They had also experienced assault and became huge allies for her.
(CM): They encouraged me. They hugged me. They let me be upset when I needed to be upset and, over time, I was able to start enjoying this sport for why I originally got into it.
(KK): Coming back to it, what did that look like for you?
(CM): It was a really, really slow progression. I eventually started to project, and for me, at that point, projecting looked like 11b/c. And when I was able to get through a climb without thinking about Chris, that’s when I knew that I could start to like the sport again. When I could clip a bolt without feeling like I was being raped again, I realized that I could love climbing again. So, I started sending some of my projects and eventually I decided, you know, I’m going to go back to that climb that kicked my ass. It’s time, I’m going to try it. No expectations, if I’m not feeling good, I’ll just come down and it’ll be ok.
(KK): Christa went back to the Pit, a popular sport climbing crag in Flagstaff. Everybody knows it, it’s almost always packed with people, which is exactly what it was like on the day that Christa returned.
(CM): I cried through the entire route. I was, like, wailing on the wall. Everybody has stopped what they’re doing to pay attention to what I’m doing. I didn’t realize this till I was at the top, but I was, straight up, like, I don’t know how I saw the holds. I don’t know I saw the movement because I was crying so hard! So, I clipped the anchors and every bolt felt more and more like I was starting to take my life back a little bit. This climb was the pinnacle of my accomplishments. Because this was the climb that I vowed to quit climbing over. This was the climb that I associated and symbolized with my assault. It all came down to this climb. This 11- jug haul to the top was everything to me.
(KK): A few months ago, you sent me messages, you recorded your words, and these are your thoughts. Listen to this.
(MALE VOICE): I think one of the hardest things that I struggle with with climbing is remembering that I don’t have to be a climber. It’s like, I tie so much of my identity to being a climber that it’s hard when I really suck at climbing some days or I don’t want to climb, and I just forget that I can be ok at climbing and ok at a lot of other things. And yeah, that’s ok.
(CM): There are moments of emptiness, like maybe if I am in Shavasana in yoga, you know, or when I’m climbing something that’s at my limit and I’m just thinking about the moves. There are moments where there is some escapism from it. But–you don’t really ever get over it. You just–you have to make a decision of how you want to integrate it into your life.
(KK): Chris was arrested, and Christa had the date of his release marked in her calendar. She received one threatening text message from him when he was released.
(CM): It was like an earthquake in my own life. I haven’t heard from him since. I think about what I would say to him if I saw him. It’s gotten less frequent now, but it used to be every single day that I would wake up, I would have this role playing in my head: “What do I do if I see Chris? What do I do if he walks back through the doors of my gym? Do I need to reach out to the other owners of the other facilities and let them know that this is happening? How do I protect myself and these other women and my family? Is he going to come for me, now that he knows that I’m speaking?” You know, I even had this argument with myself yesterday, because I’m coming out about this in a very public forum. What if he hears it? What’s he going to do? Is he going to make a decision that is rash and unpredictable? And all of those fears are valid. I think every woman in my position would have those.
Fear stops so much of what we do. It has stopped so many of my decisions. I know, now, that I have so many resources around me to protect myself. I know that I am a stronger person now. I can’t say that if I had a time machine, that I wouldn’t go back and change what happened to me, because it was awful and I still struggle with it every day and I will always be haunted by this ghost in some way or another. But I’ve also become more empathetic and compassionate and open to women’s issues in a way that I don’t think I would have necessarily gotten to maybe as quickly as I have now. But yeah, I mean, I still struggle with fear on a daily basis, in some degree. I mean, I hold my keys in my hand when I walk to my car. I park under lights, park within view of the cameras. I check my backseat before I get in the car. I pay special attention if there are cars that are consistently behind me because I’m worried of who it might be. I don’t walk alone at night. There are a ton of things that you change in your life when something like this happens to you.
(KK): When something like this happens in your life, you eventually have to ask yourself: how do I let this define me? Christa decided that she didn’t want to be seen as the “rape victim”. She wouldn’t let that define her life. The decision that she came to terms with is that she not a victim. She prefers the term “survivor”.
(CM): Because every day, I choose to wake up and I choose to get out of bed and I choose to protest my own experiences. I define my life now by committing to women’s programs and sharing my story and being transparent, so that if other women are going through anything like what I went through, that they know that it’s ok to speak. And that they know that they are valued and important and courageous and that, if we can all be transparent about our stories, that we really can have social impact. And even in the climbing community, that we can change things that are problematic within our own sport. If we don’t share our experiences and we don’t talk and we keep these things to ourselves, things will never change. They will never change.
So, it’s scary for me to talk. Things are still evolving for me. I still have issues come up every single day and I still have days when I can’t get on the wall and climb. I still have days where it’s hard for me to get out of bed. I still have days where it’s really hard for me to have an intimate relationship with somebody. I’m not perfect. And I don’t feel anywhere near where I wanna be. But, every day does get a little bit better. And there’s obviously ups and downs with that. It’s a wave. But, meeting all of these strong women that have inspired me to be a better person and stand up in my own experiences and ask questions like, “What kind of community do we want to be? How do we want to define ourselves as a community? What are the things that are important to us?” Learning to answer those questions and talk about them in an open dialogue has been the most helpful and empowering action I could have taken.
(KK): Then I asked Christa a really hard question.
(CM): Sometimes, I approach it with anger. Sometimes, I approach it with sadness. Sometimes, I approach it with disgust and sometimes, it’s a weird confluence of all of them. But, ultimately, in some regard, I think that I pity him. His own life and his own brain and his own moral compass is so screwed up and ass backwards that there is no way that he will ever find happiness or relief. That, in some regard, makes me feel sad. Maybe if his upbringing had been different or if he was able to channel these impulses in a different way as a kid, maybe his life would have been different, too. And, I struggle with feeling pity for my abuser because I really just want to feel angry all the time, and I really just want to put him in a box and villainize him as, you know, like a, like a Rocky and Bullwinkle villain.
Ultimately, I just feel sad for him and I wish things could have been different. I think that there is a whole other conversation that needs to be had for how we as a society handle mental illness, and even our jail systems and how we rehabilitate people. That we can do a better job to ensure that people like Chris do not become the monsters that they have the potential to be.
I really hope, in some regard, that Chris can look back on his life at some point and truly, truly from the bottom of his heart, make a change. I don’t think that will be true and one thing that still really sits with me in a negative way is that the women that Chris assaulted, including myself, our life never goes back to normal. We never get over it. We integrate it into our lives but we never fully move past it. For Chris, he got a year in jail and he gets out and things go back to normal for him. He goes into a new city, meets new women, the process repeats itself. So, there’s a lot of frustration and a lot of guilt that I have about these potential women in the future that are going to suffer the same fate, maybe worse.
It’s a really hard question, what I would say to Chris if I saw him. It’s a really hard question to answer. I think that more importantly than concentrating on our abusers, is that we need to empower our survivors, because they are the future of social change. They are the future of this movement. They are the future of all the potential that our society could be surrounding these issues.
So, you know, it’s hard, I get asked pretty frequently, like, how do you feel about Chris or what would you do if you saw him? And, I think what I would like to focus on instead is: what would you say to somebody that had these issues happen to them or somebody that was assaulted? Let’s focus on the women that have been through so much and that are so strong and so courageous and that are struggling at their core, like I have been, still am, was, all of it, and let’s give them a platform and let’s take away the power from the abusers. They don’t matter. The survivors are what matter. So, I don’t know, it’s a really hard question to answer.
(KK): I actually think you answered it perfectly.
And it’s true. We hear way too much from people like Chris. And we hear way too much from the Harvey Weinsteins and Brock Turners of the world.
(CM): I think it’s important to humanize the survivors and let them know that we are your friends. We are your sisters, your cousins–we’re your teachers. The people in the climbing community–we’re the people that you think live these wonderful, beautiful lives, maybe, and we are going through so much, all the time. Every day. And, we are powerful because of it. We are our own army if we can just come out and talk.
You know, there are still a lot of people in the sport that don’t believe that sexism and misogyny exist. Like I said earlier, there’s still a large victim-blaming mentality, and I am here to say that these things, these terrible things, exist within our own community. I am proof that this happens in your local community. And I know that it’s not just me. There are other women who are experiencing things like this, and they may not be on the most extreme scale as my experience, but there are aggressions towards women in our community that are happening every single day. And if we don’t admit that they’re happening and open up dialogue about them, then they’re just going to continue to happen. It’s ok to admit that maybe we don’t treat women as equal to our male counterparts as we should. It’s ok to entertain that thought.
So, what I’ve really focused on this year with my own recovery for myself, and for my community, is creating programs for women where they can climb together, have safe spaces, and talk about it, because we have so much in common. Our experiences are so alike and they parallel each other so well, whether it’s something like your climb was downgraded, or they said it was soft because you sent it, or spraying you down with beta when you didn’t want it and didn’t need it, and they wouldn’t have done it otherwise. There are all of these things that happen and there are women that feel uncomfortable in their own gyms–and at their own crags. It’s time to make a change and I think that now, more than ever, we have the potential to because more people are speaking out.
I mean, No Man’s Land has done a great job at empowering women and making them feel like we are the community. We’re bolting routes now, we’re putting routes up, we are forefronts in the community now. And it’s time to speak up for the women that maybe don’t have the power to speak, like me in 2013. I didn’t have the power to speak, and if I had somebody to tell me that it was ok, maybe things would have been different, maybe not. I don’t know. But I hope that if there’s anybody that’s listening or is in my community that is struggling with anything similar, that they know that there are resources, that there are people that truly, truly care about them. There are people that they can talk to that will help them get out of the situations that they’re in. I’m one of them.
If you are struggling with this, there are a lot local resources for you. There are domestic violence shelters in every major city. There are online chats that you can talk to from different organizations, like RAINN. If you are scared and you don’t know what to do, there are places that will come get you, that will move you out of wherever you are for free. There are so many resources for you. I know how trapped you feel, and I know how low and insecure you feel, but you’re a value and you’re so important to the world and you have so much to offer and so much to give. Please utilize a resource and come join the thousands and millions of women that have experienced this and that are starting to stand up. The MeToo movement is now in the forefront of the news. We can take back what is ours, we can take back our lives. And there are just so many resources. You don’t have to stay where you are, and you don’t have to make the decision to end your life, if that’s where you’re at. There is a way out. There is a way up.
(KK): I’ve been thinking about this story. A lot. Like Christa, it has drastically opened my eyes to the amount of work that we, as a society (both men and women), have yet to do. Some days, it just makes me feel tired and overwhelmed and so frustrated by the amount of people in this world who do nothing, who deny that these problems even exist. The ones who write it off easily as “she cried wolf” or they ask “What was she wearing? Did she have a little too much to drink that night?”
Let’s stop tearing apart women’s character, stop discussing their outfit. What the mainstream narrative wants us to believe is that the wounds of sexual violence are not real. For the listeners on the other side of this, we have a role in helping survivors heal. We have a responsibility to believe. And not every survivor will be believed. And so many will suffer in silence, so few will get support from a bigger community. So, Christa is building one.
(CM): It’s 2018, yes? So, I’m about five years into my recovery. Less than that, realistically, probably two to three, after I was able to decompress everything. The people in the community, the women that I’ve experienced, have just been absolutely amazing. One thing that has really stood out to me, probably the most powerful thing that I’ve taken from all of my experiences, is that transparency will be the most powerful weapon that we have against these aggressions. Being open, not necessarily being unafraid to talk about it, because I can tell you that right now, I’m afraid to talk about my own experiences and what the consequences of this conversation may bring, but being open and standing up and talking about everything that is happening, to you, to your friends, to your climbing partners. We really can change the community.
I just sent my first 12a outside which felt super long overdue. I finally feel like I’m climbing, for the first time ever, I really feel like I can become a climber and have fun. But, my main concern moving forward is just ensuring that women have a good space to speak. So, I encourage you, if you’re dealing with anything like this or you’ve experienced anything similar, to talk. Not only on social media and message boards, but in your local gyms. If you see something, address it. It’s ok to say that you’re not comfortable. It’s ok to tell somebody that you want some space from them. Climbing’s a great sport and I think we can make it better.
(KK): I think you’re making it better.
(CM): Thanks, thanks!
(KK): I think you’re doing it!
(CM): I’m really trying. I mean, I can’t be the only one. I would like to think that I’m the only one because that would mean that this isn’t happening to other women, but I know that I can’t be the only one. Not with the statistics that are out there. If you’re listening to this, you have a friend that has been sexually assaulted or you have been sexually assaulted yourself. It’s widespread. It’s time to change things. It’s time to stand up and reform policy. It’s time to change.
(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. A huge thank you to Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, and to Evo Hemp, who is on a mission to bring you quality hemp products that are both affordable and accessible. What the heck is hemp, anyway? We’ll have to tell you next time. And a big thank you to Outdoor Research: award-winning outdoor product, to outfit any adventure, for the journey ahead. Support companies who support this podcast—we couldn’t do it without them.
Thanks for listening to the first episode. If you liked what you heard, you can leave a review on iTunes or give us a like—like all good things, you can find us on the internet. Until next time.
(MALE VOICE): If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). More resources are available online from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.