All photos by Blake McCord
When you told me that Patagonia wanted us to write about our climbing trip to the Hulk in 2019, I laughed and then noticed my chest and throat tighten. As we remember, that trip was a struggle, and I imagined describing our relationship would be, too. I wasn’t thinking that our story could, in fact, be what they were asking for.
Becoming climbing partners felt obvious and exciting. With our 11-year age difference, and since I’d been climbing for longer, it made sense that we tried, initially, to fit into the typical mentor–mentee mold. But we were also navigating overlapping and diverging experiences of queerness and gender and body dissonance. We didn’t have a sketch for what our climbing partnership might look like.
I’ve learned from our time together that the in-the-moment truth-telling and relating is what gives adjacent generations an opportunity to really talk to each other. Staying present and naming the inevitable tension that arises from our similarities and differences when interacting is precisely the medicine we need to become the allies we want to be to each other.
There is so much I wish I’d said to you in challenging moments when my mind was cluttering itself with self-improvement slogans and my body was only responding to echolocation. I wish I’d asked us to pause and perhaps begin again with the constriction in my throat. Maybe that’s the value of this revisiting: I’m getting to do that now.
I’ve never told you this, but when I was 14, my dad helped me build a wooden structure in my bedroom to hang a fingerboard. I covered it in pictures of iconic climbs and ambitious tick lists for my favorite Southeast crags—in the middle was a cut-out article from Climbing Magazine about you and Kate Rutherford freeing Moonlight Buttress together. As a teenager growing up in Detroit, I had never been to Zion National Park and couldn’t have said what the difference was between climbing Moonlight and sending the steep 5.12 route at the gym. But I knew that both of those things were badass. And I thought that, if I did enough pull-ups and dead-hangs, maybe I could be as badass as you.
A decade later when I met you on the crux pitch of Moonlight Buttress, I was starstruck. You cheered me on as I overprotected the crux and celebrated when I clipped the chains. As I waited for you to cruise by the anchor, I struggled to think of what I would say as you passed. You were larger than life to me. In my eyes, you were unapologetically living your truth, paving the way for a generation of queer climbers to pursue what they loved on their own terms. I realize, in retrospect, that placing you on a pedestal was the first of many ways that I would fail to make space for you in our climbing partnership. In my own longing for a hero, I created a distance between us that, at times, felt impossible to bridge.
That convergent day on Moonlight felt like watching the future arrive. You were roughly my age when I freed the route, except it was 12 years later and you were sending it with your girlfriend. I liked how deliberately you moved and thought you must be really strong to climb that slowly! When you and Amanda let us pass, I remember sharing a moment—witnessing, smiling back at each other and at the serendipity of meeting here.
I returned home to Henna, my soon-to-be wife, electrified. When Kate and I freed Moonlight in 2006, it was a leap for us and for the climbing culture to celebrate two women doing this hard thing, together, without a man. Being queer was mostly treated as an aside then. I had felt like I needed to pretend it was no big deal. I was out of the closet publicly but wasn’t seeking out the queer community or waving a rainbow flag (though I’d occasionally hang one from a portaledge). I was obsessed with climbing and couldn’t imagine making space for a romantic relationship, let alone a queer one. I couldn’t see then that my queerness wasn’t some separate part of me.
When you and I first started climbing together, I knew you had a magazine image of me as a crusher living my queer dream. It was true that I loved big walls and expeditions, but my full truth was much more nuanced and painful. My insatiable drive to free climb difficult, big walls was part of not feeling OK in the world. I often felt anxious and empty on expeditions.
Having another queer person in my presence can do something different for me. Our resonance connects me to my whole body and reminds me to take up space as I am. Meeting you was certainly like this. My awareness was immediately pulled into the present. But there was also a low hum of discomfort with you from the beginning. I hoped this would dissipate as we spent more time together, but the reality was that part of me felt threatened by you. I felt competitive, even jealous.
Climbing with you was, in one moment, a homecoming with parts of myself I’d alienated, and in the next moment it was like being dive-bombed by a mass of critical parakeets, mouthing off all the ways I’d compartmentalized or stunted my development in my single-minded pursuit of climbing: Why aren’t you more involved in the queer community? More of an activist? Are you even aware of Queery or basic queer culture? Can’t you be more OK with not always achieving a difficult goal?! In feeling like I was not enough, I’d become hypervigilant and tracked you for all the ways I was falling short as a queer person and climbing mentor.
Climbing with you forced me to confront parts of my identity I had tried to ignore.
You named it. That binge-and-purge energy that surrounded our conversations about queerness. I remember feeling so exhilarated by the opportunity to bring all my identity to a climbing trip with someone who would understand. There were moments of recognition, like how we were able to flow naturally into a topic that might take an hour of explanation with another partner. As I rushed into these moments, though, feasting on the sense of affinity, I felt the underlying current of pain we had been taught to hold silently. We watched each other struggle with our relationships to food, performance, family and expectations without the tools to truly support each other. I wanted you to understand everything, and when you didn’t, I felt the familiar sensation of being too much.
I know we’re supposed to be talking about the Hulk, but all this is reminding me of one moment on our first big-wall trip together on El Gigante in Mexico. During our hike in, I had brought up a poorly packaged idea about my experience of gender, expecting you to pick up the pieces as I fumbled through it. I remember saying something like, “I used to get frustrated when I didn’t feel like I knew what my gender was, but I think that I’m starting to really enjoy listening to my masculine parts and my feminine parts and hearing what they have to say to each other.”
Something between us shifted when instead of affirming what I said, you asked, “What do you mean by that?” I hadn’t expected to need to explain myself. I felt let down.
But the next evening, after I had crawled onto the portaledge, you brought up the subject again and asked, “Do you ever think about transitioning, like taking hormones or getting surgery?”
I had squirmed in my sleeping bag. I wasn’t accustomed to talking about queer identity with other people, especially not with my climbing partners. From you, though, it didn’t feel violating. I felt seen in a unique way, not dissimilar to the exposure that I felt while hanging from the side of a steep wall on a thin ledge. There was enough trust for me to start wondering.
“Simply being with you brought me to edges of myself that were difficult to encounter but were also longing to be known.”
What I wanted to have said then was, thank you. That I’d barely spoken with friends about gender, let alone anyone I thought might relate to me. That if I could have spoken in that moment, the tumble of words might have been, “Danger!” and “Me too!” and even “Your story sounds both familiar and different from mine.” I wish I could have expressed the misfittedness I felt around being seen as a single gender. I’d have asked us to pause the conversation and be together without words.
I know I said nothing like that. I know I stayed quiet instead. I know I felt ashamed.
As the canyon darkened, I watched a distance open up between us. I tried to think about the day ahead and our climbing agenda as I went to sleep on that cramped ledge, as if it were as simple as changing the channel. But our relationships with these identities are always in the room with us, whether we want them or not. Sometimes they are like elephants standing side by side, sometimes circling each other, or sometimes turning away from one another. At least with you, I was learning to stop pretending they weren’t there. Simply being with you brought me to edges of myself that were difficult to encounter but were also longing to be known.
By the time of our Hulk trip, I felt more aware of the tensions we were navigating as our relationships to climbing or food or our bodies spoke silently. I didn’t feel much better at naming the tensions, yet I felt responsible for solving them. I tiptoed into asking you how you’d been doing through the first few months of T. I genuinely wanted to support you, but my silence about my own journey was in the room. Your transition made me hyperaware of my tenuous relationship to my own nonbinary identity and intensified the feeling that I needed to “figure out” my gender.
The water gurgling peacefully under the talus seemed to remind us to move gently with ourselves and each other, to keep the climbing simple. But that wasn’t an easy message for me to hear. I wanted to believe that climbing an involved and difficult objective would give us something tangible to focus on, but our day on the Venturi Effect proved that was wishful thinking.
I remember how haggard and confused I felt that day on the Venturi Effect. I was so stuck in my own head that it never occurred to me that you might also get scared.
But as you started up, I noticed that you looked more nervous than usual, and I didn’t know what to do. You were a force. I couldn’t imagine that you wanted to be coached or reminded to breathe, so I settled for slowing my own breath. I wanted to give you the space to do your thing. Maybe if I pretended not to notice, you could keep your superstar status in both of our eyes. When you took for the first time, I remember trying to pass it off as nothing, saying, “That part is hard to figure out.” But you weren’t quite far enough away for me to miss the pained look on your face.
As we both struggled through the route, backing down off sequences that “shouldn’t be so hard” and deferring to each other to lead the next pitch, I realized that neither of us was truly in a space to enjoy what we were doing.
In hindsight, I can be proud of everything we were working on at the Hulk, but I’m not sure if I ever felt less like a mentor than I did on that trip.
After abandoning Venturi Effect, the Blowhard route promised to be more straightforward yet still inspiring, with that single curving line of its crux pitch striking a beautiful note. But as soon as we found our rhythm on Blowhard, I hit a wall again. Once I knew I could redpoint the pitch, I found I didn’t care about doing it. I was obsessed with finding a challenge but then shied away from it once it appeared. I thought I wanted a bigger objective, but that desire was guarding a greater fear around the apathy I was experiencing in climbing. It was a maddening cycle.
Given how emotionally fatigued we were, it made sense that we decided not to do the rest of the route after we both sent the crux pitch.
When I asked to leave after we finished the crux pitch on Blowhard, I felt a mixture of shame and relief. I wanted to be able to stay up there for you to work things out, but I was fried. You agreed to leave, but I couldn’t help but think that I was failing you when you needed me most. On our hike out from the Hulk, you told stories of professional climber friends who had sent inspiring lines on El Cap. When I asked what made it possible for those climbers to accomplish such incredible things, I remember your reply: “They don’t give up.”
I felt a bit queasy. I realized then that I might have to choose between my dreams of becoming a professional rock climber and my determination to be a person who listened to my needs and fought against feeling like I had to prove my worth through hard work. I knew that those things had almost broken me before.
I had always seen you as someone who represented queer excellence—someone who was untouchable from all the pain that the queer community faced because of your amazing climbing superpowers. But on that trip to the Hulk, I saw that we were both processing that pain in our own ways. Allowing you to be a human meant letting go of the belief that I could somehow rise above my own history of grief and pain if I sent the next grade. I was heartbroken, but I also felt a raw sense of freedom.
I’m sorry I hurt you. I wish I could have been braver and named my feelings instead of being so harsh with you, or with myself.
I know I stayed inside my own head more often than not on that trip, trying to make sense of the mess I was feeling about my journey as a climber and queer person while trying to support yours. Some of the sacrifices I made for success, to become a “real climber,” are clearer now. I don’t wish them upon you. I would like to think that seeing me struggle has encouraged your own unique inquiry into the deep questions: Where do you want to take your talent? Where are you compelled to go? And to respect the answers.
Being with you challenges me to stay close to my truths while being present with yours. It is so hard to accept that tension, even though it is an innate part of being in relationship with others. I wonder if we can learn to play with ours, even laugh about it together. Perhaps being a mentor means helping you navigate the tension between the climber you want to be and the climber you are. There is grief as we let go of who we thought we wanted to be or could have been, but there is power in learning to say yes alongside saying no.
“Allowing you to be a human meant letting go of the belief that I could somehow rise above my own history of grief and pain if I sent the next grade.”
That is one of the greatest lessons you’ve been brave enough to explore with me: that some boundaries are freeing. Dissociating can be a natural way to deal with fear, but as a genderqueer person, I am already constantly battling dissociation, so adding that to climbing can push me into an unhealthy place. I need climbing to be a source of embodiment for me; that means refusing to push myself in some ways, so I can keep pushing my potential in others.
I’ve started climbing with a nonbinary partner here in Flagstaff. They’re stronger than they know, and I feel they’re light-years ahead of me in their understanding of themselves. As I try to keep up with conversations about queer theory and their no-rest-day climbing schedule, I’ve realized the gift you had given me on our messy adventures.
You stayed in conversation with me when you didn’t know what to say—when my words stirred up feelings that felt awkward or dangerous. You allowed me to see anger, impatience and other emotions that you really wished you could get rid of. And when my own behaviors reminded you of painful memories, you used all the skills you had to explore them with me, even when those skills didn’t feel like enough.
You showed up as a human, Mad, and you taught me that it was OK to be a human, too.
From you, I’ve learned that mentorship, especially as members of a community that has had to hustle for basic rights, doesn’t mean pushing someone to accomplish their wildest dreams. It means giving them an affirming—and yes, sometimes chaotic—place to grow and explore who they are.
Mentorship doesn’t mean having the answers. It means listening to the lessons my young friend has learned and incorporating them into my own healing journey.
I’m remembering one of my favorite lines from the poet laureate Joy Harjo, “We came out here just to be us, our laughter, our wounding, our happiness, our fighting.” And now, I am remembering the last moments of our Hulk trip, when after that sullen, pregnant silence in the car beside the lake, we stripped down to our underwear and submerged our sweaty bodies in the water. We stood knee-deep in the lake, in front of one another again. Relating. Softening. For a moment we glimpsed one another and ourselves. Our misfittedness. Our belonging. And a whole-body gratitude for simply being there together returned. How rare and how beautiful.