Spousal Abuse in Aunt Fanny’s Pantry

Many of us have been faced with the delicate issues that surface in relationships when the non-climbing member is being recruited into the cult of climbing. Power, trust, insecurity and a host of vulnerable issues raise their heads when the hapless victim is being cajoled into believing that fear, danger, and suffering are some kind of "sport" and somehow "fun."

Before I became a climbing bum who can afford some occasional non-climbing lapses, I had a real job (in Yosemite, but it still locked me up too much) This meant that a day free of corporate responsibility was measured in pitches. A day free of climbing just didn’t measure up. Naturally and predictably, I wanted to bring my love life and recreational life into blissful union. Somehow, I seduced my girlfriend Pam into going climbing.

This wasn’t particularly easy since Pam was already locked in a battle with inner and outer trauma. Driving, bike riding, and swimming, all these activities threatened to throw Pam into frozen panic. I was in love anyway. She was beautiful, compassionate, artistic, and exuded an "energy" I soaked up as pure feminine essence. I wanted to understand her and help her overcome her fears.
I wish I could remember what I said that encouraged her to go climbing but my memory of this event starts at the base of the climb. We were seated at the base of Aunt Fanny’s Pantry, a multi-pitch 5.4 route in the Church Bowl Area in Yosemite. Once she was faced with the prospect of climbing that stone, she turned to stone as well.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy for her so I did my best sensitive guy routine. There was no pressure, no hurry. We would just hang out at the base of the crag and see if we felt like climbing it. We had come far enough that chickening out at this point would be a defeat for both of us.

Pam held strong feminist beliefs that were nourished by the writings of prominent writers on women’s issues. I certainly believed in equality between the sexes but felt threatened by the implication of guilt through maleness. I felt her anger at the dominance of male culture as an accusation of evil through my original sin of being a guy. It was only after I learned about her experiences in life that I could cut through the intellectual skeleton of her emotions into their gut origins. Her well-intentioned parents had treated her as though she were incapable of accomplishing anything. She had been married at 17 years old to an alcoholic who would beat her in drunken rages and then rape her. He would take her on breakneck rides on his motorcycle and threaten to destroy them both. He would kill her if she tried to leave him. It was easier and less selfish for her to generalize her pain to the plight of all women than to deal with her personal trauma.

We sat at the base of the climb for a long, long time. We talked about our lives, our ideas, and the fear. It really didn’t seem like she was going to be able to climb that day. I was about to suggest we call it a day.

There was another couple climbing just to the left of us. Suddenly the air was charged with the chaotic clanging of a leader fall in progress. I could hear the banging long enough to know it was a long whipper when a male body fell into view, stretched the rope, and rebounded to a stop. His female belayer was completely paralyzed with horror and panic. Her partner was hanging on the rope in pain, having hit a ledge in the course of the fall. She was unable to lower him and was having trouble holding on.

I rushed over and helped her lower him the rest of the way to the ground. I sent somebody to call for help. The medical clinic was only a few hundred yards away. There was a small crowd gathered. In a short while, he was packaged in a litter and taken away.


After the drama subsided I made my way back to Pam. After the violent crash of a climber before her very nose, I had no doubt that we would call it day at that moment. To my amazement, all of a sudden she was totally ready to go climbing! I had to ask her "What changed your mind?" She said that when she saw that nobody blamed the woman belaying the victim, nor did they fault the climber for his mistake, then it was OK for her to climb. She had been more afraid of failure and inadequacy than afraid for life and limb.

To make a long story short. We roped up and did the climb! It wasn’t easy for her but she didn’t do badly either. My best twisted memory of the experience came at the very end. We had completed the climb and lounged on a sunny ledge. I lowered her to the top of Church Bowl Chimney where there used to be an overhanging free rappel to the ground. I started to lower her over the edge into the void of free hanging space when she made me stop and launched into an out-of-character litany of invectives and threats of reprisal for my subjecting her to the horror of that exposure. It was humorous, serious, and cathartic at the same time and delivered with a consummate vituperative art.

Pam and I broke up a dozen years ago but we keep in touch. Like many climbers, she has used her fear and pain as a tool to learn and grow within. Over time she taught me that I didn’t realize what it’s like to be dominated by those who can, and do, physically overpower you; what it’s like to be considered weak and incapable. I can finally see how women are influenced and marginalized in ways that are subtle and subconscious to both men and women. Both traditional "Male" and "Female" cultures have self-defeating elements that oppress those who are ensnared in them. I know that I have often resented being expected, as a guy, to be immune from emotions and their influence. It’s just not a fun or full way to experience life. I don’t think anyone is to blame. A wise man said we are guilty by our actions but innocent by our ignorance. To phrase it more bluntly, we’re all bozos on this bus.

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Pam Ji!