Essay: What A Long, Strangely Normalized Trip It’s Been—The Role of Counterculture in Modern-Day Climbing

climbing counterculture
Are we losing the true spirit of climbing?

Picture this:

It’s 1968 in San Francisco. Your buddy invites you to the opening of a small new clothing company downtown, a friend of a friend’s new business venture called The North Face. After a long day of bouldering and messing around in the forest you consider just staying in and rereading Kerouac’s Big Sur, which is still sending ripples through the post-beat community with its foreboding tone of an era already gone by, a golden age suddenly found rusty and burned out.

Your buddy mentions that a local band, the Grateful Dead, are playing, and you like their record so you decide to forego the existential literature. You and your buddy roll up and the bouncers, members of the Hell’s Angels, let you in. This is your first true baptism into the outdoor community.

Now flash forward:

You walk into a dimly lit tap house with your J.Crew jeans cuffed at the ankles, showing shiny new sport sandals. A few meticulously long-bearded dudes are sipping microbrews at the rollout party of new SUP board brand that uses only ethically sourced cork and recycled fiberglass. Outside on the eco-patio, some fit Chaco dads stand around vaping as the light thump of the newest Mumford & Sons song takes up the dead space in the room.

You tell me which version you’d rather be part of.

It’s more than apparent that we’re a far cry from the days when climbing was ensconced in American counterculture and thus viewed as an inherently subversive act.

The environment at that North Face launch party (all true by the way, see: Doug Tompinks: Wild Legacy by Outside TV) was iconic because it represented an intersection of cultures that were all somehow trying to disrupt the status quo; whether through music or materialism or vagabond ideology.

We’re all well acquainted with the legends of Yvon Chouinard eating cat food to save money and the affable rebellion of the Stonemasters in Yosemite, but where do we stand today?

Sure, we can steep ourselves in nostalgia or climb only in jorts and funky bandanas until we convince ourselves that modern climbers aren’t just baristas on holiday, but the truth is that the days of sticking it to the man by sticking a hard move are long gone.

Don’t pretend you haven’t ever been planning your Western dirtbag-life-brags for an upcoming college reunion or wedding, only to log back online and see pictures of an old ex-boyfriend or girlfriend sending V10s at some city gym.

Climbing, in many ways, has become more and more mainstream.

Many modern climbers have traded in the Schlitz and knotted slings for a kombucha and an ultralight cam as the accessibility of sport climbing has bent the historical arc of the sport more and more towards peak physical fitness. The old school Yosemite raconteurs probably had mystical visions of 5.15s like people once wondered if those futuristic slim screen-computer “tablets” from Star Trek: First Contact would ever be a household device.

As the sport has been linked more and more, perhaps even synonymized, with extreme levels of physical fitness, it has perhaps had a similar decline in connection to scrappy adventures, blissful peril, or even (dare I say) tomfoolery.

So, the real question is, who cares?

An easy argument can be made that the so-called golden age of climbing in the ‘60s and ‘70s was also when the sport was at its peak of inaccessibility. The extremism of the lifestyle, paired with increasing friction with various park authorities and the thick fog of machismo in the air, made the entire environment fitting for only an incredibly small portion of the public.

Indeed, at least now anyone with $15 (or $25 or $30 depending on the locale) and a little extra time can stroll into the nearest climbing gym and have a great afternoon. Why shouldn’t T-Swift take over the sending speakers or smartphones be snapping pics of you sticking your boulder problem be immediately posted on the internet?

I would argue that when a totem of counterculture from a previous era (see: record players, mustaches, rompers, rock ‘n roll, ad infinitum) is appropriated and recycled into the modern day it is immediately anesthetized. The original intent of that clothing fad or hairstyle or musical genre is bastardized in a way because, by sporting it now, the original political or economic subversity is undermined by the sheer fact that it is now being donned for mere aesthetic rather than inherent meaning.

Us millennials are king at recycling relics when we should be welding together revolutions.

Counterculture is pivotal to the sport of climbing because of the implicit extremism of the act itself. Treating it as just another way to stay fit, or something to squeeze in between a shopping trip and a juice bar cleanse, is a travesty for just that reason; it denies the essence of the sport’s counterplay with the ultimate by conflating it with everyday, mundane acts.

If we don’t recognize this, we risk a similar kind of anesthetization that I already mentioned. We risk that very gravest of errors, to call something as other than its rightful name. We treat Everest like a playground rather than a glacial deity. We turn guidebooks into tick lists rather than dancing lessons with death. We turn the sport into yet one more thing to be consumed.

While I cede that not everyone can be a rumpled dirtbag grinning at the yawning abyss every morning from the window of their smelly Tacoma, I would at least propose that we remain aware of our position. Are we safely nestled in the recycling of prior revolutionaries’ habits, fads, or styles because making our own is too scary? Are we going outside today just to Instagram from the crag?

Or, perhaps we can ask even more pertinent questions:

Are there social, political, or economic issues that climbers can stand behind, in solidarity with others as a new wave of free thinkers, artists, and lovable vagabonds?

Is there suffering in the world that can be mitigated through climbing? Even in some roundabout way?

I would say yes. But perhaps I’ve just met too many lovable vagabonds and enthusiastic anarchists in my time.

Either way, I’ll see you at that North Face party, I hear there’s another one next week for some new company called, oh what is it … Chouinard Equipment?


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  • Ronald Crist

    Well said. I hope we can still find ways to change the status quo. Especially with nonparticipation in mass, since we are too busy pulling hard to go buy more things.

  • Ellese Nguyen

    Awesome point. A lot of older guys I climb with think that the popularization of climbing can bring about more accessible routes and affordable gear, but from what I’ve seen, the indoor climbing and bouldering industry is really the only part of climbing that seems to be expanding exponentially. For many people I’ve met, indoor climbing is another form of a gym.