Essay: At the Intersection of “Gym Rats” and “True Climbers”

gym climbers and outdoor climbers

So … you’re a gym rat?

I found myself ear hustling the couple next to me. I fabricated their story in my head and decided they must have been on a first date. Sizing one another up.

Gym rat. Depending on what climbing community you sit down with, the term conjures different judgments. With the advent and explosion of large-scale climbing gyms, the term has gained girth and connotation.

I’ve watched gym rats come to life over the past 13 years. During different times in my life, I’d be defined as a gym rat. You know, the person who spends their waking moments pulling plastic, and losing sleep over contrived, man-made routes.

And, still, I find a certain side eye when the term is dropped among “true climbers”; the “other breed.” You know, the van-dwelling, remote-working, “dirtbag” (with a 100K van?), mid-20-something climbers.

I’ve always found the intersectionality of these two communities fascinating. The mentalities can be such polar opposites. At what point does a climber become a true outdoors person? What place do climbing gyms have in a sport that has its roots firmly seated in the dirt?

Over a conversation the other day, an interesting realization came up.

Speaking to a co-worker, we poured over stories of “true climbers” as rock gym employees. She had a fistful of stories about bad tempers, poor time management, many “sick days,” and some of the best friends she’d met. My stories weren’t much different.

While discussing this, the conversation turned to who filled these spots now that those employees had moved on. She commented that as the management positions became occupied by “gym rat climbers” the culture changed. They hired people they vibed with. Because they weren’t trying to get outside every other day, they didn’t vibe with those applicants. Instead, the new managers hired climbers who valued the indoor life; with maybe the occasional outdoor trip.

And, voila, the horror stories about no call/no shows disappeared. These employees wanted to be in the gym all the time, so they were. Not only that, but they were not opposed to back office work and customer service.

Wait, wait, wait.

Are “true climbers” shitty employees, unsuited for the new wave of climbing culture?

This conversation would surely make it seem that way.

I kept thinking though. I do not define myself, at my core, as a gym rat. Even when I’m bound by four walls, my makeup and mentality fit that of an outdoor climber (minus the remote-working, fancy van life). I still work in a climbing gym, surrounded by people who look at me oddly when I ask if they want to dawn patrol at the local crag.

When I took my position, I negotiated my rate and fought for hours to work remotely from home. This was met with resistance. I watched managers above me, with little climbing experience or passion, make decisions about the gym and programming that were inconsistent with what I thought the climbing community wanted.

Because the gym decision-makers held a different mentality than many of the outdoor climbers I knew, their opinions of what the community wanted were different too. They had a point—the outdoor and indoor communities are two starkly different worlds.

Until this conversation, I was under the impression that “true climbers” would be pining gym management jobs—jobs like mine. And, perhaps they are, but the new wave of gym owners doesn’t vibe with them. I somehow snuck under the radar.

Returning to that conversation with my co-worker, I’m still unclear about the true relationship between climbing communities. Sitting in the middle of it, it’s particularly interesting to navigate. Are all “true climbers” a step ahead of me, and avoid gym association aside from winter training? Are all “gym rats” solid employees because they are willing to follow rules and make hard business decisions?

Who knows …

There is obviously much each community can learn from the other as our sport continues to branch off and specialize.

As the two communities continue to live and thrive, it will be interesting to see how the young generation of competition climbers adds to these interactions and what the Olympics does to bring new traffic into mega gyms and local crags.

Will we find climbing culture becoming more and more sterile and niche? Or, will the common ground between “gym rats” and “true climbers” continue to converge on a mutual love for the sport?


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