Climbing was once the sport of outlaws, social rebels, and no-good bums who sponged off the dregs of hard-working, contributing members of society.
That’s what we all loved about it. It was a counter-culture, frowned on by park rangers and picnicking families, and squawked about by worried mothers.
Then somewhere along the way in the last two decades, it suddenly shifted, out of the shadows and into the first light of the Dawn Wall.
A good thing, perhaps, to share the joy of that which we love with others, but as Brian Payst of the Carolina Climbers Coalition cautions,
Climbing could become a victim of its own success.
For those who didn’t understand the sport, it was (and still is) crazy and dangerous. If climbers had a dollar for every time we were told that … well, we probably wouldn’t be so poor.
But that was part of the appeal: to be isolated in your very own odd community.
Unless you had connections to the inside circle, you had no hope of getting in, because it wasn’t something one could just go do. You needed equipment, know-how, someone to show you the ropes (literally), and make sure you didn’t get yourself killed. Climbers once inherited the art from mentors.
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Damn. Just heard that Fred Beckey has passed away. Sad news, but he certainly lived life with 100% passion. Fred’s dedication to climbing was rivaled by few… if any. He pursued the lifestyle for 94 years, contributing hundreds of first ascents and always looking towards the next horizon. I’ve always said I want to climb my whole life; if I can do a fraction of what Fred accomplished, I will be satisfied. RIP you legend. #willbelayforfood #fredbeckey
Today, however, with increasing autonomy amongst climbing newcomers, we are witnesses to that which Chris Noble refers to as the “mentorship gap.”
Instead of belonging to a very specific group, climbing has become the newest fitness and outdoor trend. Pull on your Lululemon yoga pants and Patagonia Synchilla Snap-T, grab your vegan coconut milk chai latte, and head on down to your local climbing gym. You can rent shoes there and, with the softened beginner grades, you’ll feel like you too can become a rock climber. Whatever sells memberships, right?
With the move from fringe to mainstream, much of the original culture of climbing has been lost among day pass users and rental shoes, and the rapidly compounding effects on the community as a whole are staggering. You can thank accessibility, auto-belay, and the indoor climbing gym business that revolutionized both.
As the number of gyms grows exponentially, so do the numbers of climbers. According to the Climbing Business Journal (CBJ), in 2016, indoor rock climbing increased by 20.3% after an almost 50% increase the year before. Based on the numbers of liability waivers signed, between 1,000 and 1,500 people try rock climbing for the first time in the U.S. every day, and the number of indoor gyms doubled in the span of a decade. CBJ’s interactive climbing gym map demonstrates this growth, allowing anyone to see current, planned, and closed rock gyms across the U.S., by year or span of years.
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This spike in interest is good, right? We climbers should want to dispel the myths and falsehoods about our sport and encourage others to love that which we do.
Climbing brings meaning and happiness to our lives and a world full of happier people would be a good thing.
A lovely image, to be sure, but what many forget when quoting her statement is that she immediately prefaces it by stating,
If we all observe appropriate safety, ethical, and LNT [Leave No Trace] principals, then the exploding number of climbers transitioning into the outdoor will ultimately be a good thing.
That’s a big ol’ “if”.
With the increased interest in climbing, gyms will become an inevitable transference to the outdoors by people who do not know how to properly behave at crags simply because the ethics of outdoor climbing have never been explained to them.
As we encourage the growth of the sport, it is important to bear in mind that gyms can be expanded and rebuilt to accommodate, but our crags are far more finite in their resources. A world where outdoor climbing is as common as running simply isn’t sustainable.
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Crags, like the National Parks, are already staggering under the weight of exponentially increased numbers. Well-established classic crags, like the Buttermilks, Hueco Tanks, the Shawangunks, the Red River Gorge, and El Dorado Canyon will undoubtedly see the first hits.
Hueco Tanks is already under strict access rules, with the East Mountain, East Spurs, and West Mountain areas being only open to guided tours. North Mountain, the only unguided access area, is still limited to 70 people per day—spots that are now reserved months in advance.
Much of the Bishop’s Buttermilks is under re-vegetation efforts due to high volumes of traffic and general disregard to stay on the paths. If you see side by side pictures of the ‘Milks of today and ten years ago, it’s easy to see why these efforts are being made.
Climbing had always been at the forefront of debates about ethical behavior in the outdoors. To chalk, or not to chalk? To bolt, to not to bolt? Remember, there was a time not terribly long ago when even metal bolts were considered so offensive that traditional rock purists went behind the sport climbers and pulled out newly bolted routes.
Whatever side of the sport climbing debate you may find yourself on, we can agree that metal and white marks will hardly be the worst find at highly trafficked crags. Trampled vegetation, littering, “pad stashing” (a new trend resulting in animals eating crash pads), and irresponsible human waste disposal all converge upon one thing: access restriction.
While the crags themselves are at risk, so are the people flooding to them; inexperienced and too ignorant to know that a belay certification in a climbing gym, where there are auto-belays and double-wrapped friction increasing anchor points, doesn’t give one the know-how to climb outdoors.
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Here’s an all-too-common scenario: Joe Blow goes to his local rock gym, takes a 2-hour top rope belay certification class, and leaves thinking he’s prepared to start doing some outdoor climbing. He and a friend go out, set up a toprope, and Joe’s partner starts climbing. He reaches the top and Joe takes up the remaining slack in preparation to lower him. What Joe doesn’t know is that the anchor used in his local rock gym utilizes a double-wrapped rope technique, introducing an extra 45% of friction into the system, thereby mitigating any climber-belayer weight discrepancies. Out at the crag, already thrown for a loop by the narrow ledge from which he must belay, he doesn’t expect his partner to weigh so heavily on the rope and he quickly loses control of the lower. The rope zings through the belay device, and his partner crashes to the ground.
Outside, you suddenly have a whole host of other considerations: rock type, falling rock, sketchy belay spots, and the list goes on. What about determining rope lengths as it relates to pitch height and the risk of overextending your rope? Gyms don’t teach you to tie a stopper knot at the end of your rope. Why would they? After all, they know that every rope hanging from the walls is cut to the appropriate size. You can always spot the veteran climbers by the ones tying stopper knots while climbing indoors.
These gym-to-crag discrepancies don’t just apply to sport climbing, where the falls are potentially more consequential. Even bouldering outside can be dangerous coming from a gym mentality. Beginning bouldering indoors allows people to immerse themselves in the sport without having to learn proper spotting and landing techniques.
Sure, the gym gives you a brief orientation about how to land so you don’t sprain your ankle, but it’s easy to land when the entire ground is covered with 14-inch thick padding. It’s a lot harder when you’re trying to land on a 3×4-foot crash pad.
A disclaimer embedded in the gym liability waiver stating, “The techniques being taught to you are specific to this gym” may protect the facility from any sue-happy folks who didn’t know climbing was inherently dangerous (gee, imagine)—but it doesn’t protect the climbing community from the eventual repercussions.
Of course, the selective media presence covering only the most “daring” rock climbing feats only reinforces these widespread misguided perceptions of the sport.
New and non-climbers only see select climbers idolized, i.e. Alex Honnold. Nothing personal against Honnold, who is a fantastic climber in his own right and I’m sure a pretty stand-up guy, but the unwanted attention he has brought to the sport is misrepresenting.
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Rock climbers have spent years dusting off worried exclamations by family members on the danger of the sport. “It’s really not that dangerous if you do it right! I’m safer on the rope than I am driving down the highway.” Then they see the headlines like, “Vomit-inducing clip shows man climb sheer rock face with NO ropes” and we get the frantic text from Mom screaming,
IS THIS WHAT YOU DO?!
Honnold himself has stated,
I could see how, for a non-climber, it might seem completely insane. But I’ve devoted 20 years to climbing and probably six or seven to this particular project so, it’s not like I’m just some crazy kid who in the spur of the moment decided to do this crazy thing. It took years of effort.
But people don’t see the approach, the road that led to the climb. They only see the result. They only see the headlines touting “the greatest climber ever” as the example for which to aim, unable yet to differentiate between skill and risk. The fact that Honnold is the most well-known climber in the world is frankly, terrifying.
Just remember: greater popularity also means greater scrutiny. A large part of the crag influx will be those neither knowledgeable nor skilled enough to handle unexpected situations, leading to injuries or worse.
In August 2017, a 17- year old kid died when he fell while free-soloing the Flatirons outside Boulder, CO. Another died off the same formation only two months later. The Flatirons see an estimated 10,000 climbers each year, and the two were the first fatalities in Chautauqua Park in nine years.
Soon we’ll have Mom and Dad “I told you climbing was dangerous” leading the angry mob with pitchforks, demanding that the local crag be locked up so no one else can hurt themselves at such a “dangerous” location.
It’s only a matter of time before climbing becomes as regulated as everything else in the outdoors; either due to safety or conservation concerns. We’ll need permits for crags or, even worse, guides, as with areas of Hueco. Access Fund, one of the single biggest pro- climber and crag upkeep organizations has expressed such concerns.
Unless climbers as a community can address the problem [of increasing waves of new, under-educated climbers], we’re facing ever-increasing rules, regulations, fines, permitting, and closures.
If such regulations and permit enforcing occurs, climbing will become even more a game of the wealthy, shutting out its historically core group.
So what’s the takeaway? Discourage and boycott the use of climbing gyms and take the sport back to its roots? Not in the slightest. Gyms provide both a useful, fun, and downright necessary avenue into the sport, as well as serving as a valuable training resource for those already embedded in it.
Climbing gyms are a great spot to cut one’s climbing teeth. They provide a relatively safe and controlled environment for learning the basic techniques and skills of the sport. And what’s more, they provide a social environment to meet other, more experienced climbers. It’s where I, and many climbers far better than I, started.
However, gyms also need to be aware of their influence and role in the overall climbing community. If gyms are so proudly creating new climbers, then they, like parents do children, must ultimately take responsibility for the type of climber that person becomes.
With commercialization comes consequences: a burden of the business, if they are so intent on making it just that. This isn’t to say the gym industry is to be held responsible for the future actions of every single person that walks through the doors. Idiots will be idiots, and bad things will always happen …
But, it is a climbing gym’s job to eliminate the avoidable offenses, those committed by the majority out of ignorance and easily corrected at an early stage of the climber’s journey. It is the climbing gym’s job to adequately supply tools to those who want to learn and thereby preventing accidents of ignorance. Make more effort to educate new climbers of important issues that are too often overlooked. You see climbing and technique courses all the time, but those are things a climber can figure out if they put enough time in on the wall.
Rather, I want to see crag ethics clinics and anchor-building classes. I want to see specific courses about what it takes to move from indoor climbing to outdoor climbing. I want to see workshops that involve rock evaluation, outdoor spotting techniques, multi-pitch skills, and general climber courtesy.
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Even reaching out via social media and sharing resources such as the Training Beta Podcast’s interview with Brady Robinson, in “Access Fund on Going From Gym to Crag Responsibility” is a great start. Ethics concerns may be limited in gym environments, but they are huge in the climbing world as a whole, and climbing gyms are inevitably part of that world.
Don’t let this just be a criticism—but rather a call to action to promote awareness of what is at stake. So much is.
Climbing is NOT for everyone
Call me elitist and closed-minded, but I am reluctant to agree to the blanket statement, “Climbing is for everyone.”
Anyone who’s ever decked because of a bad belayer knows it is not, in fact. There are just people out there that should never be given a belay device and put in charge of someone else’s life.
In all seriousness, climbing isn’t for people who are doing it to impress their friends, or to get Instagram likes. It isn’t for people who don’t respect the sport and the limits it presses people to defy. It isn’t for people who don’t understand the grave consequences the sport can have. It isn’t for people who don’t respect the outdoors and want to preserve crag ecosystems.
Most of all, it isn’t for people who don’t care about the future of the sport. To be a climber, you don’t necessarily need to dedicate your life to it or define yourself first and foremost as a climber, but you must understand that there are those who do.
As a community, let us welcome newcomers, but let us also make sure they understand the responsibility they are taking on by joining it.
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