Climbing Gyms Aren’t the Problem; Assholes Are

I haven’t read anything Dumb on the climbing internet in a long time—mostly because I’ve blocked a few key climbing bloggers from my feed so I don’t have to read their pseudo-intellectual, purple-prosy prattle anymore. Instead I’ve been spending my time browsing much more sophisticated sites such as I Looove Climbing!, where I can ooogle Eastern European booobies to my heart’s content.


But my winning streak came to an end recently when I caught wind of Chris Noble’s article for Climbing magazine: “The Mentorship Gap: What Climbing Gyms Can’t Teach You.”

It’s a pretty grim read, but worth checking out. I bet most climbers will recognize some of the shittier behaviors Noble describes, from basic ethical boners to inexcusable environmental degradation. I also bet that most climbers will agree that those situations could be prevented with a better-informed climbing populace via stronger role models or “mentors.”

However, I also think the author makes an enormous leap to blame so many of climbing’s evils on indoor rock climbing.

WWDCover_web[Brief note: I don’t know Chris Noble, but I greatly respect his photography and everyone I know who does know Chris speaks highly of his character. This is not meant to be personal; just my attempt at a thoughtful rebuttal. Please buy Noble’s excellent book: Women Who Dare.]

Noble’s depiction of climbing in America today is partly accurate, if one-sided. However, I couldn’t find a single example in his piece that actually supported his overarching thesis. Because he provides no compelling examples that prove his point, his portrayal of the climbing scene feels deeply prejudiced toward indoor/gym climbers. Noble scrapes at a flimsy myth about gym climbing and is unsuccessful in finding a single example that fits this ubiquitous cliche that climbers coming out of the gym are ignorant, dangerous and at fault for anything we don’t like about our sport.

Typical scene at a typical crag in this post-gym era.

His introduction describes a situation in which a woman screams at a local Utah climber because he pulled her rope off of a climb that he wanted to do. Only she wasn’t using the rope, nor was she there; she was off belaying/watching her friend. I have a hard time seeing exactly how you could pin this behavior on anything other than that woman being an asshole. Even in the gym, you can’t stake claim to a certain route and hog it all day. It doesn’t make sense to blame the entire genre of gym climbing for this one woman’s assholish behavior.

She’s not a gym climber, per se. She’s just a regular old asshole.


First, a word on mentors. 

I once actually had a “mentor,” in the sense loosely romanticized within Noble’s story. His name was Jon and he was one of the most well-respected first ascentionists in his home state. He held a devoutly traditional ethic, too. Ground-up, onsight, trad climbing was the name of his game. And I eagerly became his devout pupil.

vertigoThe first time we shared a rope together, I nearly died because he sent me up an X-rated offwidth with nothing more than a few nuts and a couple of slings for the anchor. As I desperately inched my way up this fearsome maw, Jon consistently reminded me (in a rather unhelpful way) that if I fell, I would “absolutely die!”

Somehow I managed not to fall/die. Having passed this apparent entry exam into Jon’s mentorship program, he took me under his wing and showed me the true blue trad approach to climbing.

The next day, he sent me up a new route with a hammer and hand drill to place a bolt on lead from a stance (placing bolts was ok, he explained, so long as it was done ground up). As I toiled away, Jon laid in a bush smoking a Proto Pipe and recounting the proud climbing history of his home state. For the next 50 minutes my calves and arms got pumped stupid as I pounded that blunt drill bit into a patch of dense schist. It was the first bolt I ever placed, and the last time I used a hand drill (sorry, Jon).

I’m grateful, if really happy, to have had these experiences (and lived). But Jon’s was just one approach to climbing. It took years for me to “unlearn” this anti-sport-climbing mentality in a way that allowed me the freedom and, more accurately, the confidence I needed to discover this very expansive sport on my own terms and begin to write my own personal book of rules, albeit cherry picking what I liked from Jon’s book and integrating those perspectives into my own.

Gym climbers are notoriously scapegoated for getting into trouble on routes either above their heads, or not knowing how to use gear. They don’t truly understand the risk and danger of climbing outdoors, as the oversimplified myth goes, and worst of all, their brash attitudes and casual acceptance of risk make them prime candidates for getting FUBAR’d at any given crag on any given day.

There’s certainly some truth to that. I’ve seen some horrendous shit out there. Horrifying shit that makes you wonder how long that gym noob will be alive.

“Please, for the love of god, just use a stick clip.”

[Insert a super dramatic moment of pause and my own cold thousand-yard stare].

But, again, are gyms to blame? No. Climbing is a game of personal responsibility. You have to wonder what kind of person could look at a cliff and not see the obvious consequence of going up there without knowing what they’re doing.

I never needed some elder mentor figure to teach me that, no shit, climbing is dangerous and you better make sure you learn how to use the gear properly so you don’t die.

In fact, my mentor seemed much more interested in trying to kill me than hold my hand as I strolled down the more prudent textbook path outlined in Freedom of the Hills.


Are you a decent, respectful, humble person, or are you an asshole?

Ethan flashing Freerider, minus one fall, this past weekend. Proud effort for a guy who learned to climb in the gym.

My background is that I began trad climbing in the Gunks; but I also simultaneously learned how to climb in the gym. In that respect, I find myself in good company with guys like Chris Sharma, Alex Honnold, David Lama, and Ethan Pringle (a sport climber who recently came as close to flashing El Cap as anyone ever has come). All of those dudes learned to climb in a gym, and all were once brash young teens whose strength and ambition outweighed experience; who sometimes did stupid shit but survived and are now considered climbing paragons.

I made mistakes along the way; some were pointed out to me, but most weren’t. Mostly, I was self-taught. I was psyched on climbing and read everything I could about the sport, from all the how-to books, to all the great climbing articles and mountaineering tomes written over the last 100 years by the likes of Patey, Buhl, Messner, Sherman, Luebben, Long, Takeda, Samet, Jackson, Raleigh, et al. I was a big curious sponge and discovered climbing by absorbing all of it, thinking about it, asking questions, and trying to learn, often fucking up along the way, too.

This personality trait of seeking knowledge, asking questions and trying my best to learn was completely independent of the fact that, at one point in time, I was also the guy who showed up to the crags with that recognizable mix of 5.12-crimp strength and 5.8 footwork that you get after one year of climbing indoors. So what?

One day, Inshallah, they will learn not to wear daisy chains, not to mention harnesses, while bouldering the gym.
Inshallah, they will one day learn not to wear daisy chains, not to mention harnesses, while bouldering the gym.

Regardless of my gym background, I never needed to be taught things like:

Don’t leave a pile of shit on trails.

Don’t scream at people who want to climb the same route as you.

Don’t scream in general.

Be friendly.

Be humble.

Be nice to other people.

Be safe.

Take the time to learn how to climb at an area.

Sample the classics.

Pay respects to the elders who did a lot more with a lot less.

Don’t leave your gear strung up on routes that other polite people are waiting for.

Most of all, no mentor ever needed to tell me not to boast or spray about myself. If you see a gym climber spraying about how easy 5.11 trad feels compared to the pink V11 he climbed at the Boulder Rock Club, it’s not because that guy is a “gym climber.” He’s just an asshole.


Here’s the deal: More people are getting into climbing. However, as we all know, a significant percentage of the human race is populated by assholes. Ipso facto, we can expect a proportionate number of new assholes to enter the sport of climbing. Again, this has nothing to do with climbing gyms. Whether they come through the gym, or they’re born into a climbing dynasty of hard-core traditional alpinists, doesn’t matter because, deep down, they’re just fucking assholes.

Noble’s greater concern, however, is not necessarily with a climber’s level of experience, but with the sheer number of people entering the sport. He writes:

“The bottom line is that while we can continue to build more gyms and introduce ever-more people to a sport and lifestyle we all love, we cannot create more outdoor climbing destinations than already exist in nature.”

This is a standard fear that you often hear volleyed around by everyone climbing for longer than 10 years. But the more I travel, and the more places I visit, the more I realize how ridiculous that fear truly is.

Sam Elias in the Verdon. Photo Keith Ladzinski

Show up to Rifle on a busy weekend (like this last weekend), and it sure can feel like there’s no room for any more climbers. However, I just returned from the Verdon Gorge, where there are over 500 multi-pitch sport climbs already established and easily over 10,000 routes still left to bolt. Yet in my three weeks there, I never saw more than a single party of climbers on the blank, wild beautiful walls.

You don’t even need to go to the Verdon to find solitude. There’s so much rock everywhere, and that’s true even in a crowded zone like Rifle. If you don’t want to wait in line, go somewhere else. Stop crying about the queue for the five-star area uber-classic, put on your “think-for-yourself” cap, and go hang your draws on the random climb next door because, even though it hasn’t been recorded on, I can almost guarantee you that it will be just as good, just as hard and just needs to be brushed.

Or try driving just a few miles outside of Rifle to find perfectly great sport climbs of all grades and styles. No one will be on them. If you find yourself in a crowded area, and you just can’t deal with it, go somewhere else. I guarantee you that if you overcome your ovine docility, it won’t be hard to find an unpopulated wall.

Leaving the “scene,” however, and going against the herd to do something no one else is doing might be more difficult for you than you like to admit …


Why do we continue to hear these cliches?

There is a much larger issue here that goes beyond the particulars of this one article published in a completely obsolete magazine, and that is really what I wanted to write about today. Climbing, as we all know, is an expansive, multi-disciplined activity with so many interesting facets that are at once complementary to each other and, in other ways, totally at odds. Within that variety, we continue to see the same internecine jabs directed against one particular genre of climbers by another genre of climbers who wish to feel superior.

The very thing that makes climbing so beautiful (its variety) is also the source of so much ugliness.

As climbers try to articulate what is “wrong” with climbing (a strange premise to begin with and one that is so often just thinly veiled xenophobia directed toward “noobs”—and certainly I’ve had my fair share of jollies poking fun at gumbies, so obviously I’m not above this type of thing), we continue to be told the same myths, the same cliches, the same storytelling tropes that do nothing but reinforce ideas that aren’t exactly true anymore.

Trad climbers are bolder than sport climbers.

Sport climbers don’t know how to place gear.

Trad climbers are old, bald and fat and can’t climb hard.

Boulderers are chronic masturbators.

Aid climbing sucks. (OK, maybe that last one is true.)

Art by the “General” Emilie Lee

Why do we continue to reiterate these cliches? It’s as if just being a “climber” isn’t a strong enough identity for some people. You aim to define yourself by taking away from something else—something that, usually, you aren’t good at.

Take me, for example, because I do this shit all the time. Over the years, I’ve written a lot about how much Indian Creek sucks and how it’s not real trad climbing; it’s just sport climbing with gear. And while that latter point about Indian Creek being sport climbing on gear is true, the idea that Indian Creek “sucks” is, of course, ridiculous and really just means that I suck—at climbing there, which I do … even though, deep down, I truly do enjoy climbing there in a sort of bleak, depressing way.

You see this misdirected blame everywhere in this sport. Gym climbers are the ones who get blamed for perma-draws … but if they’re always climbing in the gym, then who is actually putting the perma-draws up on the walls? I guarantee you that person installing the perma-draws wouldn’t describe himself as a “gym climber.”

How many self-proclaimed “alpinists” do you know who actually sport climb more than they alpine climb? Well, I don’t know about you, but I know a lot! Like … all of them!

Why are these superficial labels and identities so important and necessary to us?

I believe that we need to get over the idea that an entire genre of climbers is superior/inferior, stronger/weaker, more/less experienced than another genre, and just accept that ALL OF US can be found along this singular spectrum called climbing. We’re all climbers. Just because you’re a gym climber now doesn’t mean that you can’t or won’t go on to (all but) flash Freerider (like Ethan Pringle). Just because you’re a sport climber, doesn’t mean you can’t handle run-outs far better than most trad climbers ever could. And if you’re an aid climber—well … maybe you should just give up because aid climbing sucks (just kidding sort of!).

The point is, we’re all better, stronger, braver and more experienced than someone else, yet we could all still learn how to be better, stronger, braver and more experienced than we are currently. Fortunately, if we’re dedicated and we love climbing and we’re humble and open to new experiences—i.e., if we’re not assholes—climbing will never stop providing us the opportunity to strive to become the type of climber we want to be.

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Last weekend, I met a guy who climbs V11 in the gym, but he couldn’t get up a relatively straight-forward 5.11 warm-up at Rifle.

“V11 and 5.11 are equally as hard,” he said, fully humbled after lowering down two bolts below the anchor. He was clearly strong but it only took one trip outdoors for him to realize that he doesn’t know jack shit about how to climb.  Classic fucking gym noob, right?

But you know what? As long as he’s cool about it and willing to learn—in other words, as long as he’s not an asshole—he’s OK in my book.

  • Mark Reeves

    Love it. Really good rant as ever!

  • Eric O’Rafferty

    Superb… one of your best. Thank you for so eloquently and intelligently articulating what has been running around in my mind for a long time.

  • Pete Ward

    I didn’t like the article in question for another reason: I was quoted without knowing I was speaking to the media. That alone frustrated me and made me comfortable ignoring the first backlash I heard against this article.

    That said, this critique goes too far. Comparing Noble’s thesis that “We’re all climbers, and we’re all equally responsible, both for the problems and the solutions.”, to open racism is a monster leap that is vastly unfair to Noble. Conviction by word replacement? Rugged standard for journalism amigo.

    Is this sentiment (Also from Noble’s piece) really so far off from your point? “Some people think the problem is young climbers,” says Robinson. “But that’s not the case. There are bad actors from all eras. My own generation provided its share of damage, but there were fewer of us, and we were more isolated. Today, participant numbers are increasing rapidly, and so are the negative impacts—so we all need to clean up our acts.”

    This is a massively complicated issue with positive effects on our community and challenges that we’re going to have to overcome as well. The success of the climbing gym as a business concept is the defining change in climbing for our time, perhaps for all-time. It deserves a thoughtful and nuanced debate from the best minds in our media.

    Does Noble rely a bit too much on trite, un-proveable anecdotes? Surely he does. But if Noble’s point is “Let’s educate a generation of Mentors who can help people learn better at the source” – What would your reaction be simply to that point? Is that a good idea? Bad idea? Is there a better idea that might work? “Don’t be an asshole” is a great headline, but it doesn’t make for very actionable policy if you’re in the Access Fund’s shoes.

    • These are great points, thanks Pete! I agree with you, and as I said up front, we probably would all agree with the over-arching point: I bet most climbers will recognize some of the shittier behaviors Noble describes, from basic ethical boners to inexcusable environmental degradation. I also bet that most climbers will agree that those situations could be prevented with a better-informed climbing populous via stronger role models or “mentors.”

    • I also took that race line out which was meant to be over-the-top, but perhaps didn’t come across as funny and obviously too hyperbolic to be taken seriously as I had thought it might. Thanks for keeping me in bounds

  • Brian Payst

    I agree with Pete, you did go a little over the top here and nice call on removing the race comparison. You still have a little unnecessary snark in the “completely obsolete magazine”, all climbing commentary doesn’t have to be on a blog to be valid. Not defending Climbing magazine, just don’t think you need that in there to make your point, which is a very good one.

    Full disclosure, I do know Chris and am quoted in the article. I think he says some good things and don’t think he was trying to say gym climbers are the problem. I think we can all agree that gyms have accelerated things that already happened in climbing. The unique aspects of gyms for me are the false sense of competency (I climb 5.11! This is easy) and the perception that outdoor safety should be equal to gym safety (where are the permadraws on this?). Combined with the volume of people that gyms are cranking into the sport these days, there are going to be issues associated with that.

    For me, it’s more about the speed at which the change is occurring and I think land managers are likely to react to the increased use of the resources and to how the cliffs and boulders are being used. Hopefully we can self police ourselves and weed out the assholes before land managers do it for us.

  • Trent Goldston

    Well done

  • Jan Vidar Øyen

    i think you have some good points. and a nice retoric, but you keep repeating your points down the text. witch makes it tiduous and boring to read. maybe you should aim to cut some of the shit and stick to your good points.

  • Lonnie

    I really enjoyed reading this.

    I myself am primarily climbing in a gym. The gym at my university to be precise. My first introduction to this sport was at a gym as well, where I quickly fell in love with the challenge and the nature of it. I have climbed multi pitch once, and it was some of the best fun I’ve had! I can’t wait to buy more gear and learn more about sport and trad climbing. I enjoy this sport a lot, and I like the community. And I am eager to become a bigger part of it.

    • Have fun with that learning curve, Lonnie! It’s a great time to learn to become a rock climber

  • KW

    Who’s the incredibly hot climber chick in the first photo?

  • Jonathan P Williams

    Yuji deserves credit for being ahead of Ethan on the almost-but-not quite-on sighting-so-still-just-redpointing-El-Cap list, almost a decade ago. The old Alpinist piece on his attempts is still an excellent article.

    • One of my favorite articles of all time! Probably the best issue of Alpinist too

  • Peter Beal

    psuedo-intellectual is spelled pseudo-intellectual. thought you should know :)

  • Peter Beal

    come on, at least fix the spelling error!

  • Mtneer

    Whatever. As long as we agree that snowboarders don’t belong on the slopes, I’m okay with your rant. Gym climbers and Everest climbers are really the same after all.

  • Peter Beal

    populous? you wanted populace, didn’t you?

    • thanks, buddy

      • Peter Beal

        you are welcome. no more typo comments, I promise.

        • Diane French

          Wait, though… before we end the typo comments (and because I can’t resist): Andrew, didn’t you mean the hot girl lived in Hungary, not Hungry? Or was that more Freudian slip than typo? :)

          Thanks for the smart, funny read.

          • Ha! :) So, I’m either a bad speller, ignorant about geographical locations, or I have a voracious hunger for voluptuous bosoms hidden somewhere deep (maybe not that deep) in my subconscious. Great, just great …

            Well … Probably all three are partly true.

            Thanks for reading, Diane!

  • Thank you Eric! Very generous … thanks for reading

  • Eric Wieand

    This was a great read! Very well written. I will admit I have fallen under many of the categories described in your article. I’ve been the gym noob, the outdoor lead noob who takes 15 min to clean a route, and now that I’ve got some experience under my belt I’ve caught myself hating on the noobs that I used to be like(and still am with regards to some aspects of the sport). It’s a vicious circle and instead of making fun of people knew to the sport, we need to be educating them in a helpful, encouraging manor.

  • Ryan

    Gym climbing and outdoor climbing don’t need to be so strictly compared. Its arguable that they aren’t exactly the same sport. Additionally, I would consider its the urban environment that many gym climbers are sourced from. If Usain Bolt tried to draw track lines on a 100 mile trail run, it wouldn’t be out of place to give him a gawf for a lack of common sense. Maybe gym people aren’t the sole problem, but cutting down the aholes in a gym would cut out a huge portion of the offensive entitlement seen from urbanites in the bush. I know plenty of intelligent and creative gym climbers. I don’t feel obligated to nurture a gymmie without a brain.

  • Each to his/her own. God forgive us if all gym climbers suddenly appeared at the crag overnight. It could be hell out there! Stanage on a busy Sunday is bad enough.

  • mike

    I quite honestly got bored of reading this article. Bias. Rude. Insulting. Also an insult to my backside, to sit here reading drivel.

    Poor journalism.

  • mike

    What good points? The man is a bigoted, arrogant, purist asshole.

    The article portrayed him, to be exactly that which he so frequently points others out to be.

    Granted, I didn’t end up reading the entire article. Because his writing is diabolical.

  • Jack Hamm

    I really loved this article. I’m a gym climber moved trad and I just think climbing is the best thing I’ve done with my life. I also love aid climbing, not even to do walls, but just as an independent activity – I must be sick 😉

  • Bryce Funk

    I wish my footwork was flawless and glorious as your writing. Always a pleasure to read!

  • Stuart Connell

    I was a Joint Services Expedition Leader, winter and summer, Alpine ya ya and so forth, loved all of it, walk in, walk out cultures around the world and the people but that was the 80’s to 90s, been around the world but these days its all about who has the biggest dick (females included) and who has the most trendy expensive kit. Get a life and get real, enjoy the rocks you are on as they will be there a lot longer than your hubris.