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.
[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.
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.
The 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.
[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?
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?
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 nice to other people.
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.
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 8a.nu, 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.)
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.
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.