Like some liberal arts grads, I don’t technically use my degree in my so-called career. I have a BA in politics, but I’m a writer, dammit, and I write about rock climbing. I spend my days making to-do lists, drinking way too much coffee, and procrastinating doing any kind of meaningful work by hang-boarding and making loaves of sourdough bread. The good days are the ones in which I manage to stay off Twitter for an hour or two to punch out few hundred shitty, inadequate words.
Over the years that I’ve been penning climbing commentary, anytime I’ve drifted down a political tangent, inevitably the first comment my story receives is:
PLEASE JUST STICK TO CLIMBING, NOT POLITICS!
(All caps, all the time, of course.)
I get that sometimes you just want to enjoy your climbing media the way you’d enjoy a romantic dip in a natural hot spring, and that bringing up politics can be akin to finding a turd floating in your pool.
Unfortunately, life isn’t turd-free and the turds certainly aren’t cleaning up after themselves.
Only the privileged have the luxury of not considering the political aspects of a discussion, any discussion, even about climbing. Politics are responsible for the roads you drive to reach the crags you enjoy. Politics are responsible for protecting the parks and public lands you visit for climbing. Politics are responsible for the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the freedoms you enjoy that allow you to while away months of your life in the frivolous pursuit of ticking routes.
Now, with a government that is actively working to dismantle all environmental protections, reduce access to our public lands, exploit natural resources with virtually all of the spoils going to an entrenched aristocratic class of families and monopolies hell-bent on turning our democracy into an oligarchy, and reduce the freedoms of those who have less privilege, wealth, and are of a different (non-white) heritage, talking about politics in climbing is, in some ways, all we should be talking about.
It has been encouraging to see many companies in the Outdoor Industry begin to slowly, tepidly wade into the proverbial turd-filled morass and begin to flex their political might on important environmental issues.
The most notable example of our industry getting political was when the Outdoor Industry Association pulled its bi-annual trade show (and $45 million in direct annual spending) out of Salt Lake City over Utah’s Republican-led government’s opposition to the newly minted Bear Ear’s National Monument, an Obama declaration in the waning days of his administration.
This past week, both Patagonia and The North Face also entered the political discussion.
The North Face launched a campaign titled “Walls are Meant for Climbing,” which is clearly, though not explicitly, a reference to Donald Trump’s campaign promise to build a “magnificent” wall along the U.S.-Mexico border that Mexico would pay for—except for the fact that Trump has stated this week that if Congress can’t figure out a way to secure the funds from tax payers for this $20+ billion racist monument, then he would shut the government down.
The press release for the TNF initiative states that the “campaign aims to spark conversation about building trust and community around—and beyond—climbing walls.” TNF is making a $1M donation to The Trust for Public Land to support public climbing walls in more communities, with a focus on underserved areas and making the sport more accessible to all.
Also this week, Patagonia, in a $700K ad buy, released a new radio and television ad that targets Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who is currently reviewing all national monuments to determine whether parcels of these publicly-owned and protected properties ought to remain publicly-owned and protected or if they would, in fact, be better utilized by private interests.
Today, he announced that several of these monuments do indeed need to be downsized, though what that means is currently unclear.
Patagonia, of course, is no stranger to getting political thanks to its founder Yvon Chouinard, who really pioneered a business model that proved that a company can be socially and environmentally responsible—and profitable.
As I wrote earlier this year, as most celebrated the Bear’s Ears designation, “If you think that Bear Ears, or our oceans, or any of our National Parks are ‘forever protected,’ it’s time to think again. These are all just proclamations on pieces of paper. They mean nothing. The real power is found in our collective vigilance. This is a responsibility we can’t ignore. It’s time to get motivated and carve off a little bit of that legendary climber stoke that we all have, and dedicate to fighting battles in a never-ending war.”
Let it be said: the opinion that a piece of climbing commentary should be entirely apolitical is a weak and indefensible argument reserved for chuckleheads wishing to drift through life easily, comfortably, and without being reminded that their silence, inaction, and willful blindness is a form of laziness (at best) and irresponsibility that inevitably empowers the forces antithetical to their existences in the long term.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
It’s good to see companies in the outdoor industry bringing politics to the forefront. It’s also good to see climbers like Alex Honnold not shy away from taking firm positions on important issues. I hope that everyone goes even further. After all, saying that we should try to keep lands public, and the environment clean are softball positions to take. It’s like saying “racism, in general, is bad” in the aftermath of Charlottesville without assigning blame to the true oppressors. Strong language gets “political,” but strong language is sorely needed. Selling “Walls are Meant for Climbing” t-shirts and totes are totally fine, but it dances around an issue in order to not be too offensive. To not get too political.
Not getting political is a luxury I believe we no longer can afford—not the climbing industry (public lands), not the skiing industry (climate change), not the kayaking industry (clean protected waters).
I’m encouraged by what I already see taking place, and I hope to see companies and star athletes who are willing to the voices of strong, political messages continue to speak up, and receive our strong support in return.