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.

Share
  • jenni

    STICK TO …. wait no this is great. :)

  • Brian Payst

    Hell yes. Well said. Climbers, bikers, hikers, birders, boaters, recreationalists of all sorts need to get engaged and stay engaged in what is going on regardless of the administration. Given, this one requires extra vigilance, but to think that the places and the activities we love can be separated from the policies and people that surround them is like ignoring the rumbling sound and those dark clouds just over the crest.

  • ‘Please stick to ____ (insert your activity)’ is the same shortsighted, stupid nonsense spouted by the people who say ‘I’m socially liberal, but fiscally conservative’

    • Wes

      You can be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. How is allowing gay marriage going against not spending vast amounts on wars or pork belly spending?

  • Melise

    Thank you for writing this.

  • Tim Kuss

    As usual, I agree! Thanks

  • Nick

    If you are not angry, you’re not paying attention. I find myself saying this a lot more often as of lately.

  • sid fishes

    Did you vote? How many people reading this voted? If the outdoor brands put that money into getting the vote out then it might make a difference. As long as as liberals dont bother to vote, all this noise is just wasted effort.

    • Not A Bear

      I voted, but I wasn’t happy about it.

      The fundamental issue is that I’m not a “liberal”. Most Americans aren’t. Most Americans aren’t “conservatives”, either. Most are somewhere in the middle, with a mix of political opinions from both sides of the spectrum. I would say that mostly, Americans are individualists, and don’t like being lumped into particular categories or joining large groups.

      I voted D in the last election because I found their candidates, policies, and track record to be the least bad, based on my values. That doesn’t change the fact that I didn’t like any of my choices. Why don’t more people vote for the liberals? Because they figure it’s not worth the effort to vote for the lesser of two evils (or else they think the Republicans hold that position). Just imagine if there was a box at the bottom of the ballot that said “None of the above. I don’t want any of these people in office” – how many people would check that?

      “So”, you might say, “the issue is that the liberals need to choose better candidates if they want to win?” NO! The problem is that the Democratic party is already trying its damnedest to win, and it has found a winning strategy in proposing crappy candidates and then pointing out how terrible the other side is (which is the same thing the Republicans are doing as well). The issue is that we have an increasingly autocratic political system that caters to the super-wealthy, special interest groups, and the political elite, rather than representing the interests of the people. Your own comment even spells it out – “we should pressure large, rich companies to do what we want, because *they’re the ones that actually have political power*”. We don’t need one side to gain a marginal victory so they can toss a few scraps to their supporters before continuing business as usual. We need fundamental, systemic changes to the way our democratic process works, so that we can have a government that actually does what the people want.

  • camperdude

    Well… that’s certainly the left wing way of looking at it.

  • camperdude

    It’s all very easy to claim how green we are when we ship all of our industry overseas and have all our natural resources extracted from somewhere else. That’s not being green. That’s just being rich.

  • Chris Desir

    I appreciate you writing this because I’m dying to have this conversation. In my experience, climbing spaces, and climbers as a community, are unbearably apolitical. I often walk into the climbing gym and I feel like I’m transported into an alternate reality where the things that take up most of my mental space in my day to day life are now invisible to everyone around me. It’s pretty disorienting and also disappointing. It’s disappointing because I don’t have the luxury of having a-political friendships. This makes it hard for me to truly connect with people who seem to want to shy away from the realities of my life or the issues in my communities, or worse, chastise me for bringing up something they deem to be to political for the lala land that is climbing.

    I remember feeling this especially acutely after the Charleston massacre. I was in shock all day. It was all anyone in my family or close circle of friends could talk about. I had to coach an adult climbing class that night and I didn’t hear a single person bring it up the entire time I was in the gym. There was a massacre of old church folk in the US an it didn’t seem to be on a single person’s mind. I imagine things would have been very different if it wasn’t a white supremacist massacring black people. Eventually, as the shock wore off and I started to actually feel myself responding to the massacre, I burst into tears. One of the people in the class asked me what was wrong and we talked for a minute about what had happened. That was the only time it came up while I was at the gym. I experience this to varying degrees every time I enter a gym or a climbing area.

    I have a question: Is your point that climbers, climbing companies and other outdoors people should enter into politics now because the Trump administration is threatening the things that allow them to do their recreational activities? If so, I think you’re missing your own point… That’s what I read in this, “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 love climbing. I am so grateful for it. It’s had a hugely positive impact on my life. However, protecting my access to outdoor boulders, for example, doesn’t even make my list of political priorities (although I’m really looking forward to a future in which it does).

    Also, who is the implied “we” here? I’ve never been able to afford to “not get political.” No one has, really, but some people are able to live out the fantasy of an a-political life more so than others. “We” as climbers have not all had this luxury. You might want to be more specific, and less presumptuous, about who constitutes the climbing “community” (which rarely, if ever, feels like a community for me) so as not to erase those of us who have always been confronted, often violently, by the political nature of our lives.

  • Chris Desir

    I appreciate you writing this because I’m dying to have this conversation. In my experience, climbing spaces, and climbers as a community, are unbearably apolitical. I often walk into the climbing gym and I feel like I’m transported into an alternate reality where the things that take up most of my mental space in my day to day life are now invisible to everyone around me. It’s pretty disorienting and also disappointing. It’s disappointing because I don’t have the luxury of having a-political friendships. This makes it hard for me to truly connect with people who seem to want to shy away from the realities of my life or the issues in my communities, or worse, chastise me for bringing up something they deem to be to political for the lala land that is climbing.
    I remember feeling this especially acutely after the Charleston massacre. I was in shock all day. It was all anyone in my family or close circle of friends could talk about. I had to coach an adult climbing class that night and I didn’t hear a single person bring it up the entire time I was in the gym. There was a massacre of old church folk in the US an it didn’t seem to be on a single person’s mind. I imagine things would have been very different if it wasn’t a white supremacist massacring black people. Eventually, as the shock wore off and I started to actually feel myself responding to the massacre, I burst into tears. One of the people in the class asked me what was wrong and we talked for a minute about what had happened. That was the only time it came up while I was at the gym. I experience this to varying degrees every time I enter a gym or a climbing area.
    I have a question: Is your point that climbers, climbing companies and other outdoors people should enter into politics now because the Trump administration is threatening the things that allow them to do their recreational activities? If so, I think you’re missing your own point… That’s what I read in this, “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 love climbing. I am so grateful for it. It’s had a hugely positive impact on my life. However, protecting my access to outdoor boulders, for example, doesn’t even make my list of political priorities (although I’m really looking forward to a future in which it does).
    Also, who is the implied “we” here? I’ve never been able to afford to “not get political.” No one has, really, but some people are able to live out the fantasy of an a-political life more so than others. “We” as climbers have not all had this luxury. You might want to be more specific, and less presumptuous, about who constitutes the climbing “community” (which rarely, if ever, feels like a community for me) so as not to erase those of us who have always been confronted, often violently, by the political nature of our lives.

    • Not A Bear

      This is funny, because I’ve never had an issue discussing politics among climbers. Maybe this is a regional thing, but in the climbing communities I’ve been in, everyone was fairly politically open-minded, and I’ve found a diverse range of political opinions among my friends. Political discussions are actually some of my favorite to have with my climbing friends, since it gives me a lot of insight into how they think and what their worldview is, and it can often delve into the even more interesting topics of epistemology and ethics.

      So yeah, in my experience people are quite happy to talk about politics. I think what people who say “I don’t like talking about politics” actually mean is “I don’t like destroying my friendships over something which I cannot change and which will not affect my life in any meaningful way”. The key here is that, in order to have an enjoyable political conversation, you need to be dispassionate, curious, and respectful. Unfortunately, this is the opposite of how most people approach politics, which is much more tribal in nature. If you discuss politics tribally, it turns and interesting and enjoyable discussion into an angry fight, and if there are more than two people involved, they will be pressured to pick a side. The issue is that people who are “political” have often already chosen their side, and their main objective (conscious or unconscious) in any political conversation is to (a) defeat the other side, and (b) rallying people to agree with them.

      I could see these two objectives rubbing climbers in particular the wrong way because of the particular culture that climbing has as well. For one thing, climbing has a long history of being – in general – a pretty open community – just keep showing up with a rope and have some stoke and you’ll be accepted, even if you’re a drunk or a lunatic or a communist. So if you start espousing strong political views, people aren’t going to be extremely excited to agree and start shaming people with “bad” political views. Someone with strong political views, I would hope, would still be happily accepted – but their political views would likely be disregarded as just some strange personality quirk, like how Tammy likes to mix peanut butter into her mac and cheese. For another thing, climbing seems to attract individualists. Climbers, in general, don’t like other people telling them what to do. So someone walking into the gym and spouting prefabricated political opinions, hoping to find some groupthink, is going to run into the impenetrable wall of “DON’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!”

      Of course, I’m not suggesting you are particularly tribalist, but this sort of behavior by a larger population might be why many climbers might ostensibly be “uninterested in politics”.

      Re: 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)

      This is appealing to the obviously common self interest that we have here. People are far more likely to take action when their own self interest is at stake. Since this is a climbing blog, you can make the assumption that everyone here likes climbing, but you can’t assume much else. Whether the reader will be globalist or protectionist, in favor or opposed to increased government regulation of industry, etc, is unknown. So appealing to the common denominator is likely to draw the most agreement, and thus, aggregate action. If we stray too much here, we risk alienating a large number of people from our cause.