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It's On Us

It's On Us

Words by Mackenzie Berg

Art by Jen Sturm

An annual survey conducted by the Outdoor Foundation estimated that in 2015 more than 4,684,000 people participated in some form of indoor or outdoor climbing. In the same year, the US commercial indoor climbing market saw 10% growth over the previous twelve months. From mainstream news coverage of the Dawn Wall, to climbers gearing up to compete for the gold in the 2020 Olympics, we are seeing and feeling great shifts within the community. What used to be an under-the-radar pursuit with origins akin to that of surfing in the 1950s, it is no longer unheard of for someone to be a climber, yet never set foot on real rock.

With this influx, we’re starting to see more injuries and examples of ignorance arise, involving anything from incorrect understandings of basic belay skills to advanced safety topics. We are also seeing increased impact and abuse towards the environment. Once upon a time, “the mythology of climbing was that it was a dangerous sport that you risk your life doing,” reflects Chris Kalous in an interview with Terra Incognita last July. “The other thing,” Kalous continues, “was that it was solely an outdoor activity. You were becoming a climber because you were already an outdoorsy person. So, most of the climbers brought the background from camping and backpacking. So, you brought that ethic with you, to be careful with the environment and not be messy, and everything else.”

Now it’s not solely an outdoor activity and the concern is that the people coming from indoors might not necessarily have this outdoor-initiated background. The passion for protecting the wild spaces, and for upholding the unspoken community values, may not be ingrained.  “You don’t have to sort of pay your dues in a sense to get into climbing the way you did then back then,” Kalous says of climbing in the eighties. He also points out that we are one of the only outdoor sports that has an indoor version, so this makes for a sometimes hazardous outcome when people want to go outside. The two expressions of climbing may look the same, but they are not.

It is up to the “initiated,” to teach the “uninitiated” new climbers about the unofficial rules and norms of the community. Leave No Trace (LNT) principles and localized knowledge about specific crag ethics need to be imparted. In the upcoming year, we’re poised to face more opposition than we’ve seen in a long time from special interest groups that want to open up national parks, forest and BLM land to oil and mineral drilling. As a special interest group ourselves, we have both the power and the responsibility to act in order to protect these resources for reasons that reach far beyond climbing.  And as for all those new climbers, we could use their help.

By shifting the way we function as individuals, we hold the power to influence, educate, and guide new climbers to be stewards of the land, and get involved as compassionate community members. At the 2016 NW Sustainable Climbing Conference in Portland, Oregon, a diverse group of representatives from the climbing industry addressed an important question: Where do we fall short as activists, advocates, and stewards of the places we love?

While the gyms offer basic belay and lead climbing lessons, they also hold greater responsibility to ensure that new climbers are better equipped. What is learned and accepted in the gym undoubtedly carries over to attitudes and accountability at outdoor crags. Beyond the dangerous safety errors that often take place (e.g. letting go of the brake hand, inattention while belaying that results in a lead climber decking, or using a Gri-Gri upside down), there is sometimes a palpable lack of respect, or togetherness, in the atmosphere, particularly when the gym is packed to the hilt on a busy evening.

One helpful initiative that aims to promote stewardship and positive community behavior is the Access Fund's, ROCK Project. The Access Fund has teamed up with Black Diamond, the founding partner and sponsor of the program. ROCK stands for Responsible Outdoor Climbing Knowledge and The PACT was part of the initial outreach phase of the program. Travis Herbert, the Education Director of the ROCK Project, is currently working on the next phase.

While the ROCK project is a great vehicle for influencing positive behavior, it alone cannot address the problem. Gyms should take more ownership in their role as stewards of their region by working to incorporate more information about local crag history, ethics, and safety considerations into entry-level climbing classes or events. Gear companies and outdoor brands can also follow Black Diamond’s lead and do more to encourage responsible use of climbing spaces, in conjunction with efforts by the Access Fund to keep these crags open to the public.

But it’s on us, too

On the whole, climbers tend to believe they are an inclusive, diverse community. Often climbers say, “climbing is the most inclusive sport there is.” We make connections with strangers, and trust our lives to them. However, when faced with an interaction that involves conflict or criticism we sometimes lack humility and grace. 

As Katherine Hollis of the Seattle-based Mountaineers pointed out at the conference, the majority of us don’t really like having those difficult conversations. The social norm among climbers is more often to avoid the responsibility of calling each other on our mistakes—especially when that person is a stranger. If someone is playing loud music at a crag or being obnoxious, “we say, let’s just go climb over here,” Hollis says. We tend to steer away from the problem and away from the chance to engage and educate each other.

Often, these moments are ripe with potential to enlighten a fellow climber on a Leave No Trace principle, or a particular ethic that’s honored at this specific crag, or even more critical, a safety issue. This is where the norms need to evolve. These teachable moments aren’t just a chance to alter one person’s behavior, they represent a brick in the foundation of a better community culture that we can, and should be seeking to build.

That rings especially true when we’re talking about the influx of new climbers. Today, much of the climbing world is instantly consumable through visual click-bait, and increasingly this fails to include the historical and cultural contexts that ground what we do in a sense of purpose and place. Unless the writer of an Instagram post takes it upon themselves to incorporate this context into what they are showcasing, those elements of history and progress leading up to that moment (when a route is sent, e.g.) fail to be passed on in the social narrative. 

The relationships and engagements happening within the climbing community have the potential to reinforce and shift ideas and behaviors. Climbers can mentor each other, through oral histories and role modeling. Often climbers enjoy taking new climber friends on their first experience outside, and celebrate their achievements no matter what grade they send. We tell tales around the campfire about misadventures or objectives that haunt us. We trade names of heroes and favorite routes and secret crags like currency. We share tips on better and safer ways to use gear. We bring each other into the fold, and take a sense of pride in handing down this knowledge to the next person because we see that flame in their eyes and recognize it as our own.

These mentorships require a time investment. They are a gift, and for those of us that offer it, we do so because we honor that lineal element of climbing and strive to retain it. Not enough new climbers are getting exposure to those relationships and teachable moments. At the same time, we are seeing a rise of preventable injuries, environmental damage at crags, and overall unconscientious behavior at shared climbing spaces (e.g., top-roping through an anchor, chalk messes, ill-suited pets, loud music)—an obvious lack in ongoing education and mentorship.

Because we are the “initiated,” we need to be willing to give that gift of time and engagement if we hope to preserve the spaces we love. It’s on all of us to recognize the shortcomings we currently maintain within the social norms of the climbing world, and change them. We have the power to ensure that climbers, new and old, understand the importance of ethics and stewardship. Investing our time in teachable moments and difficult conversations will benefit us all. As Hollis repeated several times throughout her presentation, we need to be upstanders, not bystanders.

About the artist:


Jen is a Portland based artist and photographer with a passion for nature, climbing, dirtbag travel and all things outdoors. Her work is an ongoing, attempted love letter to mother nature. Jen's art draws inspiration from two major themes. The vast, ever changing landscapes that, collectively, make us feel infinite; and the small, often overlooked details of insects, flora and fauna.  

More of Jen's work can be found at Ourea Studios (@oureastudios) on Instagram with a website forthcoming this fall where prints and original work can be purchased.

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