Before I started rock climbing my impression of the sport was that it was reserved for privileged, adventuristic, thrill-seeking white people. Since then my feelings have changed: I no longer think it’s reserved for them. With the proliferation of climbing gyms, rock climbing has propelled itself from counterculture to part of the mainstream. Nowadays people from all sorts of backgrounds can be found clinging to walls in gyms and outdoors.
Different people have different motivations for participating in such a high stakes hobby. In the short four years since I was introduced to rock climbing I have broken an ankle and torn all the ligaments surrounding it, repeatedly torn pulleys in my fingers, and injured my shoulders and back. On several occasions I’ve asked myself, “why am I doing this?” I don’t like adrenaline. I’m not a thrill seeker. I don’t like risk. Yet, I keep coming back to a sport that often terrifies me and leaves me in a state of semi-chronic injury. Although I am still new to the sport, my love for climbing is borderline obsessive and, even at this early stage of my development as a climber, I am certain that rock climbing will be a central part of my routine for as long as I remain able-bodied. However, when I think about the first time I went rock climbing, I knew it wasn’t for me.
Life Before Climbing
“Climbing may be hard, but it’s easier than growing up.” – Ed Sklar
Depression severely stunted my growth and still feel like I’m playing catch up. I spent a large portion of my adolescence and early-twenties as a depressed loner and surfer. Surfing was my therapy and I spent a lot of time surfing. The ocean represented cleansing and healing to me. It was the only context where it felt okay to be alone, but unfortunately I was always alone. In my mid-twenties I fled the conservative suburbs of South California for the center of the universe, New York City.
In New York City, I was slowly able to reinvent myself into who I wanted to be while leaving behind the drama/trauma of my childhood and adolescence. Living in the most densely packed, and culturally and ethnically diverse city in the country allowed me the opportunity to find folks that shared my values, ethics and background. In California I felt alienated in every space I stepped into. In NYC I felt like an alien among aliens. However, I also picked up a bad habit. I fell heavily into the after hours drinking culture of young professionals in the city. So when my friends invited me to the climbing gym for the first time I was out-of-shape and borderline alcoholic. Embarrassingly, I only agreed to show up because I was promised free booze. Climbing was definitely not for me.
I didn’t clean up my act until after I met my partner, Natalee. When I met her I was always getting sick. I went to my doctor for a check up and he told me I held the clinic’s record for lowest levels of vitamin D (and some other essential micronutrients I don’t remember the names of anymore). On top of that, I had to be reinoculated for all the viruses I lost my immunity to as a result of my unhealthy lifestyle. My doctor put me on a diet of supplements and weekly emergency booster shots.
As a result of my bad bill of health, Natalee and I decided to break from our usual bar hopping routine for a trip on the Long Island Railroad to Montauk. Once there, our plan was to rent some bikes for a light eleven mile round-trip ride to the Montauk lighthouse. That light ride felt like the challenge of my life. To me those eleven miles might as well have been a hundred. With great effort and frequent cigarette breaks I made the miles, barely. However, my performance was nothing to feel proud of. That bike ride sparked the realization that I was ready for the next stage in my development.
After I decided to get healthy, I obsessively researched everything about healthy living. I dropped booze and cigarettes, and embarked on a strict regimen of exercise and healthy eating. Rather than hitting the bar, after work I was finding something active to do. I took classes in martial arts, gymnastics, and parkour. I replaced my old hobbies (namely: drinking and smoking) with weightlifting, cycling, trekking and powerlifting. Around this time I also rediscovered rock climbing. However, this time around I was equipped with clean lungs and the ability to execute a pull up.
Climbing is love
“Climbing is not a spectator sport.” – Mark Wellman
Having been an introvert with low self-esteem most of my life, I generally don’t like attention whether good or bad. However, climbing (specifically bouldering since the problems are shorter and therefore more easily visible from the ground) is a sport where observing the movements of other climbers is integral to the activity. You carefully analyze other climbers’ movements, their beta, to give you hints on how to solve the problem using your specific strengths and body geometry. Normally, this type of close attention would be enough to give me an anxiety attack thereby destroying my performance. However, in the context of climbing, having an audience oddly has the opposite effect.
The culture of climbing is very different from any other sport I know. First, climbing is a cooperative activity (read: not competitive). The objective of rock climbing is simple: get to the top of the rock. Ideally you want to do this safely, with precision and a splash of grace. The unusual thing about rock climbing though is that other climbers offer active support to help you “send the problem” or get to the top.
They shout encouragement: “You got this!”, “Don’t give up!”, “Come on, Go!”
They give you beta: “There’s a chip near your left knee you can use.”, “Why don’t you try a heel hook and then reach with your right hand?”
They keep you safe by spotting you. They adjust crash pads to predict where you might fall as you move along the rock. They can break/adjust your fall by using their hands to catch your shoulders on overhanging routes or any routes where you have a high potential of landing head first.
And in the worst case, you rely on other climbers to get you out of the wilderness and in the hands of emergency care doctors.
Additionally, even for shy introverts like me, bouldering gyms are easy spaces to make friends. Bouldering is a form of rock climbing performed on small rock formations without the use of ropes or harnesses. In bouldering, routes (or problems) are color coded, varying by difficulty (grades), and climbers use a sequence of movements (beta) to solve the problem and get to the top. I think of bouldering problems as three-dimensional puzzles that you solve with your body. Bouldering gyms facilitate community building because everyone is laboring to solve the same puzzles and it’s more fun to solve them together.
In the context of lead, sport, or trad climbing (variations of climbing big walls with the assistance of ropes, harnesses and anchors), your life is literally in your climbing partner’s hands. You must have complete trust that your partner will hold the rope to stop you from falling. Putting that kind of trust into someone’s hand, or having someone trust you in this way, inevitably strengthens friendships.
Climbing is non-violent
“Most sports require only one ball.” – Unknown
Unlike other competitive sports, a climber isn’t concerned with slamming a ball into a net while dangling their balls in their opponents face. They aren’t in the locker room psyching themselves up to murder the competition. In the context of competition (like a bouldering or lead climbing competition), climbers are kept in isolation to focus on their own climbing performance. Of course they want to win, but unlike other sports where competitors are in direct opposition with one another, climbing is a dance done solo. Even in a sport perceived to be cooperative and easy-going like surfing, violence is not uncommon. Try searching “violence among surfers” on google. Then search “violence among rock climbers”. The problem with surfing is that in order to surf a surfer needs to catch a wave. It may sound obvious but the issue is that the ocean is not a wave machine. There are a limited number of good waves in a given set which means that surfers must be in the right position at the right time to catch the wave. To complicate matters further, the best breaks are usually the most crowded. Therefore, in order to surf a surfer needs to beat other surfers. Strategies have emerged to make this easier, namely localism, where territorial surfers become possessive of “their” turf and block non-locals from surfing there. At certain breaks, territorial locals target outsiders by harassing them, “snaking” (or stealing) waves, or much worse.
In the early 2000s when I was still a grom (teenage surfer) surfing breaks in South California, I learned quickly which beaches to stay away from. If I saw graffitti with phrases like “locals only”, or swastikas, especially swastikas, I knew to stay away. At that time, localism paired well with white supremacy so being the only POC surfer at any break was extremely alienating and sometimes scary. I’ve been harassed, assaulted with racial slurs more times than I care to remember, snaked, and threatened with violence (which could have easily escalated but I always walked or paddled away).
On the other hand, rocks aren’t going anywhere. Sure, there may be a wait on a crowded classic route but generally climbers can just move on to another route. In the case of a crowded boulder, climbers read beta, encourage each other, and rest sore fingers while they wait for their turn to climb. It’s an active rest. In surfing you’re just shivering on your board, twiddling your thumbs, waiting for the next good wave to roll by.
Climbing doesn’t discriminate
“Rocks make no compromise for sex… rock climbing is not like some sports, where it is made easier for women; or sports like, say, softball, which is only baseball for soft people. On a rock, everything is equal.” – Beverly Johnson
Another quality unique to rock climbing is that regardless of your body geometry or sex, the game doesn’t change–the holds are set in stone. Yes, taller folks will have an advantage on certain routes but shorter folks will have an easier time on others. There are problems for everyone. For Natalee and I, rock climbing is equalizing. She’ll be better on some routes and I’ll be better on others but we’ll both benefit from climbing together. Additionally, nowadays there seems to be a nearly even distribution of female to male climbers at most climbing gyms. So, Natalee doesn’t have to worry about a bunch of creepy gym bros staring at her butt while she climbs.
In terms of racial diversity, there really isn’t much. Unfortunately, it’s still a white dominated activity but that’s slowly changing. Hopefully with the growing representation of young and talented climbers of color (like Kai Lightner and Ashima Shiraishi), more folks of color will be inspired to climb. As for me, racism may have played a factor in driving me out of the water but it won’t push me off the rock–my grip strength is too strong. However, to make things a bit easier on myself, I choose my local bouldering gym to be one with a high concentration of climbers of color and Black ownership. I absolutely love my gym.
Climbing is environmentally conscious
Why I climb
“Anything I’ve ever done that ultimately was worthwhile initially scared me to death.” – Anonymous
I climb because I love the movement. I love the physicality. I love solving hard problems using only my body as a tool. I love the singular focus of the act. I love the camaraderie. I love the culture. When I climb, my only competition is myself. It’s the perfect sport for people who don’t like sports. When I climb, my only concern is what I am doing in the moment. The only requirement is that I believe in myself.
As rock climbing becomes more commercial, it’s possible the culture will also experience a shift. Many gyms are springing up where the vibe feels more like that of a big box gym like LA fitness, New York Sports Club or 24 Hour Fitness. At those gyms, members are clients. They aren’t part of a community. They are there to get their work out in, tune out with earbuds plugged in, and take instagram selfies in the mirror. However, rock climbing existed long before rock climbing competitions and commercial gyms. The culture is shaped by the danger inherent in the act, love of the outdoors and the camaraderie of the participants. It’s our responsibility as climbers to keep the culture positive, supportive, cooperative, and communal.