Expanding the Tribe

Categories: Perspectives , Community

By Jeff Achey

Climbers have called themselves a tribe for as long as I can remember. It sounds good — soulful and close to the earth. We are wild and free, a little lighter, faster, stronger than the masses. Around the campfire, with the day’s adventures behind us, we share personal bonds few mortals know who are not part of the tribe.

The rock climbing lifestyle
Photo: Courtesy of © Craig Muderlak

And, in part, that’s all true. But along with the friendly welcomes and invitations, and the common language of sharing beta, our feelings come with some unexamined baggage. We consider ourselves exceptional. We fear invasion. We are hostile toward agents of change.

Consider our history, how we’ve treated members of our own tribe. Pure rock climbers who lacked aspirations to climb high peaks used to be treated as outsiders among the true tribe of mountaineers. Sport climbers got a similar treatment when they appeared on the rock-climbing scene. Today, it’s gym climbers.

Forget that Chris Sharma and Alex Honnold are “gym climbers” — gyms are our biggest source of problems, according to many. Gym climbers are too urban, dress funny, and are clueless about the outdoors.

More likely, the real problem is boulderers. They’re as urban as gym climbers and don’t even own climbing ropes. What kind of climber doesn’t clip chains? And what’s with those mattresses? Back in the day, the tribe never carried those things.

Okay, and how about all those dogs? Back when climbers actually got off the ground more than 100 feet, no one brought dogs to the crag. Having a dog was a sign of conformity, like wearing a tie, washing your car, or spending Thanksgiving with your family instead of in the desert. No real climber should have a dog.

Actually, come to think of it, it’s the Sprinter vans that are ruining climbing. Those things are cushier than my old apartment. They hog all the crag parking and make climbers soft. Sprinter climbers are soft. It’s not a real road trip if you’re traveling in one of those mobile hotels. Sprinter vans will destroy climbing.

And so on. Who doesn’t talk and think like this sometimes? It’s entertaining and makes us feel just a little bit better about ourselves.

But it’s bullshit. It’s all too easy to blame this, that, or the other thing for the disappearance of our fantasy Golden Age, which in fact never existed. Climbing is growing and changing, like it always has. Climbing is on the public radar right now, for sure, and it’s time to appreciate what’s going on, even if that’s a little less entertaining and harder on our egos.

Mainstream media coverage has been gradually building. In 2014, we had the film Valley Uprising, which got passionate and mixed reviews among climbers and significant play among general audiences. Then there was the Dawn Wall. By the time coverage peaked, many climbers were in an altered state, and many were upset. Dark-horse champions were hurt by how many other worthy achievements disappeared in the Dawn Wall’s glaring light. Purists were offended, once again, by the commercial exploitation of climbing. The story blew up so big that even President Obama sent his congratulations.

But here’s what you might not know: At a time when Yosemite National Park was reviewing its Wilderness policies, a little Presidential love for climbers went a long way. In the not too distant past, our relationship with the Feds was far less friendly. Access Fund sued the federal government (twice!) over public land managers banning climbing on public lands. Back then, policy makers didn’t understand climbing, and climbers were fighting just to get a seat at the table in decisions about our public lands.

And today? We may still argue and discuss, but climbers are at the table—visible, respected, and at least somewhat understood.

Still psyched on Tommy and Kevin’s Dawn Wall feat, the White House allowed a group of pro climbers to take over its Instagram feed to promote the 100th anniversary of the national parks. We’ve come a long way, in large part because of climbing’s growth and increasing public visibility.

Overcrowding? Sure, some frontcountry crags are busier, but if you want to have a Wilderness experience, walk an hour from the road at any climbing area in the country and you’ll still find it, regardless of how many new climbers are showing up at the most popular crags. Don’t want to walk? Then stay on the front line and enjoy the show. Represent the tribe. Interact with whomever you meet at the crag. Most newbies in all sports are looking for guidance—it is the rare case who shows up with so much attitude that she/he is a nuisance who can’t be placated. If you see someone disrespecting the resource or being unsafe, talk to them. Talk to them even if they seem polite and competent. See if you can genuinely respect whatever upbringing they came from.

And the reality is that we have more new places to climb than ever. Access to many older areas has become easier and more secure. Significant amounts of private land have been purchased and preserved for public use with climbing as a priority. Access Fund and its network of local climbing organizations have established channels to encourage hesitant landowners and land managers to take a climbing-positive view and to head off potential closures.

Another great benefit that has come out of the growth of climbing: Towns and cities all over the country are getting involved in developing new climbing areas. Word is out about the economic benefits of climbing, and communities want in.

I asked Zach Lesch-Huie, head of Access Fund’s national affiliate network, for some highlights, and he had plenty. Climbing areas create centers of interest far from population centers or other attractions. This has brought money into many local communities—more than you’d think. A recent study found that climbing tourism brings $3.6 million annually to communities surrounding the popular Red River Gorge, Kentucky. The economy of Fayetteville, West Virginia is greatly boosted by climbers visiting the New River Gorge, and the nearby town of Oak Hill is in the process of establishing a 300-acre municipal bouldering park to get a piece of that action. Thacher State Park in New York is paying for the hardware and time needed to develop the park’s climbing. In Ohio, the Clark County Parks Department is pitching in to help buy Springfield Gorge and create a climbing park. The North Dakota Department of Tourism is giving climbers a matching grant for climbing development at Square Butte. And the list goes on. Climbers are always sniffing out new areas to climb, but now communities are getting involved in increasing climbing opportunities. A decade ago, this was unthinkable.

Money isn’t the only objective for creating climbing parks. State and national objectives, such as fighting chronic obesity and increasing the diversity of the people using public lands, also factor in. It’s about time that the climbing tribe became more diverse. One of the best things about climbing is that it introduces us to people from all over the country, all over the world, and helps us appreciate each other through a common bond. What better way to build bridges across our nation’s troublesome divides than by sharing a rope? Climbing gyms in urban areas all over the country are introducing climbing to a more diverse population. As outdoor crags begin to attract more new climbers, our political base deepens.

And as the number of climbers grows, the simple math of it sees climbers infiltrating the ranks in all sorts of beneficial places. Access Fund Policy Director Erik Murdock, based in Washington, DC, has met climbers in many such places — administrators at federal land management agencies, staffers on the Senate Natural Resources Committee, and even members of Congress. More and more, climbers are not some fringe group struggling to make their activity understood by policy makers. They are in the offices making policy. As the number of climbers goes up, so does the chance that someone making decisions about recreation management or environmental protection is part of the tribe. At a time when the future of our public lands and vast outdoor landscapes is threatened, we need more climbers in the ranks, more people deeply connected to our climbing areas, more people willing to fight for their protection.

We’re at a good place for a change. Now that 5.15+ is the standard, we can all relax in the knowledge that even if we climb 5.13 or whatever, we are totally unexceptional. There’s no more justification for elitism at the crag. If we really want to be different, if we want our tribal identity to stand for something, then let’s focus on being more magnanimous than the herd. Why fear invasion when it only makes us stronger? There’s plenty of self-righteousness and us-or-them thinking among the masses. Climbing changes people. It teaches them a higher level of discipline and respect. Let’s show that off.

There’s only one certainty about the future of climbing: change. Regardless of how we feel about it, it’s inevitable that our community will grow. It will increase in diversity. It will require more communication to preserve the best of the old and merge it with the best of the new. The greatest cost? With a bigger tribe, the feeling of exceptionalism will not come so automatically. We each will have to earn it with our actions, just like every other human. The greatest benefit? As our community grows, so does our influence, our core values, and our ability to protect the experiences we hold so dear.