So, you want a job in the climbing industry? (See feature, page 58). You must really love climbing. Good for you. I think we need more people who put climbing first and money second. For the most part, the climbing industry is a small clique of old friends who shared belays back in the day. It’s homey and warm, and gatherings like the trade show feel like going to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving when all your friends and relatives are there.
The industry, however, is only one vital cog in the larger apparatus called the climbing world, a robot with Tourettes that occasionally misfires due to internal schizoid data of how climbing—as a sport, industry, art and lifestyle—should progress (i.e. make money).
Many struggling yet burgeoning writers, photographers and entrepreneurs view the industry as an old boys’ club, a stagnant swamp of gurgling business and archaic concepts that will forever be doomed and poor unless the old guard starts giving them the money they need to “really stir things up.”
Others just give up and go elsewhere. They say the whole apparatus is broken, drifting in too many irrelevant and absurd directions at once. The issue is compounded (or perhaps undermined) by the fact that at last count there were 12 million rock climbers in America, and if that’s even remotely true, then what the hell is a “rock climber”?
All the while, one question rings in our collective eardrums like a violent white noise.
Is there something wrong with climbing?
Last fall I caught the new Warren Miller film, Children of Snow. A new Warren Miller film signifies the beginning of the end of autumn, the time of the year when everything dies. Leaves fall from trees, and animals ignore their best instincts by abandoning their perches in the high country only to be razed down by speeding autos.
A Warren Miller movie experience is the same no matter where you go—a crowd drinking shitty beer hoots and hollers at the visual barrage of sexy models doing wild tricks on snowy slopes. The shows are all exactly like this, and herein lies their charm. The community and culture are palpable, and you always feel like you are a part of something, even if there’s technically no reason to relate to it whatsoever.
I ski because … well, because it’s what everyone else does. The ski industry is huge, and it’s quite strange that so much money can be made selling an experience of waiting in line to catch a lift up to the top of a freezing-cold peak only to be blasted in the face with ice shards the whole way down. Even people who don’t like the outdoors ski. Seriously, it doesn’t make any sense, at least not this early in the column.
But the movie influenced us powerfully, especially my girlfriend, Jen. Some think she’s an impressive climber. I think she is the worst skier I’ve ever seen. Jen has only made it down a “green run” once in her life without falling. “I redpointed the green run,” she says. I told her that’s equivalent to redpointing 5.6, but ever since watching two full hours of skiers “going big or going home,” she has these unremitting visions of herself doing 5.14 gymnastics in the half pipe.
“My legs are sore,” she told me.
“From what?” I asked.
“Ski training,” she admitted sheepishly. “I need to get in shape if I want to go big this year.” I asked her what “ski training” was and she showed me: she lay down on her back and rolled onto her feet and jumped up into the air and then repeated.
“That shit won’t help,” I said. “You may as well start doing pull-ups for climbing.”
One day after watching the movie, Jen bought a pass, skis, boots and poles—an outfit she has since worn around her apartment while making potato pizza. I’ve never heard of anyone watching a climbing movie and the next day buying a harness, shoes, full rack, and maybe even a yearlong gym membership.
If something this senseless can go big, what does that say about climbing? If you believe what many climbers say, that there are a few glitches in our industry/community/sport, we ought to identify where the faulty wiring is getting crossed if we want to progress.
And perhaps we could begin to do so if we just face these three things.
1) CLIMBING IS NOT SKIING.
Some “movers and shakers” of our industry have attempted to mold climbing into the “proven” models of surfing, skiing or skateboarding. Climbing is none of those things. It’s entirely different on many levels.
First, climbing is not a very descriptive term. The sport ranges from mountaineering, to big-wall, to gym, to ice, to something called “urban climbing,” though from my vantage point this is nothing more than a hopeless attempt to create an entire category that never existed in the first place (don’t buy the hype; you’re being fleeced—and not the good kind that keeps you warm when wet).
The expansiveness of our great sport—not to mention the sheer convolution of its subterranean language—makes it nearly impossible to explain what we do without stuttering. What’s 5.10? What’s send? So, free climb means no ropes? How’d the rope get up there?
Compare that to a skiing movie. You don’t hear, “How’d the snow get up there?”
So what if a skiing movie is an unabashedly two-dimensional portrayal of this supposed “soul sport”? Aside from offering a few token wipeouts, all skiing movies show badass, elite skiers taking helicopters to rip down identical-looking mountains. There’s no character development, which may sound like a negative until you realize it means that the characters are never allowed to stumble on their own stupidity (like they often do in climbing movies). They are only permitted to be and look cool.
Further, there’s a visual effortlessness to a person skiing or surfing not found in climbing, which looks complicated, scary and difficult. What’s ironic is that paddling out through a rough break or making turns down steep snow are complicated, scary and difficult, too.
While the media may continue its thus-far failed attempt to show the sexier side of climbing, it pales (literally) to that of surfing, which doesn’t need to justify gratuitous bikinis and well-tanned skin. Even in skiing you get to sit in hot tubs and drink beer with bare-breasted cougars (at least I do).
Compare that to an average climbing day that ends in the middle of a harsh, foreign landscape miles from civilization; just you and your partner, whom you hate because he got the #3 Camalot stuck on pitch three when he shoved it in the wrong-size crack.
Well, I think climbing is cool because of this. It’s also very possible that it’s not cool because of this. Either way, climbing is its own animal, and a real understanding of it is required to make the beast to jump through the right hoops. Forcing climbing to be something it’s not is one of the reasons there are these Justin Timberlake-listening rubes running around saying they are “urban climbers” out to retool the face of the sport. This is worse than a dumb fad, like being told that skiing on grass is the future.
2) THE CLIMBING COMMUNITY IS BROKEN (AT LEAST SUPERFICIALLY).
What is it about the presentation of the “elite” that resonates so much more cleanly to skiers than climbers? People can go to a Warren Miller movie and respond positively to elite skiers hucking back flips, but climbers claim they can’t relate to anyone who climbs 5.14.
Or is this just a catch phrase that’s total bullshit?
I often wonder if the online criticism of the “rags” for covering any ascent that’s too elite by an athlete who is too young or too well-sponsored is really nothing more than a mantra that got popular a few years ago and is now simply perpetuated by default.
When opinions become linked to cultural status or standing (like being valued members of an online community), people cease to think about why they feel the way they do. It’s like listening to politicians talk about “small-town values.” Most couldn’t specifically name a single small-town value; all they know is that (a) they like them, (b) Democrats don’t have them and (c) Republicans do.
If we want healthy progress in our sport, I think the community needs to start climbing more and posting less. Fortunately, I see an encouraging trend in the next generation, which as a rule tends to have fewer hang-ups and narrower schisms than those of the recent past. They do comps and El Cap; go to the Himalaya and climb 5.13. They dabble in ice, trad and bouldering. Everyone goes to the gym. Why bicker? All these things are seen as being part of one thing: climbing. This is only the most refreshing thing I can think of and it keeps me going on the dark days when I think everything’s fucked.
The ridiculous elucidations of “hard climbing” that continually appear in media tell me that even climbers don’t get climbing. Take this, from a Men’s Journal article written by a climber last year: To picture “5.14,” the article went, just imagine the grips on a 5.10, make them so small that only the tips of your fingers can grab them; now tilt the wall till it’s “dead vertical” and make the holds so far apart that you actually have to fly between them using magic.
No wonder people can’t relate.
Let me take this opportunity to say something that has never been said before in a climbing magazine. 5.14 is well within the abilities of the community. You can do it, you can relate to it—it’s impressive and out there, but it’s feasible.
Still don’t see it? Picture a route you’ve done that was really hard for you; now change the shape and the angle of the route so it looks cooler. That’s 5.14; that’s it.
No matter what grade you redpoint, climbing is hard. The willingness to accept that and face it head on is what makes us more similar than different or better or worse.
In Europe, climbers onsight 5.13 on a regular basis. By contrast, American climbers are typically weaker. Is it possible there is any link here to the fact that we seem unable or unwilling to reconcile the wounds of our cultural past? The Bolt Wars may be over, but in terms of how we define ourselves, we are still addled by the bygone schizophrenia of our style and ethics. Only in America do you still hear climbers condemning sport climbing, training, bouldering and competitions, while simultaneously being righteous about placing cams in Indian Creek. Not to say climbing 5.10 cracks isn’t cool and fun—it’s just a mass deception to continue insisting on its superiority over all other forms of climbing.
The even bigger fraud is that people still call climbing in Indian Creek traditional. Reading a guidebook that tells you the exact size/number of cams to place as you sew up a crack to reach a bolted anchor arbitrarily drilled 60 feet up a 300-foot wall is not trad climbing.
Finally, I don’t really believe that people “can’t relate” to what is elite. It’s more probable that these naysayers are merely miffed that climbing has changed so drastically in the last two decades, and now it is they who are no longer relevant.
Think about how greatly things have evolved in such a short period. It wasn’t that long ago when only the world’s best climbed 5.12 and climbing media was comprised of black-and-white pamphlets that, at some point, mentioned nearly everyone in the close community. These days, 5.12 is a warm up, hard climbing starts at 5.13d, and routes are as hard as 5.15b.
Members of this “first generation”— the first to have any climbing media, and the first to start legitimate businesses surrounding the sport of climbing—watch every day their relevance and their connection to the sport they once knew become further diluted. Does this disconnect lead to stagnating business practices or resentment for what the media chooses to present? Many younger people trying to enter the climbing industry think so. Whether this is because they are right or because they are bitter that they are working hard for little pay is up for debate.
3) MAKE PROGRESS OR PRESERVE SOUL?
I am happy that climbing is still small enough to feel like a tight-knit community with a real soul to it, and not some sell-out glamour sport filled with the hollow scenesters of a Warren Miller movie.
“You are reading way too much into why skiing is so popular,” said my friend Dave, who happens to be one of those skiers who can actually do the elite acrobatics seen in those films. “Pursuing status is without question the only thing that could drive people to endure heinous face-numbing ice pellets while riding lifts. Not only is it not fun, it sucks like torture.”
Dave explained that hiking up and skiing a backcountry peak is a completely different sport than riding lifts.
“If you want climbing to be popular,” Dave continued, “get famous people to endorse it so that it’s equated with financial success. Integrate it into today’s busy lifestyle like a morning cup of coffee. Make it accessible and cool, and I don’t mean some pizza party in a gym that stinks. You have to make people think they are participating in the culture of success, riches and fame. Then they will do it no matter how painful and awful it is. Yoga is on that track: you get to wear tights and carry a roll-up pad around health-food stores. Do you want climbing to become that? It probably couldn’t hurt, and besides, you’ll always have what’s badass (backcountry skiing or 5.13 or alpine style) stay separate from things like resort skiing or urban climbing.”
Dave’s one of those consistent friends who always offers real clarity to the petty conundrums of my life. But I had to wonder where climbing was headed as I continued to watch it get pushed around by competing idealogues, all in the name of promoting their own brand of “progress.”
For the most part, people are drawn to the climbing industry because they love climbing. Whether you make gear that keeps climbers alive, media that keeps us all psyched, or friends that you will keep for the rest of your life, in truth, the climbing industry is an awesome place to be.
But there is dysfunction. We have an amazing sport, but we refuse to share with anyone else. We spend all our energy focusing on what makes us different instead of what binds us together. Most of all, the definition of our sport, our lifestyle, still lacks eloquence and simplicity. There is too much emphasis on money, and not enough emphasis on creating an uplifting, lasting culture that people want to be a part of.
Climbing has a rich history, and a bright future. I’d love to see our sport grow, not for monetary purposes, but because sharing our vertical world would enrich the lives of many people who are otherwise bored, unhealthy and anxious. In the words of Dave Graham’s father, “Climbing could be something that could save the world.” For this type of progress to occur, I think we need to stop obsessing over what makes us different and focus more on what makes us, us.
Andrew Bisharat calls himself a climber because he likes to go up rocks and ice with good friends, yell, curse, laugh a lot, party hard and not make a big deal out of it. You feel me?