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The Choss Pile: Which Type of Climbing is Coolest?

Spoiler alert: All of them.

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Climbing is one of the most broadly-defined sports in existence. Daniel Woods, Nims Purja, Alex Honnold, Adam Ondra, Reza Alipour. All top climbers, but very little overlap in their skillsets. I don’t imagine the “skate-party-boulder” lifestyle of Mr. Woods would lend to a stellar performance on Annapurna, nor would high-altitude crusher Nims Purja have much luck on a V16. I doubt any would be able to keep their cool like Honnold, 1,000 feet off the deck without a rope. Yet all are climbers at the top of their game. The Olympic format is a great example. Ondra, probably the all-around strongest rock climber in the world, is having to train like a fiend to have a chance in the Speed category.

Like characters in “Game of Thrones,” we have our “Houses.” Their are the sport climbers, trad climbers, top-ropers, gym rats, aid climbers, ice climbers, mountaineers, boulderers. Lots of us dabble, but many of us have one discipline we’re focused on above others.

But why is it that many of us look down on the other disciplines of our sport?

I was an intern at Rock and Ice when Gym Climber was first announced a couple of years ago, and I remember the backlash. So many people were upset about the birth of a publication covering indoor climbing (which is dumb, because GC allowed R&I to focus exclusively on outdoor climbing, as opposed to covering both outdoor and indoor). Indoor climbing is often seen as “lesser-than,” or only worth participating in as training for real rock. Why? I have friends who only climb in gyms. Why don’t they climb on rock? I dunno. Who cares?

[Also Read The Choss Pile: Being a Good Climbing Partner Means Being a Pest]

It’s not just indoor climbing. Trad climbers rag on sport climbing. Everyone makes fun of top roping. The list goes on. I don’t understand it. You don’t see people who play golf ranting about putt-putt. They’re just different activities that we can enjoy.

We can chalk some of it down to shared space, which naturally creates friction. A gumby fresh off of plastic, belaying 20 feet from the wall, placing bad pro and dropping gear, puts everyone at the crag in an unsafe situation. Climbing is no joke, and the influx of gym-birthed climbers rolling up outside has led to plenty of Weekend Whipper footage.

That isn’t all it is, though. It’s as if we see certain disciplines of climbing as inherently worthier than others, or as if there’s a progression we should follow as we become more experienced. Gym climbing leads to sport climbing, sport leads to trad, trad leads to multipitch etc. Many of us may not voice it, even internally, but we think it on some subconscious level. Myriad factors play a role, including difficulty, but as I see it, the principal factor which determines a discipline’s place on the spectrum is risk. Danger.

The more dangerous a subset of climbing is, the more respect and worth it’s given in the climbing world. You don’t see speed climbers making fun of trad climbers; it’s the other way around. We’ve all seen “Top Rope Tough Guys” (which is hilarious, of course). It’s not hard to understand. Danger means adventure, adventure is what many of us are after.

Not everyone is, though, and that’s okay.

Some are trying to get stronger, some to stay in shape, some just to enjoy the wall. I didn’t start climbing in a gym and I don’t particularly enjoy climbing indoors, but I’ve had great times in the gym with my buddies. I’ve had great times on top rope. I had great times as a kid climbing my grandma’s dogwood tree.

I have a friend who loves to climb, who has come with me to local crags for years, but he’s never led a pitch. He’s somewhat skittish about heights, and he just doesn’t feel comfortable leading, but he has a great time every time I take him out. I used to make fun of him when we were teenagers, rib him about it, trying to get him to lead. I was wrong.

Let me be clear. Getting outside your comfort zone is something I’d advise everyone to do. Pushing your limits, trying new things, attempting to conquer your fears, I advocate for all of that. But at the end of the day everyone is different, and the risk or difficulty someone is able to manage isn’t what we should be admiring the most. It’s their happiness.

We’ve all heard this quote a thousand times, but it seems to me that it’s worth repeating here. “The best climber is the one having the most fun,” the late Alex Lowe said in an interview (to Alison Osius, a current Rock and Ice editor).

Instead of glorifying risk or strength or skill in our athletes and climbing disciplines, let’s cultivate a glorification of joy. Let’s not fool ourselves, the real reason all of us climb, no matter who we are, isn’t to climb harder or to tackle bigger walls. Those are worthy goals, of course, but they’re ancillary to the real goal of climbing (and just about anything we do in life): Enjoying ourselves.

There is no progression. Sketchy aid lines up massive, remote walls aren’t inherently any cooler than top roping. If top roping is what you enjoy, don’t let anyone tell you different. If you never want to get on the sharp end, don’t. If you’re as stoked to top rope 5.7 in a gym as Alex Honnold was to free solo El Cap, I admire you just as much as him. Rock on.

The Choss Pile is published every Thursday.

Owen Clarke, 23, is a climber and writer based in Alabama. He also writes for The Outdoor Journal and He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is also afraid of heights.

Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.