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Tuesday Night Bouldering

The Choss Pile: Gumby Academy

More gumby climbers are roping up than ever before, but who’s going to actually show them the ropes?

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Illustration by Emilie Lee.

I’ve participated in a wide variety of outdoor sports my whole life, and I think climbing has one of the most positive, welcoming communities for beginners, at least compared to other outdoor sports. I don’t mean that sarcastically. I’m being serious.

(Surfing, meanwhile, is undoubtedly the most toxic. Any new surfer who has ever paddled out into a crowded SoCal lineup can attest to that…)

It’s not necessarily that climbers are any nicer to newbies than surfers or skaters or snowboarders. We still make fun of them. But our medium is more conducive to learning, in some ways. A gumby hangdogging or falling on a route isn’t going to present a hazard to anyone else at the crag, unless he’s dropping gear or gets injured and someone has to perform a rescue. In more fast-paced sports like surfing and skating, beginners who don’t know what they’re doing at the break or bowl can definitely get someone hurt, snaking a wave, crossing a line, whatever. Nowadays, most learner climbers also train in climbing gyms, where it’s difficult (though not impossible) to get hurt even if you’re an absolute buffoon.

That said, the population of wankers you encounter at crags is growing at an alarming rate. And it’s more than just the old hazards of loud boomboxes, poorly-trained dogs, and guys in baja hoodies who introduce themselves as “Roach.”

It’s more insidious these days. The socks with shoes. The random assortment of locking biners on a harness for no clear reason. The backwards flatbill that says “DOPE” on it. The chalk bag clipped to a harness with a massive locker. The people who want to talk to you about Alex Honnold for two hours while you work your project. The person on top rope shrieking “Take! Take! Take!” as they start to get Elvis Leg. (You also have the reverse-gumby, who tries so hard to be cool that they refuse to wear a helmet, for example).

Not to mention the vaping. Jesus Christ. I used to assume everyone basically acknowledged that vaping was mostly for 28-year-old dudes who date high school girls and spend $10,000 putting rims and tinted windows and other bullshit on their Toyota Camry. It’s everywhere now. Next thing I know I’m going to come home for Christmas and see my mom hitting a Juul.

There is a new platform for this nonsense, too. Social media. Every day I come across 10+ accounts called something like @climbing_love_world or @_climberlife or @climb_daily, probably run by some dude in China that’s never laid eyes on a rope in his life. These accounts just post shirtless photos of ripped dudes hanging on jugs, or bikini-clad women “bouldering” in Nikes. To add insult to injury, every one of these goofy-ass accounts has like 50,000 followers. How?

While learning to trad climb in North Carolina as a kid, I had an adult climber tell me that “style” was the most important thing in climbing. I don’t agree with “style” as he meant it, because he was talking about me upgrading to a cooler helmet (I was thirteen, and using a second-hand helmet that worked fine, thank you very much).

But it is important to have a bit of class, people.

It’s important to not wear a flatbill that says “DOPE” on it. It’s important to not say the word “steeze” (sorry, boulderers). It’s important to stop talking about Alex Honnold every minute of the day. It’s important to not try to find a way to work the topic of “CBD” into your conversations 15 times a day. I know every pro climber and their grandmother is out here hawking the stuff now… but damn. I have chronic muscular pain and neuropathy probably worse than any of y’all and I use CBD daily, and even I’m tired of hearing about it.

Climbing gyms, the factories churning out modern gumbies like they’re running an assembly line, generally do a decent job of at least showing someone the technical basics. How to belay, how to tie in, how to lead, how to fall. It’s not a perfect system, but gyms usually provide a solid set of training wheels for learners.

What gumbies don’t learn in gyms is Style with a capital S.

It’s not their lack of skill that marks someone as a gumby at the crag and primes them for ridicule. It’s the XL T-shirt they wear that says “CLIMB ON.”

It’s more than just physical style, too. It’s ethical style. It’s how you work your lines. It’s what constitutes a flash and what doesn’t. (You’d be surprised at the amount of people I hear these days claiming “flashes” of their two-week project.) It’s not spraying.

In any case, in light of the current plight facing our community, I’m starting a Gumby Academy, ladies and gentlemen.

Enroll your child, friend, or significant other, and I’ll teach them how to avoid looking or acting like a gumby (or simply a moron, in the case of people who say “steeze”). Everyone participating just has to chip in a dollar so I can buy a new ATC.

To be clear, this academy will focus on not looking like a gumby. I won’t teach any climbing skills or techniques, because:

1. I don’t have very many.

2. Let’s face it, none of us have a chance anymore. It’s 2020. There will always be some 12-year-old who manages to crush harder than you and has an 8:30 pm bedtime (and also vapes).

The Choss Pile is published every Thursday.

Owen Clarkeis a freelance writer currently based in Puerto Rico. He is a columnist for Rock and Ice, Gym Climber and The Outdoor Journal. He also writes for Friction Labs and BAÏST Gloves.

Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.