Three Things Climbers Cannot Ignore Much Longer

Did you get the email from the Access Fund asking you to take-part in their survey? It asked two heavy questions, and for me, it revealed three things we cannot pretend isn’t happening.

Question 1: “What do you believe is the most pressing issue the climbing community will face over the next 5 years?”

Answer 1: How Climbing and Mountaineering is Portrayed in Major Films

Bad climbing movies may be more than just an irritant. Everest. Vertical Limit. They’re more likely to steer people away from climbing and draw the public’s attention away from the craft involved, the discipline and skills, and the beauty of nature, and sometimes elusive goals. Instead, in movies, climbers that die look obsessed and the survivors like lost souls with regret. None of which tells a truth that can be generalized for all of climbing-dom.

Climbing movies made for a broad audience draw in responses from all walks of life, but the group that sees a high peak and only thinks of cold and discomfort rather than beauty of nature and the nobility of patience and fortitude probably won’t easily get it through a film; we’ll always be “crazy” to them.

Is there anything we can do? Possibly.

When U.S. military veterans were returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan they were depicted as battle-weary, likely to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and people that were owed something. In some cases that was true, but largely it was not.  It made it difficult for some to get jobs or at least the best jobs for them. Chris Marvin, an army pilot that was shot down and suffered many bodily injuries, returned to civilian life and started the veterans’ advocacy nonprofit Got Your 6, taken from a military phrase about protecting one’s blind spot; its mission was to refocus the public’s image of veterans as a public asset and to do so through a partnership through veterans nonprofit organizations and Hollywood. His effort was seen as successful and I recently invited and met him at a conference to learn more.

Climbing needs some ambassadors to the movie industry to help depict climbing in a more real light. Like the best comedy, where you don’t have to make things up, the best climbing film and stories, even for broad-audience movies, don’t have to be contrived and overly fictionalized (or even darkened) to represent what climbing is really like.

Answer 2: Integrity of Climbing When Transiting to the Outdoors

Climbing has been growing in popularity. (There are a lot of reasons to know this, but I’ll cite just this New Yorker story as the most comprehensive package.) This has been happening for a couple of decades but the last 10 or so years have been different because the attraction of indoor gyms have been leading the way to growth in the United States. And the movement by some to “advance” from gym to crag presents a new set of risks.

While there are efforts by gyms and even climbing groups like the American Alpine Club to educate people transitioning to outdoor climbing presents a unique risk to the activity for all of us.

New outdoor climbers need mentorship and support to ensure safety practices unique to the outdoors are done effectively, etiquette among climbers are maintained among other climbers as well as land holders and managers, and, last but not least, the traditions and history of climbing are passed on to younger climbers.

About traditions and history, it doesn’t surprise me but it bothers me too, that young climbers have no idea who some of the most significant climbers in history are, from Reinhold Messner, Walter Bonatti, to say… Fred Beckey or Tom Frost. These are leaders that set the bar for the expectations of what is possible and our new level of what is our horizon. These historical figures aren’t likely to be forgotten, but they seem to be easily dismissed or taken for granted.

Regarding etiquette and safety, efforts appear to be underway, but this singular concern, may have the broadest reach to affect all climbers. A few bad practices, a poor headline at the wrong time, could ruin access and costs for all of us.

Question 2:  “If you could change one thing about the Access Fund, what would it be?”

Answer: Promote the Development of Concussion Protective Climbing Helmets

I wore a yellow hard hat when I was a college kid working for my father’s general contracting business. My climbing helmet, which was the old version of the Half Dome from Black Diamond, was the same thing except with a chin strap. Like my hard hat, it was great to protect my skull and brain from hard falling objects. But if I ever took a whipper by head would be mostly unprotected from the jolts and my brain was squish to one side, hopefully unscathed.

But that’s the thing, as this article in Climbing magazine said, no climbing helmet on the market protects us from the injuries of a concussion. Skiing has gone from no skier wearing a helmet to nearly everyone wearing fully protective — including head trauma — helmets in a mere few years. Much research and science has gone into the development of better preventative equipment and treatment for concussions thanks to professional team sports like American football, hockey, and other sports. We should join in.

If the climbing community, or its leaders (such as the helmet manufacturers), guide services, and land managers, required better helmets we’d all be safer.

The risk and adventure of climbing will still be ever present, but by reducing the risk of the potentially years-long or life-altering concussion injury.

Your Job

Whether these are really tasks for the Access Fund or some other organization like the AAC or AMGA, I don’t know. What I do know is that all of us that care about these things must speak up and say these three things are important.

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