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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Why Do We Climb Indoors?

That’s a lot of climbing (and ice) gear for Kansas City!

I was waiting for the dentist and a headline on the cover of the October issue of Outside magazine caught my eye: “The Most Hated Men in Climbing.”

I don’t read Outside, mainly on principle. It’s headlines are made to make you pick it up and turn the pages, and I rarely feel edified for the content. When I finally found the article, which was under a completely different headline (damn it!), the most hated men turned out to be route setters at indoor gyms.

To a greater surprise, I kept reading. I’ve always climbed in gyms, but only recently embraced indoor climbing as a way for me to climb more regularly. Wait, no, accept it is a better word than embrace. I love mountains, not plastic. I get excited about snow and ice, sometimes big walls, but not warehouses separated from valleys and vistas. Still, I was getting into the article. What’s wrong with me?

Climbing Mystery

I just got back from a business trip to the greater Kansas City area in the American Midwest, which is one of those destinations that’s known for being flat. I met with a Kansas public official who has spent a lot of time in my home in the Washington, DC area and he said the biggest difference between there and Kansas was how we measure time: In Kansas they talk about miles driven, but in DC it’s about minutes spent in traffic jams. After covering 200-plus miles driving at mostly 70 mph in three days, I got it.

As with every trip, I try to squeeze in a little hiking or climbing, and these days all of the climbing is indoors. Still, I have found some interesting gyms. I liked the Great Western Power Company in Oakland, California. I was surprised that the greater Miami, Florida area had one well-kept gym let alone its two gyms. Kansas City has three. The greater Washington, DC area where I live has five. My hometown in Upstate New York only had one (albeit the Adirondacks and Gunks weren’t too far away either, so they probably weren’t needed).

I spent time in both the Kansas and Missouri side of Kansas City, but the Climbing Business Journal had an interesting story recently about how Kansas, which is one of America’s flattest states, has opened several indoor climbing gyms. This was a surprise to me; usually gyms open nearby traditional outdoor climbing destinations, so climbers can train regardless of the season or the weather. But the Midwest — America’s heartland — it seemed like a bit that there was something drawing people in that I didn’t understand.

Gritty and Underground

I stumbled upon a MooseJaw outfitter by happenstance after a meeting with the local Habitat for Humanity leaders, and saw a peg wall stocked high and wide with ‘biners, cams, slings and even a modest selection of ice tools. It turned out that the previous store manager was a native of Kansas City and he climbed ice. He recently took a promotion and moved to Chicago, but the gear was still prominently featured. It was then that I realized something about geography about Kansas City that I hadn’t thought about from living in Washington, DC — the Colorado Rockies weren’t really that far from Kansas City; less than nine hours away by car.

I didn’t have time to go to Colorado, so I asked about the local gyms. Ibex was the area’s full-service gym with long, high routes. The Cave, on the other hand, was a bit “gritty.” It’s what he said next that told me I had to check it out: “You have to take an elevator to get to it because it’s underground.”

So I found directions to the The Cave. and the instructions on the website said, “Take the elevator down and follow the signs.” The elevator entrance stood alone in a parking lot and the inside had two signs. The first you couldn’t miss: “No Climbing: Please Help Us Keep Our Elevator Clean and Safe.” The other was smaller and said something urging riders to enjoy the ride down 10 stories underground.

After walking through a labyrinth of hallways, I was signing my waiver. I asked the guy, a 20-something running the place solo, what these tunnels were built for. He promptly replied, “It was a mine.” I said really? “Yeah, I mean it must be. What else could it be for?”

The facility, called Dean’s Downtown Underground, was actually built by Lester Dean, Sr. in 1954 with the help of a lot of surplus government explosives. He purchased land that had an incomplete railway tunnel that was started in 1873, drained it and got to work.

The gym had a plastic cave, 14-foot bouldering walls, a climbing treadmill, and a slackline setup. They used the standard V-scale but also had their own “VB” scale for beginners; I think it only went to VB2 before going to V0. I wasn’t too impressed by the 14-foot walls, though they managed to compress a lot of routes in a small space.

The cave was the gem. Well padded. Overhanging. And deep; it felt like the cave at it’s farthest point went about 15 feet in, which meant the wall was a ceiling.

The best part about The Cave was the other climbers. They were focused, knowledgeable, and very funny. I was about 15-years older than most of them and they even made me feel welcome and comfortable. But, then again, that was how I felt almost everywhere in Kansas City.

We Need Hobbies

Just before going to Kansas City, I took family my family apple picking near Shenandoah. Near Front Royal we passed the a warehouse that’s been there forever that has been the local Crossfit gym. It had a new banner this season: “Need a Hobby?” Maybe that was what was wrong with me.

I’ve read that climbing gyms are very popular among 20-somethings because of the appeal of the socialization. But I have recognized, that it’s a sport that encourages participation over excellence, even though excellence is a natural goal. It’s also an action sport that requires more socialization and more interaction and trust than say mountain biking or paddle sports.

The other thing is the nature of adventure. Yes, you can’t have adventure without the unknown, and the walls in a gym seem pretty obvious. But the unknown is personal performance, and trudging past your own fear. For me, it’s more adventure than I ever got playing soccer or basketball.

We need hobbies, and if that hobby offers some adventure… well, maybe that’s what gets us climbing indoors these days.

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Is There a Conspiracy for Indoor Rock Climbing?

If you perceive the world largely through media, and you believe in conspiracies, you’d think the Climbing Wall Association was a master manipulator. But that’s only if you believe in conspiracies.

Since Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson freed the Dawn Wall on El Capitan, traditional media outlets, for example The New York Times, have been putting more climbing stories into the mainstream U.S. media market than ever before. If you read this The New Yorker article, you might extrapolate that the publishers are trying to tap into the millennial generation and trying to keep their interest.

The stories since the Dawn Wall ascent haven’t, however, been about new routes on granite in Yosemite or nuttall sandstone in the New River Gorge. Rather, they have been about the social movement toward climbing that has already been underway for well over a decade. The focus of which has been on the attraction of the indoor climbing experience:

  • In the same article from The New Yorker on March 30, it alleged that indoor rock climbing is the new tennis for networking.
  • Men’s Journal said indoor rock climbing is the new CrossFit on April 2.
  • On March 12, The New York Times attributes the leap in climbing skills outside on rock in the younger climbers to the proliferation of climbing inside.
  • Smaller papers have stories too, but they’re making less provocative statements.

The rise of indoor rock climbing has been happening for years, but the popularity among younger climbers has lead to more gyms; nine percent more in 2014 alone and an unprecedented 15 percent increase in bouldering-specific indoor climbing gyms during the same period, according to the Climbing Business Journal.

I have always climbed in an indoor gym. My first was near Niagara Falls, NY in the mid-90s, but it was merely a substitute for climbing in the Adirondacks, which was a six-hour drive from home; the gym was only 30 minutes away. But recently, indoor climbing gyms have become a destination even on my business trips just to get a feel for what climbers in another town value and enjoy.

Maybe I am catching the fire, but I don’t even look down at indoor climbing any longer. But Justin Roth, who manages marketing communications, social media, and public relations for Petzl America and keeps his own blog at The Stone Mind, put everything into proper perspective in a recent blog post: “Indoor climbing is no longer just preparation for outdoor climbing; it is its own pursuit.”

So if it’s not a conspiracy, is it a movement?

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