Climbing - A Useless Sport?First of all, I have to say that I eat, live, and breathe climbing. I love to climb – whether it is sport climbing, ice climbing, trad climbing or alpine walls – I love it all. I think we can all agree that climbing brings joy, happiness, and for some, even meaning, into our lives, but I can’t help but think that sometimes we tend to take climbing (and ourselves) far too seriously. I mean, really, what we’re doing is climbing up some rock or ice, to get to the top; and far more often than not, you don’t even get to the actual top of anything; just some arbitrary definition of the top.
Climbing, you could argue, unlike some other sports, isn’t even that entertaining. You’re never going to have millions of people tuned in on Sunday to watch climbing. At its route (no, pun intended), climbing is a very personal and somewhat selfish sport. And of course, that’s what the attraction is for many of us. Climbing allows us to feel a bond with nature; it allows us to be introspective; it allows us to remain fit and agile; it defines our friendships; and sometimes, it even defines who we are. But at the core, it's still only about climbing up something.
The reason I like to point this out from time to time, is because climbers as a whole sometimes need to lighten up a little. It always make me shake my head when I see in some climbing magazine that someone has taken the time to write to the editor to point out it was actually he (yes, almost exclusively male) who had made the first ascent of some route in some climbing area (there are many variations of the same type of letter). I mean, who really cares, and in the whole scheme of things, what does it matter? Personally, I’ve come back to climb limestone routes where I’d done the first ascent on crappy gear, to find them bolted. I didn’t write any letters, chop any bolts, or even feel insulted. I simply clipped the bolts. If I had of felt strongly enough (which I didn’t), I could have chosen not to clip the bolts (nobody’s making you clip them).
And then there are actually people (climbers) who have threatened or carried out physical violence against another person (a climber) over a disagreement about climbing. Yes, there are people out there whose persona is so wrapped up in climbing that they are willing to do all sorts of bizarre things in the name of their sport. Here’s a short list of some things that have actually taken place (feel free to add to the list):
1. Bolts and/or anchors on established routes are chopped (fisticuffs sometimes ensue). Sometimes the chopping results in more unsightly damage than the bolts did.
2. Grease put on holds to stop other climbers from doing a route first
3. Holds chipped or drilled to make an otherwise un-climbable climb (for the chipper), climbable.
4. Letters to editors from one climber publicly attacking the other.
This is not to say that I don’t think ethical debate within the climbing community is important; it is - I’m just saying that when we’re having this debate, let’s keep in mind that what we’re talking about is climbing (it’s not world peace). Yes we can be passionate, but let’s be respectful too.
One of the things I see fairly commonly these days is the posturing between trad climbers and sport climbers – and to be truthful, in my experience it is mainly the trad climber disrespecting the sport climber (although I’m sure it happens the other way around as well). I recently met an older climber (which sounds funny because I’m 45) and was talking to him (proudly) about a sport climbing area my friend and I were developing. He said, and I quote, “you’re not one of those crag fags, are you?” I resisted the temptation to tell him that I had likely climbed more (and harder) alpine and trad routes than he ever had. I told him that “yes, I was a crag fag” and changed the subject to ice climbing. It’s sad to say this isn’t an isolated example. If you can’t climb 5.13 sport (and I can’t), it’s far easier to put that person down (just a bolt clipper), then it is to respect the athletic ability and drive that person has.
Another thing I’d like to touch on is the selfish aspect of our sport. I’ve thought about this more, because I have two young children (yep, started late). Whether we like to admit this to ourselves or not, climbing is inherently dangerous, and some types of climbing more than others. Every time we rope up there is a chance we could be seriously injured or killed. I ice climb (which I consider more dangerous then rock climbing) all winter and since having kids my thought process around risk has changed considerably. I know this isn’t news – most every climber out there who has children has likely gone through this same thinking. But very few of us have stopped climbing altogether. Why; because the satisfaction that climbing brings to our lives isn’t something that is easily given up (nor should it be). We all have to individually make the decision about how much risk we’re willing to take – and for me anyway, the fact that I have two little lives to look after, affects my decisions. I think that if I died climbing, I wouldn’t be very happy about that at all – I wouldn’t want someone to say “he died doing what he loved”. I would want someone to say “he fucked up” – because that’s what I would have done. I don’t want to be the guy that left two little kids fatherless because I was trying to get up to the top of some obscure ice or rock climb. I’d rather be killed by a drunk driver, than die climbing –at least I’d know it wasn’t my fault.
Finally, I wanted to say something about elitism. I know it’s a touchy subject, but it’s something that’s out there. It doesn’t just occur at the top end of our sport (the truly elite athletes) – one can see this attitude commonly at local crags. How many of us know climbers that will bolt 5.7/5.8 sport routes and put the bolts 10-15 feet apart – but when the same climber bolts a 5.11/5.12 route, the bolts are 6-8 feet apart. That’s elitism – “5.8 is easy for me, so the bolts can be far apart”. Never mind that for a 5.8 climber, these climbs can be terrifying and dangerous. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the subject of elitism. Here’s another example. A friend of mine, was climbing a 10b climb in Squamish, and lowered off the crux move, leaving all of his gear in (7-8 pieces plus quickdraws). He pulled his rope, walked to the top of the climb, set up a rappel, rapped down, only to find all of his gear stolen. A local climber (well known – featured in magazines), who was climbing nearby had soloed up and stolen all his gear in the 10 minutes it took him and his wife to walk to the top of the pitch. When this climber was later confronted (my friend’s gear was etched with his initials) he first tried to deny he stole the gear, then told my friend he had no right being on that climb because it was too hard for him (and this justified his stealing the gear). It’s just one example, but unfortunately, this sort of elitism plays out in our sport at all levels. I do think its root cause is that people loose sight of the fact that this sport is only about climbing up things – maybe not entirely useless, but not exactly something to fight about.
So the point of this short essay was just to get people thinking a little. I really don’t think climbing is useless – something that brings that much joy and fulfilment into our lives, can’t be useless. But it also isn’t the most important thing in the world. And I don’t think it should define you as a person – I’d rather be defined by my character and actions, than as simply “a climber”.
PS - I chose the picture of my 5 year old climbing to remind us of why we all started to climb in the first place; because it was fun.