Climbing - A Useless Sport?

Climbing - A Useless Sport?

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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.


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Viewing: 1-20 of 54
Aaron Johnson

Aaron Johnson - Nov 21, 2007 12:52 pm - Hasn't voted

Great Article-Well Written!

...And enlightening, too. I'm amazed that some of the stuff you list actually goes on. You're right, folks need to lighten up if they're doing this stuff.

We've had numerous discussions on SP about selfishness and elitism, and I'm thrilled to say, for the most part, we've had very little of that here. Perhaps that is because the current mix of interests on SP is geared more to alpine climbing and scrambling, but I see a recent increase in interest in climbing, and submissions on the subject, including your own, are on the increase as well. We've always had a good copliment of climbers too, and they're all great folks. That's a good thing for SP, and I think the membership will do as it always has when it comes to mixing these interests together. The membership here feels these activities can indeed share a site as big as SP in harmony. Posturing doesn't go over well and is usually not accepted or tolerated as it has been at other sites. Roosters ruffling their feathers get plucked fairly quickly around here.

Your closing line: I’d rather be defined by my character and actions, than as simply “a climber” is nicely composed! I enjoy reading your writing sir. You seem inspired and have a gift that you put to great use. Thanks again.


AJones - Nov 21, 2007 1:05 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great Article-Well Written!

Thanks Aaron (great name by the way). My climbing partner and I (both fathers of young children) talk about this all the time; so I thought I'd try to put into words some of the slightly more negative and thought provoking aspects (e.g. risk taking) of our great sport. It's just something for folks to think about. I've never seen any aspect of this on SP (the exact opposite in fact) - but like I said, I thought it might be interesting to put some of these thoughts down on paper (so to speak), just to get people thinking.


sealevelmick - Nov 21, 2007 2:58 pm - Hasn't voted

I agree

"I bagged the Grand in a day brau." is the first thing my friend Bennet (formerly of jackson hole)said to me the last time I tried to talk him up about climbing. It's the impression he got and ive seen it too. I wanna call it the 'surferization' of climbing.
Its prevalent in mountaineering too. In regards to the air time the 7 gets here- Imean I suppose this is the place. After all its not halfwaytothesummitbutwascaughtinablizzardandbarely madeitoutalivepost (though those are my favorite). But anyway When I first read about Samantha Larson becoming the youngest American at age 18 to climb the 7 (do i have my facts striaght)I was at first jealous because she's way better than me even though she was guided and her dad foot the bill. Also I had doubts if she was even that into it because when was 18 i definitely had 'other priorities'. Anyhow after thinking about it and Ive come to appreciate it as a good thing because, not to undermind her accomplishment, but her accomplishment undermines the list based focus of climbing (is that unfair?). Which might get folks back into the spiritual aspect of climbing.
I digress. good work. its something myself and others should have a better understanding of


AJones - Nov 21, 2007 3:08 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: I agree

Thanks for the feedback and comments. I think your commments express the issue of "why do we climb?" or "what's our motivation". Is it to "bag peaks"; be the first to do something, or because it's something we truly enjoy? There's no reason our motivation can't be made up of a combination of different factors - I think we just need to be honest with ourselves about why we're doing something.

kakaz - Nov 21, 2007 5:09 pm - Voted 10/10

God job!

Your article is very fine!
And it is very good starting point to discussion. I agree in several points, probably we might be different on some, but this is The True: climbing is fun and it should not screw up people into agression against each other!
Also elitism, when its efect is not to motivate other people but depreciate its abilities is wrong way.
Thanks a lot: well done!


AJones - Nov 21, 2007 5:18 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: God job!

Thanks - climbing is fun (well, maybe not ice climbing - LOL); and that, along with respect for the environment, in the end, is what it should be about.

kevin trieu

kevin trieu - Nov 21, 2007 5:18 pm - Voted 10/10

Good article.

I agree with pretty much everything in this article. People need to take it easy. This is for fun.


AJones - Nov 21, 2007 5:37 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Good article.

Thanks for the comments Kevin!


fatdad - Nov 21, 2007 5:38 pm - Hasn't voted

Well intended but misses some obvious points.

I do agree that some people can and should lighten up. However, you gloss over some issues and are very relevant to both the future of the sport and what should be a more respectful attitutde for the rock, which is becoming an increasingly limited medium.

I'm going to assume that you came to climbing after the establishment of sportclimbing as a venue. I say this because otherwise you would not be so willing to overlook issues such as retrobolting or chipping. These are serious issues because 1) bolting defaces the rock and should be performed to a minimum and 2) retrobolting disrepects the accomplishments of those who came before us, those who decided to pull out their courage and skill, not their bolt kits.

Maybe the failure to recognize those issues come from your statement that you believe climbing to be a "selfish" sport. From an existential perspective, maybe, maybe not. But the selfishness should not extend to what has happened at many newer crags, where the first ascentionists believe that they are entitled to bolt everything, thereby establishing how every route is to be climbed thereafter (And don't insult our respective intellects by arguing that 'you don't have to clip the bolts.'). If you clips bolts next to perfect cracks without a thought, you don't have a conscience.

Bottom line: sure, drop the attitudes and the elitism, but if you're unwilling to defend the natural places where we climb, you should probably stay indoors.


AJones - Nov 21, 2007 6:49 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Well intended but misses some obvious points.

I started climbing in 1982, well before the sport climbing era. If you read my article; I actually do address "chipping", listing it as an unbelievable act that some climbers do.

I totally acknowledge your right to your opinions (and again point this out in the article, noting that the issue of climbing ethics is important) - my point was that we can have this discussion in a respectful way. You telling me that "I don't have a conscience" and "not to insult your intelligence" and that "I should probably stay indoors" isn't exactly respectful. I in no way advocated mass bolting or even bolting in general, I just pointed out that the whole issue can be discussed without getting into insults, etc. Also the fact that some of us don't feel as strongly about some things as others (e.g. bolting), doesn't make us bad people - it just means we have a difference of opinion.

I also never said anything about putting bolts by a perfect crack - my point was that if this does happen, the correct response isn't to beat the person up (or further deface the rock by incorrectly removing them). Yes, again, we need to have these ethical debates, but we have to keep things in perspective.

With respect to your comment about retrobolting - I have my opinion on that, but that wasn't the point of the article, so I'm not going to get into it.

I really didn't want to get into an ethics debate. I wasn't talking about bolting vs trad. I wasn't talking about limiting the impact on rock. I wasn't talking about retro-bolting. I was saying (to say it again) that we tend to take ourselves far too seriously - climbing at its route is a useless activity. We can have passionate debates, but lets be respectful and keep in mind that we're talking about rock climbing.

I'm dissapointed that you felt the need to take my words so out of context.

eric b

eric b - Nov 26, 2007 2:21 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Well intended but misses some obvious points.

These types of people exist everywhere in the world and the best thing to do is let them rant-somewhow they feel better about cutting people down through misinterpretation of insightful articles such as yours. I had a similar thing happen to me in my 'east vs west article prelude to Kelso Ridge' where people just totally missed the point.


AJones - Nov 21, 2007 11:44 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Good article

That's funny what you said about a cure for cancer. I almost wrote something to that affect in my article. If we all stopped climbing tomorrow, 99.9999999% of the world wouldn't give a crap. Yes it's a good sport; yes, ethics are important; yes, we don't want to hurt the environment unduely; but can't we just lighten up a little (we're only climbing up rock/ice) and treat each other with respect (no matter what are viewpoints are)?


AJones - Nov 21, 2007 11:51 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Thank you for this article

Thanks for the thoughtful comments - horrible things have been done in the name of a lot of things (religion for one, but don't get me started).

You're right about climbing - you live in the moment. My buddy and I were talking one day after ice climbing. We had froze our hands and feet and scared ourselves silly, but at the end of the day we loved it. Why? We both agreed - it's because it's so intense. You're truly alive and in the moment (like you said).

The trick is (for us) balancing this high you get climbing, with the risk associated with it.

Believe it or not, we actually skip clipping bolts fairly regularly. Because we don't have a lot of trad climbing around where we live - before we do a trip into the mountains, one of the things we do to get used to the head space of being run-out, is to not clip all the bolts. Kind of weird I know, but it works.


verdeleone - Nov 25, 2007 8:55 pm - Voted 9/10

Re: Thank you for this article

"horrible things have been done in the name of a lot of things (religion for one, but don't get me started)."

And science for another, but don't get me going.

Good article.



AJones - Nov 26, 2007 12:18 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Thank you for this article

Point taken.


desainme - Nov 21, 2007 10:37 pm - Voted 10/10

Rip van Winkle effect

Does provide leisure activity not so different from Rip escaping back to the hollow. Useful aspects: John Krakauer in a 1995 article for the Nat'l Geographic on Banff Park said that when the Swiss Guides were employed there were no deaths but afterwards this changed in the Canadian Rockies. There was then some concern when Bostonian Phillip Abbot fell off of Mt. Lefroy in 1895, the first celebrated NA alpine accident, but this had the unexpected result that more people came to climb and therefore made more business for the park. This does provide a living for some folks and makes for manufacturing of hardwear, ropes, UIAA, clothing, footwear and camping stuff, book publishing. Ads: Ricola and the Marines use alpine themes.

T Sharp

T Sharp - Nov 22, 2007 12:24 pm - Voted 10/10

Well Done

"I’d rather be defined by my character and actions, than as simply “a climber”."

I enjoyed your essay, Thanks for the thoughtful composition. I too have though a lot about climbing, and have concluded it is the process of climbing that I crave.

We as climbers tend to choose partners with similar philosophies about the sport, I think this can lead to entrenched attitudes in the sport/trad camps, and also the light and fast crowd vs. the expedition alpinist. So I agree with your thesis that we all need to keep our egos "in check" as we encounter other thrill seekers in the alpine realm. I think our "sport" is comprised of mostly ethical, and kind people, however as in other sports, some people with giant egos, and poor character tend to get a lot of attention for their ill-considered actions. Dean Potter and Michael Vick leap to mind.

I loved your closing line as Aaron Johnson did, but if I might tweak it a bit [just for fun]: Simply define me as a climber, of good character and worthy actions.


AJones - Nov 22, 2007 12:52 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Well Done

Thanks for the thoughtful response - I agree with everything you said, and only wish I had of been bright enough to come up with your revised closing line. I like it better. Cheers.

Mountain Jim

Mountain Jim - Nov 22, 2007 1:15 pm - Voted 10/10

Thanks ... well said

I've been climbing for five decades and I've encountered the full range of climbing egos. It's refreshing to see a climber of your ability with a healthy perspective on life & climbing.
Climb on ... Peace, Jim


AJones - Nov 22, 2007 3:41 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Thanks ... well said

Thanks for the comment and compliment. Cheers!

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