Rock climbing has been steadily growing in popularity since it’s inception in the 1960’s. Today, a sport that was once practiced exclusively on solid rock has moved indoors. Now, most climbers start in the local climbing gym pulling on plastic holds.
The sport also recently passed a significant milestone and will be featured in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Many climbing organizations have been pushing for this for a long time and see it as the official recognition the sport has always needed.
However, not everyone shares the excitement about the sport’s growing popularity. After all, there are only so many rocks to climb at the local crag, and year by year the crowd grows. Many climbers would tell you that they wish the sport would have stayed on the fringe. For better or worse though, climbing is growing. What that means for the sport’s evolution will become clear in the years to come.
Two sides to the coin
I would love to say that I’ve been climbing since back in the day, that I filed my nails with the legends in places like Yosemite and Joshua Tree National Park. But I didn’t, I’m just like the rest of this new generation of climbers. I started in the local bouldering gym. My first pinch was made of plastic, my first fall was on compression pads.
As I’ve grown and matured though, my progression has taken me further and further outdoors and away from my gym-rat roots. I see the picture from both sides, just as I am caught in the middle of the changes confronting the sport.
On the one hand, climbing is healthy for the body and mind. Being able to share those benefits with more people seems like progress in the right direction. I would rather see the sport of climbing grow than the sport of football. In my experience, climbing tends to teach people humility, compassion, and a healthy lifestyle. I find climbers to be generally well rounded and kind people. The world could use a bit more of that these days.
Climbing is excellent for kids’ physical and mental development. The increased number of climbing gyms allows kids to enter the sport like never before. You can see the effect of this trend as climbing competitions begin to fill with child prodigies and young super stars. No longer do you have to be born into a climbing family to pick up the sport from an early age.
As climbing becomes more popular, there aren’t only more climbers popping up, there are more gyms as well. Nowadays, most cities have two, three or even more gyms to choose from. This doesn’t just mean fewer crowds, but it means more variety. For the indoor climbing community, that’s a huge bonus and means a lot of fun.
As climbing gyms begin to overflow with new members and fresh climbers, more and more of them set their sights outside. This has multiple implications for the outdoor rock climbing community. More is not always better.
Beyond the obvious crowding that this causes at local crags all over the country, this also affects safety and acceptable practice. After all, climbing outdoors is a community endeavor. Like they say, “it takes a village” and outdoor rock climbing is not something done without the village.
Much of this community involvement is lost on new climbers. They don’t see the years of development that went into cleaning and bolting new routes. It’s easy to miss the history of political action that it sometimes takes to keep crags open. And foremost, it can be easy for new climbers to bring unacceptable practices to the outdoors without realizing their offense.
Though the climbing community is very open and accepting in general, there is a lot of etiquettes that keeps us all safe. However new climbers have nowhere to learn this and can often find themselves offending the community unintentionally.
Little things like breaking out a boombox at the crag where others are also trying to enjoy the day can cause an annoyance. Yet bigger offenses can mean knocking a rock off a ledge and not calling the danger down to climbers below. In most sports, lack of knowledge is an annoyance, in climbing, it can put other people’s lives on the line.
Our collective way forwards
For better or for worse though, climbing has gone mainstream. There’s no more poignant reminder than the sport’s upcoming place in the Olympics. And whether the new generation will start and stay in the gym or move outdoors, they are here to stay.
Rather than complain about crowds and stigmatize new climbers as plastic pullers and gym-rats, it’s up to all of us to teach them. It’s up to us to make the future of climbing what we want it to be.
I hope that as more and more kids grow up and move outdoors onto real rock, they are welcomed by mentors, not by ill-will. Hopefully, the climbing community comes together and continues to shape this sport in positive ways. The future can not be avoided, but it can be met in a meaningful way. It is up to us what the sport becomes in the coming years.
Something made clear by Alex Honnold on his recent free solo ascent of El Capitan seems especially relevant to the direction of the sport overall. There’s no turning back.
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