I began climbing in 2011, at the age of 11 or 12 – I can’t quite remember. For reference, in April I turned 16. Like many young climbers, my first couple years of climbing were limited exclusively to the gym. I simply did not have the knowledge or experience to get out on real rock. During those introductory years, I quietly spectated with awe and admiration the gym crushers who resided almost exclusively in the ‘project cave’. The project cave was unquestionably their territory. There was an unspoken rule, promulgated long ago, that you must climb V-Hard+ to migrate from the ordinary, gumby bouldering area, to the unforgiving cave. This steeply walled subsection of the gym, set with an array of the gym’s greasiest slopers and most atrocious footholds, was reserved only for the most venerable and experienced climbers, those who had earned their passage through years of practice and dedication.
As new problems were periodically set in the ‘regular’ cave, the strong men would loudly migrate to disturb the peace and instill fear and envy in the average gym member by flashing their projects with ease. I can recall one instance in particular that has stuck with me over the years. A new set had gone up on the secluded second floor system board. Short and scrawny, I raced up the stairs, eager to climb the unfamiliar boulder problems so elegantly envisioned by our head setter. To my dismay, I spotted the project cave dwellers chalked up, spewing vulgarities, and flexing hard. I began heading back the way I came, hoping they would not notice me, but it was too late. They had made eye contact, erecting hasty judgements of my ability level and worthiness. Retreating would be perceived as a sign of weakness. I needed to be a man. I smeared chalk into my palms and got on the wall, ticking off the boulders in order from easiest to hardest. The gorillas then, I kid you not, took turns farting on me until I went away. Yes, that happened. Dejected and embarrassed, I bowed my head and trudged out of the room. It was, however, a relief to free myself from the stench of ego drenched testosterone. I had learnt my lesson: stay away from the big kids, keep to myself, and most evidently, the climbing gym was as cliquey as middle school.
Conversely, I also remember the event that led to my enlightenment of the beauty of the climbing community, along with my reassurance that the majority of climbers were pure of heart. It was late summer in the gym. I was working the first V8 that I had ever tried, an overhung aréte sloper compression problem. I had been giving it hell all week and was tantalizingly close to a send. The torrid heat and beating humidity were not improving my chances. An older man by the name of Ted, whom I had seen around the gym regularly crushing and providing positive feedback to climbers of all ages, shuffled over and began brushing the climb. In my confusion I asked if he was getting on it. He told me he was not. I demurely mumbled something along the lines of, ‘You don’t have to do that, y’know’. Ted said, “No, dude, I’m psyched to see you crush this thing”. I was in disbelief that someone would invest their time and energy into my success on an insignificant gym climb. This instance of simple generosity for the success of another climber brought me to the realization that climbing should be selfless and that the community is full of incredible and unique people, despite those who sometimes fart on you. Over the years Ted has provided me with an incredibly positive influence. He, along with many other adults willing to spend their time educating me, have molded me into the climber I am today and shown me the true spirit of the climbing community. They led me into the pursuit of real rock and helped me to experience climbing as the absurdly exceptional lifestyle that it is.
In years past, when I was a part of the youth climbing team, it was not uncommon to hear cruel words and insults whilst on the wall. Although I ultimately gained the respect of my peers, there remains an enormous number of comments and complaints regarding kids monopolizing the walls or not having an appropriate appreciation for climbing. Cruel comments such as these can be alienating, hurtful, and intimidating to children who most likely long to be genuine community members. It is valid and understandable to complain when team kids are running amok and violating gym ethics. However, if kids are not responding to coaches’ teachings and warnings regarding acceptable etiquette, then take it upon yourself to reinforce the importance of respectful gym habits. I have also heard a lot said about junior climbers having no interest in outdoor climbing; that they are simply gym rats, plastic pullers, and comp climbers. There is a certain negativity that goes along with those terms. For those complaining about the direction the young climbers are headed, it is your job and responsibility to set a positive example and to aid in the formation of the next generation.
The generalization that the youth are solely gym climbers, however, is not too far off. The gym and competition scene is all the rage right now, and I believe it is the future. The gym scene is appealing to the budding climbers for a variety of reasons. We are now seeing more and more bouldering and climbing ‘factories’. Corporately run aesthetic gyms that lack heart, tradition, history, and soul. The intentions of such gyms are to bring in new faces and showcase the sport as an idealist ‘outdoor’ lifestyle, thereby selling it for big bucks. Climbing was, in a recent New Yorker article, compared to tennis or squash. Climbing, however, is not entirely comprised of well-dressed, clean, and wealthy individuals. The true community is composed of quirky people running from the proverbial constraints of everyday culture and society. It is not only an escape and a hideaway for those who simply refuse to conform to the expectations of the world, but also an enhancement of our otherwise mundane lives. Despite the monumental impact of the new plastic scene, a diminishing percentage of the youth will still be intrigued to inevitably venture to the outdoors.
With thousands of fresh, crisp gym waivers being signed daily, the sport of climbing is growing exponentially. Despite the increasing role of gyms and competitions, many climbers will inevitably be drawn into the great outdoors. As more and more shoes tread the once overgrown trails, erosion intensifies, shit begins to litter the forest floor, and tumbleweeds of used-bloody tape meander along the crag. Foot long ticks go unbrushed, holds become slick, worn, and chipped, and most impressively, entire climbing areas are floored with plush gym padding. The impact of the rising climber population is already being seen clearly in areas like Bishop or Joe’s Valley, where more frequent clean-ups and increasing donations are needed to ensure access. Hueco Tanks’ ecosystem is so fragile that you are no longer allowed to climb in the park without being carefully surveyed by a guide. Preservation of our wild areas should be at the heart of the climbing discussion. For example, the viewership of large competitions and live feeds provide an opportunity to promote the Access Fund’s mission and the positive treatment of our beloved crags. Conserving the areas of the future begins with the education of the inexperienced now.
It is well understood that the environments of our climbing destinations are in a delicate state, and there has been plenty of talk regarding how to go about making positive changes. However, it is time for action. Youth climbing education is something that is simply not present – I can tell you that first hand. There are a variety of ways in which we could work towards the respect and understanding of actions and their consequences for the coming generation. The Access Fund, or a similar organization, could coordinate fun and interactive seminars through gyms. Youth teams and coaches can dedicate more time to educate and provide worthwhile informative experiences. Kids can be more thoroughly encouraged to participate in clean up events through social media and interpersonal interaction. However the most important and effective form of ensuring the future of our climbing prosperity is achieved through individual mentorship taken on by active and contributing members of the community. Incredible things can be achieved with the efforts of many. It does not take much to be the Ted to a kid like me.
Like it or not, the next generation is here, they are warming up on your projects, and it is time to recognize, accept, and embrace them. Cease the complaints and ridicule of young climbers. Do your part to mold the youth into climbers who will best maintain our climbing environments and our sport’s prosperity. Kids are moving the sport into new and untouched grounds and progressing beyond what had been previously deemed as impossible. The impending years will witness some ground-breaking things for climbing. For better or for worse these changes and evolutions are taking place. The gym scene opens up new and vast opportunities for the older generation to mentor and guide adolescents into contributing and admirable societal members. It is imperative that the adults of the climbing community ensure that the developing climbers treat the sport and the environment responsibly, respectfully, and knowledgeably.
— Guest Post written by Eric Jerome.