As a budding young climber from Ohio in the early ’90s, I was eager to define myself as more than just another Midwestern suburbanite who bled scarlet and grey. Perhaps to feel more like a member of the tribe, I took pride in identifying climbers on the street, Sherlock Holmes style, based on telltale aspects of their appearance — chalky hands, a prAna T-shirt, a rope-worn biner for a keychain. There was something affirming in just knowing… and maybe getting a curt nod from a fellow climber who’d just performed the same analysis on me.
Two decades later, I no longer care whether other people climb or know that I climb. Nonetheless, I’ve refined my aptitude for picking out one of my own from a crowd. Below and in no particular order, a list of climber traits you can use to profile folks based on looks alone when they’re nowhere near a crag or a gym. Spot the Climber can be a fun game to play while people watching, or a good way to strike up a convo at a boring social event with someone who shares your love of the vertical. But take heed! One must exercise caution when making assumptions, as all of these traits on their own have crossover with other activities, making them “false tells.” And, of course it’s always important to remember that our generalizations are easily shredded by those folks who don’t particularly look like climbers (too tall and lanky, too short and stocky, too much fat, not enough muscle, “wrong” clothes, etc.), but who will teach you a lesson when it comes to moving over stone and ice.
Obviously, this is an abridged list. What are some of the traits you use to identify a climber in the wild?
The hands are the most critical body part in climbing, and they get used and abused to no end. Climbers are constantly gripping sharp or highly textured rock surfaces, leading to all manner of scrapes and flappers. Climbers’ digits often grow thicker and more knuckly with age, until they take on the appearance of overstuffed sausages and are so bound up with scar tissue and tendonitis they can barely sign the credit card receipt for a new hang board. Crack climbers’ hands are perhaps the most unsightly, with patches of raspberry-textured scabbing from getting squeezed and screwed between two immovable planes of sandpapery stone. Climbing in cold weather, plus the use of drying agents like chalk, liquid chalk, and antihydral, can lead to cracked and split skin. Finally, holding the rope while belaying transfers dirt and fine metal particles onto a climber’s hands, leading to black streaks across the middle of the palms. Oy vey!
False tell: mechanic, construction worker, craftsman
Wears Approach Shoes
In order to sure-footedly scramble over rock slabs, teeter across talus fields, and even edge up sections of moderate fifth-class, climbers purchase a special sort of sneaker. From the outside, many of these “approach shoes” look no different from trail runners or even skate shoes, but a true climber knows how to spot the brands (Five Ten, La Sportiva, Scarpa, Evolv, Mad Rock, etc.) that make real approach shoes, and the gluey black rubber (with names like Vibram and Stealth) that give them their secret sticking powers.
False tell: Non-climbing outdoorsy types who shop indiscriminately at the REI sale rack, parkour practitioners
Chalky Clothes & Face
First used by gymnasts for grip on various apparati (pommel horse, rings, and bars), chalk, aka magnesium carbonate, serves as a drying agent on sweaty hands. Little surprise, then, that John Gill, godfather of modern bouldering, adopted chalk for climbing way back in 1954. Over the years, chalk has become ubiquitous enough that pretty much every climber at a crag or in a gym carries his or her own bag full of the stuff. Now every popular route and problem has a heathy trail of the stuff leading to the top, and every climber has chalk compacted beneath his fingernails, dusting his hair, forming ghostly hand prints on his clothing, and rattling around in his alveoli (“I think I’m getting the white lung, pop!” *cough cough*). One friend of mine has a funny habit of chalking up immediately before putting the rope in his teeth to make a clip, leaving him with a chalky lip that screams, “I plundered the powdered donut jar.”
False tell: Baker, cocaine addict, gymnast
Carabiners on Person
The climbing carabiner as we know it today was devised by a guy named Otto around the turn of the 20th century. Originally used to connect to anchors, biners have come into popular favor and are now put to use connecting any two things that need connecting. Many climbers use retired biners to clip a leash to their dog’s collar or hold their keys. Less experienced climbers (or non-climbers) can often be seen using large, heavy, and expensive locking biners for such non-intended uses. A common sight on college campuses, for example, is a $20 locking carabiner dangling from the faux daisy chain running down the side of a The North Face backpack… you know, just in case.
False tell: Pretty much anybody
Lives In Boulder
The small college / mountain town of Boulder, Colorado, is one of the most climber-dense regions in the world. If someone says they are from Boulder, it is a pretty safe bet that they have a “project” at the “crag,” know how to sharpen an ice screw, or are preparing for an “objective” in the mountains.
False tell: Cyclist, endurance runner, perma-stoned college student, super-wealthy bleeding-heart liberal
For maximum performance, rock climbers typically downsize their rock shoes. In extreme cases, this crushingly tight, down-turned footwear amounts to little more than a form self-inflected foot binding. But even when climbing shoes aren’t tight, climbing itself is a foot-intensive pursuit. Multiple pitches of tiptoeing up granite edges or torquing toes into splitter cracks will take its toll. The result is bruised, missing, or fungus-infected nails, swollen toe-knuckles, and skin discolored by the climbing shoes’ dye. Alpinists and ice climbers subject their “dogs” to a different form of abuse: frostbite. In extreme cases, this can leave toes black and necrotic, resulting in permanent damage or even amputation.
Ripped Back, Lats, and Shoulders
Under the constant strain of a rock climber’s pulling motion, shoulders, back, and latissimus dorsi muscles often tend to grow large — especially in those who boulder or sport climb. Due to this powerful upper-body physique, climber dudes are incredibly prone to removing their shirts, even when it’s cold enough for them to wear a knit beanie. Likewise, climber gals will opt for open-backed dresses or even underwear masquerading as, uh, overwear (see: Verve).
False tell: Gymnast, rower, fitness fanatic, Bruce Lee
It is common knowledge that rock climbing’s constant grip-release motion results in overdevelopment of anterior flexor muscles of the forearm. The result is a large, veiny “Popeye” forearm that makes it difficult to roll up one’s shirtsleeves. Big forearms, though in many cases genetic, are taken as a point of personal pride amongst the climber set, as they are emblematic of the all-important grip strength.
Drives a Subaru
For their generous internal capacity (think: room for packs crammed with gear, crashpads, beer coolers, and all your bros and brosephinas), off-road capabilities, high reliability marks, and relatively good fuel economy, Subaru wagons have become the chariot of choice among climbers nationwide. An informal survey suggests that “Subies” account for a full 67% vehicles in the parking lot of the Boulder Whole Foods. (Toyota pick-up trucks, Honda Elements, Audis, and fixed-gear bicycles make up the remaining 33%).
False tell: Tree hugger, liberal