Climbing Community

Climbers in the Red River Gorge
Climbing brought us together: the old Ohio crew hanging out in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

At the end of the song “Cliff Hanger,” by Blackalicious, there’s a sample from a 1968 Stokely Carmichael speech. It goes: “Wherever you go, the first place you go is to your people … And once we begin to understand that the concept of community is simply one of our people, it don’t make a difference where we are. We are with our people and, therefore, we are home.” Carmichael was talking about the African diaspora, about black Africans living not just in the U.S. but all over the world. This remains a serious topic, and Carmichael’s context, as an activist during the civil rights era, was exceptionally charged. Despite coming from a very different background, that snippet of his speech alway seemed to stick in my ear. Sometimes I’d wonder, Who are my “people”? Who do I go to first when I’m in a new place?

My parents moved to Virginia a few years after I went away to college. The first time I visited my new familial home base, I immediately located the local climbing gym and the nearest outdoor gear shop. If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you won’t be surprised to hear that, more than any other group to which I claim membership, climbers are my people. Wherever the climbers are, that’s where I find a certain sense of home.

In an interesting essay, climber and CU-Boulder Religious Studies Professor Greg Johnson writes, “I am certain that I have more in common—in terms of passions, appetites, ideals—with climbers from, say, Thailand, than I do with my neighbors. So it is that climbers can travel the world and have ready-made communities waiting to accept them.” This last sentence rang particularly true for me, and following are two of quite a few examples that illustrate it:

In 2006, I went to Italy. There, a guy named Lorenzo, who I met on a bizarre, nearly defunct internet forum called boldering.com, picked me up at a train station and took me to his local climbing spot. Lorenzo knew next to nothing about me except that I climbed. Still, each of us took it on faith that the other would be a good and agreeable person. Just hours after meeting, we sat under big boulders in an ancient wood and spoke like old friends. That night we drank wine at an osteria and ate pasta his friend’s 500-year-old apartment. Without the climbing community to act as bonding agent, I doubt Lorenzo (or anyone) would have shown a random tourist such hospitality.

The second example is set in Australia, where I was rolling around solo for a month after a friend’s wedding. Here, a small group of climbers I met while at the crags in Grampians National Park offered me beer, beta, and places to crash. One of them showed me around the Blue Mountains, and another took me to a little sport crag called Nowra, which I’d probably never have visited otherwise. Another of these guys, a pro climber named Chris, handed me the key to his house back in Sydney and told me to make myself at home while he stayed on to climb.

“The very ritualism of climbing is so explicit and marked that it constitutes the primary identity of most adherents,” writes Johnson in his essay. “This makes climbers remarkably visible and sympathetic to one another.” And it’s true. How else would a lone traveler find such warm reception amongst strangers? No, not all climbers are so welcoming, but the fact remains that a strong connection exists between and among many of us, sight unseen.

Communal connection is by no stretch unique to climbers. Stokely Carmichael believed that blackness was the most important form of community (indeed, he believed it was a matter of survival that black people stand together in the face of extreme racism). For many, religion is the primary identity that binds them to others. Most of us belong to multiple communities, based on language, sexual orientation, interests, alma maters, and on and on…

The great thing about these communities is that they all can be powerful sources of human connection, and therefore strength, happiness, growth. The bad thing about these communities is that they can be grounds for excluding the “other,” and therefore negativity, anger, blame, and—with depressing frequency—violence.

That is why, as climbers, I think we should embrace our shared identity in positive ways, as we often do when a fellow climber is injured or in need, while at the same time rejecting the inter-group strife (sport vs. trad, gym vs. outdoor, experienced vs. n00b) and the unhealthy desire to exclude and judge that belonging to a community can encourage. We must remember that we draw strength from belonging not only to specific groups, but also to that most general of groups, humanity, to which we all belong.

Take it even farther and consider that we share the Earth not only with other humans, but also with living beings and natural places of unimaginable variety and beauty. That these, too, can be treated as if they are “our people.” Learn to do this and wherever you go can be your home. It’s a bit of a tall order, I admit, but a noble quest, if ever there was one.

Climbing Gyms and the Power of Plastic

Brock bouldering at Vertical Adventures in Columbus, OH
Brock climbing with a mind of play. Vertical Adventures, Columbus, Ohio.

This weekend I brought my nephew, Brock, to Vertical Adventures, a climbing gym in Columbus, Ohio. Brock is seven, and Vertical Adventures — Vert, as some regulars know it — is one of the first places I ever climbed. It’s also one of the first places I worked, where I met many good friends I keep in touch with to this day, where I learned how to set a route, smack talk, belay, use proper footwork, train… . It’s also where I first developed that love of the vertical that binds a motley subset of humans into a strangely vibrant community.

Brock is still new to climbing, but he clearly has the bug. At Vert, He climbed with a mind of play, not much interested in following the specific routes or problems. He grabbed whatever holds looked good, cutting his feet dramatically every couple of moves and then dropping to the pads and rolling around. He watched the other climbers, tried out some new moves, and even brushed chalk off the holds for his aunt Kristin. When I asked if I could get a dip of the white stuff, he offered generously, “You can use my chalk; I don’t mind!” Kristin and I left after a few hours, but Brock and his dad stayed on to climb until dinner.

Alexis and Carrie Roccos opened Vertical Adventures in January 1994. At that time, gyms were just starting to sprout up around the country and were especially novel in the heartland. (Vertical World, widely regarded as America’s first commercial gym, opened in Seattle in 1987.) Together with a friend, Alexis constructed the gym’s walls out of plywood and two-by-fours, paint and elbow grease. It was a leap of faith for the couple, who moved to Columbus from the East Coast.

I started climbing at Vert as soon as it opened. I was so excited to have a real climbing gym in town, I shadowed Alexis for my freshman year career day. I helped him pound T-nuts in the sawdusty warehouse space near the Anheuser Busch brewery. Later, in the summers when I returned from college, Carrie and Alexis kindly hired me on as a temp worker, which helped pay for gas, food, and CDs.

Vert and the people I met there over the years played an important role in my development as a human being. Not long before the gym opened, I’d gotten in some trouble hanging out with what you’d call bad seeds — kids who used drugs, huffed paint, stole, fought, basically did whatever they could to numb or lash out against the pain of their broken, abusive households or emotionally absent parents. In great contrast, my parents, loving and supportive, helped me through my own poor decisions in those angst-filled years. Meanwhile, the community that gathered on the walls of a small Midwestern climbing gym offered examples of what healthy friendships were like, what it meant to live a life centered on something you love rather than reacting to things you fear, hate, or resent.

Community is the best word I can conjure for the group of regulars that developed at Vert during the years I climbed there. We not only climbed, but socialized together, watched the Super Bowl together, attended each other’s weddings. When one of our own, a strong young climber named Jeremy, was injured in a car accident one night on the way home from the gym, a group of his friends organized a fundraiser at Vert to help offset some of his heavy medical costs. When Jeremy needed a wheelchair ramp, the crew from Vert, among others, came together and built one.

“I think that people will meet in a variety of settings. Church, on a bike, at a climbing wall, in a pub, at work, etc.,” Alexis wrote to me in an email, but added, “The gym does make that process easier. (Kind of like lube.)” Personally, I felt Vert was more than just lube: it was a hub, a catalyst. But perhaps that was due in part to its location far from natural crags. Still, there are many, many towns similarly situated, and for them, gyms really can create a community of climbers that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

A lot of climbers talk trash about gyms. For some reason, they like to remind others and themselves that climbing outside is real climbing, and climbing in gyms is practice, for gumbies or for kids. Now, I’d be hard pressed to trade time on the rocks for time on plastic, but the truth is, gyms are the biggest thing to happen to climbing in decades. Gyms are the wide end of a funnel through which people of all backgrounds and walks of life can access the climbing life, not just those lucky enough to grow up close to Yosemite, the Gunks, Southeast’s bouldering goldmine.

I started climbing in a gym, but I’m not alone. So did Alex Honnold and Beth Rodden, Sasha DiGiulian and Chris Sharma, and many other climbing heroes today held up as exemplary in the media. Plenty of kids escape the frustrations and pressures of adolescence at their local rock gym. A lot of folks make lifelong friends in the gym, not to mention partners who one day will accompany them up big walls or high peaks. Plenty of busy working parents find the time to keep climbing thanks to the convenience of gyms. Without gyms as training centers, few of today’s hardest climbs would have seen their first ascents. Gyms and the competitions held in them may well be the key to climbing’s future inclusion in the Olympics. The list goes on…

Brock is young yet; there’s no way to tell if he’ll be a lifer or if he’ll move on to other pursuits and forget about climbing. Either way, he has already found a rich new activity through which he can bond with his dad and other kids his age. Lately, he’s been learning to tie knots with a strand of cordelette he bought at Vert, and has plans to come visit Kristin and me in Utah, where I hope to take him out onto the beautiful sandstone in the south of the state — an experience he probably wouldn’t have been so excited about if it hadn’t been for the humble climbing gym.