Are You A Climber?

Words: Shelma Jun

When can you identify as a climber? There seems to be a wide range of opinions on what defines a “real” climber—an invisible checklist. Is it once you’ve climbed a certain bouldering or sport climbing grade? Is it when you can lead climb because some (not me) believe top roping isn’t real climbing. Do you have to climb outdoors regularly? Or if you climb more consistently indoors, do you do it only to achieve your outdoor climbing goals? What about folks who only like to climb indoors and don’t have an interest in climbing outside. Are they climbers?

It has gotten to the point where many doubt their own legitimacy to self-identify as climbers. I’ve spoken with several folks who will say something like, “Well I’ve been going to the climbing gym regularly, but I’m not a climber,” as if fearing reproach for identifying as a climber when they haven’t climbed x, y and z. This is reminiscent to the times when if you were interested in joining an alpine club you had to submit a resume of accomplished climbs in order to be considered for membership. Climbing has exploded in the past ten years and as a result, there are more climbers and ways to climb. Rather than retreat to our history of exclusion, climbing should embrace its new diversity and accessibility.

“A climber is someone who spends time and effort developing their climbing,” says professional climber, Brette Harrington. “While this definition of ‘a climber’ has not changed, the spectrum on which it is measured has evolved and broadened.”

The Climbing Business Journal states that in 2008, there were only 184 climbing gyms in the United States. Ten years later, we now have 472 gyms, a 256 percent increase with a majority of these gyms opening in urban areas. There are now climbers who can climb V10 or 5.13 inside the gym before they ever touch actual rock. Often unable to easily access outdoor climbing due to factors such as geography and financial cost, one can devote hundreds of hours of climbing to hone one’s power and technique with the resources at hand. Actually, there are probably many climbers who have climbed these types of grades at a gym that have never climbed outside, and have no interest in doing so.

Climbing has also received more mainstream attention than ever before. In January 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson topped out the Dawn Wall to coverage from all major outlets that included a tweet from President Obama and a guest appearance on Ellen. Ashima Shiraishi has received attention from the New Yorker, Vice Media and even HypeBeast. In 2020, climbing will be a part of the Olympics for the first time. (Sidenote: The Olympic category of climbing includes Speed Climbing, where competitors train the exact same climb their whole careers in order to memorize the moves and shave hundredths of seconds of their time – something some climbers would say is the antithesis of their definition of climbing).

Climbing has traditionally referred to ascending a vertical rock wall in the outdoors. But let’s remember that even what is now considered the “old school” idea of climbing was new school at some point. Well into the 20th century, bouldering was seen by many as merely a training tool for larger ascents or a way to pass a bad weather day while out on expedition. Aid climbing was seen the premiere way to ascend large walls well into the late 1900’s. The definition of climbing has always shifted and changed because climbers are adventurers, constantly pushing the limits and testing the ideas of what is possible – isn’t that what we, as climbers, have prided ourselves on?

Climbing has had a unique opportunity to reach folks who have traditionally had a harder time accessing the outdoors. For example, if you want to try kayaking or mountain biking, quite a bit of effort and commitment is needed. After all, you need to figure out a way to get to the mountains (or rivers), rent expensive equipment and possibly hire a guide to take you out. With the advent of climbing gyms, folks who could not historically access outdoor sports easily can now try climbing, and even get quite good at it, right in their own city. Climbing has become a vehicle to introduce folks to the outdoors and that’s really exciting!

What are the reasons the majority of climbers enjoy climbing? Many have attributed it to the movements, the low impact, the challenge and the problem solving. “It’s really rewarding to overcome challenges, set goals for yourself and see your technique and the way that you climb get better and smoother,” says Boston based climber, Lauren Lu, on a recent trip to Moab with some good friends. “It’s a lot of the mental challenges of making yourself better at something but also a mix of the physical challenge as well.” LR Blount, another climber on the trip, says, “it’s meditative. It’s one of those sports where you really have to focus on what you’re doing, otherwise you fall.” Their friend Bethany Berkowitz adds, “It’s a great way to connect with people. You have to have trust in your friends and I think it deepens your relationship with friends if you climb together.”

For most of us, our climbing goals center around pushing our personal limits rather than the limits of the sport. Most of us climb because we enjoy the act of climbing, the challenge of climbing and the social opportunities it provides and if that’s the case, it truly doesn’t matter how hard we climb or the types of climbing that we partake in. LR Blount specifies that “if you just like to climb at the gym and it’s easy for you and is accessible, then that’s that, I don’t care if you climb only V1. I think the whole point is if you fall down you get back up and climb and you’re still a climber.” While some will always think that real climbing can only be accomplished outdoors, there are now so many different ways that climbing can be achieved and the definition of “climber” should encompass all of them.

Climbing Crew: Lanisha Blount, Eliza Hamilton, Bethany Berkowitz, Lauren Lu

Thank you to Brooklyn Boulders for hosting us at their climbing gym in Boston. 

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