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This Is The Correct Climbing Experience

Answer: D) All of the above.

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A couple of weeks ago, Gym Climber published what I found to be a fascinating piece. It was entitled, “‘I’m With You, Man’ and Other Loving Expressions in Climbing.” The author, Christopher Schafenacker, wrote about how as a straight man, rock climbing was key to dismantling some of his toxic masculine tendencies. 

“Climbing was the first place I felt OK being masculine and vulnerable,” wrote Schafenacker. “The safety of being able to shout ‘watch me’ to my homies down below and receive ‘I’m with you, man’ in response has opened the door to showing those same friends real caring in other ways, too. Our sport inherently lays the groundwork for affectionate deep connections and I think men stand to benefit from this in unique ways.”

When Gym Climber posted a link to the article on Facebook, one of the comments I saw below the post was this:

What is happening to the world. Who are these people? The unspoken connection between climbing partnerships is the whole point, it always has been. Men don’t need to benefit from anything, it’s just a benefit of having a passion for climbing. This magazine is a hack job.

Aside from the cringe-worthy melodrama exhibited here (“wHaT iS hApPeNiNg tO tHe WoRLd?”), this comment perfectly highlighted one of the biggest problems with the climbing community. 

Everyone is obsessed with the idea that there is a single “correct” climbing experience.

I’m a straight male, too, and what Schafenacker wrote about wasn’t really my experience growing up as a climber. His piece may not have been about your climbing experience, either, or your buddy’s climbing experience. It clearly wasn’t in line with the climbing experience of the person who commented on the Facebook post.

But it was someone’s climbing experience, and that not only makes it valid and true (obviously), but it makes it worth sharing. 

There is no absolute truth about what climbing “is” or what climbing “means.” The beauty of our sport is that it means so many different things to so many people.

The attempted refutation of this intrinsic truth is where almost all hate and conflict in the climbing community comes from (in other words, from people trying to decide for others what climbing means, or why climbing matters). “Climbing is about being out in nature, that’s why gym climbing sucks.” “Climbing is about freedom from rules and boundaries, that’s why climbing competitions are bogus.” “Climbing is about strength and skill, that’s why speed climbing is stupid.” “Climbing is about risk and danger, that’s why trad is the only real style of climbing.”

Shut up with that nonsense. Climbing may be about that for you, but who are you to say what it’s about for anyone else?

One of the most incredible outcomes of our sport’s exponential growth over the last couple of decades is that climbing is no longer defined by the narrow boundaries of a niche dirtbag counterculture, where getting stoned and living in a tent and having a moniker like “Roach” or “Beanbag” is as critical to the climbing experience as roping up and leading a pitch of rock. 

Climbing is a sport that attracts all walks of life, and the love of climbing manifests itself in countless ways.

Climbing gave meaning to my life as a young person. It was my entire identity as a teen. I wanted to dress like a climber, talk like a climber, and think like a climber, 24/7. I wanted risk and danger, I wanted to be in nature, I wanted to get grimy and take big whippers and send big walls and someday have a big handlebar mustache like Jim Bridwell.

But for some of my best friends growing up, climbing was (and still is) simply a way to stay physically fit. For others, it’s a social community. For others it’s therapy. The list goes on.

This is why stories like Drew Hulsey’s are so inspiring and impactful. Climbers refuse to be defined by stereotypes like weight, ethnicity, religion, or economic class. Our ranks are constantly growing, expanding, and diversifying.

Our sport is no longer delineated by a certain lifestyle, social class, or belief system. It’s slowly diffusing throughout all walks of life, like other mainstream sports such as soccer or basketball. Millions of people around the world are roping up, all in different styles and locales, from comp walls in Japan to roadcut mountain crags in Brazil to inner-city gyms in Denver.

Is “the unspoken connection between climbing partnerships,” as the Facebook hater put it, one of the great things about the sport of climbing? Sure. Is it “the whole point” of climbing, and has it “always been” the whole point? 

Absolutely not. 

Look, each of us already knows our own personal reasons for loving climbing. Why would we want our climbing magazines to be echo chambers for our own lived experience? Commenters like this fellow (and many other Internet trolls I see commenting on climbing articles) appear to just want writing from people who think of climbing in exactly the same way they do, and who love climbing for the exact same reasons as them. 

The beauty of unique perspectives like Schafenacker’s and Hulsey’s is that we get to hear what other people’s reasons for climbing are, what their experience with our sport is, and how they’ve benefited from it. Before reading Schafenacker’s piece, I had never thought about how climbing can foster unique male-on-male emotional bonds in a way that other sports or activities in traditional mainstream culture may not. 

Climbing’s potential for diversity is probably my favorite thing about the sport. I’m stoked every time I see a piece like Schafenacker’s pop up on my feed.

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