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The Gumby Guru: Recycled Climbing

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Climbing is tricky when it comes to sustainability. That’s because most of the gear we use, aside from our shoes, is playing a direct role in keeping us alive. Sustainability is easy to preach about when the gear you use isn’t life or death, but in climbing, it usually is. That’s why most climbing gear isn’t returnable, and why no one is out here buying used ropes or used biners (read: no one who doesn’t have a death wish). 

The “State of Climbing 2019” report, published by the American Alpine Club, found that climbers spent $168,989,622 on gear in 2018, and that number came at the end of an increase of nearly 15% over the 36-months during which the study took place. 

It’s not exactly surprising that two of the categories accounting for some of the highest spending, ropes and shoes, are also the two things we have to replace most often. Climbers spent more money on shoes than any other category of gear, and shoes accounted for $42.2 million spent, far more than was spent on the second highest category, “Climbing Accessories” ($24.8 million). Ropes were also high on the list, at $14.2 million.

The same report found that “On average, climbers spend more than $1,200 more than the average outdoor consumer on gear and apparel.” It’s not just because our sport is naturally expensive, either. Remember that 15% spending increase cited above? It wasn’t because we were spending more, but because prices were rising. Almost all unit prices rose nearly 25% over the study period. The category which saw the most change was “Climbing Accessories,” which saw a 36% price hike. Yikes.

So, devising and implementing sustainable use practices doesn’t just make our sport more eco-friendly, it also makes it more affordable. Recycled gear means less waste in landfills and less money out of our pockets.

Here are a few ways we improve our sustainability.

Resole Your Shoes

That $42.2 million spent on shoes in 2018… How much of that do you think is climbers getting their second or third pair of shoes for the year? Most climbers I know go through a couple pairs of shoes a year, sometimes more. Those run around $150 each time, and often go higher. When shoes are busted, we toss ‘em. It’s ironic, really, because climbing shoes are perhaps the only piece of gear we can afford to be lenient with, at least where quality is concerned. They’re the one piece of gear in our arsenal that our safety isn’t dependent on.

It’s not often talked about as an option, but climbing shoe resolers are out there. You can get your shoe completely resoled for as little as $45, with rand repairs as low as $15 or $20, depending on the outfit. Sometimes, it’s even cheaper than that. 

So next time you see a toe poking through your shoes, why not send ‘em in for a repair? Even the best resoling won’t make the shoe ‘good as new’ performance-wise (at the end of the day an old shoe is still an old shoe), but you avoid sending a pair of salvageable shoes to the trash and you save a ton of cash in the process.

If you are going to get rid of your old shoes, consider sending them to a place like NYC resoler Flash Friction, where they can be repurposed, instead of a landfill. Flash Friction is collecting and resoling used climbing shoes to donate to the underprivileged, and there are other initiatives like theirs popping up around the country.  

Repurpose Your Old Gear

There comes a time when every piece of gear needs to be retired, but that doesn’t mean it can’t find use in another capacity. Rope mats, rope clotheslines, rope dog leashes, carabiner keychains… There are dozens of ways you can repurpose your climbing gear when it’s worn out. Yes, rope repurposing is the most talked about, but if you get creative, you can reuse just about anything. An old helmet can work as a bowl, some of my old burned out belay gloves now double as yard work gloves or motorcycle gloves when I go riding. 

Because our life is dependent on our climbing gear, that often means we retire our gear long before the material itself is bereft of functional use. Keep that in mind. Sure, maybe a worn down biner isn’t worthy of catching your whippers anymore, but it can hold lots of other things.

Minimize Performance Gear Purchases

Do you really need that more aggressive pair of shoes? Those slightly lighter quickdraws? That more breathable helmet? 

Performance is a never-ending sliding scale. Advancements are always being made. Gear that was top-end 20 years ago is stuff even the cheapest climber wouldn’t touch now, and the stuff Ondra is using right now probably won’t be hanging on anyone’s harness in 2040. 

So maybe you don’t need to hop on the constant train of buying the hottest cutting-edge gear every year. It’s not like climbing companies are out here actively sabotaging older versions of their gear (cough cough… Apple). Purchase gear for longevity, as opposed to performance, and you’re on track towards a much more sustainable climbing career.

Rethink Technical Apparel

Just because a pair of pants was made by The North Face doesn’t mean you’re going to crush any harder in them than you will wearing a pair of pants from your local thrift store. 

Some of my best ticks have been in a pair of cotton pants my dad gave me like seven years ago. Meanwhile, a technical shell (MSRP $650 approx) that I got as a freebie for doing a product review a couple years back tore on on a rock on it’s second outing. Technical apparel is great, and if you’re heading up K2 in winter or something, sure, it’s understandable to want to have the best gear money can buy. But if you’re just out here cragging, and your choice of apparel isn’t a life or death choice but a performance / comfort one, why not shop for used apparel instead? 

Shopping in-person at thrift and consignment stores is always best, to avoid the whole wasteful and polluting shipping process, but for safe online thrifting during the pandemic, try, which is where I’ve been buying my clothes lately.

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Owen Clarke is a writer currently based in Tennessee. He is a Contributing Digital Editor at Rock and Ice and Gym Climber. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights.

Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.