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The Gumby Guru: Why are Climbers So Toxic Online?

By all accounts, climbers do a good job of watching out for each other in the backcountry. Online, however, it’s a different story. What is it about the digital platform that makes us all quick to jab at each other?

One of the things I’ve always loved about the climbing community is how accepting it is. Everyone jokes on gumbies, of course (just look at the title of my column…) but it’s almost always lighthearted, and when it comes down to it out at the crag you’re usually going to find someone willing to lend a helping hand if you need it. Spotting each other for belays, helping a fellow party retrieve gear from a route they bailed on, calling for or providing aid in case of an accident, giving helpful route beta or tips to the novice, and so on. 

By all accounts, climbers do a good job of watching out for each other in the backcountry. 

Online, however, it’s a different story. What is it about the digital platform that makes us all quick to jab at each other?

If you’re reading this article, chances are you came from an Instagram or Facebook post. Aside from hanging out at the crag or gym, the way geographically disparate members of our community most commonly interact with each other is online. It’s how we view and share climbing videos, photos, articles, beta, trip reports, and more. It’s how we chat about news, get advice from fellow climbers, learn new skills, and so on. It’s also how we stay entertained. Climbing meme accounts are growing extremely popular on social media. 

Unfortunately, the internet is undoubtedly a breeding ground for toxic behavior, with hateful comments thrown around right and left with little regard. A few months back, when a handicapped climber inadvertently bolted over some petroglyphs near Arches National Park, mistaking them for graffiti (an incident I reported on for Climbing), he received death threats online. Among other despicable responses, there were calls on social media for his hands to be cut off. 

Bolting over the petroglyphs was a tragedy, to be sure, but threatening another climber with death is at least equally as despicable, if not more so. 

Sadly, often it’s not even controversial posts and stories that result in this sort of toxicity. Even the most neutral online posts see their fair share of backlash from haters, complainers, and trolls. Gym Climber recently published an article, “Queer Fear: The Power of Affinity Spaces in the Climbing Community,” by Lor Sabourin (they/them) a nonbinary climber. The Instagram post caption announcing the article consisted of the following snippet from Sabourin’s piece: 

I had grown up believing that the only way that I would be able to succeed in the outdoor industry would be to downplay my queer identity. At the time, I had not met any LGBTQ+ people who worked in the industry and definitely had not seen anyone talk openly about their identity. Without representation, I assumed that it was safest to hide that part of myself. If I could assimilate, I would be accepted and loved.

In short, this article was Sabourin, one of the strongest trad climbers in the world, sharing their own personal experience with climbing. It was just someone sharing their story, and how they experienced the climbing community. No issue, right? By and large, isn’t that what climbing media is about? People sharing their stories?

It’s hard to understand where the vitriol came from here, but as expected, the trolls came out. “Bal bka bla. More ‘climber’ interesting, is that the route is called Clip em or skip em. 5.8+. Frenchman’s @ Columbia River Gorge,” commented one individual, clearly confused about the difference between a magazine and Mountain Project (not to mention the basic rules of the English language). 

“Lol this is absolutely stupid. No body cares , the reason you felt that way was your own self control problems,” wrote another, assuming the right to blatantly invalidate the experiences of a person they’ve never met, all based on a 100-word Instagram caption.

It’s impossible to know this for sure, but I’m willing to bet that neither of these people would’ve said this to Sabourin if they met them at the crag in person, nor would other climbers have stood for this if it happened in front of them. 

Likewise, I doubt anyone would have walked up to the petroglyph bolter, a disabled Iraq War veteran who founded “a blood drive aimed [at bringing] together Muslim and veteran students,” at a San Diego community college, and threatened him with death, or said his hands should be cut off.

Online, on the other hand… this toxicity seems to be just par for the course.

As a regular contributor to Climbing, Gym Climber, and formerly Rock and Ice for the past several years, I’ve received my fair share of hate online, too. Interestingly, almost all of it is exclusively limited to the public platform (i.e. public comments sections). Almost every time someone leaves an angry comment, if I respond to them privately, calmly explaining why I wrote what I wrote without using curse words or TYPING IN ALL CAPS or being snide, they seem to feel embarrassed, and they often apologize, even if they maintain respectful disagreement with my point. It’s as though commenters on posts think they’re addressing a void as opposed to a person, but in DMs, they often respond quite differently. 

We can disagree with each other, but calling for violence, invalidating others’ experiences, using slurs… this stuff has no place in our community.

Social media is a great thing in that it gives us all a voice. Let’s be a little more careful about how we use that voice. First things first, if you see a social media post about an article, go ahead and read the actual article, not just the post caption, before you comment anything. You owe the author that much. I can’t begin to count how many times people have shit on my writing in a social media comment section while making it clear they didn’t even read the article in question.

Articles notwithstanding, anytime you see something that, for whatever reason, makes you feel the need to leave an angry or disrespectful comment… chill out, think thrice, and before you do any typing, ask yourself, “Would I stand up on a podium in front of the hundreds of people who are viewing this post and comment section and say what I’m saying in person?”