Friday, January 9, 2015

The Responsible Climbing Gym: Access, Experience and Social responsibilities


The term "community" is used a lot in the climbing world. Gyms talk about their community much like it's a tribe, something that they are proud of, that their patrons have loyalty and alliance to, which for the most part, this is true.

You can go to almost any crag in the US and find people toting their gym "Belay Certified" card on their harness. To many climbers, they consider these people the stereotypical "noobs", those who have yet to realise the unwritten social rule that wearing your gym card is a sign of inexperience, and often someone worth steering clear of (especially if you don't want to watch an accident unfold). To others it's a rubber-banded flag of affiliation, one that encourages social interaction and is worn with pride.

Whatever your perspective may be, stereotypes exist for a reason. Those of us who have saved our fair share of people from almost certain injury, or worse, due to their lack of instruction, know that the majority are completely unaware of the danger they're putting themselves AND their partners in. Confronting unsafe practice can be incredibly uncomfortable for both parties, as no-one wants to be a "busy body", and less so to be informed their climbing is reckless. The handful of times that this has been myself, cautiously sharing experience gained from working as a guide, I often look for a belay tag and question; where on earth did they learn to climb?

Admittedly, this is not a completely fair way to pass judgement. After all, everyone makes mistakes when learning and it's often sheer luck that they do not sustain an injury in the process. But in the same way that climbers attach their gym's logo to their harness, I attach their inexperience and behaviour in the outdoors to their gym.

Having moved to the US some years ago from the UK, I'm very aware of the differences in the climbing industry, behaviour and culture between the two countries. In the US, for example, there is no universal standard for instructing climbing skills and practices. The executive decision falls to the gym owner / operator to enforce what is safe practice. Having visited a large number of gyms across the US and witnessed all manner of belay techniques (some of which make me shiver at the thought of being on the sharp end), it's clear that education standards in the American climbing industry are not keeping up with the boom in climbing gyms, which is likely a contributor to the growing number of  climbing related injuries throughout the US both indoors and out.

This is obviously an over-simplified version of reality which has many factors to it that people can argue for and against. What I'm truly getting at is this: Where does the line begin and end for climbing gyms responsibility to educate its members in both safe practices and stewardship? 

To understand the scope of this question and to shed some light on where the future of climbing is heading, it helps to take a look back at the history of modern climbing and see where it came from. 

Rock climbing, for all intents and purpose, is a relatively new sport that has gone through a number of radical changes since it became a recognised sport at the end of the 19th century. Originally reserved for the bold and the brave, it has advanced from hip belays to auto locking devices, static hemp ropes tied around the waist to dynamic chemical coated ropes that attach to a harness and skills originally passed from leader to second over years of climbing are now often compressed into a two hour class at an indoor climbing gym.

With its obvious inherent dangers, advancements in the sport have for the most part been concentrated in the direction of improved safety and performance through technology due to the limitations of old equipment. But with modern equipment now often surpassing its required functionality, could it be that one of the biggest dangers our sport faces is not that our equipment is insufficient, but that we lose access to our outdoor spaces?

With new climbers now being educated through gyms instead of mentors on a rapid crash course involving some version of the "punch-brake-slide" belay technique, the soft skills such as ethics are often left out as an unnecessary "extra" rather than part of the fundamentals. This in turn is contributing to the growing problem of land access as more and more uneducated climbers continue to unknowingly abuse their privilege to climb in the outdoors. 

Though we are lucky to have incredible companies such as The Access Fund to help educate climbers in what is acceptable conduct in the outdoors, their battle is made increasingly difficult as many gyms are not pro-active in passing on this information. Gyms may argue that they display posters provided by The Access Fund on how to be responsible climber. However, is this effort great enough when others witness a gyms members stuffing trash into cracks, blasting music at the crag or covering a rock in enough tick marks that it resembles a MOMA art installation?

I believe that, as Bob Dylan so eloquently put it, “The times are a changin” and that climbing gyms should do more to preserve the future of our sport through actively educating members in outdoor conduct. This doesn’t need to be anything drastic. It could be done in all manner of simple ways such as: Adding an additional section to their classes that focuses on the subject,  Handing out postcards at the gym, Having an outdoor awareness month and Gym presentations on the matter. If a gym did want to be radical in its approach they could go as far as to work in a membership to The Access Fund with every membership to the gym, thus enabling them to have a direct outreach to these climbers as they join our community. I don’t claim to know the perfect solution to solve this problem, but know that taking some action is better than not. 

I’ve been told by a handful of gym owners that “no one becomes a climber to make money, it’s for the love”. If they truly believe this, then we can hope that they can understand the crucial role they play in nurturing our industry, ensuring future generations can enjoy our climbing areas, the same way we are able to now.