“Because it’s there.” – George Mallory
Mallory disappears somewhere on the naked slopes of Everest along with Andrew Irvine in 1924. Since then, his remarks have echoed throughout the climbing worldview as a sort of coda, an attachment to the freewheeling nature of our sport. Conquistadors of the useless preached Yvon Chouinard, giving Lionel Terray the perfect title for his own book on his exploits. The fetishization of climbers seeking something pure and ultimately ephemeral on the lonely summit. A halcyon past evoked through a reimagination and rehistorization of reality.
Today, Sprinter vans clog parking lots. Gyms pop up in Texas, Illinois, Kansas, hundreds of miles from the nearest climbable rock. The Dawn Wall ascent is watched on thousands of computer screens, bringing climbing to the masses. The sport is growing.
And yet, “old timers” like myself decry this growth. We ask the climbing world whether we have lost our soul. Whither have you gone, free alpinist, lurching forward against snow, ice, and history? But to do so requires us to create fictions, to invent myths, to shift the past into something we want to believe in opposition to what was.
Recently, the online climbing world has been buzzing with the clash between Sasha DiGiulian and Joe Kinder. A few years past, this very public argument would have only been known around the campfire at the Pit or over Ale 8’s at Miguels (see how I namedropped there?), yet in today’s world of social media, this tinder burst into flames. To quickly sum up: Kinder had been bullying DiGiulian for years, and finally she called him out. His sponsors in response to public outcry dropped him. Within swirled currents of body shaming, cheating, trolling, and more. I don’t wish to delve to deeply, so you can read here.
What did strike me is the anger of commentators on the climbing forums aimed at DiGuilian’s commodification and Instazation of the sport. Climbers attacked DiGuilian for her self-promoting style, her appeal to the masses, her obvious acumen in social media. And in doing so, they resurrected the ghost of “pure” climbing, a revenant that betrays our community.
In full disclosure, I am torn over the growth in our sport (read here). I have invented my own past of empty parking lots, quiet crags, and the surprise of meeting other climbers. While this feels true to me, it apologizes too much–I follow too much in the footsteps of others for this to be reality, as do the majority of climbers. As well, the advent of gyms and the spreading popularity of climbing has brought me some of my dearest friends, has democratized and expanded the opportunities to diversify the sport, has transformed me from climber to mentor. And I love seeing the addiction switch on in newbie climbers, the shift from “That was fun” to “This is life!” And, as age and ability have softened, I’m happier now enjoying a day of leading easy routes for friends simply to supply them with the nicotine of movement over stone (though I strategically plan outings to crags with something for myself, too). Yes, I often have my choice of mentees, but should not that extend to all interested in the sport? And simply because I was climbing first, does that mean I get to pull the rope up after me?
But to return to DiGuilian…and the larger conversation in the community currently: How do we collectively deal with growing pains? I saw many commentators disparaging the young phenom for her adept handling of her corporate persona. Yet the history of climbing (and its forebears of alpinism and exploration) is filled with self-promotion and the search for funding. Assaults on the Himalaya were viewed with national pride, supported by governments and societies that saw these early feats as intrinsic to global status. Jim Whittaker on the summit of Everest notably flew his nation’s flag, as have so many others since. This is not to take away anything from these climbers, or to intuit their reasons for climbing. These conquistadors of the useless may have seen climbng as the ultimate pursuit unto itself, but they still existed in a society that required sponsorship and capital.
While the dirtbag may be a dying breed, the insouciant idea of the dirtbag has captured much of climbing’s soul. Living out of the truck, climbing every day, dumpster diving, scraping by with nothing but the fervor to climb. This certainly existed but in parallel to the hundreds of climbers who fed their addictions as weekend warriors. And where do Ron Kauk’s Ford Broncos, John Bachar’s Gillettes, and Chris Sharma’s perfumes fall into the reimagination of the dirtbag?
The thin line between self-promotion and self-aggrandization has ultimately narrowed with the dominance of social media. Warren Harding was king, as was Royal Robbins–yet do they catch flak? What about Alex Honnold, who is an amazing climber, yet filmed his solo? The free solo, supposedly about one’s connection with the rock–clean and pure–is commodified by this act? Yet Honnold mostly avoided the self-righteous posturing of the climbing community by the fact that his solo was simply mind-blowing…yet DiGuilian receives the brunt of the attacks for her use of social media.
As climbing has grown, those most adept at social media have become sponsored climbers, and this has fueled many a forum on Mountain Project. Sierra Blair Coyle is not by any stretch of the imagination a hard climber, yet she has parlayed her social media into a career (though I have no idea on how much that career is worth…) Do I find myself jealous? Of course. But a hustle is a hustle, and you don’t knock a hustle. As a mediocre climber myself, I wish I could figure the ins and outs of social media to bid goodbye to the workaday life (but then I ask myself if this was truly my dream, why do I focus on other aspects of life so much more?). Does an embrace of mediocrity mean that better climbers are being left out? Perhaps, but Blake Herrington seems to continue to kick ass in the mountains, without worrying too much about SBC’s Instagram or Friction Labs “ambassadors.”
And does this compose the crux of the argument? A larger platform for climbing means Herrington should be able to demand more from his sponsors. Does–in this instance and this instance alone–a rising tide lift all boats? DiGuilian, while no longer climbing at the level of Pure Imagination, is clearly deserving of appreciation for both the effort she put in to clip the chains on a 14d, but also for her work on protecting climbing resources from the assault of corporate interests. And, if climbing companies do get bigger, and the community finds more voice and power, will this translate into political and economic power (the only language that Washington currently speaks)? I am justifiably angry that the climbing community is more heavily relying on corporations to represent them in the halls of power, but that is our own abnegation in the face of political will.
So what do we choose to believe about ourselves? That we as a community must adhere to a moral purity that may never have existed? That climbing must remain ensconced in old ideals? That gyms and outreach and inclusion are a mortal sin to the soul of climbing? Or can we be more nuanced? Can we accept that the stories we tell ourselves may be dipped in mythmaking? That a mainstreaming of climbing culture can be a force for betterment of our entire sport? That we may need to re-examine the community’s response to bullying and indignation? The next Mallory may be struggling on the green 5.8+ in a gym in Portland right now–are we ready for her?