My Pinch on the Rock Climbing Community: A Deeper Look at What Makes a Climbing Community By: Mackenzie Terzian May 2012 AbstractThis monograph looks into the aspects of ‗togetherness‘ within the rockclimbing community. I focused my ethnographic research in hopes of findingout why this ‗togetherness‘ forms, what it brings to the community, and how itimproves the skills of climbers. In all, this monograph is about what makes aclimbing community.The basic concept of community is discussed, as well as diving deep intoaspects of community building surround the sport of rock climbing. IntroductionRock climbing requires a combination of physical and mental strength. Whilephysical strength can be formulated person by person, it sometimes takes agroup of tightly knit friends or members of a community to help one anotherovercome and build mental power. I conducted ethnographic research on thetopic of the rock climbing community because I believe there is an interestingand often overlooked dynamic that plays into the sport of rock climbing.Within this monograph I will address the influences a community provides,feelings of community in both competitive and non-competitive climbingsettings, possible cliques and acceptance roles that arise between climbers, and
idealistic aspects of what one gives and takes away from the climbingcommunity.Originally, I began looking at two populations within the overall climbingcommunity: those that climb sport, and those that boulder. Sport climbing is aform of climbing that involves using safety equipment (such as ropes1,harnesses2, and belay devices3), climbing high distances (usually between 30 –100 ft.), and often deals with overcoming your own fear or mental blockages.Bouldering is a form of climbing that does not use ropes—but instead uses crashpads4 and relies on spotters5 for safety, these problems never tend to be higherthan 25 feet, and stipulate the involvement of others.Because of the intensified community aspects that surround bouldering-- I choseto specifically focus my ethnographic research on the bouldering community.When starting and planning out this research, I had a few preconceived ideas ofwhat I would discover; such as a common thread that links people to the sportand life style of rock climbing, the component of ‗togetherness‘ betweenmembers of the climbing community, and the probable desirability thatcommunity members bring to those around them.1 Ropes- safety device used to attach the climber to the rock face.2 Harness- safety equipment that attaches the rope to the climber.3 Belay Device- a small metal device used to catch the falls of climber,attached to the individual belaying(catching) the climbing.4 Crash pad- mattress like pad to protect falls when bouldering.5 Spotters- Individuals who protect the safety of the climber by making surethe fall zone is safe, and that the climber lands on the crash pad.
I have been a rock climber for the past three years, and consider myself an avidmember of the rock climbing community. I have always felt ‗safe‘ whensurrounded by other rock climbers— this is because of the deep bond that isimmediately formed between those who share a deep passion. I chose to lookdeeper into the aforementioned ‗bond‘, because there is something magnificentthat has made its way from ‗village-life‘ to the sport of rock climbing. There isan incredibly tight bond, attitudes and mannerisms of a family, life-trust placedin the hands of others, and presence of individual and group identity within therock climbing community.From this research I hoped to find exactly what goes into a climbingcommunity, as well as finding out exactly what members take away from thiscommunity. MethodsThe methods that I used during my ethnographic research includedobservation—both participatory and passive, surveys, interviews, and contentanalysis on magazines, blogs and films made by rock climbers from around theworld.During my passive observations-- which I describe passive because I was notparticipating-- I observed boulderers climbing in different settings, and laterevaluated the different communal dynamics within each setting. For example, Iobserved gym climbing, which deals primarily with training for outdoor
climbing. I also observed competitions, which test the strength and mentality ofclimbers against one another.I spent the first few days of my research involved in passive observations. Thisprovided me with a new outsider‘s view of the sport and the community. Since Ibegan this research as a rock climber and a member of the climbing community,I originally found it difficult to withdraw myself from my preconceived ideasand biases towards this life style. Once I separated myself from identifying as amember of the community, and took a passive standing, I was able to observethe climbers from an anthological view—looking primarily at what makes theclimbing community.When my own palms began to perspire, and my ache for climbing arose, Ibegan my participant observation. During this method of observation, I joinedthe boulderers in gym climbing, competitions, outdoor climbing trips, andpotlucks. Of these settings, and of the information that I drew from each, Iextracted analysis and conclusions unto what makes a climbing community. Ibelieve that participant observation, with an anthropological mind set, providedme with abundant information on acceptance, formation, and common-threadswithin the community.I used surveys as a base for the information that I further addressed andanalyzed within interviews. I found the most beneficial type of question that I
used within my surveys were open-ended. This is because community aspectstranscribe through individuals differently—within all my questions, no twoanswers were the same. This is why I believe my primary analysis was drawnfrom interviewing individuals about personal experiences and attitudes withinthe climbing community.Figure 1.1 is the survey that I distributed to 10 members of the climbingcommunity in Arcata, California. From this survey I collected the average ageof the climbers I sampled, the approximate level dedication to the sport, andhow bonds and community characteristics arise between climbers.
As shown within Figure 1-1, this array of questions and breadth of coverage,laid out a very beneficial base on which my research grew.From the survey-formed foundation, I began to realize a few commonalities inwhich I further questioned and analyzed within my interviews. The majority ofmy interviews were conducted after a session6 of climbing, or after acompetition— this allowed my informants to provide me with answers that wereboth fresh in their minds and directly from their (current) experience.I believe that my usage of time was advantageous when it came to gettinginformed answers. After a climbing session or a competition, individualclimbers are likely to portray exactly how their climbing experience was forthemselves, and how the community feed it.While conducting content analysis, the breadth of my data came from onlineblogs, magazines, and climbing films. Specifically, focusing on quotes aboutcommunity, bonds, or people, rather than the quotes about the sport or a climb.Within the films, I found it helpful and beneficial to analyze the patterns offormations in which boulders usually stood while climbing-- how they clusteredand dispersed around each climb.6 Sessions- climbing with a few people, working on single or variety ofclimbs—usually dealing with training.
Along with looking deep into the films, there is also a copious amount ofinformation about climbing with others stashed in many professional rockclimbers‘ blogs. From here, I gathered quotes that backed up my analysis, andfurther proved my conclusions. Results and DiscussionMy findings were wide and detailed in several aspects. From my research, Idrew several conclusions that surround the idea of community between rockclimbers. My results primarily concluded my hypothesis of there being acommon thread that links climbers to this community, as well as leading myanalysis into a domino effect of unfolding relations that I never beforeconsidered.Within my research I was able to draw parallels between why many climbersclimb—with this information, I concluded many similarities that rock climbersshare. This was done by asking informants ‗why do you climb?‟ from thisinterview question, many reoccurring themes arose. ― I climb inside for the exercise and outside for the rush. I grew up as a kid climbing trees and hills and rocks, so when I could afford climbing gear, I bought some! It brings me back to the fun of being a kid... It allows you to focus on just climbing and clear your head of all the clutter of the day and life. I guess in short I do it for my health; mental, emotional and physical ... and for the chicks!‖ James, HSU climber
―I climb because its meditative for me. When Im on the wall, I notice I feel 100% present and can concentrate on my body and my breath. Once youre up there, every decision you make is crucial, its the difference between success and failure. That rush I get is why I keep climbing and pushing myself towards harder problems and greater heights.‖ Rebecca, HSU climber ―Above all else, the most fascinating thing about climbing is learning how complex nature is... Climbing shows that the human body is the most complex and perfected vehicle; each tissue working together, stretching from muscle group to muscle group in unison in order to close a hand or lift a leg... If we were stripped of all things unnecessary to our survival... we would have left the one thing nature has always provided us: ... the human body. In the application of this tool to stone is the synergy of man and Earth. Applying our vehicle of self to the natural breaks and crystals while climbing really goes to show full-value of what we are as humans...‖ Mitch, Sunnyvale climberFrom these interview answers, the most common reoccurring themes are thepresence of nature, and the awareness of your own body—or vehicle as Mitchhad stated. These drives that encourage the sport of rock climbing, allow manyclimbers to relate to one another. Whenever there is a common passion—whether it be for peace, science, religion, etc.—immediate strong bonds are
formed. There is in ingrained connection for all members of each passion‘scommunity, as if shared passion connects them through DNA.I was introduced to and examined the idea of acceptance into the rock climbingcommunity. The climbing community is hard to be accepted into. Acceptance is earned through accomplishment and dedication. If you are a local and are around a bunch you‘ll be invited in. If you have the skills to impress the locals you‘ll be invited in. Aaron, Sponsored Rock climberThis quote by Aaron was the only on of its kind. Most climbers sided withacceptance coming natural to all climbers; however Aaron‘s quote breaks fromthat norm. He addressed the action of „being accepted in‟, which is restricted toeither being local, or having to prove yourself. Looking at my observations anddrawing analysis, it is now obvious that this statement holds true. My questionsremain; “why does no one address this acceptance ritual?” as well as ―why isthis the ritual?” This, I believe, is because individuals require rapport in orderto be admired and idolized—which is necessary in order to be a well-knownrock climber amongst the community.
I experienced the role of acceptance during my research trip to BishopCalifornia. While in Bishop, which is a world know bouldering area, I met,climbed with, and exchanged contact information with climbers from around theworld. Exchanging information with climbers around the world is beneficial, inthe case that you someday travel and climb at their local crag7—they canprovide you with a place to stay, local travel hints, and a personal tour guide.Individuals, like myself, usually enjoy climbing with those that are slightlyhigher in skill. This is because it leaves room for your own improvement,competition, and eagerness to work a problem with another climber.Community is embodied within several different settings surrounding the sportof rock climbing. There are an uncountable amount of community traitsappearing in gym climbing, outdoor trips and competitions—all of whichinvolve similarities and differences within the formation and attributes of theclimbing community.The majority of my observations—both passive and participatory—took placein the rock gym. It is here that climbers gather, train, and push each othertowards their goals. There is a truly high energy that is given off betweenclimbers; this energy, while surrounding the gym, raises the overall pride, whilelowering the tension between climbers. This is because when one has support7Crag- the literal rock climbing faces of an area of which is climbed forsport.
from those around them, they tend to feed off the energy. This energy overallimproves the attitude of the climber, therefore improving the mental state andskill of that climber.It was explained by Psychologist B.F. Skinner that reinforcements, both positiveand negative, enhance good behavior. While negative reinforcement, whichincludes taking a positive thing away, does not regularly present itself within theclimbing community, there is an abundance of positive reinforcement. Positivereinforcement involves the ‗give‘ of something beneficial to a receiver. Thistype of reinforcement is extremely common within the sport of rock climbing—not only pertaining to the accomplishment of completing a climb after workinghard for it, but it is apparent that the reaffirming praise by other climberssignificantly uplifts the ego of the climber.I discovered this by comparing perceived energy levels to the number ofclimbers in a particular area. When there are more climbers clustered in aspecific area, especially an area specialized for climbing, there is an ampleamount of positive energy, compliments, and reinforcements on one‘s strength,improvement, and style of climbing. Where as, when climbing alone, you maystay more focused in your mind, but you do not have that outside drive andsupport to push you further.
When looking at competitions—there is an interesting dynamic betweencommunity and individualism. A rock climbing competition forces climbers tochallenge themselves, both mentally and physically. A climbing competition isscored by adding up each climber‘s top three to five scores. Each problem that aclimber completes, is worth a certain amount of points, and with each attemptthat is unsuccessful, the point value decreases.This is an interesting aspect—when climbing vibes, intentions, and motivesshift. It seems that when there is a prize or a title that is at stake, dog-eat-dogcharacteristics arise. Given, climbers are not sabotaging each other, but there isa sense of competitiveness and a lack of the ‗scratch my back and I‘ll scratchyours‘ mentality that is usually present among climbers. Since your own bestinterest is in mind, it seems to be less likely to help and give beta to otherclimbers. Climbers still do, of coarse, root on and encourage the success ofothers--- but with the intention/hopes of possibly beating their score. [Climbing in a gym for fun] is a little bit more like a birthday party than a funeral (referring to competing)... You know there‘s a birthday party and then there is a wake after a funeral. And... at a competition, there is this intense feeling. You genuinely want everyone to do well, but at the same time the person that you are most concerned about is yourself. But when you are in a gym, climbing with people for fun, you genuinely want them to get that hold, you really want them to finish that problem.
Lydia, HSU climberMy analysis provided me with the notion that while you normally share betawith climbers during gym sessions, you do not want to give your beta8 awayduring a competition. This is because in a competitive setting, climbers want towin rather than give someone else their answers/ideas.I believe the quote quite simply feeds the example of the two countering sidesof a family that I mentioned previously. A rock climbing community sharessimilarities with a family such as: friendly rivalries between members,unconditional love for the sport (idea of family) and the members of thecommunity (members within your own family). This is described in several ofthe interviews that I conducted. One climber described the climbing communityas ―...my life. I feel that without it I would be lost or at least feel that somethingis missing from my life.‖ This, I conclude, shows the magnitude and passionthat the climbing community is.My analysis ended up leading me to a few ‗revelation questions‘. Aftercollecting data and analyzing said data, I discovered a missing link in myresearch—what individuals add and take away from the community itself. Ipresented this question to a large sample of my informant, and got back a widevariety of answers. From these answers, I cultivated a three-part passage waythrough the rock climbing community. This passage way can be compared to8 Beta- advice on how a climb could be done. There are several differentforms of beta for each climb.
Anthropologist Van Gannep‘s process of rites of passages-- of which involves aseparation period, a liminal 9period, and a reintegration period.My data falls into these categories as such: Separation--- What do climbers bring to the rock climbing community? Liminal Period--- What is important about the rock climbing community? Reintegration--- What do climbers take away from the rock climbing community?Below are three cultivated answers that I took from various informants in orderto prove the importance of the community within rock climbing. What I contribute to the climbing community? ―I think I‘m encouraging the successes and improvements of others that I climb with. I always try to support their tries, whether completed or not.‖ What is significant about the climbing community? ―I think it‘s one of the best communities that I‘ve taken part in. I think the people in the community are very accepting; everyone is willing to take in new people. For me the climbing community has become my life... There is a powerful sense of community with all the members being so open and welcome to new climbers. And lastly the people that you will meet inside of the community are some of the best in the world. They will always be your friends. You are almost instantly close with them through each member9 Liminal- marginal period, in-between period.
radiating passion and love for climbing. The sense of friendly competition, and I use that word lightly here, is extremely motivating. Nobody is ever wanting another climber to fail.‖ What I take away from the climbing community? ―Through the climbing community I am able to get the motivation I need to stay inspired, strong friendships that transcend the sport, the feeling of adventure, and the feeling of a family in every aspect--- crazy yet beautiful. Everyday is exciting and new, with amazing new experiences. ―I believe that these quotes not only show the importance of the rock climbingcommunity, but also show the importance of each member within thecommunity. ConclusionIn conclusion, my findings and analysis provided me with a strong basis onwhat to base the climbing community on. After my research, it is evident thatthe climbing community is multi-layered—as one would assume anycommunity is. There are multiple aspects brought to light within all differentforms of climbing. My research provided me with analysis on: gym climbing,which requires a heap of positive reinforcement by the community to build skilland improvement, competitions, which force climbers to challenge themselvesand others for a prize and title, and outdoor trips, which not only bringscommunity members together—but also requires members to trust their life ineach others hands.
Through analysis of lineage, bonds, and kinship (in the most basic sense), I‘veconcluded the congenial nature of the climbing community. This incestuousnature, which I state in a positive form, has allowed me to understand how fullyencircling the climbing community is. There are links—lines of lineage, if youwill-- between all my informants and their roommates, co-workers, andclimbing partners. The likeliness of climbers living, dating, working, andforming friendships with other climbers is very strong. This shows theencompassing venue that is the climbing community—as more members join,the larger and more inclusive the community becomes.In reference to the aforementioned cultivated quotes, I have concluded that thereis evident individualism within the climbing community. This individualism notonly separates the motivations and contributions that each member brings andtakes from the community, but it also adds importance to each member withinthe climbing community-- for it is a unique element that each member adds tothe community.
References1) Fryberger, Chuck. “The Scene.” Chuck Fryberger Films. This film showcases rock climbers from around the world climbing theirlong-projected climbs and interacting around and within the community of rockclimbers. There are several instances within this film that pinpoint aspects ofcommunity and interactions between several different professional and wellknown climbers.2) Fryberger, Chuck. “CORE.” Chuck Fryberger Films. This documentary type film follows a few rock climbers on their journeysto work on problems around the world. It specifically follows a few interestingclimbers who follow their own set of rules and climb for very personal and similarreasons. Passages from this film apply directly to influences, community, andlinkage within the climbing community.3) The New York Times. “No Need for a Mountain.” August 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/03/sports/the-sport-of-bouldering- climbs-in-popularity.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&ref=rockclimbing This article in the New York Times webpage, addresses the basic facts andfactors that go into the rock climbing style known as bouldering. Manyprofessional climbers, such as Beth Rodden, are discussed and quoted about theappeal of bouldering and their interest in the growing sport4) Carnahan, Andrew. “Rocks Without Ropes.” Parks & Recreations, 4.1 (2006): 42- 46 Web.
This article speaks about the popularity of the sport of bouldering. Itdefines, and digs deeper into the growing participation and participants who areliving within this sport.5) Prichard, Nancy Lee. “Against a Rock.” Women’s Sports and Fitness. 17.5 (1995) p. 50. This article narrates an experience with rock climbing. It addresses a fewof the risks and benefits that rock climbing/mountaineering can provide one with.6) Terzian, Mackenzie. “Pushing the Bird from the Nest: a Look at Rites of Passages” 2011. History of Anthropology undergraduate paper. This undergraduate research paper examined the process of rites ofpassages from both Victor Turner and Van Gannep’s influence three-step process.