My Pinch on the Rock Climbing Community: A Deeper Look at What Makes a Climbing Community Mackenzie Terzian Spring 2012 Abstract This monograph looks into the aspects of ‘togetherness’ within the rock climbing community. I focused my ethnographic research in hopes of finding out why this ‘togetherness’ forms, what it brings to the community, and how it improves the skills of climbers. In all, this monograph is about what makes a climbing community. The basic concept of community is discussed, as well as diving deep into aspects of community building surround the sport of rock climbing. My research findings are based on sixteen weeks of ethnographic research; where I collected qualitative data through participate observation, surveying, interviewing, and content analysis. My research results showed me that these ‘tight’ social bonds are based on the deep trust that arises out of shared values and passions. Introduction Rock climbing requires a combination of physical and mental strength. While physical strength can be formulated person by person, it sometimes takes a group of tightly knit friends or members of a community to help one another overcome mental blocks and build mental power. I conducted ethnographic research on the topic of the rock climbing community because I believe there is an interesting and often overlooked dynamic that plays into the sport of rock climbing—specifically, the innate trust and reliance on members of the community.
Within this monograph I will address the influences a community provides, feelings of community in both competitive and non‐competitive climbing settings, possible cliques and acceptance roles that arise between climbers, and idealistic aspects of what one gives and takes from the climbing community. By this, I mean examining how the climbing community is shaped by its members, as well as how the members are, in return, shaped by the community itself. Within this monograph, I define community as the social unit comprised of individuals and groups who share a passion for the sport of rock climbing, and identify themselves as being affiliated within this life‐style sport. I have been a rock climber for the past three years, and consider myself an avid member of the rock climbing community. I have always felt safe, meaning completely secure with my physical and mental well‐being, when surrounded by other rock climbers— this, I discovered, is because of the deep bond that is immediately formed between those who share a deep passion. I chose to look deeper into the aforementioned ‘bond’, because there is something magnificent that has made its way from ‘village‐life’ to the sport of rock climbing. There is an incredibly tight bond, attitudes and mannerisms of a family, life‐trust placed in the hands of others, and presence of individual and group identity within the rock climbing community. From this research, I hoped to find exactly what goes into a climbing community, as well as finding out exactly what members take away from this community. Originally, I began looking at two populations within the overall climbing community: those that climb sport, and those that boulder. Sport climbing is a form 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 crash pads4 and relies on spotters5 for safety, these climbs never tend to be higher than 25 feet, and stipulate the involvement of others. By briefly observing, and previously knowing a great deal about both forms of the sport, I opted that my specific research would lend itself to bouldering, rather than sport 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 sure the fall zone is safe, and that the climber lands on the crash pad.
climbing—this was mostly due to the intensified community aspects that surround bouldering. I deciphered that sport climbing, while still having great aspects of ‘togetherness’ and community, had a more intensified feeling of self‐vulnerability and self‐determination—due to the common feeling of being ‘alone’ high on the rock face, rather than having a group of determined climbers working side by side with you. When starting and planning out this research, I had a few preconceived ideas of what I would discover; such as a common thread that links people to the sport and life style of rock climbing, the component of ‘togetherness’ between members of the climbing community, and the probable desirability that community members bring to those around them. I expected to uncover an inclination to nature, challenging yourself, and exploring, as well as discovering a common link between the personal lives of climbers and their role within the community. Methods The methods that I used during my ethnographic research included both participatory and passive observation, surveys, interviews, and content analysis on magazines, blogs and films made by rock climbers from around the world. During my passive observations—which I describe passive because I was not participating— I observed boulderers climbing in different settings, and later evaluated the different communal dynamics within each setting. For example, I observed gym climbing, which deals primarily with training for outdoor climbing. I also observed competitions, which test the strength and mentality of climbers against one another. I spent a significant amount of time passively observing, this provided me with a new outsider’s view of the sport and the community. This new position allowed me to recognize and analyze many aspects of the community that I was previously blind to, or formerly overlooked. Since I began this research as a rock climber and a member of the climbing community, I originally found it difficult to withdraw myself from my preconceived ideas and biases towards this life style, however, once I separated myself from identifying as a member of the community, and took a passive standing, I was able to observe the climbers from an anthological view—looking primarily at what shapes and influences the climbing community.
When my own palms began to perspire, and my ache for climbing arose, I began my participant observation. During this method of observation, I joined the boulderers in gym climbing, competitions, outdoor climbing trips, and potlucks. Of these settings, and of the information that I drew from each, I extracted analysis and conclusions unto what makes a climbing community. I believe that participant observation, with an anthropological mind set, provided me with abundant information on acceptance, formation, and common‐threads within the community. I used surveys as a base for the information that I further addressed and analyzed within interviews. I found the most beneficial type of question that I used within my surveys were open‐ended. This is because community aspects transcribe through individuals differently—within all my questions, no two answers were the same. This is why I believe my primary analysis was drawn from interviewing individuals about personal experiences and attitudes within the climbing community. Figure 1.1 is the survey that I distributed to 10 members of the climbing community in Arcata, California. From this survey I collected the average age of the climbers I sampled, the approximate level dedication to the sport, and how 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 in which I further questioned and analyzed within my interviews; these commonalities encircled notions of passion, partnership, and participation within the climbing community. The majority of my interviews were conducted after a session6 of climbing, or after a competition— this allowed my informants to provide me with answers that were both fresh in their minds and directly from their (current) experience. I believe that my usage of time was advantageous when it came to getting informed answers. After a climbing session or a competition, individual climbers are likely to portray exactly how their climbing experience was for themselves, and how the community feed it. 6 Sessions‐ climbing with a few people, working on single or variety of climbs—usually dealing with training.
While conducting content analysis, the breadth of my data came from online blogs, magazines, and climbing films. Specifically, focusing on quotes about community, 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 of formations in which boulders usually stood while climbing—how they clustered and dispersed around each climb. Along with looking deep into the films, there is also a copious amount of information about climbing with others stashed in many professional, or sponsored, rock climbers’ blogs. From here, I gathered quotes that backed up my analysis, and further proved my conclusions. Findings and Discussion My findings were wide and detailed in several aspects. From my research, I drew several conclusions that surround the idea of community between rock climbers. My results primarily concluded my hypothesis of there being a common thread, meaning a common passion, intention, and lifestyle, that links climbers to this community, as well as leading my analysis into a domino effect of unfolding relations that I never before considered. Within my research I was able to draw parallels between why many climbers climb—with this information, I concluded many similarities that rock climbers share. This was done by asking informants: ‘why do you climb? From this interview 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 climber From these interview answers, the most common reoccurring themes are the presence of nature and the awareness of your own body—or vehicle as Mitch had stated. These drives that encourage the sport of rock climbing, allow many climbers 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’s community, as if shared passion connects them through DNA. I found that this passion arose from deep within each climber, meaning that the passion was defined and interpreted on differing levels depending on the specific person. This provided me with information pertaining to how and why this passion is formulated, how each member expresses passion for the sport of rock climbing, as well as how each member deciphers their own passion with differing intensities. Some of the aforementioned passionate responses lead me to look further into the idea of acceptance into the rock climbing community. This notion of the community was almost overlooked, however by learning how passion was shaped by those you climbed with, and those who introduced you to the sport, I further analyzed the perception of acceptance within the climbing community.
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 climber This quote by Aaron was the only one. Most climbers sided with acceptance coming natural to all climbers; however Aaron’s quote breaks from that norm. He addressed the action of ‘being accepted in’, which is restricted to either being local, or having to prove yourself. Looking at my observations and drawing analysis, it is now obvious that this statement holds true. My questions remain; “why does no one address this acceptance ritual?” as well as “why is this the ritual?” This, I believe, is because individuals require rapport in order to be admired and idolized—which is necessary in order to be a well‐known rock climber amongst the community. I experienced the role of acceptance during my research trip to Bishop California. While in Bishop, which is a world know bouldering area, I met, climbed with, and exchanged contact information with climbers from around the world. Exchanging information with climbers around the world is beneficial, in the case that you someday travel and climb at their local crag7—they can provide you with a place to stay, local travel hints, and a personal tour guide. Community is embodied within several different settings surrounding the sport of rock climbing. There are an uncountable amount of community traits appearing in gym climbing, outdoor trips and competitions—all of which involve similarities and differences within the formation and attributes of the climbing community. The majority of my observations—both passive and participatory—took place in the rock gym. It is here that climbers gather, train, and push each other towards their goals. There is a truly high energy that is given off between climbers; this energy, while surrounding the gym, raises the overall pride, while lowering the tension between climbers. This is because when one has support from those around them, they tend to feed off the energy. This energy, as explained by many of my informants, has shown to overall improve the attitude of the climber, therefore improving the mental state and skill of that climber. 7 Crag‐ the literal rock climbing faces of an area of which is climbed for sport.
It was explained by Psychologist B.F. Skinner that reinforcements, both positive and negative, enhance good behavior. While negative reinforcement, which includes taking a positive thing away, does not regularly present itself within the climbing community, there is an abundance of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement involves the ‘give’ of something beneficial to a receiver. This type of reinforcement is extremely common within the sport of rock climbing—not only pertaining to the accomplishment of completing a climb after working hard for it, but it is apparent that the reaffirming praise by other climbers significantly uplifts the ego of the climber. This immediate gratification of completing a hard‐worked climb is an incredibly fleeting experience; it is an instant feeling of success and accomplishment, which is quickly diminished to a past experience, with new attention and passion placed on a new climb. However, this overriding feeling of accomplishment and growth, is what pushes climbers to improve; this improvement is rooted from one’s own success, as well as witnessing and contributing to the success of others. I discovered this by comparing perceived energy levels to the number of climbers in a particular area. What my research provided me with was realizing that when there are more climbers clustered in a specific area, especially an area specialized for climbing, there is an ample amount of positive energy, compliments, and reinforcements on one’s strength, improvement, and style of climbing. Whereas, when climbing alone, you may stay more focused in your mind, but you do not have that outside drive and support to push you further. When looking at rock climbing competitions—there is an interesting dynamic between community and individualism. A rock climbing competition forces climbers to challenge themselves, both mentally and physically. A climbing competition is scored by adding up each climber’s top three to five scores. Each problem that a climber completes is worth a certain amount of points, and with each attempt that is unsuccessful, the point value decreases. This is an interesting aspect—when climbing vibes, intentions, and motives shift. It seems that when there is a prize or a title that is at stake, dog‐eat‐dog characteristics arise. Given, climbers are not sabotaging each other, but there is a sense of competitiveness and a slight lack of the ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ mentality that is usually present among climbers. Since your own best interest is in mind, it seems to be less likely to help and give beta to other climbers. Climbers
still do, of course, root on and encourage the success of others— 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 climber My analysis provided me with the notion that while most would normally share beta with climbers during gym sessions, many do not want to give their beta8 away during a competition. This is because in a competitive setting, climbers want to win rather than give someone else their answers/ideas. I found that while this holds true for a lot of competitive climbers, it is not true for all. Many competitive climbers hold the seriousness of competition at a much higher level than others, which, of course, influences the amount of beta and help that they are willing and able to give away. I believe the above quote by Lydia quite simply feeds the example of the two countering sides of a family that I mentioned previously. A rock climbing community shares similarities with a family such as: friendly rivalries between members, unconditional love for the sport (idea of family), and the connection between members of the community (members within your own family). This is described in several of the interviews that I conducted. One climber described the climbing community as “...my life. I feel that without it I would be lost or at least feel that something is missing from my life.” This, I conclude, shows the magnitude and passion that the climbing community is for many individuals. 8 Beta‐ advice on how a climb could be done. There are several different forms of beta for each climb.
Through analysis of lineage, bonds, and kinship (in the most basic sense), I’ve concluded the congenial nature of the climbing community. This incestuous nature, which I state in a positive form, has allowed me to understand how fully encircling the climbing community is. There are links—lines of lineage, if you will‐‐ between all my informants and their roommates, co‐workers, and climbing partners. The likeliness of climbers living, dating, working, and forming friendships with other climbers is very strong. This shows the encompassing venue that is the climbing community—as more members join, the larger and more inclusive the community becomes. My analysis ended up leading me to a few ‘revelation questions’. After collecting data and analyzing said data, I discovered a missing link in my research—what individuals add and take away from the community itself. I presented this question to a large sample of my informant, and got back a wide variety of answers. From these answers, I cultivated a tri‐fold passage way through the rock climbing community. This passage way can be compared to Anthropologist Van Gannep’s process of rites of passages—of which involves a separation period, a liminal9 period, and a reintegration period. My data falls into these categories as such: Separation: What do climbers bring into the rock climbing community? Liminal Period: What is significant 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 order to 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? 9 Liminal‐ marginal period, in‐between period.
“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 member 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. Every day is exciting and new, with amazing new experiences. “ I believe that these quotes not only show the importance of the rock climbing community, but also show the importance of each member within the community. This was made apparent to me due to the word choice and incentives that each interviewee provided me with when answering the tri‐fold questions. I found incredibly individualized responses, which lead my conclusion of the uniqueness and individualism of each member within the community. Conclusion In conclusion, my findings and analysis provided me with a strong basis on what to base the climbing community on. After my research, it is evident that the climbing community is multi‐layered—as one would assume any community is. There are multiple aspects brought to light within all different forms of climbing. My research provided me with analysis on: gym climbing, which requires a heap of positive reinforcement by the community to build skill and improvement, competitions, which force climbers to challenge themselves and others for a prize and title, and
outdoor trips, which not only brings community members together—but also requires members to trust their life in each other’s hands. In reference to the aforementioned cultivated quotes, I have concluded that there is evident individualism within the climbing community. This individualism not only separates the motivations and contributions that each member brings and takes from the community, but it also adds importance to each member within the climbing community—for it is a unique element that each member adds to the community.
References 1) Fryberger, Chuck. “The Scene.” Chuck Fryberger Films. 2) Fryberger, Chuck. “CORE.” Chuck Fryberger Films. 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 4) Carnahan, Andrew. “Rocks Without Ropes.” Parks & Recreations, 4.1 (2006): 42‐ 46 Web. 5) Prichard, Nancy Lee. “Against a Rock.” Women’s Sports and Fitness. 17.5 (1995) p. 50. 6) Terzian, Mackenzie. “Pushing the Bird from the Nest: a Look at Rites of Passages” 2011. History of Anthropology undergraduate paper.