The Mentorship Gap: What Climbing Gyms Can't Teach You

The way we learn to climb has evolved. The way we mentor needs to change, too.

Things you can't learn in the gym.It was early summer. Josh Moreland and his wife were climbing in Utah’s Maple Canyon, which draws climbers from the ever-growing Wasatch Front, as well as road-trippers from across the country. The Morelands had been climbing at Minimum Crag but decided to try The Pipeline. Temps were perfect, and Pipeline is close to the road, so when they arrived, they weren’t surprised to find a crowd. Looking for routes he could onsight, Josh chose a 5.12a called Freshly Squeezed.

“There were some draws on it, and a rope was hanging through the first two, but there was no one at the base,” he recalled. “So I started pulling the rope, and as I did, I heard a woman shouting from the far end of the crag. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?!’ She stormed over and told me if I ever touched her rope again there would be hell to pay.

“I was shocked. I’d never experienced such a strong negative reaction from another climber. Then I said, as politely as I could, that I would like to climb the route, and I asked if she would mind pulling her rope. She said, ‘No! I’m not going to pull my rope. First, I’m going to watch my friend finish her route, and then I’ll come back and climb this one.’

“With that, she turned and walked away, and we sat down to wait. In the end, the only satisfaction was that the woman couldn’t make the chains, and eventually she packed up and left.

“They were from another state, and they had three or four ropes on different climbs at The Pipeline. It was as though they laid claim to the entire crag, then were infuriated that anyone else wanted to climb. I said I didn’t know how people acted where they came from, but this wasn’t typical behavior in Utah.” Albeit an extreme example, this type of siege-cragging is an increasingly common by-product of climbing’s ever-expanding popularity and of the challenges we face as new climbers transition to outdoor climbing.

Record Growth
Climbing is experiencing a tsunami of growth and change unprecedented in the sport’s brief history. The number of indoor climbing gyms has doubled since 2005 (Mountain Project currently lists 884 gyms in the U.S. and Canada). The industry trade organization, the Climbing Wall Association, estimates that more than 60 new climbing-specific facilities will open in the U.S. by 2015. In fact, business is so good that the largest wall builders are all currently working at capacity. They’re not even accepting new contracts until current jobs are completed.

Based on liability waivers, it’s estimated that between 1,000 and 1,500 people are trying climbing for the first time—every single day, in the U.S. alone. Did you catch that? More than 1,000 first-time climbers every day!

While 70 percent of new gym climbers say they aspire to someday climb outdoors, many—like pro climber Nalle Hukkataival—speculate that due to mounting access issues, user conflicts, and general environmental impact, “a large portion of climbing areas in the world can’t support a much greater number of visitors, especially areas located close to big cities that see the highest traffic.”

The bottom line is that while we can continue to build more gyms and introduce ever-more people to a sport and lifestyle we all love, we cannot create more outdoor climbing destinations than already exist in nature.

Regardless of whether you see this explosive growth as good or bad for climbing, the tidal wave of new climbers created by the rapid spread of indoor climbing has swiftly transformed a fringe, counter-culture activity into a mainstream sport practiced by millions. And the trend is not likely to reverse.

Whether you learned to climb in the 1970s wearing EB’s, a red bandana, and a rugby shirt, or you’re a rising star on the local climbing team who just turned 16, we all have a responsibility to learn how to help climbing adapt to the times. Not only by keeping the sport safe, but by minimizing impact on the fragile environment in which outdoor climbing takes place.

Roadside Crag
A case study on impact and crag closure

“Roadside was where most of us local climbers had our first climbing experience,” says Mike Driskell, senior land manager for the Red River Gorge Climber’s Coalition (RRGCC). “But many climbers were unaware it was on private property.”

Then in 2011 the owners visited on what Driskell calls “the worst day possible.” Despite restrictions against new routes or fixed gear, homemade perma-draws hung on several routes. Every route either had multiple climbers on it or groups waiting. Dogs were running off leash, digging holes, and the smell of urine filled the air.

The crag was closed, effective immediately. Subsequent offers by the RRGCC to provide funds and dialogue (including a $5,000 restoration grant) for climbing access were refused. As the RRGCC states, “Roadside is a failure on our part, and on the part of the climbing community. A failure to address the impact and potential destruction of a wonderful crag. A lesson we learned from and are endeavoring to make sure never happens again.”

The changes in our sport are so profound that, in the future, climbing history may well be divided into B.G.E. (Before the Gym Era) and after. Before gyms, most climbers were outdoors people, drawn to the adventure, solitude, and renewal of wild nature. Typically, they were hikers and backpackers who learned to climb to broaden their experience. Before gyms, many climbers learned by accompanying older, more experienced mentors who, over a period of years, showed their apprentices the ropes by imparting the entire canon of “climbing literacy,” that is holistic climbing knowledge, including safety and technique, but with an emphasis on environmental concerns, etiquette (social norms), and climbing traditions appropriate for the region.

As Pete Ward, head of the UBC Pro Tour, points out, “The majority of climbers today are urbanites whose first significant experience in nature might well be the first time they try climbing outdoors, and the ‘mentor’ they accompany might be a friend whose only expertise is that he or she owns a rope and enough draws to equip a sport route.”

Climbing gyms have been universally embraced and celebrated because they offer myriad advantages to all climbers, regardless of background or location. While it was relatively easy for climbers who originally learned outdoors to adapt to gyms, it’s a much larger challenge for gym climbers to learn the nearly infinite spectrum of knowledge, technique, and behavior necessary to master outdoor climbing. In short, there’s an education gap between what people learn to climb safely indoors, and what they need to learn to master outdoor climbing in all its variety.

Elaina Arenz, owner of New River Mountain Guides and a member of the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), guides in West Virginia’s New River Gorge and Red Rock outside Las Vegas. “In Red Rock, especially at popular areas like the Black Corridor, the Panty Wall, and the Gallery, we see large groups roll in, and sometimes there are more dogs than people!” she says. “The people are carrying on, having a great time at the expense of everyone else, making communication difficult between other climbers and their belayers. They’re excited to be out in nature, but they’re simply taking their indoor experience outside and not really thinking about other users who might want to climb the route they’re on.”

What’s normal for new climbers is a controlled indoor environment with a large group of friends and, often, a blaring soundtrack. Having attained a high level of technical proficiency indoors, many gym climbers assume they’re already experts. They don’t realize that climbing 5.12 or bouldering V8 is only the first step in a lifelong apprenticeship to Mother Nature.

Pros & Conflicts
Growth isn’t all bad. More climbers mean better gyms, better coaching, more advanced gear, and more research on training, technique, and nutrition. Growth means increased political and economic clout. It means exciting surges in performance. As pro climber Kitty Calhoun points out, “Climbing brings meaning and happiness to our lives, and a world full of happier people is a good thing.” But, as Brian Payst of the Carolina Climbers Coalition cautions, “Climbing could become a victim of its own success.”

In fact, the Access Fund considers the tidal wave of new and under-educated climbers to be the primary issue threatening climbing access in the U.S. today.

“Unless climbers as a community can address the problem, we’re facing ever-increasing rules, regulations, fines, permitting, and closures,” says Access Fund Executive Director Brady Robinson.

In November 2013, the Access Fund sponsored a conference in New York’s Shawangunks to discuss the issue and explore solutions. It was attended by land managers, local climbing organizations, the gym industry, guides, outdoor educators, Leave No Trace, pro climbers Josh Levin and Joe Kinder, and one journalist—me. Perhaps more than any other attendee, Kinder had personal skin in the game. A few weeks earlier, Kinder had received “the most intense learning experience I’ve ever known.”

While developing a route near Lake Tahoe, California, he cut down two trees, one living and one dead, in order to make the route safer. They were junipers—protected both by law and local climbing tradition. When the news hit the Internet, the public condemnation was immediate and harsh. Kinder’s personal phone number was published. He received a blitzkrieg of threats. Responding to the outcry, Kinder wrote on his blog, “I am deeply apologetic about what I did. I was wrong. I’m very sorry, and now I’m using my blog, my voice, and my position in the climbing community to bring awareness to an important issue.” After the conference Kinder wrote, “Most climbers I know understand you aren’t allowed to use a power drill in wilderness, don’t take a dump near water, and other crag etiquette, but that’s as far as it goes. We all just want to go climbing, and until recently, this has been my approach. One of the things I’ve learned is there are reasons we can go climbing in certain areas, and maintaining access requires conscious efforts by all.”

So how can the climbing community join forces to bridge the mentor gap to create literate, aware, and informed climbers capable of sustaining and preserving climbing for generations to come?

The New Mentors
The place to start is in the gyms. If you wanted to reach the climbing community 20 years ago, your best option might have been to pin a message on the bulletin board at Camp 4. Today nearly all the climbers in the country pass through the gym system at some point. Gyms are the key to reaching the masses of new and under-educated climbers.

“Our gyms are located along Utah’s Wasatch Front, so we have immediate proximity to all these wonderful outdoor resources,” says Jeff Pedersen, part-owner and director of Momentum climbing gyms. “Many of the individuals involved here—myself, business partners, routesetters, and coaches—came to the sport from the outdoors first, so I think when it comes to our youth programs (and we currently have 150 kids involved at our Sandy location alone), we feel strongly about providing solid mentorship regarding transitioning from gym to crag. For example, if one of our coaches takes his team to American Fork Canyon, the first thing he does is talk about how everyone’s expected to behave.

“In our experience, first the kids get involved, and then the parents jump on board. There’s a general excitement, not just about climbing, but about being part of a new community. Most people want to fit in; they want to do things respectfully with regard to the outdoors and other people they’re sharing the cliff with. So we help kids and parents learn to do that.”

To help educate climbers who are not team members, Momentum partners with a guide service to offer professional instruction for transitioning outdoors. They also post information on their website about etiquette, low-impact methods, and local access issues.

“If gym owners need a profit motive, which we do,” Pedersen says, “the way to approach this is to leverage the enthusiasm and excitement people tap into as they learn to climb. Let people know what they can do with these great skills they’ve learned indoors. All they need is to sign up for the Gym to Crag class we offer, in which we include low-impact principles and etiquette, along with technical safety instruction.”

As Momentum demonstrates, the mentor system isn’t extinct—it’s evolving. It’s becoming formalized.

Coaches and gym climbing teams are today’s most important new mentors. Along with pro climbers, they are the role models young climbers look up to.

Generation Next
Josh Levin is a 19-year-old pro climber from California. He’s a three-time national youth champion in sport climbing, 10-time national youth champion in speed, and five-time national youth champion in bouldering. During the Access Fund conference, he gave a presentation about the ways he successfully engaged young climbers in crag cleanups and trail building while still in high school.

“Kids don’t get these things yet, but they will,” Levin said. “They just need to be told in the right way. Kids really do respect those who have more experience. Tell us the proper way to behave and why. Stress the reasoning behind the words so we can connect action to ethics.

“My advice is that anyone who cares about this issue gets involved with youth climbing of all sorts. Find an after-school program that encourage outdoor trips stressing proper ethics. Contact local high schools, set up extracurricular climbing events. Sponsor outdoor events. Reach out to colleges; partner with outdoor clubs. Target young climbers coming to the gym. In my experience, younger climbers are much more willing to hear about and engage in proper outdoor ethics than their older [18 to 25] counterparts.”

Mike Morin, former outdoor recreation manager for Jefferson County Open Space in Colorado (which includes the popular Front Range climbing destination Clear Creek Canyon), emphasized Josh’s recommendations.

“In my experience as a land manager, the best approach is to involve kids in experiential learning,” said Morin. “When we take kids out trail building, they continually have ‘aha’ moments, and they express that.”

Mirror, Mirror
Reading this, older climbers who have been climbing much of their lives (such as myself) are probably thinking, Right on. Let’s just teach these young punks how to behave.

“Some people think the problem is young climbers,” says Robinson. “But that’s not the case. There are bad actors from all eras. My own generation provided its share of damage, but there were fewer of us, and we were more isolated. Today, participant numbers are increasing rapidly, and so are the negative impacts—so we all need to clean up our acts.”

“Clearly there’s a certain amount of shock seeing a 14-year-old warm up on the project you’ve been working all summer,” adds Pedersen. “And if you have a lot of ego, you are immediately at odds with that kid. You’re going to find things to criticize about his or her behavior no matter how well behaved they are.”

Whatever your experience or conscientiousness level, we all have impact. Simply walking to the crag adds to soil compaction and trail erosion. Each of us contributes to sanitation issues, noise, and over-crowding. Our very presence stresses wildlife. The emphasis here on educating young climbers is not because they are unduly responsible, but because they are our greatest hope.

Educators, land managers, and coaches all suggest that kids ages 10 to 18 are the most open to learning and the most likely to integrate environmental awareness into their lives.

Listening to Tracy Howard and Kate Bullock, members of the Leave No Trace Road Team, discuss low-impact practices for climbers at the conference, I realized with some embarrassment that there was more I could be doing. I’ve been pooping in the woods for more than 30 years, smugly thinking I had it dialed, but they made me realize my approach could use some updating.

In fact, the entire conversation in the Gunks made me realize how easy it is to point fingers and blame others, while blissfully ignoring one’s own role. As Kinder pointed out, most of us just want to climb. Climbing is our escape from the world’s problems. The last thing we want is to be confronted with the inconvenient truth that our beloved sport is changing, and we are all going to have to change with it.

Yes, there was a time, not so very long ago, when there were far fewer climbers and it was OK to bring your dog (and your neighbor’s dog) with you to the crag. Yes, there was a time when it didn’t really bother anyone if you brought your entire posse with you to boulder or siege-toprope. But in light of rising numbers, it’s time to take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves: What can I personally do to reduce my own impact, and to make climbing a better experience for everyone?

The first step is to become more aware.

“I remember helping develop a crag in Logan Canyon [Utah] that’s now quite popular, and I remember how beautiful it was when we first discovered it, with grass and wildflowers growing everywhere,” said Doug Heinrich, vice president of product for Black Diamond Equipment and a lifelong climber. “But if you go there today, it’s all bare, compacted earth. Not a blade of grass or flower in sight. That really bummed me out. But the point is, climbers don’t even know what’s been lost when they visit new areas. Unless you see before and after photos, you have no idea what sort of impact climbers cause. In fact, if you go to Maple Canyon these days, the message you receive is that it’s alright to bring your dogs, your loud music, and throw your stuff everywhere, so it’s important that brands like Black Diamond help create a counter-message to mitigate those impacts.”

The good news is that the education gap in climbing can be bridged. But it’s going to require a concentrated effort on behalf of all climbers—individuals, local climbing organizations, the Access Fund and the American Alpine Club, the gym industry, guides, educators, parents, coaches, and major climbing brands like Black Diamond—working together to do so. It’s time to stop pointing fingers. It’s not new climbers, gym rats, traddies, or boulderers causing the problems; it’s all of us. We’re all climbers, and we’re all equally responsible, both for the problems and the solutions.

Chris Noble, a novice climber for more than 30 years, is hoping to successfully complete his transition from the crag to the gym.  His most recent book is Women Who Dare: North America’s Most Inspiring Women Climbers


Previous Comments

At 15 I fall more into the category of 'rising star on local climbing team' than anything else, the main thing I've noticed over the past four years (the time I've been climbing) is that if your parents don't climb and all of your friends are too young to drive you get stuck in the gym, whether you want to or not. I think that programs like Momentum are great and I know that there are tons of other youth climbers who (even though we've been raised on plastic) are really excited to learn how to be responsible and respectful climbers. It always makes me sad to hear stories about people like the woman with her rope, because for every one of her there are three more people who are eager to be a responsible and respectful member of the climbing community. It reflects badly on all of us.

Fiona L. - 07/04/2014 5:57:18

I'm a new climber (two years) and ambitious. I started in the gym (for practical reasons) and now love real rock too. Although a new climber, I already realize that gym climbing is different from outdoor climbing, and that courtesy, respect, and safety is essential both inside and out. The more experienced and mature climbing partners I have are my best mentors and teachers about crag etiquette and safety. We clean up garbage if we find it at the crag. We never camp out on more than one route at a time, every climb we check our partner, and we always communicate our plans with anyone waiting or on the same wall. I guess I've been lucky to have some great partners and teachers. Many of this etiquette isn't written down. With the explosion in the populatiry there may be the need (through articles like this) to raise public knowledge about the kind of unwritten rules usually passed down by mentors. Put those rules down on paper so we newbies who don't want to screw up know how we can do right. :)

Jennifer - 06/19/2014 5:19:28

"The profit motive wrecks everything for everyone..." THIS.

Chris - 06/06/2014 11:16:39

Of course you don't like what I say, your all from the east, aren't you. Stand in some else's shoes.

Jamie - 05/23/2014 8:32:23

Best to convince the gym kids that what they are doing is "real climbing" and keep them stashed indoors. "Gym to Crag" classes are a disaster in the making. Anyone who belongs outdoors -- a limited resource -- will find their way there without a gym owner trying to profit by selling his gym rats one more ridiculous class. The profit motive wrecks everything for everyone...

Jed - 05/22/2014 5:27:56

This was a well-written article on a challenge that is growing quickly. I have my own story to tell about ice climbers who soloed around my 10 year old son and I on the easier pitches of Great White Icicle, only to knock ice off on us when they got above. But instead of ranting, I think we should accept that times are changing and we need to be more aware of our impacts on the environment and on others. To try to mentor behavior that is not selfish can be challenging indeed.

Kitty Calhoun - 05/21/2014 8:31:34

Article is awesome! Im young (28) and been climbing for 10 years. But no one gets why i want to boulder alone. Its so amazing to get somewhere like Triassic or Cody, Wy and be the only one out there. I find myself having to go further and further these days, but such is life I want to say that there is ALOT of SHAMING going on, both in this article and on the message board. Just because you climbed somewhere first, or moved somewhere first, doesnt make you any more privileged to that land. Think the musical equivalent of the dude who brags that he heard the band first 2 years ago and now theyre so main stream. You sound like a douche (JAMIE). With increasing popularity, climbing will change. Try and talk to people before you jump to attack guns blazing. However, i must admit, i would have pulled her rope too

Tom M - 05/20/2014 10:49:28

Do you need a tissue from a New Yorker, Jamie? Or will you only take one from a fictional person from another state with almost no people. Boo hoo.

matt - 05/20/2014 9:11:11

I agree with Mr. Noble 100 percent. I would say climbing in the gym isn't climbing at all. What I see happening is the people gym climbing ultimately want to move out West to live that glorified outdorr lifestyle they see on the internet and in magazines. I am from the West, and I'll meet one hundred people over the course of a year or so, and they'll all be from somewhere unrelated to the West, ie.. from the east coast, the south or the midwest. I went to a Christmas party last year with thirty people, and I was the only one from the West, the one person closest to my home in Aspen was a girl from Detroit. Everyone else was from back east somewhere. And of course everyone of these people is and EMT, or snow and avalanche expert, or ski patrol, and firefighter, etc... Have you seen the drive from Denver to Vail? The whole place is discusting Americana. If your not from the West you need to realize your collective actions are destroying other people homes, people that have been in the West for a number of generations. Just think about it. I would like to meet someone that has moved to my hometown from, Idaho, or Oregon, not from NY.

Jamie - 05/20/2014 8:22:09

I commend all the mentors and wish them "good luck" - the above article and comments remind me of the song lyrics, "I've been around the world and found that only stupid people are breeding..."! I've been venturing into the backcountry for fifty years now and can honestly say there has always been self absorbed, selfishly naive human beings behaving as if the earth and all it's natural resources belong to them to do with as they please. Until we collectively appreciate we are all part of a living system dynamic there will remain the need for stewards and custodians to teach and protect!

markc - 05/15/2014 11:45:25

I've been climbing, very actively, since 1982--longer than some, shorter than others. Based on this 30+ years of experience, I can say without any equivocation or qualification that it is an absolute, falling-on-the-floor, beer-spraying-out-your-nose, pee-your-pants joke to say that most climbers, of any generation, are environmentalists or good stewards of the land. Recreating outside does not an environmentalist make (e.g., snowmobilers, ATV riders). True, some climbers are excellent stewards and environmentalists, and climbing has influenced--to one degree or another--a number of notable environmental leaders: Thoreau, Muir, Brower, et al. But both the vast majority of climbers and the average climber are pretty solidly environmentally selfish and short-sighted (and, paradoxically and unjustifiably, self-righteous). Though climbing is a core part of my identity, I'd rather see places closed to climbing than see gym culture exported to sport crags, or sport-crag culture exported to backcountry crags, or cragging culture exported to the greater ranges. Ever since the dawn of the Access Fund our cry as been "let climbers police themselves." And ever since that day we've made it abundantly clear that we can't, or won't. We lie (in both senses) in the bed we've made.

Brian - 05/13/2014 12:43:23

an interesting response to this article...

Megan - 05/12/2014 10:11:58

Great article! Another suggestion, climbing gyms should have a quick top ten list of how we should behave out of doors emblazoned on the wall--front and center. Put some flashy neon lights on it so it gets attention. Then, when climbers really do get ready to try out the crag the gym should have a paper hand out available that explains in more detail the dos and donts of climbing (and being) outside. The Access fund has great info on their website. Distill some of this into a single page handout that is kept at the front desk. Have new climbers take a sheet before heading out...this would help a lot.

josh harrison - 05/10/2014 11:16:22

Professional climbing athletes are often times the worst perpetrators, hogging climbs they've done dozens if not hundreds of times particularly if someone wants to point a camera at them which seems to be ALL the bloody time. Their sense of entitlement stems from the fawning attitudes of the gear companies that sponsor them, like little climbing gear mannequins they infest the crags like so many Mtn Hardwear/OR/Patagonia-clad pubic lice. It's all about them all the time, rather than be courteous and let a visiting climber have a go they plunk their sh*t down expecting everyone to make way, Allah help anyone who questions their "right" to do so, sadly the women are often the rudest and most aggressive as depicted in the above tale...

Rob - 05/09/2014 3:23:15

Chris, I commend you on your article. This issue needs to be addressed and the more exposure it receives the better. I agree that it is going to require a concentrated effort on behalf of all climbers to bridge this gap. I also believe that it is time for the professionals to stand up and get there hands dirty. My main point during the Kinder incident was this. I feel that as a professional athlete, especially in sports that are so married to the outside world, it’s your obligation to not only push the progression of the sport, but more importantly be a steward to the places that you do your business. As a professional blacksmith I take care of my shop. My floors are clean and my tools are in order. When a new apprentice arrives they are shown what is expected of them. I do not disrespect the very place that I make my livelihood. I would think this would be the goal of the professional climber and climbing companies alike. I point to the professional and the companies for this reason. With name recognition comes power to influence. During "tree gate" some asked "Who are you?" And this makes my point. Lesser known individuals in the community are less likely, or at least slower to have a vast impact on change. That being said, I am grateful to have started climbing during a time, and in a place that had Mentors off the highest quality. These individuals shaped myself and the young group of climbers that are now the "older guard". Your effort here to bring exposure to the problem, leaves me feeling optimistic about overcoming the challenges presented to climbing and it's growth. Thanks! Bernie LaForest

Bernie LaForest - 05/09/2014 10:40:11

You're nicer than me. I would have pulled the rope and tossed it in a pile.

Phil - 05/08/2014 10:14:56

It's not up to the owners to remind climbers how to act. Climber's as a group need to behave without supervision, weather at a easy access crag or the backcountry. That the owners still use their land for whatever reason is not relevant. I too enjoy the beauty of Roadside, and look forward to climbing there again.

Scott Hamsco - 05/08/2014 6:27:35

The closure of Roadside Crag was a blow to the climbing community - but it is unfair to blame climbers for the closure. The private owners never posted or commented any policies for that crag. Instead of engaging with the community in thoughtful discussion of any kind they closed down the crag and now use it for their own guiding service. Want people to not bring there dogs up, pee under the overhangs, and hang permadraws? Try putting a simple sign up reminding people as they hike up. The impacts of climbing at Roadside were clear there in 1993, when Chris Snyder was my guide there for my second time rock climbing, and I can't say I noticed much change when I climbed there several times shortly before its closure. It was still a great crag with a wonderful mix of routes, stunning amphitheater, and good access. The only difference I noted were more people were there to enjoy it. Muir Valley has had clear rules since its opening regarding trash, dogs, etc. For the most part climbers have respected those rules.

Kevin - 05/08/2014 5:36:27