The Mentorship Gap: A Response

The one thing we all agree on, is that there is a problem.

In the May 2014 issue of Climbing, we published The Mentorship Gap. The article explored the issue of climbing's increased popularity and its impact on outdoor conditions and access. It prompted a range of responses. Evening Sends blogger Andrew Bisharat posited that climbing gyms aren't the problem, assholes are. Climbing Business Journal found the article insulting to gym climbers. Others agreed with it whole-heartedly. Author Chris Noble took the time to further the discussion.

First I’d like to thank everyone for their response to my article The Mentorship Gap in the May issue of Climbing. Judging from the comments received, most people agree that the large numbers of new climbers entering the sport are having increasing affects in terms of safety, environmental impact, and user experience.

There’s far less agreement on why this is so, and what to do about it, which is to be expected with a topic as broad and complex as this. Critics of the piece brought up a number of valid points, the primary one being— that gyms and gym climbers are not to blame—an opinion with which I whole-heartedly agree.

Saying that gyms are the cause of the problems facing climbing today would be akin to saying that, because sex can lead to overpopulation, sex is bad. I want to go on record by saying that I personally frequent climbing gyms and have sex as much as possible. In fact, I encourage everyone to indulge liberally in both activities, and spend far less time ranting and raving about what an article in Climbing did or did not say.

Since apparently I wasn’t clear enough—the point of the article is that there is an education gap in modern climbing that needs to be addressed. This is not my opinion and my opinion only; it is also the opinion of the Access Fund which has stated repeatedly that they see the rising number of new climbers to be the biggest threat facing American climbing access today. That’s why they went to the trouble of hosting a summit conference on the subject which is the basis for the information in the article. It is also the opinion of the American Alpine Club, which launched an education initiative aimed at new climbers at their Annual Meeting in Denver last February. It is also the opinion of all the land managers and climbers (both pro and recreational) I spoke with when preparing the article. And it’s the opinion of Climbing magazine who commissioned me to write the piece in the first place.

A magazine article is a remarkably limited form of expression, more like a limerick, than an in-depth exploration of a challenging topic. All that can be hoped is that it provides a starting point—getting people thinking and talking. And in that this article appears to have succeeded. I don’t pretend to be an expert or to have all the answers. That’s up to the climbing community as a whole. What I suggest is that if you read this article and feel strongly about some aspect of it, do something that contributes to solutions, not further argument. Don’t waste your time ranting in a post. Get involved with the Access Fund or the AAC. Join your local climbing organization, or find a way to work with young climbers. Write your favorite brands and tell them you want to see them get involved. Talk with your local gym owners and ask what they are doing to bridge the education gap. What I do know, is that if climbers do not come together to address these issues, then we will see ever more closures, restrictions, permitting, and regulations. And that would really be something to be upset about.

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Previous Comments

"What I suggest is that if you read this article and feel strongly about some aspect of it, do something that contributes to solutions, not further argument." That says it all.

ktmt - 06/18/2014 12:08:15

A couple weeks ago I witness a young man start to rappel off a 40' boulder with a 60 meter rope which one end was about 15' above the ground, as He started to rappel I said something to him and helped him reposition his rope. Thing is He was with a group of 8 climbers many transitioning from the gym. I dont blame the gym culture but Climbing outdoors inherently demands more personal responsibility and attention.

climbgoon - 06/06/2014 1:31:31

OF COURSE the "Climbing Business Journal found the article insulting to gym climbers." - CLIMBING AS A BUSINESS _IS_ THE PROBLEM! They're going to ride this wave and wring every buck from it that they possibly can, along with MH, BD, Patagonia, and the like. Corporate-consumer culture ruins everything. It's not about making money; it's about making more, and MORE and MORE money. GREED and EXPANSION are the villains here. Very few companies are content to stay [profitably] at their present size; it's all about what the investors want. If you aren't angry, you should be.

Chris - 06/06/2014 11:27:49

I found The Mentorship Gap article a great and inspiring read. I didn't find it was precisely aimed at criticizing or giving responsability to the gyms. The only point it raised is that they bring more people to the activity and then to the crag. But it's just a natural trend as the sport gets more popular. Aslo, here's more gyms because it answers a need from growing climbing population in the first place. So it's a "chicken or egg first ?" situation. Otherwise I was really impressed reading that private gyms in the US provide outdoor classes to gym rats. It's something you really don't see in France and I find it inspiring. Cheers from France

Gilles - 06/06/2014 6:03:23

Let's not give up. In my lifetime I've seen a pronounced and important shift in the manners and environmental impact awareness of people who use the outback. I was the first Wilderness Ranger hired in the Bend District of the USFS after the Wilderness Act was initiated. At that time,many of us still went by the ethic the Boy Scouts suggested: burn and bury your debris (such as tin cans, Aluminum foil, plastic plates, cups, knives, forks, etc.). The first year, at one popular destination, I hauled out 18 bags of garbage and this was just for the first trip. Much garbage was just buried, half-heartedly at that. I learned how to look for hiding places. The area by previous standards is now pristine, even with its very high use. This particular area had been a destination for the locals for around 80 years prior to the Wilderness Act. People could hitch up their horse team and come up for a Sunday afternoon picnic. It had not been a part of the ethic in those days to be concerned about the buildup of mess, mostly because people felt there was plenty of acreage to use to leave one's trash. There were not enough people using the area for the long term impact to be noticed. My overall point is that people's attitudes have changed and that mean, ornery Forrest Service has actually done a very good job of rehabilitating many of the overused destination areas. Let's continue to advocate for wise and considerate use of the various destination areas. Over time, one can see important changes in the attitudes of the users. A long time ago, under The Nose, I had to warn my son that all that brown and black were not Hershey bars. That particular ethic (or lack of) is a spectacular change in thinking. Much of this has come about by the urging of the climbers themselves.

John W. Barton - 06/06/2014 12:59:35

Gym climbing's psychology and its bottom line purveyors simply do not cultivate the ethic of ground-up adventure, however subtle that can be explored in terms of not treating an artificial spin-off as an end in itself. The first "climbing gym" I experienced was a glue-hold wall on the outside of the Rock and Ice climbing shop in Fullerton, California in the late 70's~early 80s. They had also designed and built a "crack-machine". Who ever conceived that these inventions could, much less would, actually usurp "real" climbing experience or even be people's first (or only) climbing experience. Of course any notion that questions the very basis of that model of a convenience recreationalism provided by brick-and-mortar commercial entrepreneurs will be objected to (per the article). How can they be expected to ever step up to the level of instilling a value that simply isn't what the majority of their customers want. The rope-hangers are here to stay. The West was won by those who moved away from precisely these issues. It is the responsibility of those who are prepared to use climbing as a vehicle for self-discovery of personal potential to seek and find mentors— not the ticket-sellers. They're just meeting a need. I'm afraid mentors are no longer to be found at out at road-side attractions frequented by recreationally entitled rope-hangers.

Mar' Himmerich - 06/05/2014 5:57:31