Out on a Ledge: The Curated Image

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Climbers going #yolofreesolo on their #grampatrols. Photo: James Lucas

Climbers going #yolofreesolo on their #grampatrols. Photo: James Lucas

“Hey, have any of you guys climbed the Matthes Crest?” said the voice from behind our group of Tuolumne lifers, Bay Area weekend warriors, and professional dirtbags. Basking in the September sun, we were in the parking lot of the Tuolumne Meadows Store for our morning coffee-and-slander session.

“Yes,” we all replied, almost in unison.

“Oh, cool! Did you solo it? That’s what you do, right?” our questioner, a would-be adventure seeker in his mid-20s, said. “I saw some internet posts of people soloing it, and it seemed like that’s how it’s typically climbed.” We collectively shifted on our heels at the awkward question, then someone replied with a muffled confirmation that yes, we had soloed it.

“Well, do you recommend that I solo it?” he asked, standing there in brand-new approach shoes and tightly fit stretch jeans, clutching an uncreased guidebook in his hand.

“Have you ever soloed before?” we asked.

“No.”

“Well, do you feel comfortable doing so?” someone in our group asked.

“I guess I’m not sure,” he said, “and that’s why I’m asking.”

If he had to ask, shouldn’t he just treat the Matthes Crest like any other 5.7? Realizing that this fellow was willing to put common sense aside for the sake of doing something he’d seen on social media, we discouraged him from what seemed more like a daredevil stunt than a well-considered solo ascent.

In previous decades, climbing news and images were transmitted solely through monthly magazines, unlike the endless stream of content now available every second of the day. Weathered by experience with a thousand-yard stare, Charlie Fowler graced the cover of Climbing magazine. Lynn Hill made headlines with her first free ascent of the Nose of El Capitan. The Karakoram and Uli Biaho filled pages and imaginations. The mags provided incredible forays into the vertical world, with accident reports, technical tips, and “Hot Flashes” on the latest ascents.

Only a select group of characters pushed the limits of possibility: Ron Kauk with Yosemite free grades, John Bachar with boldness, Nancy Feagin with mountaineering, Bobbi Bensman with hard sport routes. These climbers broke ground, making news that couldn’t come out fast enough given the once-a-month print format. Climbers greeted each new issue with excitement and anticipation. Being on the fringe defined climbing as unique and special. However, the number of climbers in the last few decades has swelled, and climbing has become mainstream. What was at one time an underground club of obsessive athletes, wingnuts, and misfits has now grown to such a size that the sport can feel overrun. Magazine editors of yesteryear were the curators of coverage, deeming which ascents, people, and news were worthy of a few inches of text.

Now outlets like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and blogs fill the spaces between those glossy pages of yore. Even gear manufacturers produce “news” or branded content that rivals the material that dwindling magazine staffs can produce. Anyone and everyone can post about their daily feats and struggles, which further promotes the perception that climbing is an everyday and ultimately approachable endeavor. And all this happens so fast, in “web time,” that it’s next to impossible to distinguish what is authentic, fact-checked, and legitimate versus what is just marketing content.

The younger generations are searching these social media channels for idols, and they’re finding self-made micro-celebrities. These outlets of neverending scrolling have created a backdoor entrance: You can exude a cool public image without the constraints of a sponsor dictating what you can or cannot do, or some media entity diluting your message. This shift has provided a platform for unsponsored climbers to attract attention, a movement in which average Joes and Janes can chase fame without backing their stories with either substance or experience. It’s a type of celebrity gone haywire—fame for fame’s sake alone, as with Paris Hilton and the Kardashians.

Instagram popularity defines who and what are good by the amount of likes and shares a post receives. Everyday climbers can seem like seasoned professionals because they meticulously select pictures, boost the Lux filter, and use popular hashtags to garner a more widespread audience. The real badass news and quality storytelling get lost in the shuffle. Reticent climbers may be less focused on selling an image or gaining popularity as a #rockclimber, and more focused on sharing the essence of what climbing means to them.

This is not to say that everyone doesn’t have a unique story and experience to share, but today, the social media explosion has led to an oversaturation and a loss of our sport’s soul. Companies love it, because for them it is free advertising—#liveyouradventure and #neverstopexploring. Individuals love it because they can become Instafamous, or grow established notoriety through these channels. The grassroots capability of a movement like this can also be positive for the greater community, with small do-good organizations having the same free access to a powerful platform.

Yet the image of climbing has been dumbed down to the point where wearing a strappy tank top, learning to campus, and embarking on your first “trad” lead makes you seem like a “competent” rock climber. With image feeds featuring trendy yoga poses, naked summit shots, French teenagers doing one-finger dynos, and sport climbing pics overlaid with Rumi quotes, it’s no wonder the core message of our sport has gone missing—at least in the digital realm. (And don’t get me started on live Snapchat feeds from Himalayan giants like Everest, which turn a dangerous 3-D reality into 2-D news bites, and make climbing these lethal peaks seem like no big deal.)

But the truth IRL, where gravity always holds sway, couldn’t be any more different. Rock climbing is inherently dangerous, and the ability to navigate vertical terrain safely comes from mentorship and experience. Many of the risks can be mitigated with the correct approach and utter respect for the seriousness of the situations in which we find ourselves. Social media shares glorious blips of a moment in time, but it lacks the details leading up to those crescendos: the time spent practicing and developing skills, the close calls and near-misses, the bad anchors, the incorrectly threaded belay devices, the improperly used gear, the lessons learned, the time put in to become a competent, well-rounded rock climber. You don’t need the fundamentals when you can post a pic, label it with #tradisrad, and post it for the world to see. Who knows how experienced you are, and who cares as long as you look good doing it?

Free soloing, a controversial aspect of climbing, has also gained fanfare in the digital zeitgeist. With group soloing now trending and hashtags like #grampatrol, #hopelessandropeless, and #yolofreesolo, we see people minutes after they reach the summit on their unroped ascents, bringing the heroes right into the palm of our smartphone-holding hands. Because Instagram makes average people into stars, we start to identify with them and perhaps even get the feeling of FOMO, which can lead to the thought that “I, too, should go do that,” regardless of our skillset or readiness. Many of these ascents go off without a hitch and without a second thought to the true risks involved. But that’s not always the case.

The Sierra and Yosemite saw about a dozen climber-related accidents and deaths this past summer, and three were free soloists. My husband, Ben Ditto, an experienced climber of close to 25 years, and I talk a lot about the rise of people endeavoring to go ropeless in the alpine, and there was one particular thing he said that stood out to me. “It’s one thing for bouldering standards to rise,” Ben noted, “but when people have the false impression that climbing mountains is easy or safe, then they have a hard lesson to learn.”

In 2010, I had a close call ascending the slabs on the East Ledges of El Cap. Though I’d never been up there before, I followed a friend who had experience with the terrain. I mimicked his every step, occasionally thinking that our route seemed precarious as I tiptoed over wet slabs that dropped 2,000 feet to the deck. However, instead of voicing my concerns, I followed behind because it seemed like this was just how it was done. Then, I slipped on a wet slab and slid 50 feet before crashing into a boulder and narrowly escaping a ride off the Captain. Instead, I split my head open, broke two ribs, and partially tore the MCL in my left knee. I wonder if others—perhaps even climbers who have died in the act—felt insecure voicing their concerns in similar situations. I couldn’t help but wonder if such silence was caused, inadvertently, by the way our social media frenzy makes climbing seem so casual.

We climbers act like we have control, but there’s a level of objective risk that is far beyond what we have influence over. It seems we are becoming more narcissistic with our obsessive posting, checking of likes, and cultivating of followers. We are concerned with the ’gram, we want the shot, and we crave the immediate satisfaction of it all—so we slack off on the belay and rush through things, and the seriousness of climbing gets lost. We can post a picture and get immediate positive feedback, creating a feeling of accomplishment, success, and a powerful high.

As with all things made “less real” by the TweetSnapGram effect, the inherent risks start to feel like they don’t apply to us. We can even begin to view stories of tragedy as hearsay, from simple things like climbing in the gym and forgetting to tie in to falling to one’s death during a solo bid while scrambling in the mountains. But climbing is a profound endeavor, with grave consequences if we don’t give it the reverence it demands.

“We think because we got away with something one or two times that we have a buffer to the edge,” says Eric Bissell, a Yosemite climbing ranger who, like many in his field, has witnessed an increase in preventable accidents. “But in reality, we are still on that edge. It never goes away, and we never get any farther from it. It is always there.”