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Do Climbing Gyms Have a Responsibility to Teach Outdoor Etiquette?

As climbing slides into the mainstream, climber education becomes crucial for protecting our outdoor crags and public lands. Are climbing gyms the answer?

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The number of rock climbers in the United States has never been higher. If climbing’s rise isn’t self-evident from its Olympic inclusion—or your aunt asking you about Honnold’s “free handing”—according to the 2019 Outdoor Participation Report from the Outdoor Industry Association, climbing participation in the U.S. increased by 57% from 2006 to 2019. That’s almost 10 million American climbers, or 4.4% of the population. 

This rapid growth brings more money to the industry, introduces fresh perspectives to the sport, and creates space for an increasingly diverse climber demographic. But it is not without its drawbacks, namely overcrowded crags and aggrieved climbing vets. Instead of listening to grumpy climbers debate who has a right to be at their favorite climbing area (hint: everyone), we should focus on how to mitigate our impact on the land and promote a culture of ethical behavior.

So, who is responsible for this daunting task? Whose job is it to educate climbers (both new and experienced) and pass on outdoor etiquette to ensure sustainable use of our crags? A few key players are the land agencies (like the US Forest Service), local climbing organizations (LCOs), and climbing gyms. 

The (Increasingly) Foundational Role of Climbing Gyms 

Today, most novices to the sport learn to climb in gyms. According to the American Alpine Club’s 2019 State of Climbing Report, climbing gyms accrue an average of 102 new climbers each month. When you consider the number of climbing gyms across the U.S.—over 500 at the moment, a 150% increase from 2005—that growth is substantial. Paul Guarino, co-owner of Ascend Climbing tells Climbing, “Since gyms are the primary source of new climbers nowadays, we carry a responsibility to educate as many climbers as we can.” Wade Desai, Ascend’s Director of Outdoor Programming, adds that “gyms have the highest potential of any sector in the outdoor industry to implement long-term sustainable principles in new climbers.

Climbing gyms are more than a place to get strong; for many, they are an entry point to our sport. Teaching LNT practice from the outset will have lasting effects on our climbing areas. (Photo: Hispanolistic / Getty)

But gyms are more than fun places to hang out, they influence the local climbing culture. Social norms are established by the gym’s voice: the images that hang on the walls, the staff member interactions, and the social media messaging. Youth teams, perhaps the most impressionable climbing demographic, not only learn technique from their coaches but how to think about the sport. When gyms promote a culture of caring, their members follow suit. In the past decade, gyms have become more than just training facilities for outdoor climbing and venues for 10-year-olds’ birthday parties—they’re community hubs that offer fitness classes, social events, clinics, affinity groups, cafes, and saunas. “Successful gyms are such a cool anchor for their local climbing community,” says Chris Winter, the Director of the Access Fund. “So, I do think that gyms have an important role to play in sharing our values of conservation and stewardship, in fostering the culture that we want to cultivate.” 

Climbing Gyms and Outdoor Programming 

Climbing gyms across the country have ramped up their climber education efforts in recent years—partnering with experts like Indigenous groups or wildlife biologists to host events, organizing courses, and facilitating volunteer crag cleanups. But Ascend Climbing has done what most gyms haven’t: they’ve incorporated guided outdoor programming into their business model.

The National Parks Service estimates that Yosemite welcomes 25,000-50,000 climbers annually. (Photo: Kevin Boutwell / Getty)

By offering outdoor programming, they can place leave no trace (LNT) principles at the forefront of their curriculum. “We start every outdoor trip with a 20-minute discussion, talking guests through LNT basics like packing out trash and how to go to the bathroom,” says Desai. “Then, throughout the day, we’ll sprinkle in other principles like wildlife interactions, the importance of staying on the trail, and how to prevent erosion. If we aren’t teaching our clients how to do these things properly, we are going to accelerate the rate of degeneration of our climbing environments.” “Climbing gyms have been blowing up in the past ten years and I personally feel that they are not doing enough to teach people what is appropriate ethic in the outdoors,” says Todd McCormick, who helped open Ascend Climbing in 2017 and now works as a retail consultant for gyms. “This was one of the main reasons why I wanted to create a guiding program.”

Although their outdoor program isn’t one of their primary money-makers, Guarino sees outdoor guiding as a smart business practice. “Regardless of whether the program pays for itself, making holistic climbers is more profitable than creating one-dimensional gym climbers,” he says. “We have to scale our programming in a way we can afford, but I believe our customers will be happier, more fulfilled, life-long climbers if they get outside.”

Simple Solutions for Fostering Outdoor Etiquette

While bigger gyms can afford complex programming, some small gyms are struggling just to survive right now. But these gyms still have options that don’t involve increasing their budget. If gyms can’t (or don’t want to) offer their own programming, they can partner with guiding services to run gym-to-crag workshops. “For our gym-to-crag program, we’re partnering with a local guiding service that has the same values and viewpoints on outdoor etiquette and LNT ethics.” says Taino Grojean, Head Instructor and Assistant Manager at Evo Rock and Fitness.

Gym-to-crag courses can also provide a low-cost opportunity for people to try climbing outdoors. (Photo: Pekic / Getty)

He recommends finding a guiding company that is AMGA accredited, as outdoor etiquette is a huge part of the AMGA culture. “If you’re partnering with a guiding service, starting a gym-to-crag course is pretty straightforward,” notes Grojean, “The guiding service provides all the equipment, and the gym brings business to a local company that probably operates on a really slim margin.” These programs also provide the opportunity for instruction about local climbing considerations. “We’re integrating information on rappel access because one of our closest crags is Otter Cliffs in Acadia, where you need to rappel in to get to the base of the climbs,” he says.

Further, some of the most successful examples of climber education are partnerships between gyms and LCOs. “It can be a really powerful partnership,” says Winter. “It takes some of the financial burdens off of the small gyms, but it also builds community because it gets climbers connected to their local climbing organization.”

How gyms can support LCOs

Julia Geisler, the Executive Director of the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance (SLCA), works with local gyms to educate their members on local advocacy efforts and stewardship opportunities. In the next five years, one of the nonprofit’s goals is to make every gym member in the area an SLCA member, and gym managers can support this mission. Geisler suggests that gyms include two checkboxes during membership sign-ups: 1) an “opt-out” of a monthly donation to their LCO (so that members are automatically enrolled in a small donation) and 2) the option to opt-out of the LCO’s newsletter. “It’s also beneficial when gyms have a designated staff member responsible for communicating with the LCO to keep themselves informed”, says Geisler.

Moreover, many gyms have larger online and social marketing presences than their LCO counterparts. “Social media, email communications, and newsletters are all opportunities to share stoke around conservation,” says Winter. “It’s not just about courses or gym-to-crag programs, but what is the gym actually about? Whenever we can find ways to incorporate outdoor ethics, we should. When climbers begin to hear this messaging every day, it starts to spread. Once the foundation is laid, the formal education becomes more effective.” However, Geisler believes that while gyms can pass on these messages, it is up to LCOs and land agencies to create the content for gyms to use as educational tools. 

For an even greater impact, gyms can get involved with their regional land policies. “Gyms should put pressure on their land managers to have Climbing Management Plans in place so that etiquette is established,” says Geisler. “And on their elected officials to fund maintenance of recreation infrastructure, like transit, trails, and educational signage.” When private businesses submit comments to land managers, they’re likely to listen. And while this form of advocacy isn’t direct climber education, it increases the likelihood that the land managers will create lasting policy changes to support our public lands. 

But What About Land Agencies?

While some climbers believe that gyms aren’t doing enough to educate the next generation on climber etiquette, Geisler believes that the community puts too much of the onus on gyms. “Gyms are private businesses. They’re not land agencies or managers. They’re not really responsible for outdoor climbing areas; their main role is connecting climbers with land managers and LCOs. The public land agencies should be the ones establishing rules and managing for user behavior.” Because, as Geisler notes, if we don’t have the infrastructure in place like restrooms, parking, or trails—it’s hard to encourage people to behave sustainably. You can’t promote best practices if they don’t exist. 

Read More: Freedom of the Hills Isn’t So Free Anymore

However, land agencies are wildly underfunded. They manage multiple user groups and often don’t have the resources to devote to climber education. Yosemite—one of the most popular climbing destinations in the U.S.—doesn’t even have a climbing management plan due to staffing shortages and complicated government logistics. If the most iconic national park in the country can’t even develop a climbing management plan, can we expect the Forest Service and BLM to manage these spaces effectively? “If the land agency is so bureaucratically overloaded and strapped for funding, then they can’t be a very good partner at the table,” Geisler says.

Still, climbing gyms often take too much flak from experienced climbers, some of whom are quick to criticize these businesses for the rapid influx of new climbers. “You have a lot of the old generation saying that climbing gyms are ostensibly a bad thing for climbing,” Desai says, “And there’s some truth to that. The moment you increase the number of people doing an activity, you increase the impact.” However, Winter notes, “I think this whole conversation—by focusing on new climbers—can put beginners and gyms on the defensive, while everyone else feels like they’re doing okay and not looking at their own impacts.” Geisler expresses that many climbers have tunnel vision: as they hyperfocus on their sport, they fail to examine the overarching issues facing the climbing community. “I think every person has their own impact. Every climber is walking on vegetation and peeing next to the crag. Just because you’ve been there before doesn’t mean you’re not having an impact,” Geisler says. “At the end of the day, it’s up to each climber to be a better citizen for their public lands.” 

Hannah Singleton is a freelance journalist who writes about the outdoors and public lands. After years of hopping around the West guiding backpacking trips from Yosemite to the North Cascades, she now resides in Salt Lake City where she runs, climbs, and is a little closer to her one true love: the red rock desert. 

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