For the Love of Climbing: The Death of the Ego

How resisting change holds back the sport—and puts lives at risk
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Elizabeth Elliot on Double Clutch (5.9+), the Trapps, Shawangunks, a crag at which the author’s mentor tried—unsuccessfully—to help other climbers select a safer belay anchor.

Elizabeth Elliot on Double Clutch (5.9+), the Trapps, Shawangunks, a crag at which the author’s mentor tried—unsuccessfully—to help other climbers select a safer belay anchor.

One slow winter afternoon at a rock gym in Colorado, I witnessed a climber lead-belaying his partner incorrectly. He kept his brake hand upright—and not down by his hip—which allowed the rope’s brake side and lead side to lie parallel. Meanwhile, his brake hand came off every time he went to manage slack. When staff members were alerted and approached the belayer, he became combative, insisting that this was how he’d learned and that he’d been belaying safely this way for decades. Then, before he cancelled his gym membership and stormed out of the building, he said, “I’ve been climbing for 45 years! Don’t tell me what I’m doing is wrong.”

Sound familiar? In an individualistic sport like ours, these outbursts of ego tend to be commonplace. All too often, we tie our self-worth to our accomplishments, and when others challenge our intelligence or competency, our deepest insecurities arise from within. However, these outbursts not only hold the sport back, they also endanger lives.

Let me give you a more extreme example. In 2004, my Shawangunks mentor, Arturo Quinones, belayed his second up to the Grand Traverse Ledge just a few pitches over from Limelight, a stunning 5.7 at the Trapps. Meanwhile, a party talking loudly on walkie-talkies climbed the first pitch of Limelight. When the leader reached the GT Ledge, he girth-hitched the sole branch of a small, dead tree as his anchor. While Arturo had himself anchored off the tree in years past when it was alive, he feared for the climber and his obvious newb second. He pondered how best to approach the situation, and then called over, mentioning the sweetness of the climb and remarking that he “really missed that tree, because it used to be a great anchor.” My mentor thought he’d been non-confrontational; however, the climber began ranting about having used that tree for over 20 years. Perhaps the man was embarrassed. As with the guy at the gym, he didn’t have an internal cue to let him know he was being unsafe until someone else brought it to his attention.

When someone delivers a hit to our ego, we can either integrate the lesson or—as with the two examples above—resist it. Truthfully, I want my ego to be as big as possible when I’m about to pull a crux. But when it comes to my partner’s or my own safety, there is little room for the fragile climber ego. Despite this, I’ve still observed major resistance to feedback around unsafe practices, even though we continue to see more and more preventable accidents. As with the examples above, it can be veteran climbers at fault—but also newbies. Recently at Indian Creek, I met a climber who was toprope-belaying his girlfriend on a moderate hand crack. He told me that they’d each been climbing for less than a year and that this was their first trip to the desert. However, the conversation quickly turned combative when I asked him if he could hold the rope with his brake hand—instead of letting it hang idly at his side. He stood firm in the fact that he knew how to belay safely with a Grigri and that only he knew what was best for his girlfriend at that moment. I walked away feeling unsettled, but ultimately, if something had happened, who would have paid the price?

The climber ego manifests in more toxic forms yet online, where the easiest place to spray about knowledge and accomplishments (or criticize others for their lack thereof) is the comments/forums sections of websites. But does “V12wannabe” actually want his fellow poster to be aware of and learn from their mistakes, or is he just trying to make them feel bad? It’s almost worse on social media, where outrageification and villainization have gone beyond simply holding each other accountable and crossed over into toxic criticism and ad hominem attacks. 

So why do we climbers behave this way when it’s so clearly counterproductive? I suspect much of it is driven by fear and resistance to change. However, in life, change is one of the few things we can rely on. We did away with the American Death Triangle, swapped out twisted nylon ropes for kernmantle ropes, traded in stiff-soled rock boots for quivers of specialized shoes, ditched the hip belay and belay plates for sleek tube-style devices and belay-assist devices, and left behind pitons in favor of nuts and cams. We’ve accepted all these advents in gear, so why wouldn’t we work to amend unsafe practices? Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, there will always be those who cleave to their convictions—even at the expense of safety. The underlying problem isn’t necessarily about one climber’s unwillingness to upgrade his belay technique or another’s failure to build a proper anchor, but with what happens when we get caught in the clutches of our egos.

As an analog, consider the medical profession, which is also constantly evolving. Doctors go to conferences, read journals, attend hospital clinics, and practical skill-training courses in order to keep their knowledge up-to-date—as clinicians, it’s their responsibility. Yet climbing is no less a life-and-death proposition—regardless of our skill or experience level, we should all be receptive to change and be held to the same standard of accountability. Doing so is meant to diminish risky behavior; it should be a positive thing.

I never saw that irate gym climber again, but the next time I visited the gym, his absence made me think: What if there’d been a way to broach the subject that didn’t make him storm out? If the ultimate goal is to change a behavior, then let’s be more intentional with how we execute our conversation. For example, asking the climber about the thought process behind his belay technique instead of approaching with an adversarial tone would have let him feel heard. This could have been followed by recognizing the behavior and calling forth the need to change it—“How can I help? How can we help each other?”—in a more collaborative, compassionate spirit. It can be as simple as striking up a conversation, and then asking the other person how they got into the sport and if they were mentored. Ultimately, calling others in (not out) shares the burden of change amongst all of us instead of placing it on one, single person. This is how we begin to shift the conversation.

Podcast producer and freelance writer Kathy Karlo (fortheloveofclimbing.com) lives for rock climbing, sharing doughnuts with strangers, and positive vibes. Climbing is mostly jumping for her, as she has a negative ape index.