Peaches Preaches: The Perils of Recreational Outrage

How the internet became a climbing-anger machine
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Ting-ting-ting. Max Hasson wedged a tuning fork behind a quarter-inch bolt, prying it from Tuolumne Meadows’ Drug Dome where we’d taken it upon ourselves to remove an old rap anchor on OZ, a five-pitch 5.10c freed by Dale Bard and Bob Locke in 1975. It was summer 2003, our third season in Tuolumne, and we’d been camping out of my beat-up pickup, coasting it down Tioga Pass to save gas, and pulling on feldspar knobs in the Yosemite high country. The first time we’d climbed OZ, we’d spotted the anchor in the middle of the third-pitch 5.10c corner, which takes perfect gear. Bard and Locke had free-climbed through here, so presumably an earlier aid party had placed the anchor—just shy of the corner’s end and with a better belay stance above. And so Max and I—two brash, opinionated climbers in our early 20s—returned to OZ to chop the bolts.

That evening, we pulled into the Tuolumne store/post office, the evening hang for climbers. We wanted to talk about yanking the old bolts, to fire off about a need for climbs to be natural. But instead of finding a willing audience drinking beers in the lot, we saw only evening light slanting across the meadow behind the store. Our piety set with the sun.

A few weeks later, when our money ran out, Max and I headed to Santa Cruz. Once we finished hunting for jobs, we ran out of things to do. We’d finished our books, and the beach had too much sand. So we went to Kinkos and paid for 15 minutes of internet. “We are pleased to inform you that the spectacular corner high on Drug Dome is no longer scarred by unnecessary midway anchors,” Max and I ranted on Supertopo. “Though rapping the route with one rope is no longer possible, the walk down is fine unless you’re a lightweight.”

We quickly stirred up over a hundred responses. A few people called out my license plate, made threats, and surely smashed their keyboards in fits of frustration. I could relate: While Max and I were sincere in our desire to keep routes like OZ pristine, we’d also baited a hook with a bit of internet trolling. The web provided a venue for us to express our “recreational outrage,” to be mad about the bolts simply to have something to be mad about—because, you know, #LOLZ4TROLLZ.

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In a 2013 study, “Anger Is More Influential Than Joy,” researchers studied interactions on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like service, combing through 70 million tweets from 200,000 users. “Our results show that anger is more influential than other emotions like joy, which indicates that the angry tweets can spread quickly and broadly in the network,” they concluded. And in the February 2017 study “Anyone Can Become a Troll,” researchers found that not only can mood affect the likelihood of an angry internet response, but also—surprise, surprise—that angry “behavior can also spread from person to person in discussions and persist across them to spread further in the community.” In other words, anger is the emotion most poised to go viral on the interwebs.

When I polled my Facebook friends about what gives them recreational outrage, I received 110 responses, ranging from “Sprinter vans,” to people who “play music on ‘personal’ speakers for everyone to hear while hiking,” to “Climbing organizations that debate solutions to preventing destruction of outdoor spaces while simultaneously encouraging more people to start climbing,” to “kids warming up on my projects.” “Wow. Everyone is really angry,” fellow climbing writer Andrew Bisharat posted. “Do people actually have fun climbing anymore?” The breadth of responses made me realize that, given the slightest opportunity, people will gladly express their gripes—at least digitally.

As another example, let’s consider Midnight Lightning’s chalk lightning bolt. As I wrote about in “Beyond the Bolt: The Past, Present, and Future of Yosemite Bouldering”, I erased the bolt in spring 2013. I’d walked by Camp 4’s Columbia Boulder thousands of times, and each time was tacitly accepting the graffiti. Eventually, I erased it. I told a few people what I’d done and received a few “Why’d you do that?”s, but not much else.

In the six years since, the bolt has been erased a few times. While its comings and goings have created minimal controversy in the Valley, my mistake was taking the fight to the internet. I waited until after the bolt reappeared two weeks later to speak out online, writing about the erasure on my blog and then sharing the link on Supertopo. The topic exploded, showing up on sites from the US to Japan. People who’d likely never seen the bolt in person suddenly had something to get upset about, and were soon back to threatening physical violence and posting my license-plate number so my tires could be slashed. Yet IRL, I had only a few interactions, mostly civil discussions—except for the pro climber who yelled at me at Tioga Cliff and at Jailhouse during the ensuing months. Outside of the WWW—away from bold print and ALL CAPS, and away from the armor of anonymity—emotions tend to fade. Yelling about bolts next to a crack or erased chalk graffiti when there’s a sunset to behold or problems to climb seems silly.

However, that’s not to say the net is totally benign. In spring 2018, Joe Kinder posted an internet meme on a private account making fun of fellow pro climber Sasha DiGiulian. DiGiulian received the meme and posted about it, targeting Kinder as a bully. Then some of DiGiulian’s 430,000 followers attacked Kinder; shortly thereafter, his sponsors fired him and he became a pariah. The interaction became an example of how online—not face-to-face—interactions change the tone and reach of the conversation. In the pre-web era, had Kinder handmade his “meme,” he would have had to distribute it personally, possibly having to face the pain in DiGiulian’s eyes had she seen it and confronted him. But in the digital age, this can all be sidestepped. As the psychologist John Suler noted, there’s an “online disinhibition effect” in which “some people self-disclose or act out more frequently or intensely than they would in person” (CyberPsychology & Behavior, 2004). This could account partly for Kinder’s actions, DiGiulian’s response, and the hundreds of people who called for an end to Kinder’s career.

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“You’re such a jealous loser.” “Salty bitch.” “Stupid asshole.” “You’re somewhere between dad bod and skinny fat … I can see where the saltiness comes from.” “What a pathetic man.”—my phone exploded in the middle of the night, alerting me of inflammatory Instagram messages and posts I’d been tagged in.

In the six years since erasing the lightning bolt, I’d eased off recreational outrage, not liking the resulting negativity. So when my phone lit up again in September, I felt sick with anxiety. That month, Alex Honnold had posted a picture of his naked ESPN Magazine cover on Instagram. The photo struck me as silly and excessive. I could only reason that Alex would pose nude in the post–Free Solo maelstrom to stay relevant and subsequently keep getting work. “Everybody needs a paycheck,” I posted to my friend of over a dozen years. “Too true. That’s why you work in an office now!” Honnold shot back. “Too true. Not everyone can be a 5’11” dick,” I retorted, then: “Nice job on the cover,” failing to remember that I was posting on the world’s most famous climber’s Instagram page. Nearly a hundred people responded, taking aim at me. On the internet, attacking a popular climber or even idea becomes an attack against all climbers, apparently—even if you’re a climber yourself.

A few days later, I spoke with Honnold on the phone. He’d just sent his first 5.14d, and I congratulated him. I’d belayed him on his first 5.14c nearly a decade earlier, and it was great to see his success. After hanging up, I realized that the personal communication was significantly better. We’d talked to each other, understood each other, and had a pleasant chat. The internet, like real life, should be more than just a place to get recreationally angry, to seethe in anger. The more I thought about being angry, the less I wanted it in my life. When I opened up my social media feed a few days later, I could feel my blood begin to boil again. There were more messages from the Hon Army, more chopped bolts to rant about, and more political recreational outrage than any one person could parse. I wanted to scream. Then I sat. I turned off my phone and walked away from it. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “For every minute you remain angry, you give up 60 seconds of peace of mind.”  

Climbing's Senior Associate Editor James Lucas spends half his time in his cubicle obsessing over climbing and the other half outside obsessing about climbing.