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Toes augured into divots and fingers buckled on razorblades, I cocked my hips and eyeballed an incut four feet away across a forbidding swath of blank brown sandstone. My belayer was out of earshot, seemingly miles away; it was just me up there on my own, needing to make it happen. I fired; I missed; I sagged onto the rope.
Ryan, what did you do with your feet here? I wanted to ask my friend, but I knew there was no way he’d hear me, or that I’d in turn be able to hear his response.
The thing is, Ryan was only 30 feet away looking directly up at me from the ground, not 120 feet below at some hidden hanging belay around a windswept arete. But the crag was so loud, so cacophonous, such a chaos of barking (and sometimes fighting) dogs and beta spew and grade spray amidst the 10 or so climbers gathered that we couldn’t hear each other, even at this short remove.
“I can’t focus,” I said, pissed, demoralized, over it after three hours of this senseless din, raising my voice loud enough (I hoped!) to be heard.
I pulled back on and began trying again as the wall of sound temporarily abated. Perhaps someone had heard me and took pity as I struggled to work out this thin, devious crux—one that required precision, tension, focus, and commitment. Perhaps they’d pictured themselves up on the rock, on their burn, and what it would feel like to struggle with limit moves while enveloped in a cloud of random, brain-piercing spew. Or perhaps this old, gray-haired hangdogging guy who seemed miffed about something-or-other was just a momentary curiosity, another item to be incorporated into the incessant crag chatter. Little matter, in any case, as one minute later it grew just as loud again, if not louder.
“Fuck this,” I said to Ryan. “Dirt me.”
I pointed to the ground just in case he hadn’t heard. Ryan had had the same experience on his attempt, an hour earlier. He didn’t want to give another burn either. We packed our things and left without a word.
Would that this was the only day this had happened, that it was an isolated incident and not the new status quo—at least at popular, accessible crags on weekends. (Note, however, that the cliff we were at was a 45-minute walk uphill—even that wasn’t enough to keep the crowds away on the busy Front Range of Colorado.) However, constant crag noise seems to be the new normal. Sort of like COVID-19 and Trumpism and auto-tune and Q-Anon and pro-climber navel-gazing on Instagram, it’s just this shitty thing that’s here to stay.)
This day had been terrible, but others were equally horrible: The time at Staunton State Park, southwest of Denver, that I started up on a redpoint burn feeling strong and psyched, only to be thrown off by climbers directly below first talking about someone who’d fallen off a cliff top and died (!), and then about how to set up an Instagram account for their dog—yeah, their fucking dog. Or the pack of climbers who’d descended on a friend and I, warming up in the winter sun at a crag high in Clear Creek Canyon, Colorado, who’d dropped their packs on top of ours at the staging area then began planning their collective warmup schedule so loudly that we could no longer exchange belay commands—this despite the cliff being a quarter-mile long, with dozens of other routes. Or the “power trio” of ‘roided-up hipsters on a busy day in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, who stick-clipped up to the first bolt on a 5.14 then began promptly flailing all over the first five feet—not that there’s anything wrong with flailing per se; I do it all the time—while shrieking expletives, dishing out excuses, and generally making it known that what was going on was somehow both not fair and an anomaly upon which we should not, of course, judge their true talents.
I get it: We all have bad days and we’ve all been there—not always on our best behavior. And, by being at a crowded crag, I of course am just one more member of the crowd, no better or worse than anyone else, no more or less entitled to be there. This is not another old-guy, get-off-my-lawn rant—I know better. The world is ever more crowded, climbing is booming, and we all need to figure out how to get along.
However, there are ways of being at the cliffs that seem to have become lost, a lacuna of etiquette and basic situational awareness/respect for others that is contributing to the modern-day crowded-crag shitshow. And here’s the thing—there really are varying levels of impact, sonically and environmentally and otherwise. A pair of climbers quietly and efficiently going about their business, like Ryan and I were, will do way less to impact the experience for others than a large, obnoxious group. It’s just a basic fact, the same way someone driving drunk on the highway makes it unsafe for all the sober drivers.
Not that this rant will change anything—obnoxious people tend to cling to their ways—but here at least are a few things that, IMO, contribute to a distracting, unsafe environment and that we could all be working on to improve. I mean, really, do any of us want to climb at a cliff where we can’t hear our belayer 30 feet up?
If your dog is a barker or a fighter or a territorial breed, leave your dog at home. Period. You may think you’re going to be the only climbers at the cliff that day, but that might not be the case. Also, if you have more than one dog, don’t bring them: Dogs run in packs, and dog-pack behavior below the rock is a distraction at best, a safety hazard at worst
Just. Fucking. Don’t. You want music, wear headphones. And rock gyms, please stop piping in music, too. The setters are tired of hearing the same shitty Spotify playlist, the deskies are sick of it, and the customers are sick of it. Having music constantly playing at gyms sets up the false expectation among newer climbers that climbing and music go hand-in-hand, but they shouldn’t. At its best, climbing is a communion between you and nature—not you and “Justin Bieber featuring Pitbull.”
3) Beta spray
Do it on the ground before you head up on the climb, so it’s not a back-and-forth shoutfest that drowns out other climbers trying to exchange belay commands. Or at least, lay the groundwork down on the deck so that beta spray is minimized up high.
4) Grade Spray
This is the absolute worst, total logorrhea, zero value. It takes three forms: 1) A long, masturbatory paean to the self upon lowering off a send that usually involves downgrading. 2) A long, masturbatory paean to the self upon lowering off a climb you’ve been flailing on that usually involves downgrading and the phrases “That’ll go” or “Next try” or comparing it to some other climb you’ve also downgraded. And 3) Asking other climbers about how hard (Yosemite grade or V grade) each section of a route is, in order, usually, to begin downgrading.
So here’s the thing: Until you have sent a climb in its entirety, you have no standing to comment on the grade. So STFU. That V4 exit that feels “easy” off the dog is going to be a whole other animal when you’re carrying 12 bolts of pump. You need to respect this—your opinion has no bearing until you’ve sent, and in any case is just more noise.
I’m certainly guilty of screaming when giving max effort—there is real power in it. But it’s that final phrase, max effort, that matters. There seems to be a trend toward just hollering any time the climbing feels hard (thanks, Adam Ondra), but since climbing is a difficult sport, this can be a frequent occurrence. And it’s loud. So is pitching a wobbler when you fall—anything more than a single expletive is too much. Though if you must go long with your lament, at least be creative: Last time I fell off a route and for some bizarre reason actually cared about failing, I hissed, “Fuck my fucking fuckhole!” loud enough for my belayer to hear, and he almost dropped me he was laughing so hard. Therefore my wobbler provided entertainment, adding value to the crag experience!
Ryan and I have given up going to this particular crag on weekends anymore, despite having a project we’ve put days into bolting and cleaning, and have both become attached to. This week, we’re headed up on Friday with the goal of having a better, quieter experience on the route away from the weekend madness. Whether or not this bears fruit, we can’t control—there may be other climbers up there, and they may be behaving in ways that negatively impact our experience. All we can control, of course, is our own behavior, with the goal of making the climbing experience as mellow and positive as possible for everyone.