The Globetrotting Climber’s Dilemma

Climbing travel with social awareness
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Adam Wells and Natalie Warren on a climbing-scouting, mission, East Sumba, Indonesia.

Adam Wells and Natalie Warren on a climbing-scouting, mission, East Sumba, Indonesia.

I’m gonna say it: Climbers are privileged. Going to the gym, getting out on weekends, traveling to wild, new places—it all requires free time and disposable income, two things most people on this planet don’t have. Of course, plenty of climbers are strapped for cash or have other problems, but ultimately climbing is a leisure activity. We don’t need it to survive.

The epitome of our sport’s recreational nature is travel. There’s a seemingly endless amount of rock, and we climbers have an unquenchable thirst. While backyard crags keep us occupied and fit, exploration is what really drives us. So we travel, experiencing new routes, food, landscapes, cultures, and languages. Ideally, it all adds up to make us better, more open-minded citizens of the world. But the world is a troubled place, and many climbing destinations face a litany of sociopolitical issues, such as the refugee crisis and economic turmoil in Greece, political instability in Catalunya, Spain, racial oppression in South Africa, and the ongoing border war in Kashmir.

We climbers tend to hop off the plane and head straight to the nearest crag. With limited time and just enough resources to make the voyage, it’s understandable that the rock takes precedence: It’s the whole point of the trip. However, since we do have time and money—structural advantages that let us travel in the first place—do we have a responsibility to help in the places where we’re recreating? To address local issues, beyond just picking up a few wads of discarded tape or “supporting the local economy” with a trip to the grocery store?

While there are no concrete answers, here are a few things to consider when planning your next big trip:

Research current events

When I stepped off the ferry in Kalymnos, Greece, in October 2015, I saw a few dozen men, women, and children outside the port’s main office, huddled in small groups. They looked confused and scared, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Before I came to Greece, I was vaguely aware of the Syrian refugee crisis, that millions of people were fleeing the country’s brutal civil war. What I didn’t know is that many of them, along with other displaced people, reached Europe by crossing the Mediterranean via Turkey and nearby islands, including Kalymnos.

In 2015, more than 1 million people arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean, with 3,800 dead or missing; from 2016 until August 2018, more than 600,000 traveled similar routes, with almost 10,000 more dead or missing (source: UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency). After seeing the refugees, I looked online and found a group that was collecting toiletries and basic necessities for them. Had I researched this beforehand, I could have easily brought these items over. But I didn’t. Instead, I’d spent hours searching the best routes, local dishes, and apartments to rent. Typical for a climber, I’d been absorbed in planning only the climbing aspect of my trip.

There are certain issues that tourists visiting a place for a few weeks have zero chance of changing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help in some small way, even if it’s bringing extra toothbrushes. Also, putting names and faces to a struggle might be the driving factor in putting money, time, and effort behind a cause you support remotely once back home, or perhaps you’ll be inspired to help out in your local community. At the least, this exposure can be a topic to discuss with friends when they ask about your trip. Ideally, conversation leads to action leads to impact.

Find out where your money’s going

In 2018, the Adventure Travel Tourism Association (ATTA) valued the international adventure travel market at $683 billion. Whenever I’m picking a destination, I’ve always thought, “Hey, at least I’m bringing money to the local economy.” I travel, write a story, shoot some photos, and then you see that and want to go there. And so, money flows to the locals in exchange for them sharing one of their resources: the rock.

Most of the trips I’ve taken recently have been paid for by someone else: a hotel owner, national tourism boards, climbing brands, this publication. This usually involves an itinerary created by someone else. We stay and eat for free, often at locally owned spots like The Crash Pad in Chattanooga, Tennessee, or Abdullah Ali Al Zalabeyh’s house in Wadi Rum, Jordan, but sometimes in chain hotels and eateries. As a result, we don’t have total control over our own itinerary. However, it’s within all of our power to research how to be responsible consumers abroad.

There are a few ways to do your own research: buy the climbing guidebook (support the local guidebook author!), check out suggestions on Mountain Project, read Yelp reviews of local establishments to support these businesses, and reach out to local climbers on social media for recommendations. Also, consider that when visiting a nation with a notoriously corrupt government, your sales-tax dollars may be feeding that corruption—you could even choose to avoid certain countries.

Think of your interactions with the locals as a cultural exchange, not charity

Rickety one-room houses built on stilts and muddy front yards filled with scraggly dogs and barefoot kids line the narrow streets of West Timor, Indonesia. Multi-generational families have small plots of land for subsistence farming and earn just a few thousand U.S. dollars a year. Sitting there with my iPhone, $5,000 in camera gear, and a Macbook Pro when I visited in 2017, I initially felt bad for how little the locals had. I viewed them as charity cases, impoverished souls in need of my help. In this reductive, binary view, their situation was “bad,” while mine was “good.” But as I came to see, some Indonesians are happy with what they have and some desire more, just like people everywhere.

It’s inevitable to experience economic differences when we travel, and the same goes for cultural differences. In Jordan, I watched a fully covered woman run into her backyard when she saw me walking down the street. Every night, I ate a delicious meal cooked by a group of women whom I’d never see or be able to thank. I was classified as an “honorary man” by Jordanian men as a way to explain me not wearing a burka. On one hand, the local mores seemed oppressive to me as an American woman. On the other hand, as that American woman, what did I really know about their culture, one I was experiencing for the first time? I’m sure these woman would see my life back in America, living in a van with my dog to travel and climb, as abnormal, too.

It’s not our job to be missionaries sent on a righteous assignment to reshape the world according to our own perspectives. How boring would the world be if it mirrored the likes, dislikes, and experiences of a 32-year-old climber girl from Alabama? My time on the road has helped me realize that travel—what we put into it and what we get out of it—is a matter of perspective. No, we can’t fix the world’s problems by buying a ticket to Kalymnos or Catalyuna. But we can remain informed and aware, then take small steps to make life better for others, both abroad and back home.

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