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The Mentorship Gap: What Climbing Gyms Can't Teach You

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It was early summer. Josh Moreland and his wife were climbing in Utah’s Maple Canyon, which draws climbers from the ever-growing Wasatch Front, as well as road-trippers from across the country. The Morelands had been climbing at Minimum Crag but decided to try The Pipeline. Temps were perfect, and Pipeline is close to the road, so when they arrived, they weren’t surprised to find a crowd. Looking for routes he could onsight, Josh chose a 5.12a called Freshly Squeezed.

Things you can't learn in the gym.

“There were some draws on it, and a rope was hanging through the first two, but there was no one at the base,” he recalled. “So I started pulling the rope, and as I did, I heard a woman shouting from the far end of the crag. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?!’ She stormed over and told me if I ever touched her rope again there would be hell to pay.

“I was shocked. I’d never experienced such a strong negative reaction from another climber. Then I said, as politely as I could, that I would like to climb the route, and I asked if she would mind pulling her rope. She said, ‘No! I’m not going to pull my rope. First, I’m going to watch my friend finish her route, and then I’ll come back and climb this one.’

“With that, she turned and walked away, and we sat down to wait. In the end, the only satisfaction was that the woman couldn’t make the chains, and eventually she packed up and left.

“They were from another state, and they had three or four ropes on different climbs at The Pipeline. It was as though they laid claim to the entire crag, then were infuriated that anyone else wanted to climb. I said I didn’t know how people acted where they came from, but this wasn’t typical behavior in Utah.” Albeit an extreme example, this type of siege-cragging is an increasingly common by-product of climbing’s ever-expanding popularity and of the challenges we face as new climbers transition to outdoor climbing.

Record GrowthClimbing is experiencing a tsunami of growth and change unprecedented in the sport’s brief history. The number of indoor climbing gyms has doubled since 2005 (Mountain Project currently lists 884 gyms in the U.S. and Canada). The industry trade organization, the Climbing Wall Association, estimates that more than 60 new climbing-specific facilities will open in the U.S. by 2015. In fact, business is so good that the largest wall builders are all currently working at capacity. They’re not even accepting new contracts until current jobs are completed.

Based on liability waivers, it’s estimated that between 1,000 and 1,500 people are trying climbing for the first time—every single day, in the U.S. alone. Did you catch that? More than 1,000 first-time climbers every day!

While 70 percent of new gym climbers say they aspire to someday climb outdoors, many—like pro climber Nalle Hukkataival—speculate that due to mounting access issues, user conflicts, and general environmental impact, “a large portion of climbing areas in the world can’t support a much greater number of visitors, especially areas located close to big cities that see the highest traffic.”

The bottom line is that while we can continue to build more gyms and introduce ever-more people to a sport and lifestyle we all love, we cannot create more outdoor climbing destinations than already exist in nature.

Regardless of whether you see this explosive growth as good or bad for climbing, the tidal wave of new climbers created by the rapid spread of indoor climbing has swiftly transformed a fringe, counter-culture activity into a mainstream sport practiced by millions. And the trend is not likely to reverse.

Whether you learned to climb in the 1970s wearing EB’s, a red bandana, and a rugby shirt, or you’re a rising star on the local climbing team who just turned 16, we all have a responsibility to learn how to help climbing adapt to the times. Not only by keeping the sport safe, but by minimizing impact on the fragile environment in which outdoor climbing takes place.

Roadside CragA case study on impact and crag closure

“Roadside was where most of us local climbers had our first climbing experience,” says Mike Driskell, senior land manager for the Red River Gorge Climber’s Coalition (RRGCC). “But many climbers were unaware it was on private property.”

Then in 2011 the owners visited on what Driskell calls “the worst day possible.” Despite restrictions against new routes or fixed gear, homemade perma-draws hung on several routes. Every route either had multiple climbers on it or groups waiting. Dogs were running off leash, digging holes, and the smell of urine filled the air.

The crag was closed, effective immediately. Subsequent offers by the RRGCC to provide funds and dialogue (including a $5,000 restoration grant) for climbing access were refused. As the RRGCC states, “Roadside is a failure on our part, and on the part of the climbing community. A failure to address the impact and potential destruction of a wonderful crag. A lesson we learned from and are endeavoring to make sure never happens again.”

B.G.E.The changes in our sport are so profound that, in the future, climbing history may well be divided into B.G.E. (Before the Gym Era) and after. Before gyms, most climbers were outdoors people, drawn to the adventure, solitude, and renewal of wild nature. Typically, they were hikers and backpackers who learned to climb to broaden their experience. Before gyms, many climbers learned by accompanying older, more experienced mentors who, over a period of years, showed their apprentices the ropes by imparting the entire canon of “climbing literacy,” that is holistic climbing knowledge, including safety and technique, but with an emphasis on environmental concerns, etiquette (social norms), and climbing traditions appropriate for the region.

As Pete Ward, head of the UBC Pro Tour, points out, “The majority of climbers today are urbanites whose first significant experience in nature might well be the first time they try climbing outdoors, and the ‘mentor’ they accompany might be a friend whose only expertise is that he or she owns a rope and enough draws to equip a sport route.”

Climbing gyms have been universally embraced and celebrated because they offer myriad advantages to all climbers, regardless of background or location. While it was relatively easy for climbers who originally learned outdoors to adapt to gyms, it’s a much larger challenge for gym climbers to learn the nearly infinite spectrum of knowledge, technique, and behavior necessary to master outdoor climbing. In short, there’s an education gap between what people learn to climb safely indoors, and what they need to learn to master outdoor climbing in all its variety.

Elaina Arenz, owner of New River Mountain Guides and a member of the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), guides in West Virginia’s New River Gorge and Red Rock outside Las Vegas. “In Red Rock, especially at popular areas like the Black Corridor, the Panty Wall, and the Gallery, we see large groups roll in, and sometimes there are more dogs than people!” she says. “The people are carrying on, having a great time at the expense of everyone else, making communication difficult between other climbers and their belayers. They’re excited to be out in nature, but they’re simply taking their indoor experience outside and not really thinking about other users who might want to climb the route they’re on.”

What’s normal for new climbers is a controlled indoor environment with a large group of friends and, often, a blaring soundtrack. Having attained a high level of technical proficiency indoors, many gym climbers assume they’re already experts. They don’t realize that climbing 5.12 or bouldering V8 is only the first step in a lifelong apprenticeship to Mother Nature.

Pros & ConflictsGrowth isn’t all bad. More climbers mean better gyms, better coaching, more advanced gear, and more research on training, technique, and nutrition. Growth means increased political and economic clout. It means exciting surges in performance. As pro climber Kitty Calhoun points out, “Climbing brings meaning and happiness to our lives, and a world full of happier people is a good thing.” But, as Brian Payst of the Carolina Climbers Coalition cautions, “Climbing could become a victim of its own success.”

In fact, the Access Fund considers the tidal wave of new and under-educated climbers to be the primary issue threatening climbing access in the U.S. today.

“Unless climbers as a community can address the problem, we’re facing ever-increasing rules, regulations, fines, permitting, and closures,” says Access Fund Executive Director Brady Robinson.

In November 2013, the Access Fund sponsored a conference in New York’s Shawangunks to discuss the issue and explore solutions. It was attended by land managers, local climbing organizations, the gym industry, guides, outdoor educators, Leave No Trace, pro climbers Josh Levin and Joe Kinder, and one journalist—me. Perhaps more than any other attendee, Kinder had personal skin in the game. A few weeks earlier, Kinder had received “the most intense learning experience I’ve ever known.”

While developing a route near Lake Tahoe, California, he cut down two trees, one living and one dead, in order to make the route safer. They were junipers—protected both by law and local climbing tradition. When the news hit the Internet, the public condemnation was immediate and harsh. Kinder’s personal phone number was published. He received a blitzkrieg of threats. Responding to the outcry, Kinder wrote on his blog, “I am deeply apologetic about what I did. I was wrong. I’m very sorry, and now I’m using my blog, my voice, and my position in the climbing community to bring awareness to an important issue.” After the conference Kinder wrote, “Most climbers I know understand you aren’t allowed to use a power drill in wilderness, don’t take a dump near water, and other crag etiquette, but that’s as far as it goes. We all just want to go climbing, and until recently, this has been my approach. One of the things I’ve learned is there are reasons we can go climbing in certain areas, and maintaining access requires conscious efforts by all.”

So how can the climbing community join forces to bridge the mentor gap to create literate, aware, and informed climbers capable of sustaining and preserving climbing for generations to come?

The New MentorsThe place to start is in the gyms. If you wanted to reach the climbing community 20 years ago, your best option might have been to pin a message on the bulletin board at Camp 4. Today nearly all the climbers in the country pass through the gym system at some point. Gyms are the key to reaching the masses of new and under-educated climbers.

“Our gyms are located along Utah’s Wasatch Front, so we have immediate proximity to all these wonderful outdoor resources,” says Jeff Pedersen, part-owner and director of Momentum climbing gyms. “Many of the individuals involved here—myself, business partners, routesetters, and coaches—came to the sport from the outdoors first, so I think when it comes to our youth programs (and we currently have 150 kids involved at our Sandy location alone), we feel strongly about providing solid mentorship regarding transitioning from gym to crag. For example, if one of our coaches takes his team to American Fork Canyon, the first thing he does is talk about how everyone’s expected to behave.

“In our experience, first the kids get involved, and then the parents jump on board. There’s a general excitement, not just about climbing, but about being part of a new community. Most people want to fit in; they want to do things respectfully with regard to the outdoors and other people they’re sharing the cliff with. So we help kids and parents learn to do that.”

To help educate climbers who are not team members, Momentum partners with a guide service to offer professional instruction for transitioning outdoors. They also post information on their website about etiquette, low-impact methods, and local access issues.

“If gym owners need a profit motive, which we do,” Pedersen says, “the way to approach this is to leverage the enthusiasm and excitement people tap into as they learn to climb. Let people know what they can do with these great skills they’ve learned indoors. All they need is to sign up for the Gym to Crag class we offer, in which we include low-impact principles and etiquette, along with technical safety instruction.”

As Momentum demonstrates, the mentor system isn’t extinct—it’s evolving. It’s becoming formalized.

Coaches and gym climbing teams are today’s most important new mentors. Along with pro climbers, they are the role models young climbers look up to.

Generation NextJosh Levin is a 19-year-old pro climber from California. He’s a three-time national youth champion in sport climbing, 10-time national youth champion in speed, and five-time national youth champion in bouldering. During the Access Fund conference, he gave a presentation about the ways he successfully engaged young climbers in crag cleanups and trail building while still in high school.

“Kids don’t get these things yet, but they will,” Levin said. “They just need to be told in the right way. Kids really do respect those who have more experience. Tell us the proper way to behave and why. Stress the reasoning behind the words so we can connect action to ethics.

“My advice is that anyone who cares about this issue gets involved with youth climbing of all sorts. Find an after-school program that encourage outdoor trips stressing proper ethics. Contact local high schools, set up extracurricular climbing events. Sponsor outdoor events. Reach out to colleges; partner with outdoor clubs. Target young climbers coming to the gym. In my experience, younger climbers are much more willing to hear about and engage in proper outdoor ethics than their older [18 to 25] counterparts.”

Mike Morin, former outdoor recreation manager for Jefferson County Open Space in Colorado (which includes the popular Front Range climbing destination Clear Creek Canyon), emphasized Josh’s recommendations.

“In my experience as a land manager, the best approach is to involve kids in experiential learning,” said Morin. “When we take kids out trail building, they continually have ‘aha’ moments, and they express that.”

Mirror, MirrorReading this, older climbers who have been climbing much of their lives (such as myself) are probably thinking, Right on. Let’s just teach these young punks how to behave.

“Some people think the problem is young climbers,” says Robinson. “But that’s not the case. There are bad actors from all eras. My own generation provided its share of damage, but there were fewer of us, and we were more isolated. Today, participant numbers are increasing rapidly, and so are the negative impacts—so we all need to clean up our acts.”

“Clearly there’s a certain amount of shock seeing a 14-year-old warm up on the project you’ve been working all summer,” adds Pedersen. “And if you have a lot of ego, you are immediately at odds with that kid. You’re going to find things to criticize about his or her behavior no matter how well behaved they are.”

Whatever your experience or conscientiousness level, we all have impact. Simply walking to the crag adds to soil compaction and trail erosion. Each of us contributes to sanitation issues, noise, and over-crowding. Our very presence stresses wildlife. The emphasis here on educating young climbers is not because they are unduly responsible, but because they are our greatest hope.

Educators, land managers, and coaches all suggest that kids ages 10 to 18 are the most open to learning and the most likely to integrate environmental awareness into their lives.

Listening to Tracy Howard and Kate Bullock, members of the Leave No Trace Road Team, discuss low-impact practices for climbers at the conference, I realized with some embarrassment that there was more I could be doing. I’ve been pooping in the woods for more than 30 years, smugly thinking I had it dialed, but they made me realize my approach could use some updating.

In fact, the entire conversation in the Gunks made me realize how easy it is to point fingers and blame others, while blissfully ignoring one’s own role. As Kinder pointed out, most of us just want to climb. Climbing is our escape from the world’s problems. The last thing we want is to be confronted with the inconvenient truth that our beloved sport is changing, and we are all going to have to change with it.

Yes, there was a time, not so very long ago, when there were far fewer climbers and it was OK to bring your dog (and your neighbor’s dog) with you to the crag. Yes, there was a time when it didn’t really bother anyone if you brought your entire posse with you to boulder or siege-toprope. But in light of rising numbers, it’s time to take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves: What can I personally do to reduce my own impact, and to make climbing a better experience for everyone?

The first step is to become more aware.

“I remember helping develop a crag in Logan Canyon [Utah] that’s now quite popular, and I remember how beautiful it was when we first discovered it, with grass and wildflowers growing everywhere,” said Doug Heinrich, vice president of product for Black Diamond Equipment and a lifelong climber. “But if you go there today, it’s all bare, compacted earth. Not a blade of grass or flower in sight. That really bummed me out. But the point is, climbers don’t even know what’s been lost when they visit new areas. Unless you see before and after photos, you have no idea what sort of impact climbers cause. In fact, if you go to Maple Canyon these days, the message you receive is that it’s alright to bring your dogs, your loud music, and throw your stuff everywhere, so it’s important that brands like Black Diamond help create a counter-message to mitigate those impacts.”

The good news is that the education gap in climbing can be bridged. But it’s going to require a concentrated effort on behalf of all climbers—individuals, local climbing organizations, the Access Fund and the American Alpine Club, the gym industry, guides, educators, parents, coaches, and major climbing brands like Black Diamond—working together to do so. It’s time to stop pointing fingers. It’s not new climbers, gym rats, traddies, or boulderers causing the problems; it’s all of us. We’re all climbers, and we’re all equally responsible, both for the problems and the solutions.

Chris Noble, a novice climber for more than 30 years, is hoping to successfully complete his transition from the crag to the gym.  His most recent book is Women Who Dare: North America’s Most Inspiring Women Climbers