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The Seven Deadly Sins of the Climbing Gym

Because I care about your soul—but probably mainly because I’m old, grumpy, and easily annoyed, especially when I’m just trying to get in a quick, hassle-free workout.

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In the fourth century AD, way before rock gyms, a Christian mystic named Evagrius Ponticus—which BTW would be a great name for a V17 boulder problem—outlined eight deadly sins. Sort of like Chris Sharma, who wandered off into the forests of Japan to meditate, walk around barefoot, and play a Zen flute after freeing Biographie (5.15a) in 2001, Ponticus bugged out into the Egyptian desert to lead a life of contemplation and asceticism. His student, the monk John Cassian, refined the list one century later. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I codified the Seven Deadly Sins—cutting one sin (probably “parchment bloviation,” the medieval equivalent of “Instagram oversharing”)—in the religious treatise Moralia. 

The sins were Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, and Sloth. These seven vices are bad enough on their own, but indulge in them, in Roman Catholic theology, and you are quickly on the slippery slope to moral bankruptcy and thence eternal hellfire. Fortunately for the sake of our souls—something I once had before I became an “outdoor journalist”—you can counter each sin with a corresponding virtue. Pride can be offset with Humility, Greed with Charity, Lust with Chastity, Envy with Gratitude, Gluttony with Temperance, Wrath with Patience, and Sloth with Diligence. But, you know, it takes work, unlike that soft V6 from the new set in the cave that keeps showing up in everyone’s IG feed (Pride!).

Like all spots where people gather, the climbing gym is a microcosm of the macro, a place where our unique traits, quirks, and personality ticks are brought to the forefront through the stressors of climbing—but where certain larger patterns also emerge, highlighting the universality of the human experience. Go into any gym and you’ll see the same behaviors; you’ll see the same Seven Deadly Sins playing out in plastic-pulling dojos around the world.

Because I care about your soul—but probably mainly because I’m old, grumpy, and easily annoyed, especially when I’m just trying to get in a quick, hassle-free workout—I’ve come up with a list of the Seven Deadly Sins of the Rock Gym and their corresponding Virtues. Without further ado, here they are. And remember: Deus meus, ex toto corde poenitet me omnium meorum peccatorum … which I think means, “Dear Lord, may the friction be perfect and the grades soft during my next gym session.”

Pride—The Sin:

The classic example is the tatted-up, muscle-bound, bro who comes into the bouldering area, clocks some newbies trying the jug hauls, peels his shirt off, then campuses the problems right in front of them. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen this, and you have too. But I can think of other, more pernicious examples. 

One quiet morning at the Movement gym in Boulder, a “famous” “double-digit boulderer” (ooh, so elite!) kept following me around the bouldering area, doing every problem in his weight vest right after I’d done it. Never mind that there were stacks of other problems at those same grades and that the gym was empty; he had to do the exact same problem I’d just completed, mere seconds afterward. It is a testament to my forbearance—or perhaps fear of eternal damnation (Wrath!)—that I didn’t snap him over my knee like a twig, though I often regret the missed opportunity because, let’s face it, the world has more than enough narcissistic double-digit boulderers.

Humility—The Virtue:

It’s simple—don’t be a dick. Instead of going over and peacocking on a problem that’s thwarting other climbers, climb the problem in a normal, controlled fashion, come down, then say nothing. Or start up a conversation about something else—they’ll ask for beta if they’re interested. 

***

Greed—The Sin:

Have you seen what happens when a fresh bouldering set goes up or a panel of lead wall gets reset? The way climbers converge like hyenas on a gazelle and get territorial, throwing their stuff down below it, forming cliques and packs you can’t work in with, standing right in front of the wall pantomiming beta? Or when someone’s hogging the app and LEDs on the MoonBoard and doesn’t offer to let you work in or proffer a timeline for the handoff? This, my friend, is classic greed. 

Back in the day when Boulder only had one roped climbing gym, the Boulder Rock Club, things could get insanely busy on winter weekends. Even though the gym has lockers and cubbies, one strong crew was notorious for throwing their duffel bags down in the middle of the gym, right where you lower off the 40-degree Tsunami Wall. Then they’d glare at you if you dared to be lowered into their midst, or perhaps they’d even climb up below you while you led a route, unclipping your draws as they went. These behaviors might also be considered greed.

Charity—The Virtue:

Just like it costs you nothing to let another car go first at a four-way stop, it costs you nothing to let other climbers go first or work in. Plastic routes and problems mean zilch, so just sit down and chill or go climb something else till the climb you want is open. Even taking this approach, I’ve never had to wait more than a few minutes—and the extra rest usually does me some good.

***

Lust—The Sin:

The gym has become a meat market, and we all know it. Lots of fit, healthy, young people congregate, gyrating into improbable positions while wearing skimpy workout clothing. This leads to all sorts of peacocking and mating behavior. The best was one morning at my local gym, where I saw a gormy bro who, for some reason, was wearing tape gloves to toprope vertical jug hauls. Then three young women wearing yoga pants came into the room; he clocked them and began throwing full-effort Chris Sharma “dig-me” grunts on his climbs in the hopes of getting noticed by this trio. Surprise, surprise: It didn’t work. 

Chastity—The Virtue:

Don’t perv on other climbers at the gym—it’s creepy and can make other customers uncomfortable. Save it for the privacy of your home and the ‘Gram.

***

Envy—The Sin:

You know that hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling you get when another climber is watching you, not because they’re curious about beta but because you can tell they secretly want you to fall? Or they’re giving encouragement, but their tone is just “off” enough that it rings insincere? This is because they envy your abilities, and because somehow your failure = their success. I’m not sure how this works, because in an individual sport like climbing we are only ever competing against ourselves, but climbers do it anyway. It seems to be especially rampant at the gym, that den of ready comparison. 

Gratitude—The Virtue:

It’s easy—be grateful for the fact that you get to climb at all and accept that there will always be someone better than you. Once you come to terms with this basic reality, it becomes difficult to feel envious of other climbers.

***

Gluttony—The Sin:

Remember when you broke out a Ziploc bag of jellybeans in elementary school and started chowing down in class, then your teacher caught you and said, “If you didn’t bring enough for everyone, then don’t bring any at all”? Well, this goes for crag snacks, too. Sure, there are “personal” crag snacks like bars and sandwiches, but if you have finger foods like trail mix, dried fruit, chocolate, and so on and you aren’t offering them to your gym partner, you are Jabba the Fucking Hutt. Shame on you, especially if you went up to the front desk, bought a sweet snack to eat mid-session when everyone is bonking, then either snuck off to a corner to feast alone or devoured it in front of your partner without so much as making eye contact—Nom-nom-nom-nom-nom!

Temperance—The Virtue:

Be that climbing partner who always brings enough to share—and good snacks, too, not crap snacks that nobody wants like stale trail mix you’ve eaten all the M&Ms out of.

***

Wrath—The Sin:

I’ve not yet been to a gym that has an explicit “no-wobbler” policy, but I’m starting to think they should, given all the public meltdowns I’ve seen. Embarrassment alone would keep me from having a fit in the gym when I’m flailing, but this doesn’t seem to work with everyone; sometimes people get so consumed with anger that they can barely think, and suddenly they’re screaming, “FUCKBALLS!!!” right in front of a gaggle of eight-year-old Girl Scouts who’ve shown up for little Sally’s birthday party. 

The best example of Wrath I’ve seen was the guy one day at the bouldering cave doing four-by-fours. It wasn’t even that he was failing; he was succeeding, but he was climbing so fast, sloppy, and filled with rage, his face a hard mask of anger, his headphones blaring, that I had to wonder when the last time he’d had fun climbing was. This fine specimen was also mixing in the sin of Pride, as after every rep he’d plunge to the mats dramatically, raise his head like an agitated chimpanzee, and scan the crowd to make sure we’d noticed his mad skills.

Patience—The Virtue:

If you feel yourself getting hot under the collar because you’re flailing, take a beat. Go sit in the corner and think about what a bad person you’ve been. Only come out when you’re ready to play nice again.

***

Sloth—The Sin:

I get it—climbing is tiring, and a multi-hour gym session during which you’re trying your hardest can leave you exhausted. We’ve all been there. But there are also those climbers who, when tired, or having just fallen off, or both, lie stretched out in Corpse Pose on the mats directly under the bouldering wall. Like, they just fucking lie there like barnacles, forcing you to have to ask them to get up if you want to climb. What’s up with that? Do you not know where you are? Do you not see that people are waiting? The gym floor isn’t a waterbed; go beach your ass somewhere else, Free Willy.

Diligence—The Virtue:

Peel your butt up off the mats and buy sending snacks for everyone who’s been waiting for you to vacate the landing zone. Trust me, it’s the least you could do.

Matt Samet is a climber of 35 years, an unrepentant sinner, and a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado.

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