I was having lunch at a restaurant on Black Friday when I heard a group of young people at an adjacent table talking about Brad Gobright’s fatal accident.
Later that day, I was at my mailbox when my neighbor—a Trump-loving, gun-toting, Fox News conspiracist who is nevertheless a very nice person—pulled up in his car and asked if I had heard about Brad’s death.
“Oh my gosh, did you know this guy Brad?” he asked. “It’s all over the news!”
“Yeah, I actually just wrote about his accident for Outside magazine,” I said.
“Oh my gosh, you wrote about it?” he said. “Oh my gosh, we’re so sorry. We’ve been thinking about you guys. What a horrible tragedy.”
We exchanged a few more words and he pulled away, again offering condolences.
Earlier that morning I’d been contacted by two different producers at the BBC asking me if I would be willing to come on various programs to be interviewed about Brad’s death. I didn’t respond to their requests. It’s not the first time I’ve been contacted by mainstream news stations requesting an appearance in the aftermath of a story I’ve written about some grim fatality. (My BASE jumping stories for National Geographic have also produced this situation.) I have an informal ethical line for myself of trying to not use the deaths of climbers to raise my own status as a writer. I’m OK with writing the story … but promoting it feels wrong, for some reason. It’s not about me.
A week before Gobright’s death, national news stations were dramatizing Emily Harrington’s fall on El Cap and subsequent “rescue” by Oscar-winning free soloist Alex Honnold. It was interesting, though hardly surprising, to see how this news got far more attention than Hazel Findlay’s contemporaneous redpoint of Magic Line (5.14c), one of the hardest trad ascents ever completed by a woman. Then, just a few days later, two more American climbers qualified for the 2020 Olympics—all in the space of a week.
Imagine reading any of the above sentences to yourself 10 years ago. Each of these scenarios would’ve seemed unbelievable in December of 2009. And yet, as we close out the past decade and head into a new one in 2020, together these examples construe a rather accurate rendering of what the sport of climbing has become.
Climbing is mainstream, folks, and within that context, core achievements will always be drowned out by what sells: sex and death. Climbing in the Olympics! Climbing at the Oscars! Everest is a garbage heap shit show, littered with dead bodies! Climbers are dating celebrities! And so on …
And yet … just beneath this new facade, climbing’s core, its soul, seems to be enduring well enough if you know where to look for it. Climbing’s soul is dead? Far from it, friends … Indeed, the sport sees a healthy progression filled with incredible ascents by incredible people: humble, dedicated, brave, and strong.
The biggest climbing story of the past decade may not be Dawn Wall media frenzy, or even Alex Honnold’s mind-bending free solo of El Capitan—though I still insist this might be the greatest sporting achievement of all time. It may not be Adam Ondra’s 5.15d first ascent, Angie Eiter’s 5.15b redpoint, or Babsi Zangerl’s impressive El Cap free climbing bonanza, let alone the dozens of other incredible achievements by our sport’s best and brightest.
The biggest story in climbing of the last decade might be its exponential growth. It’s a rather boring story, if you think numbers are boring, but it’s hard to see how any of the above achievements could’ve had the same impact had climbing still been the niche, fringe activity that lives in our nostalgic imaginations.
At least 339 climbing gyms have been built in America since 2010, according to Scott Rennak at the Climbing Business Journal. “I have 168 gyms open today that were open going into 2009,” he states. “That means since then we have experienced approximately a 200% growth of the industry! Wow.”
Tracking actual participation numbers is perennially thorny, but the Outdoor Industry Association has the best metrics here. According to its 2018 report, the most recent one, one could surmise that an estimated 2.6 million people have entered the sport of climbing (indoor, gym, bouldering) since 2007.
The 2018 OIA report counted 5.04 million gym climbers over 6 years old in the United States, and 2.1 million climbers over age 6 who participate in sport / bouldering. You likely see that—in the gyms, in the crags, everywhere you go.
I went back and looked at top climbing headlines for each year of the past decade, an interesting exercise, like looking through a yearbook and seeing people and events you’ve already completely forgotten about, and others that you’d never forget …. A 13-year-old Jordan Romero climbs Everest. Tim Emmett and Will Gadd find Spray Ice. David Lama’s team adds bolts to Cerro Torre. Angie Payne climbs V13. Meru Sharks Fin sent. Sasha DiGiulian sends Pure Imagination. Kurt Albert dies. The New York Times reports on bouldering’s increasing popularity. The 2012 conga line on Everest. Compressor Route chopped. Compressor Route freed. Patrick Edlinger dies. Chris Sharma does First Round, First Minute and Fight or Flight. Ondra onsights Pure Imagination, and downgrades it. Adam Ondra does Change, world’s first 5.15c. Ondra does La Dura Dura, world’s second 5.15c; later, so does Sharma. Honnold free solos Half Dome. Honnold is on 60 Minutes, and now everyone knows about climbing, and maybe thinks it means no rope. Dean Potter dies. John Bachar dies. David Lama, Hansjoer Auer, and Jess Roskelley die. Ashima Shiraishi climbs 5.14d/15a. Ashima climbs V16. Nalle climbs V17. Margo climbs 5.15a, then again, then again. Angie Eiter climbs 5.15b. Ondra climbs 5.15d with much effort, then climbs the Dawn Wall not much effort. Babsi is unstoppable on El Cap. Climbing gets into the Olympics. Climbers are winning Oscars, etc.
As the internet meme goes, everything happens so much …
One interesting thing I noticed may indicate that, whereas all forms of rock climbing are growing, there is some indication that alpine climbing, at least, is in decline. Looking at Climbing magazine’s Golden Piton award winners in the “alpine” category up to 2016, the last year in which they gave out the prestigious piton that their intern spray painted gold, at least half of the winners or honorable mentions are now dead. Ueli Steck, Alexander Ruchkin, Chad Kellog, Hayden Kennedy, Kyle Dempster, Scott Adams, Ryan Jennings, Marc-Andre Leclerc, Hansjoer Auer, David Lama, Jess Roseklley … all icons who pushed the limits of alpine climbing, all of them no longer with us.
The experience of going climbing has changed. Indoor climbers are a breed unto themselves. Crag parking lots are now filled only with Sprinter vans. People you’ve never heard of, and likely never will hear about, are climbing solid 5.14+. You’ll find just as many people free climbing El Cap as aiding it on a typical weekend.
But for all these growing pains, the soul of our sport remains for anyone who dreams about rock, and designs their lives around its pursuit; who can communicate perfectly fine with climbers, no matter what language they speak, through nothing more than beta hand gestures; who shares drinks at campfires; who gets psyched for the latest Reel Rock release or Adam Ondra banger on YouTube; who thinks about seasons in terms of locations where temps are perfect. All that is still there and very much alive.
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