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Updated: Jul 13, 2022

Every climber is an individual with their own story, passions and motivations. Collectively, the climbing community has some shared values: adventure, thrill, challenge, creativity, competition, athleticism, flow, fun and community, to name a few. And for those who love to climb outdoors, they may value the sense of connection it brings them to their natural environment. Supporting what is a truly unique challenge to both mind and body, these common values have driven the sport of climbing into previously unthinkable frontiers, into massive and seemingly ever-growing popularity, to the point where we now see Olympic athletes competing in climbing events, as well as cities full of climbing gyms, catering to children, amateurs, corporate team building, recreational as well as serious competitive athletes. Aside from the likely additional increase in popularity of the sport after its debut at the Olympics, what is next? What will the new frontiers in climbing be? What will the future of climbing look like?

In a series of five articles, we explore some of the ways the sport of climbing intersects with the issues of environmental breakdown and climate change: what climbing might look like on a hotter planet, how indoor climbing gyms are pivoting to be more sustainable, how famous climbers use their platforms for advocacy and how climbers' diets can contribute to the problem and the solutions.

This first piece is an exploration of what we have inherited from the rich history of climbing, and how the sport has been shaped into its current form - by climbers and climbing communities who largely shared those same values, as well as the growth of indoor gyms. Has indoor climbing also embraced the environmental ethic that was central to climbing during its development and can harness and nurture the love for climbing - and the values that connect us as climbers - to protect our planet too?

The historical emergence of bouldering

Conventional historical accounts would have us believe that climbing has its origins in Victorian mountaineering in the French Alps. However, we know as humans that we only have to look up to have a desire to climb. People have always climbed rocks, mountains and cliffs. Anthropologists point to our rock climbing roots beginning in Africa millions of years ago and evidence of early human technical climbing in caves and on cliffs can also be found in the Americas, Europe and Asia. Climbing grew and flourished amongst our ancestors as an essential activity connected to our place in our environment, as well as a way of navigating and exploring it, long before it became a hobby in western societies.

The growth of recreational climbing in Europe from the start of the 20th century is relatively well documented. Less well documented were developments elsewhere in the world, although we know (sometimes from European records) that there were also significant achievements in climbing elsewhere on what are now known to be the highest peaks in the world. Jumping ahead to more recent history, we can see that recreational climbing has been pushed in many different directions, partly spurred by developments in gear technology and partly by the competitive spirit of climbing. The movie Valley Uprising gives a fascinating, if somewhat US-centric, account of some of the significant developments in tactics, techniques and technology-driven by different climbers and groups, from the 1940s to more recent times, at Yosemite National Park, USA. It also gives an account of how developments in climbing as a sport in the US emerged in part from associations with influential personalities, often as part of a counter-culture, sometimes involving hallucinogenic drugs and always involving risk, rebellion and innovation. Despite many diverse influences, there was a common theme: an appreciation of nature and the environment and a desire to protect it.

The sport of climbing that we love and recognize today (especially bouldering, and top rope) has its roots firmly in this history and was shaped by the developments in the latter half of the 20th century. In other words, we owe our favourite hobby to these pioneers of the sport. But it is also worth asking, have we also inherited the environmental values of our climbing ancestors?

The environmental philosophies of pioneer climbers

A key development in that period was the shift from ‘aid’ climbing to ‘free’ climbing. Climbing for recreation in the early to mid-20th century was dominated by aid climbing, initially using metal pegs hammered into the rock to ascend. In the early 1970s, climbers began to argue this was destructive to nature and advocated for less invasive forms of protection on both free and aid climbs. Others saw reliance on artificial aids as just that: an unnatural way to ascend, an over-reliance on technology as a way to conquer nature. In response, the popularity of free climbing grew, and the dominant ethos increasingly became one of exploring the limits of the human body, relying only upon physical strength and technical ability, the expert placing of hands and feet, using the increasingly high tech equipment for safety purposes only. The philosophy was to accept and respect nature, to accept the pull of gravity, and to work within these key natural boundaries.

The ascent of climbing gyms

As early as the 1930s, outdoor climbers used the facade of buildings for training. The first recorded purpose-built artificial wall was reportedly built by a Physical Education lecturer at the University of Leeds in the UK in 1964, which led to the first indoor commercial walls opening in the 1970s and then spreading more widely, as the technology developed, in the 1980s. As climbing gyms spread to urban areas, the world of indoor climbing was rapidly introduced to a wider community and increasingly diverse populations. This was the beginning of an explosion in the popularity of climbing across the world. According to The Japan Times, although there were only 50 gyms in Japan in the early 2000s, there are now more than 600 spread across the country. Data from the IFSC highlights that, worldwide, 25 million people now climb on a regular basis.

The rapid ascent of climbing gyms has played a significant part in sport climbing being included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, spurring the rise of climbing not just as an adrenaline sport, but as an urban sport with massive youth appeal. In finally agreeing to admit sport climbing, together with skateboarding, surfing and karate to the Olympics, the IOC were clear that this was a strategic decision to help increase appeal to younger audiences.

Indoor climbing; are we still connected to the environment?

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Entwined with the history of climbing is an underlying environmental ethos. Climbing gives rise to a variety of positive feelings and emotions - described variously as freedom, flow, escapism, play. Climbers ‘fall’ in love with climbing. Traditionally the relationship with the natural world was the medium through which climbers experienced those feelings and this relationship helped to drive climbers to protect the natural world, to conserve it for the next generation. Climbers in the 1970s often focussed on the direct environmental impacts of their climbs; many climbers of today are involved in climate activism, including prominent climbers such as Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden, Alex Honnold, Alex Megos and Adam Ondra.

Harnessing a desire to protect the environment, and increasing the awareness of our place within the natural systems that support life on this planet, are both arguably essential to tackling the environmental and climate crises we face. These crises are in part driven by a disconnection from the natural world, shaped by an inherited view of nature - and natural systems - as things to be dominated, manipulated, and overcome. Particularly in western cultures, peoples have largely seen themselves as separate to and superior to the natural world, with traditional human ‘successes’ being based upon overcoming natural obstacles, breaking through boundaries, defying nature, and finding more and more extreme ways to manage risk. Such behaviour and attitudes have led us to put extreme pressure on the natural systems upon which we depend, leading to the climate and ecological crises we now face. Human well-being - solving these crises - depends upon reimagining humanity in active partnership with nature, to realign our ability to live within natural ecological boundaries.

Does climbing in an indoor gym remove us from this essential relationship? The growth of urban gyms certainly opened up the sport to new, diverse, populations, but often to those who aren't directly physically connected to nature. However, today’s indoor climbers can draw upon the inheritance of - and develop afresh - the environmental ethos embedded within the historical origins of climbing. They understand that humans cannot actually defy gravity but must live within the systems of which they are a part, to be consciously aware of their relationship with natural forces.

Climbers of all types can and will be inspired by elite climbers as well as the myriad influences of those that they climb with and interact with. There is a unique sense of community that comes with climbing. The environmental ethos embedded in climbing, and the very nature of the climbing community, could make climbing gyms a breeding ground for connection, both with each other and with the landscapes around us. Which shared values of the climbing community here can help us overcome the very disconnect that threatens us all?

As we leave you with this open-ended question, watch out for our follow up articles on “Climbing’s impact on the environment”, “Boulder Planet & sustainability”, “Climber advocates” and “Food systems x climbing”.

This article is written by Climate Conversations in collaboration with Boulder Planet. Climate Conversations is a nonprofit organization that facilitates meaningful conversations with the people we care about that inspire them to embrace our responsibility for our environment and our future.

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