5 Experts on the Future of Climbing

Climbing has grown in popularity over the last few years. For the first time ever, sport climbing will be included in the 2020 summer games. And last year, two climbing movies made it to the mainstream—The Dawn Wall and Free Solo, which eventually won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

This comes as participation in the sport is on the rise. In 2017, at least 7 million Americans participated in bouldering and sport and indoor climbing, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. The next year, 4.4 percent of all Americans climbed indoors, the American Alpine Club found. To support the growing interest, 50 commercial climbing gyms opened in the U.S. in 2018, up nearly 12 percent from the previous year, according to Climbing Business Journal. And the sport of climbing added an estimated $12 billion to the economy in 2017.

Still, climbing faces some uncertainties. One in five climbing areas in the U.S. is threatened, according to the Access Fund, an organization that advocates for climbers. These threats include development on private land, the overregulation of climbing by public land managers and climbers degrading the very environments in which they climb.

That’s why this year the Access Fund is focusing its annual summit, held Oct. 11 to 12, on the future of climbing. We spoke to five of the panelists and keynote speakers at the summit to get their take on the future of the sport.

Katherine Hollis

Conservation and Advocacy Director for The Mountaineers

What do you see as the future of conservation and advocacy in the climbing world?

We are, without a doubt, seeing outdoor enthusiasts much more attuned to public lands and understanding they have a voice in protecting these places. In the future, our dream is that outdoor recreationists are the next generation of conservationists.

When you provide them the education they need to understand an issue and connect it to how they get it outside, they take action.

How will the stewardship and conservation of climbing areas change in the coming years?

First is funding. So often as a climbing community, we can say this is a priority area and we can bring the volunteers to do the trail work. But often our land managers don’t have the capacity to work on projects like that. They don’t have the staff and the resources.

If we can increase funding for our public land management agencies, we can get a lot more done. Our legislators at the state level and federal level need to hear that funding our land managers is a priority.

I can see that either improving or not improving. If Congress continues to defund public lands, we’ll continue to run into capacity issues.

How is climate change going to affect climbing?

At this stage, as communities, we’re saying, “This is an issue.” That’s where a lot of us are as organizations. We’re drafting climate-change statements. We’re saying, “We can’t talk about protecting our public lands without talking about combating climate change.”

But with climate, there are so many ways to go. For us, we’re asking: “Where can we actually move the needle?” The actionable piece for us [at The Mountaineers] right now is reducing our carbon footprint by 20 percent and also trying to measure our transportation footprint. We know we get a lot of people outside every year, and that makes a big impact.

Who are the people who you look to as the future of climbing conservation?

I look at the recent climate strike and see how engaged teens are on this issue. That’s where we’re going to see the change. Our teens are connected to the environment, and they’re looking at climbing and protecting our planet as one and the same.

Mikey Schaefer

Photographer, filmmaker and climber who served as director of photography for Free Solo

What do you see in the future for the professional climber community?

The professional athlete community is involved in more lobbying, like Climb the Hill. They’re more willing to take a side on social media, and use their voice as a tool for advocacy work. Previously, for a long time, pro climbers stayed out of it.

A lot of new climbers look up to professional athletes, especially if they’ve got a good voice. I hope that professionals continue to use that to help everybody and get the message out.

What gaps exist in climbing when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion? How can those gaps be addressed in the future?

Climbing is not the most expensive sport, but it’s not the cheapest. [Outdoor] climbing areas are sometimes free, but you almost always have to drive to them, and that assumes you have enough money to have a car and gas. And then there’s the cost of climbing shoes [and gear]. If you can’t get to the crag, then you’ll go to a city gym. But a day pass can cost anywhere from around $15 to $30. That’s pretty real money if you want to go on a regular basis and get into it.

I think we as an industry should figure out a way to provide outdoor climbing gyms that are totally free.

I learned how to climb at Spire Rock [a man-made rock formation]. It worked for me. Without that access, I’m not sure I would have gotten into it.

Which outdoor climbing locations do you see growing in popularity in the future?

Any area that has short approaches and a lot of moderate routes [will gain popularity in the future] as more people are making the transition from the gym to the outdoors. The reality is, we’re dealing with a finite resource. There are only so many climbing areas, so many routes. But we’re adding a lot of climbers to it every year. Overcrowding leads to an impact on these areas.

I want everyone to enjoy climbing; I don’t want to be like, “Don’t go climbing.” That’s not really a solution. I want people to get into climbing because it’s a super positive thing for most people. But I see [overcrowding] as a problem we’ll have to deal with.

Nikki Smith

Photographer, writer and climber, who just happens to be transgender

What gaps exist in climbing when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion? How will these gaps be addressed in the future?

I didn’t see anyone that looked like me in climbing. I almost lost my life, because I didn’t think I belonged. As my story has been told, there are so many people reaching out that felt the way I did. Just seeing someone like them changed everything. The more we see ourselves out there, the more we see that people who look like us can survive and thrive.

Changing the gap for the queer community, women, people of color … there are so many different things to be done, but representation, to me, is huge. We have to see we belong in climbing media, videos, brand websites, catalogs and advertisements.

How will stewardship and sustainability in climbing change in the coming years?

[In the future,] we’ll have more and more people who haven’t had the traditional climbing experience. Without organizations creating programs introducing people to the outdoors in a sustainable way, we’ll continue to have more issues with overcrowding and people not fully understanding outdoor ethics.

[Sustainability is] something that affects all of us, no matter who we are. We need to create programs that reach everyone. Whether it’s getting these advocacy groups to start to embrace people who have been left out or affinity groups, like Brown Girls Climb, that are already creating their own advocacy spaces—in one way or another, there will be more advocacy, even if we have to create our own tables. It would be better if we could all join forces.

What is most important for the climbing community to know as it moves into the future?

The change is already here. Whether it’s issues with climate, overcrowding, destruction of vegetation—these issues are already here. Now is the time to work on solutions to save climbing, to save these outdoor spaces. We’re beyond these discussions about whether minorities should be welcomed or whether women’s sexual harassment exists. This stuff is happening. We have to move past the what-ifs, and realize it is, and ask, “what do we do now?”

Brittany Leavitt

Director of Color the Crag, an event that celebrates diversity in rock climbing

How do you see the makeup of the climbing community changing in the future?

The face of climbing is slowly changing from the white guy who lives in a van in Yosemite. There’s nothing wrong with the guy who lives in the van, but it’s not the narrative that everyone can relate to. And so I think in the next five to 10 years’ time, we’re going to start seeing more athletes, especially athletes of color, who can relate to their own communities. They’ll not only inspire other climbers but break down barriers that exist today.

How will the stewardship of climbing areas change in the coming years?

As climbers, we are part of the impact. We put bolts into rocks, we have ropes that go around trees, we chalk things up, we walk on trails. Really, [in the future it will be] about education. It’ll be about learning what affects that nature does to the rocks, and what affects that we’re doing as humans. Some people find [education is] extra work, but it’s important extra work if we want to keep having these climbing spaces to pass on to the next generation.

Who are the up-and-coming people that are at the forefront of the changing face of the climbing community?

There aren’t specific people, but there are certain groups of people who are starting to create that change in education. There are a lot of affinity groups from Adaptive Climbers to Brown Ascenders to Brothers of Climbing. A lot of those groups create the understanding that we have a space in this world.

In the end, we all have a role in this space. It’s learning how to respect other climbers who are going out the way you’re going out and who are climbing in the same way you’re climbing. It is a lot different for different backgrounds, identities, socio-economic standpoints, abilities, but in the end, it’s about respect.

Maura LaRiviere 

President of the Bay Area Climbers Coalition, a nonprofit working to preserve access to local outdoor areas

What do you see as the future of stewardship and climbing?

One of the things that’s super encouraging to me is how much more a part of the conversation protecting precious places and diminishable resources are. When I started climbing 15 years ago, I took trails for granted. Now, as people are coming into the gym, there’s some aspect of that responsibility and ownership conversation happening. People are more aware of the fact that people can and should have a part of that caretaking.

How will the stewardship of climbing areas change in the coming years?

In the past, stewardship was largely retroactive—an overuse problem would develop somewhere and then steps would be taken to mitigate that impact.

But now that stewardship is more on the radar, we are seeing developers make sustainability a part of the starting conversation. They want to work with the land managers and local climbing organizations to create an area that can handle the traffic that will come when it’s popular five years down the road.

What should we as climbers take with us into the future?

I hope that the trend of people recognizing that they can make a big difference through small acts is something that continues. When I first started climbing, it was just some magical “they” who had built the trail to the climbing area. It took me a long time to realize that “they” needed to be me. I hope to make that learning curve shorter for other people.


Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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