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Just don’t look down

The Daily’s Claire Caldwell takes on the rock climber’s guide to life.

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One summer day about ten years ago, I found myself clinging desperately to a climbing wall, trembling and sweating, crying for one of my camp counselors to rescue me. After much coaxing, I pushed away from the holds and let myself be lowered gently to the ground – which turned out to be about 5 feet underneath me. Afterward, I limited my rock climbing experience to Everest documentaries and Mountain Equipment Co-op catalogues, though my avoidance was probably driven by humiliation rather than real fear – I’d had barely enough time to stop sniffling before one of my peers darted gracefully to the top of the wall.

This spring, I surprised myself by making tentative plans to spend the day hanging around a climbing gym in Montreal. The plans never materialized, but the inspiration behind them – my then-roommate Amanda – stuck.

When Amanda had introduced herself as a rock-climber, I’d imagined her scrambling up mountains all day long, pausing every so often to enjoy a snack and a view. It wasn’t something I could envision myself doing, but I was still thoroughly smitten with that rugged, romantic image. So, I set about discovering as much as possible about the sport without setting foot (or hand) on a rock face.

One of the first things I learned about rock climbing was that, not surprisingly, it doesn’t exactly match up with any picturesque ideal. Amanda doesn’t spend her days dangling from cliffs. She works a full-time job to pay the bills and support her climbing addiction. It’s an expensive sport: equipment, gym memberships, travel and competition fees – even weekend camping trips to the Laurentians add up quickly. And there is little financial incentive to pursue the sport.

“There’s no money in it,” says Amanda of rock climbing. “You win money in a comp[etition], or get money for being in a photo, but not everyone does and a lot of companies can’t afford it.”

Put simply, there’s just not much money to go around. Sometimes climbers and equipment companies – both frequently strapped for cash – help each other out: A handful of climbers manage to secure jobs with companies like Mammut or Verve. A lucky few receive sponsorships, which in rock climbing is more like a partnership than a free ride: athletes are given gear, or a small amount of money, and the climber in turn becomes a walking advertisement. For such a small, self-contained sport, this seems like an ideal arrangement.

In actuality, securing a sponsorship rarely follows a democratic ideal. Climbing is in many ways a male-dominated sport, especially from a corporate standpoint; many products are designed with a male consumer in mind. One would assume, then, that in the interest of selling its products to the target demographic, a company would prefer to sponsor men. Amanda disagrees. “It might be easier to get sponsored if you’re a girl, ‘cause if you’re pretty you’re going to look good…. Magazines like to have a lot of girls without all their clothes on,” she says. Of course, ads with half-naked girls in harnesses are clearly directed at male climbers. This can be enough to seriously cheapen any sponsorship, and points to less desirable effects of such a strong interdependence between climbers and companies.

From an outside perspective, it’s almost impossible to divorce climbing from pervasive commercial involvement. It doesn’t stop at sponsorships; companies often jump on opportunities to host events – the recent Mammut Bouldering Championship in Salt Lake City, or MEC’s annual bouldering series, Tour de Bloc, are major examples where corporate influence abounds.

It’s hard to say, though, whether this is inherently negative. A sponsor’s involvement in climbing events is obviously influenced by the projected profit. While many companies stage competitions that are little more than disguised ad campaigns, certain corporations have an earnest interest in promoting the sport itself. MEC’s Tour de Bloc, for example, was established “with the aim of promoting competitive climbing in Canada.” The bouldering series takes a grass roots approach to climbing events, offering competition spots to both beginner and experienced climbers. Unlike gear companies that dole out chalk bags and climbing shoes as prizes, MEC’s focus is earning climbers national recognition and raising the standard of the sport.

An uprooted community

Perhaps paradoxically, Amanda seems unfazed by the overwhelming commercial influence on her sport. “Making it” as a climber, she feels, is hardly a matter of financial success.

For many climbers, recognition in the community is a large motivator, as is completing routes of increasingly difficult grades. Still, one of the most valuable rewards from climbing, according to Amanda, is actually free: the international community fostered by the sport.

“It’s such a small community…so you get this huge network of friends,” Amanda says. As a kid, she participated in a competition in China, and is still in touch with many of her opponents. And those peers are only a small part of the network that she’s become a part of over the years. “I have places to stay all around the world,” she says. It’s another paradox of the sport that, despite climbers’ constant movement around the physical world, they are anchored by their relationships with each other.

Aside from competing on the same circuits, and sharing a passion for the sport itself, what draws many climbers together is a particular lifestyle. This spring, I was often struck by how little Amanda separated climbing from the rest of her life. Work hours depended on climbing trips scheduled for the weekend; any money saved from missing movie nights or shopping outings was spent on competition and equipment costs; everything from eating habits to decisions about school and lodging were weighed against the costs or benefits to her climbing career.

And many climbers, Amanda says, will go even farther to devote themselves entirely to the sport. An example? Most artists associated with the sport – hold sculptors, t-shirt designers, photographers – are also climbers themselves.

Many climbers’ lives revolve around movement, transience, a rapid succession of beginnings and endings – much like the mutability of a rock face. For the most part, Amanda approaches this principle of instability with optimism and a go-with-the-flow attitude.

She exudes a certain confidence that says: ‘I can do anything, but if I can’t do that I’ll work something else out.’ A few years ago, for example, Amanda was in massage therapy school, but quit because the training caused her muscle strain. “I couldn’t climb, so I stopped school,” she states matter-of-factly.

Eventually, Amanda says, she does want to obtain a degree, both for personal achievement and to have something to fall back on once her climbing days are over. And, like so many 22-year olds, she is at once apprehensive and excited about future opportunities for learning and development. Thus, for Amanda, not finishing school is less of a permanent sacrifice than an indefinite deferral.

Nevertheless, there are serious disadvantages to living so flexibly. Amanda’s shuffled through about seven apartments since she moved to Montreal less than a year ago. For now, this lifestyle is fine for Amanda, but she is aware, she says, of the larger, perhaps more irrevocable price of pursuing her passion: an inability to put down roots. “I don’t want to end up in one place and be stuck there if I need to leave,” she explains. “So I’m going place to place trying to find somewhere I’ll be happy, but never really feeling like I belong.” She has no idea if this simply comes with the territory, or if she faces a more long-term struggle.

Defending the dirt bag sport

Amanda acknowledges that she often finds it hard to grasp exactly what it is that drives her to climb. “Half the time I don’t know what I’m doing,” she laughs, “like, ‘I’m climbing a rock! I’m so stupid! I’m even living out of whatever – on couches – to do it!’” Asking someone why they are passionate about something is a bit unfair, but Amanda’s laissez-faire attitude perhaps inhibits a more critical look at the sport and accompanying lifestyle.

According to Amanda, most people view climbing as a “dirt bag sport.” “We’re not doing anything for the general society,” Amanda admits. “We’re not putting any money into it. We’re doing the opposite: we’re trying to live off people, off their couches….It’s Completely selfish. You’re doing whatever you can for yourself.”

With that in mind, it may be naive of me to read anything profound into the rock climbing lifestyle; after all, isn’t that what everyone does? Look out for themselves? But romantic ideas can be hard to shake, and I have to give Amanda and her climbing peers credit for doing what makes them happiest, knowing full well that there is little else to gain and quite a lot at stake.

Gazing up at a 100-foot cliff and saying: “I am going to climb that; it is going to be incredibly hard, I will be tired, and frustrated, and probably scared,” is something that very few of us – both literally and figuratively – ever consider. Grabbing hold of the rock is another matter altogether.

Rock climbing for dummies

Mountaineers are the guys and girls who, well, climb entire mountains. While trad or sport climbing are often key components of an expedition, mountaineers employ a variety of techniques and tools such as snowshoes and crampons to reach the summit.

Indoor climbing
As the name suggests, this sport takes place in climbing gyms. Climbers train and compete on artificial walls dotted with removable holds. Designed to imitate the cracks and lumps in real rock, the holds are arranged into routes and problem sets of varying difficulty. Montreal gyms include Allez-Up (1339 Shearer) and U de M’s Cepsum climbing wall (2100 Edouard Montpetit).

Sport climbing
Sport climbers seek to take movement on natural rock to its limit, assuring their safety by clipping themselves to permanent metal rings that designate routes of varying grades of difficulty.

Trad(itional) climbing
Trad climbers tackle rock faces with their own cams and nuts, slotting them into natural cracks. Like sport climbing, routes are often designated in map books, but traditional climbing leaves much more up to the individual athlete’s problem-solving and improvisational skills. It’s also more dangerous.

Though historically considered a training method, bouldering has lately been coming into its own as a separate sport. Ropes and carabiners are abandoned for “crash pads;” climbers drop onto the protective mats when they can go no further or have completed a problem. Short climbing walls can be set up for bouldering, but participants also seek out smaller natural rock formations.