24 Karat Gym - In Defense of the Gym Climber

It’s my experience that for some climbers, gym climbing lacks a sort of purity that every experienced rock-rat has an opinion on. The most common reason I hear is, “It’s not real climbing,” or “Gym climbing should only be a tool for training.” I understand the sentiment, and it isn’t without that sentiment that climbers can discuss what real or pure climbing is. Or, discuss what is or is not ethical, or best for the progression of the sport in the outdoors or at your local gym.

But I don’t think climbing is pure in that sentiment. Even though it’s something that I hear expressed by enough fellow climbers and former teammates to even consider the subject myself - to use as little aid-gear as possible, to use the gym as only a mechanism of training in preparation of The Nose, Sonic Youth, or The Golden Ticket.  A point of historical-climbing-conservatism in which the community is as original as its founders, hammering pitons into the rock, only developing the crag for themselves, instead of newcomers. I don’t think much of anything is pure in that way. Least pure of all are the hobbies that become commercialized to include as many people as possible. Like climbing.

I see a lot of benefit in drawing the attention of more people to the climbing world. More awareness of the environment and more support for state and national parks are just two reasons that the climbing community could stand to benefit as a larger community. Hopefully, more people translates into a greater effort to not only maintain climbing crags, but the nature and wildlife that they inhabit and provide a home for.

If your choice is to use the gym as a training outlet, that’s more than fine. I can’t think of any climbing stories that are more interesting than the stories made at the classic crags. Someone sends their first 5.12, or you and your partner finished a five-year multi-pitch project. That’s fascinating, and I’ve not seen a story like that go without an audience. Climbers aren’t the only people fascinated by those stories, either. To some people, you may as well have traveled to the moon.

I think of the times I was lucky enough to afford a trip outside and when I had the time to go. Outdoor climbing is an event for climbers in the north Texas area because you always have to travel at least an hour and a half to find real rock suitable for climbing. That’s not too much time, admittedly. But that’s for climbing at Big Rocks on the Paluxy River (which you can climb in its entirety in a day), and Mineral Wells State Park, which is great for beginners and a day off, but as long as you’re progressing in climbing it loses the initial flare quickly. If a climber in the Dallas area wants to try their hands at the renowned climbing, they need to travel the nine or so hours to Hueco Tanks State Park, the six or so hours to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, or the sometimes-indeterminable (I-35) travel time to Reimer’s Ranch. Now consider gas and food costs for a population whose career, or lack thereof, allows for the time to travel that much. I don’t know many climbers who can afford climbing outside very often, on top of necessities and other interests. And if they can, it’s usually because climbing is an incredibly important and singular interest of theirs, where the time before climbing is filled with working to save up the money to go climb. It’s expensive and time-consuming to climb outside at a level and frequency that would constitute such a proportion of purity in a sport that no longer has only one option for participation. Climbing no longer has to be a life style.

It’s pretty befouling to have someone tell you that you’re not a part of a community that you’ve considered a home for any amount of time. It hurts for any reason given, but it hurts most of all to be told that you’re not “real.” Not a real climber because you only pull on plastic, or not a real climber because you use aid, or you didn’t really send that route because you used the first quickdraw instead of skipping it (a wholly ridiculous concept I’ve heard expressed more times in the climbing community than is collectively sane).

I think climbing is pure of spirit. It’s about always trying to oppose limitations and push the bar a little higher. That comes from within yourself, not a location, and methods are always subject to change. A V8 is no less a V8 because you drank it from a glass instead of that hollow pine cone in your backyard. A V8 boulder problem is no less a V8 boulder problem if I climbed it in a gym instead of at The Buttermilks. Hell yeah, I’d love to go there, but until I can afford the time and money, I’m just glad someone is willing to share that experience with me for much, much cheaper.