Friday, May 30, 2014

Climbers and Assholes Who Rock Climb

It’s been a long time since I have updated this blog, mostly due to the fact that I've been devoting the majority of my free time to working on the new Leavenworth bouldering guide, but I want to poke my head up to offer a sort of “public service announcement.”  [warning: long post!]

As usual, it has been a fabulous spring in Leavenworth this year, with dry weather, consistently good temps, and the perennial bevy of new problems that always seems to pop up once the snow melts.  See for yourself:

Johnny Goicoechea on a New Project in the Tumwater that Rivals the Penrose Step, 
a.k.a. The Ladder Project, in Quality

In addition to memorable sends and new discoveries, however, spring in Leavenworth has also come to mean one thing that, for some of us, defines the experience in recent years:  crowds.  Like, big crowds. 

The Forestland parking lot last Saturday

It wasn’t always this way.  When I first moved to Leavenworth in 2005, it was rare to see another boulderer in the Icicle, and nearly unheard-of to see anyone else in the canyon on a weekday.  It was a great time to live there and be psyched on route development.  Guided by Brian Behle’s sui generis Leavenworth Bouldering: A Cheesy Guide to Pleasing Rock, you could still park your car nearly anywhere in either canyon and pick an untouched plum (or at least what you thought was one).  There was also a very strong sense of community, with almost every car you saw belonging to someone you knew.  I remember when Kyle O’Meara was first acquainting me with Leavenworth’s established bouldering, we would intentionally stop when we saw a car we didn’t recognize parked at a bouldering area, just to say hello, see if they wanted any beta, and see whether they were from Seattle or Ellensburg, the furthest destinations from which visitors would hail.  

Spend Some Time with This Guide if You Can Get Your Hands on a Copy!

My, how things have changed.  For a while following the publication of Central Washington Bouldering, Leavenworth got more and more popular, but the crowds were all still Climbers.  In part because the area was still becoming known, the people who showed up were seriously interested in being there, and comported themselves accordingly—cleaning up after themselves, camping discretely, and acting not only courteous, but genuinely happy to see other people bouldering at the still-lonely areas.  If you took the time to ask, most people you saw probably were friends of a friend.  In the last several years, however, the growth in the area’s popularity has increased, in many ways dramatically.  I attribute this recent trend in part to several videos featured in national-level climbing media that have brought great attention to Leavenworth (or, more accurately, to the handful of overgraded problems that people can come and snatch up like souvenirs), and in part to the huge growth in bouldering generally (which is itself fueled locally by the highly-successful and beginner-friendly Seattle Bouldering Project).   

Leavenworth’s growth in popularity has brought both positive and negative effects.  On the positive side, as I believed when I was writing Central Washington Bouldering and as I still believe, it’s an intrinsically good thing that more people are getting outside.  A cliché, yes, but one that is true even without the mags and REI repeating it ad nauseam.  Second, the hoards present at the most easily-accessible areas have forced local developers to hike further and higher, and look at the stone more creatively, as demonstrated by the prolific development accomplished in recent years by folks like Drew Schick, Cole Allen, Joel Campbell, Ben Herrington, Johnny Goicoechea, Joe Treftz, Ryan Paulsness, Andrew Deliduka, Shaun Johnson, and others (apologies to those who I am forgetting!).  Finally, and most positively, the sheer growth in the user group has finally gotten the attention of the Forest Service, which manages most of the land in the Icicle and Tumwater Canyons and, in a fabulous and much-appreciated ‘pivot,’ has begun to devote resources to promoting the sustainable growth of Leavenworth bouldering.  The most obvious example of this is the scrap metal removal, re-grading, porta-potty installation, and placement of an informational kiosk in the Forestland parking lot.  This work, which was jointly accomplished by the Leavenworth Mountain Association and the Forest Service with support from a number of other climbing organizations, would have been unimaginable 10 years ago and is a sign of great things to come.  

Unfortunately, the list of negatives that also come along with an explosion in popularity at any climbing area is long.  In addition to subjective bummers like overcrowding, several of Leavenworth's more popular areas have seen significant trail proliferation and erosion, damage to vegetation, campfire rings next to boulders, litter, excessive tick marks, and in a few rare cases, chipped holds.  From a gestalt perspective, the rise in Leavenworth’s popularity has also brought “strangers” to the area.  Not everyone is a friend of a friend, not everyone is polite and courteous, and not everyone is happy to see other people.  Andrew Bisharat recently published a thoughtful and well-written piece on this phenomenon, “Climbing Gyms Aren’t the Problem; Assholes Are,” which I highly recommend that everyone read.  Bisharat responds to a recent Chris Noble article in Climbing Magazine that describes an increase in many of the concerns identified above and places most of the blame on climbing gyms and degradation of the mentorship system through which most climbers were formerly indoctrinated.  Bisharat’s essential point is that climbing gyms aren’t to blame per se, but that when any user group grows large enough, there are going to be people in the population who are simply “regular old assholes.”  Bisharat urges people to be decent, respectful, and humble, and to make an effort to bring the assholes into the fold.  My take-away from the piece, and from my own experiences, was that the climbing world is now populated not only by Climbers, the people who are mellow and kind and probably the friend of a friend, but also by Assholes Who Rock Climb, who are, well, assholes who just happen to rock climb.

Unfortunately, I had an experience last weekend that gave me a tangible view into the motivation behind Noble and Bisharat’s pieces.  I won’t belabor the story, but a regular group of friends had planned to start at Barney’s Rubble on Sunday morning, and despite the fact that there were two- to three-dozen people at the area, we decided to stick around and catch a quick warm-up.  We bumped into a couple other friends and joined the rest of the people in clambering around the boulders and enjoying the nice circuit.  Pads were everywhere, and everyone was having a good time, even if they had to wait a couple seconds between laps; it was not unlike the scene on a busy weekend morning at the Birthday Boulders in the Buttermilks in Bishop, or at Bas Cuvier in Fontainebleau.  I walked around the back of one boulder where people were lounging under a nice moderate, saw an opening, and hopped on the rock.  About halfway up the problem, I came out of my bubble and realized that one of the onlookers was berating me, telling me to “get the fuck out of here!” and to “stop fucking climbing on our pads and shit!”  I paused on a jug in the middle of the problem.  Stunned, all I could muster was “are you serious dude?  The guy talked some more trash, then turned around and made a joke about the “awkward silence” he had created.  I topped out, grabbed my things, and left the area, still wearing my climbing shoes as I walked to the car.  

This incident, while stupid and insignificant, broke my heart.  I was not so much personally offended. As a litigator, I deal with jerks all the time, and I am perfectly willing to assume this guy was having a bad day, was upset with the crowd and simply snapped, or felt that I was crowding his space (he had been about eight feet away, on a different boulder).  Maybe he was from a big east coast city where talking to a stranger in that way is perfectly acceptable and not a sign you’re a sociopath.  No, I was heartbroken because I saw, for the first time really, direct evidence that Leavenworth’s boulders were not just populated by Climbers anymore – the Assholes Who Rock Climb had arrived.  In the 13 years I’ve been climbing, I had never seen a Climber talk to another rock climber like that, ever. Through my guidebooks and my work with the board of the Washington Climbers Coalition, I have been working hard to open the door to Leavenworth's bouldering, but I can't control who walks through it.

This is the part where I’m supposed to provide some deep insight into what this means and what I think we’re supposed to do about it.  But I don’t have any.  I could point you to the introductory pages of Central Washington Bouldering and ask everyone to be conscious of their impact and how they treat others.  I could ask you to read the new, stand-alone chapter about not being an asshole when you pick up your copy of the new Leavenworth Bouldering guide (soon – I’m working on it, I promise!).  But I think Andrew Bisharat put it best.  Be decent, be respectful, and be humble.  Don't be an Asshole Who Rock Climbs.  Be a Climber.