It’s hard to know what to make of the recent New York Times trend piece on the state of rock climbing and its gym-fueled explosion. It moves indiscriminately from one topic to the next, touching on everything from the impacts of blockbusters like Free Solo and the upcoming Olympics to a band of Brooklyn bohemians climbing (sort of) and brunching their Sundays away, all while checking the boxes on the usual clickbait key phrases, such as “free-range kids,” the much maligned “rocksplaining boulder bro,” and the chance for hardworking professionals to “unplug” at gyms, which, ironically, as the story also points out, now offer Wi-Fi and co-working spaces.
Reading the article is akin to what it must be like to be a cat chasing a laser. And it’s about as true to our sport as an article on, say, NASA would be if you largely focused on interviewing people in line for Space Mountain.
The article’s dek says it all: “The nubbly fitness obsession that forces you to unplug and concentrate or—AAAAH!” Which translates to, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Actually, we don’t know what this is about.” (Also: “nubbly”? Are they talking about Tommy Caldwell’s missing index finger, or Reinhold Messner’s toes, or…?)
To be fair, writing about climbing, with all of its jargon and nuance, for a wide audience is never easy. And The New York Times has produced some of the better journalism on this sport by a mainstream publication. John Branch’s coverage of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s 2015 Dawn Wall ascent comes to mind.
And again, to be fair, there are things that this article does get right, namely that climbing is growing, thanks to an explosion of climbing gyms across the country. Its depiction of gyms as social hubs for working professionals who largely have no interest in climbing outdoors is also accurate. The notion that many of these gym climbers have absolutely no clue what they’re doing is also, sadly, quite true. And crags are getting more littered and crowded as the sport grows.
Yet there are things to nitpick. For example, the Red River Gorge, a 29,000-acre region in Kentucky with hundreds of crags and thousands of routes, is described merely as a single “dramatic rocky cliff.”
Climbers don’t “leap (or tumble)” from bouldering walls; they just fall off them. A lot.
While climbing does challenge the analytical left hemisphere of our brains, “engineers in particular” are no more attracted to this sport than anyone else, nor are they necessarily better at it. And I can guarantee that the bouldering walls at Google campuses are less serious training centers than ornamental dioramas intended to fool people into thinking, This is a cool place to spend 80 hours every week.
The main beef that climbers have with this story, however, involves the lengthy section in which Harley Pasternak, a guy who trains such celebrities as Kim Kardashian West and Gwyneth Paltrow, weighs in by dismissing climbing as a vehicle to full-body fitness. Dude, has he seen Alex Honnold, a registered flex offender in several zip codes? Pasternak goes on a tirade about how climbing doesn’t train necessary muscle groups like hamstrings, glutes, the lower back, rhomboids, and triceps. This might be true if you only climb at the traveling carny wall that appears at every the local county fair, but this argument falls apart any time you get on really steep routes.
Go climb the Monster Offwidth on El Capitan and tell me that climbing isn’t a full-body experience.
One of the more disparaging quotes from Pasternak is, “Keeping in mind the average American is significantly overweight, I would talk everyone I could out of rock climbing unless you are incredibly light, agile, fit and functional. There is a very small minority of this country that should be rock climbing.”
To suggest that people who don’t have Honn bods shouldn’t even be trying this sport straight-up sucks and is based on about as much science as the debunked claims made by Goop’s jade vagina eggs. “I would like to fundamentally disagree with you…. There is ‘no certain way’ you have to be to climb,” pro climber Sasha DiGiulian, who was quoted in the Times piece, wrote on Instagram.
“As a bigger guy who finds climbing so rewarding and healing, this quote really hurts,” Drew Hulsey, a climber from Nashville, Tennessee, told me. “I’m doing everything a fit climber does. I’m leading outside, I’m in the gym four times a week. It just hurts to read something so demeaning.”
It’s also plain wrong. Climbing is one of the best sports in the world, precisely because it’s open to every age, gender, and ability. The scene at any gym or crag is one populated by people from three to 70-plus years old—women, men, nonbinary—all climbing with each other, all building trust, connection, and friendships.
Climbing may not give you a butt like Kim Kardashian, but it’s a path to making anyone as strong as an ape. No matter your ability, you will gain strength (and flexibility) through climbing that will (eventually) allow you to lever your body up an impossible-looking wall, which is more impressive than vanity beach muscles. Deadlifts may be the perfect exercise, but climbing is way more fun, filled with amazing people, and ripe with opportunity to travel.
I started climbing in a gym—though it’s hard to call it that by today’s standards—over 20 years ago. I’ve seen the sport change immeasurably, for better and worse. And while today’s plastic-bred climbers may just be in it for the après Brooklyn brunches, the chance to let their kids go “free range” on the auto belays, the luxury vacation “experiences” with celebrity climbers in Greece, getting bigger forearms and hulking lats, unplugging, co-working, or rocksplaining, some percentage of these folks will use gyms as doorways to something far more meaningful and profound: a real lifestyle filled with adventure, respect for nature, and populated by one of the most interesting and diverse communities I know. Gyms may be trending, but what comes next is where the real stories begin.