by Corey McZeal
This post consists of excerpts from Corey McZeal‘s M.A. Thesis entitled, “Rock Climbing Culture in Austin, TX.”
The sport of rock climbing has seen a boom over the last two decades. Interestingly, this boom has not been due to the extreme commercialization of the sport, but by the increasing availability of indoor climbing venues that allow individuals to foster the skills that allow them to eventually climb outdoors. While the demographics of climbers can vary by region, in Austin, Texas climbers tend to be middle class, male, and white. Through my research on the climbing culture in Austin I seek to discover what features of the sport make it so appealing to this particular demographic. Through ethnographic methods, in-depth interviews, and participant observation, I gained insight on the climbers’ motivations. Additionally, though climbing offers a peculiar mixture of pain, injury, and even the potential for serious injury, climbers see it as a “stress reliever.” Throughout this thesis, I seek to discover how climbers manage this apparent contradiction, and what their participation in the sport can tell us about other aspects of their social existence.
Eva was overwhelmed. It was her first time rock climbing, and she was at an indoor gym with a few friends who were avid rock climbers. Ascending the wall, she noticed that there were too many rocks for her to grip as she worked her way up, and there were just as many places for her to place her feet. Instinctively she reached for the closest one that seemed easy to grasp, but her fellow climbers quickly reprimanded her. “No, you can’t use that one!”
“Why can’t I use that one?” she fired back. “There are like 800 of them! What’s the point if I can’t use them?” She was confused, but her friends told her that she could not use those holds because they were on a different route.
Eva did not particularly enjoy this adventure into climbing, but another friend convinced her to try outdoor climbing. On top rope with her friend belaying, he said, “You can use whatever holds you want to get there, I’m not going to tell you no. However you want to do it.”
She tried this style of climbing and enjoyed it much more, since she was able to be freer in her movements and do whatever she felt she needed to do to get to the top. Eva remembers the moment fondly: “It finally clicked with me and I was like, ‘Oh, this is really fun.’ And that’s the whole point of the gym, to teach you how to do harder moves. It’s all for training and it’s supposed to make you better.”
In the simplest form, climbing should seemingly be about getting to the top of a rock wall. But among serious climbers, this is not the case. They climb, but only in very specific ways. If it were only about getting to the top of the wall, we would use ladders, build stairs, or simply find an easier route and hike there. Instead, these particular groups of people decide to use possibly the most physically difficult method of accomplishing the task. The activity that rock climbers participate in isn’t practical; it is not about getting to the top of the wall at all. For them, climbing is about creating a certain type of experience.
Climbers, especially middle class suburban climbers, need this particular experience. Climbing gives them a chance to embark in something that they rarely get to do. We currently live in a society of increasing structure, regulation, and technological advancement. Through the generations we have had to exert less and less physical effort to acquire food, shelter, and protect ourselves. Rock climbing gives middle class, suburban individuals, those who occupy generally comfortable spaces of our society, an environment in which they can experience pain and flirt with danger.
Even if sport climbing seems like something very natural and primal, it is still extremely controlled. It sometimes does not feel that way on the wall, but without equipment failure or tremendous human error the climber is almost guaranteed to reach the ground safely. Yet that feeling is key to the experience; climbers create an environment in which they can do something that feels primal and dangerous while knowing that the risk of death is actually very slim. For the typical suburban, middle class individual, this level of pain and feeling of risk is almost completely absent from their home lives. Rock climbing gives these particular individuals a place to embrace the aspects of their lives that they do not, or no longer, have a chance to enjoy.
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