Adult bullying is a prevalent problem, and although it rarely makes an appearance in the climbing community, it happens more often than we think. Just because it isn’t being talked about doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. Can we safely assume that if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to witness it, you still have a fallen, dead tree?
There is no other community in the world that I would rather play such a large and profound role in my life. My climbing community is full of unconditional love, people who exhibit such love and support, and the understanding that we all grow parallel to the sport as it progresses. The camaraderie that rock climbing creates around it is the cornerstone of the lifestyle that I have come to know and embrace.
So you can imagine my confusion when I received paragraph after paragraph of contentious text messages from Pamela Pack, a professional offwidth climber. We’d spent enough time together for me to sincerely consider her a friend, but after returning home from a trip to Zion National Park, I realized that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Someone posted a photo of my friend and I working on Gabriel, a 5.13c offwidth established by Pack in 2009. An innocent Facebook comment from an outsider joked: “I see a bolt, don’t try and tell me it’s trad!” Pack responded to this by texting me taunting remarks and threats. At the time, I chose not to respond.
I understand feeling disrespected by a joke that someone else made, but one cheeky Internet comment does not warrant such a response, especially when it was established that the comment was a meaningless wisecrack.
Her messages were aggressive and her language appalling. She referred to someone as “a faggot” and made threats of physical violence. A few weeks prior, she had denigrated Danny Parker’s ascent, saying that he “climbed it in bad style” because he overprotected it with Valley Giants.
Prior to my time on Gabriel, she had encouraged me to ditch the five 9” cams and “do it old school style” with a Big Bro at the start because “it was way more badass without the 9” cams.” I personally felt much safer having more gear with me, and for the record, I also used all of the bolts.
If it makes me safer, I will always opt to use more gear on a route. When I think back to early days of climbing history, before technology progressed and brought us spring loaded cams, I give those before me great credit for ascending routes with what tools they had then. Ruminating on the Gunks, where I learned how to climb traditionally, the men and women who put up routes with pitons and hammers in steel-toed boots were brave and prolific. Decades later, I don’t consider myself less of a person for protecting routes and myself with modern day pro available to me.
In the climbing community, aside from an unspoken agreement to uphold climber’s ethics, there really aren’t any “rules” that I am aware of. Many will climb the same route differently than others, and that includes everything from placing protection to style and technique. There is no comprehensive rulebook in rock climbing.
There is also no ownership in climbing—the route doesn’t belong to you. The rock most likely doesn’t belong to you, either, and unless you built the mountain yourself, you don’t have a right to criticize climbers who come before or after you. You can put up the first ascent of something and it still doesn’t give you the right to arrogance.
There are many reasons for putting up first ascents, and one of them (the most important one, in my opinion) is purely for the love of climbing. I haven’t put up any first ascents, and maybe one day I will, but the way that I have always seen it is that once you are done, you are giving it as a gift to the rest of the world. When you climb something that seems nearly impossible, you are opening the door of opportunity for generations to come. Much like when Alex Megos climbed 5.14+ in the New River Gorge this past year, he unwittingly showed people the possibilities that exist in climbing—and within ourselves.
After speaking with several first ascentionists, I think that it’s safe to say that the majority would confirm that they would be overjoyed to have climbers repeating their routes. Regarding Megos’ several sends of Mike Williams’ routes in the New River Gorge, local Paul Nelson said, ultimately, how psyched Williams was.
Regarding his own FAs, Nelson said: “If I report or post an FA on social media or Mountain Project, that is with the intention of people getting on it.”
Chris Kalous spoke of a route that saw repeats by Hayden Kennedy and Alex Honnold, who got on it and gave it their stamp of approval. All of these statements confirmed what I already knew and led me to understand that the first repeat is just as important as the FA itself because it gives the climb validation, in a sense. If an established FA lives on beyond its repeat, it certainly deserves bragging rights, but is that pride warranted if the ego is incapable of letting people climb it in their own style?
As Nelson pointed out to me, there is a small bit of smugness in seeing good climbers getting shut down on a route you put up, but at the same time, nobody really wants to see people fail. I imagine that if you toil over a climb and are proud of the work you put in, you would want to share it with as many climbers as possible; and that means gaining personal satisfaction when someone repeats your route. Climbers’ ability to be just as psyched on others’ sends as they are on their own is one of the community’s most wonderful merits.
As the number of climbers continues to grow rapidly and get stronger, the culture of competition influences climbing more than ever. While a competitive spirit can certainly be good-natured, it can also encourage selfishness, thereby weakening our community if we let it. At this moment in time, I have a greater understanding of how my ego comes into play and works itself into my own personal climbing. I get it; I’m competitive as hell. I don’t like to fail—nobody does—but I’m never going to win at the expense of somebody else feeling small. There is a profound difference between competition and crushing people.
And if at some point in time, you are rude to somebody on the way up the mountain, you are inevitably going to have to see that person on the way back down.
Our sport continues to foster healthy competition, but it does not encourage bullying. Climbing will not condone anti-gay slurs, threats, and intimidation. There is an integrity that runs parallel to having integrity as an individual, and I implore my community to take a moment and ask themselves to take a look at the athletes we hold in high regards.
Sponsorships are more than a hashtag on social media, discounted gear, or how many “likes” you get in support. They aren’t even necessarily about how hard one climbs or how many FAs one puts up. Ultimately, sponsorships are esteemed as a great honor because they, like climbing itself, are a gift given to those who have gained the trust and respect of the climbing community. You can gain respect based on grades and ascents, and many do, but a person’s character should also be an integral part. Let’s all look beyond grades and FAs to ask ourselves: are we admiring sponsored athletes for who they are rather than their accomplishments alone?
We may be long past our cafeteria days, but the playground bully doesn’t necessarily disappear once we leave the schoolyard. When I reminisce about my own childhood, I smile because it’s so simple, yet true: everything I need to know in life, I learned in kindergarten. The important ones that come to mind: “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Clean up your own mess. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody knows how or why, but we are all like that.”
And the most important of all is The Golden Rule. Think of what a better world we could all live in if we remembered to treat others as we want to be treated.
I don’t expect those at the forefront of climbing to be perfect people; watch anybody scrupulously for a period of time and you are bound to discover they’re not. My expectations aren’t impossibly high, but I believe in my own set of moral standards enough to hold people to similar standards as well. These standards apply to every human being in my life; they aren’t limited to climbers only. However, those who are sponsored have an unspoken obligation to be leaders whether they are tied into a rope or not; lead by example, or don’t lead at all.