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. I had considered her a friend after climbing with her for an entire summer, 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 justify such a harsh response. 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.
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 and land that it sits on 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.
People who put up first ascents often do it 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. I spoke with several first ascentionists, who all confirmed what I thought to be true: any of them would be overjoyed to have their routes repeated. Regarding his own first ascents, Paul Nelson said, “If I report or post a first ascent on social media or Mountain Project, that is with the intention of people getting on it.”
Statements like these confirmed what I already knew and helped me understand that the first repeat is just as important as the first ascent itself because it gives the climb validation, in a sense. 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 are proud of the work you put in, you would want to share it with as many climbers as possible. A route developer should feel proud if an established first ascent lives on beyond its repeat.
As the number of climbers grows rapidly and climbers themselves continue to grow stronger, the culture of competition influences the sport 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. Being a competitive person myself, I understand the nature of it—but I am never going to win by putting others down, at the expense of somebody else feeling small.
While our sport continues to foster healthy competition, it will not encourage bullying. Climbing will not condone anti-gay slurs, threats, and intimidation. There is an integrity within climbing that runs parallel to having integrity as an individual, and I implore my community to ask themselves to take a look at 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 first ascents have been established. 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 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 look beyond grades and ascents to ask ourselves: are we admiring sponsored athletes for who they are, rather than based on 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 things 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; watch anybody closely for a period of time and you are bound to discover that they are far from it. 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.