After watching a week of reactions to my previous post on marketing in climbing, a post which received a record number of comments and a decent number of views, I then saw a reaction to the post from Jeff Jackson over at Rock and Ice. Now believe it or not, I do not have it in for R&I, even though an editor over there seems to have it in for me ( "sanctimonious conquistador" is the latest epithet). So be it.
However, Jeff was not the only editor to get back to me, though he chose to do so in public. The others did so in private communications, communications which indicated that the issue I raised was legitimate. Looking over the majority of comments both at my blog and over at the Climbing Narc, I found the same overall view, that there is certainly room for more real diversity of opinion. As an aside I find it extraordinary that a writer such as myself receives the attention I do from the "pros". Despite Jeff Jackson's obligatory disclaimer that "Beal might read Rock and Ice as rarely as I read his blog" I cannot think of too many other outside writers, especially of blogs, who have garnered the attention from Rock and Ice (or other outlets) that I have. So somebody is reading me over there, even it might only be a lowly intern who has to deliver the executive summary to the head honcho. I have no idea. I may not get the nod from Outside but boy I do get the reactions from the editors. (For the record I am a subscriber to R&I and have a sizable pile of recent back issues of all kinds of media to review.)
So what did I mean by writing what I did? Well it wasn't for the fame or money. Derisive comments on the Interwebs hardly count as fame and as for money, well there isn't any of that. No I wrote because I care about the sport of climbing and what I believe it stands for or at least could stand for. So what does that mean?
Jackson mentioned, after slowly getting around to aspects on which we seemed to agree, that "Climbing as counter-culture is healthy and growing." I would like to believe that this is the case but I want to argue for a stronger version of "counter-culture" than I think most climbers are willing to accept. That is to say that faux-libertarianism or resistance against "The Man" in the form of road-trips and dressing funny is not enough anymore.It has nothing to do with trad or sport, or chopping bolts or not. It has to do with how we lead our lives, not how we lead routes.
As I have mentioned before, I am struck by the apologists for capitalism who fail to see the extraordinary degree to which the sport of climbing depends on a fundamentally communitarian notion of society and the rich resources of a natural and social commons. For the most part, outside of a gym, and I would argue that even private gyms form part of the climbing commons, we as climbers depend on the largesse of nature and the generosity of the community, not just the community of climbers, but a larger community that tolerates or encourages risk-taking, encounters with nature, the value of leisure and so on. It is time for a deeper recognition of this connectedness. Climbing is getting too big to maintain the fiction of the marginal outcast, the mythology of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. And even more importantly the outside pressures of social change, economic and political oppression and dislocation, and environmental degradation are unavoidable, affecting the habitats of climbing in ways that climbers have for the most part chosen to ignore.
So what are some specific issues I would like to see seriously discussed in the climbing press or online, issues that in my view actually serve to provoke real discussion. They are not necessarily rehashes of the Cerro Torre controversy, or accounts of epic "expeditions" or profiles of "controversial" figures in the sport. What they are instead are fundamental critiques of the ways in which climbing affects the world. In my view any one of these would constitute a fairly substantial departure from the norm.
1. I would argue that as climbing seeks to "explore" new areas of the earth, for example, that the ethics of exploration be given a serious look and the question be seriously asked whether the resultant impacts on the local social and natural environment are worth the ephemeral and at this point mostly imaginary rewards of discovery. This obsolete ideology has for too long been at the heart of the sport, primarily because of its utility as marker of status and by implication, marketing. Let's imagine climbing without it.
2. I would love to see an exploration of what opportunities the actual makers of climbing gear and other forms of leisure equipment have to actually experience climbing, hiking, skiing etc. and what they think of their work. Constant depictions of and narratives about what Veblen describes as "conspicuous leisure" mask the role of human labor in supporting the climbing enterprise.
3. I would like to see a better exploration of how communities react to the intrusion of climbers into local ecosystems and economies and the degree to which natural spaces are "colonized" by outside visitors such as climbers. Climbing is not a neutral presence in either nature or society and there is no point in pretending otherwise.
4. I would like to see a fuller account of the ways in which the economics and editorial directions of publishing are or are not affected by advertisers and other industry influences. I think more transparency on this point is something many climbers have expressed concern.
5. I would like to see some discussion of the virtual absence of minority populations in the sport of climbing and what that implies for the sport in the present and going into the future.
6. I would like a deeper discussion of the ethics of climbing in politically repressive countries and regions of the world and on a related note a consideration the ethics of outsourcing climbing manufacturing to these kinds of places.
Like all climbers, I want to believe in the state that Jackson so eloquently describes at the end of his column. He writes "High above the ground in challenging terrain the various sheaths drop
away—conditioning, culture, all the trappings and masks—and you are
stripped naked as a newborn. This will always be the signal experience
of ascent, and it is inviolable." But the truth is a lot more complicated than the rhetoric. The myth of the freedom and purity of climbing takes a lot of machinery, real and ideological, to sustain itself and I would suggest this experience is much less inviolable than we would like to believe. At any rate a more serious conversation of that possibility is in order, in my view.