If you are sick of new climbers coming in and ruining everything, do something about it.
If you hate how distracted you are by technology, put the phone down and climb.
If you love climbing outside, do something about it to save it.
If you are dissatisfied in any way with the state of the world, go and change it.
Before I started climbing nearly two years ago, I couldn’t imagine life outside of New York City. My view of the United States was similar to the infamous Steinberg drawing for The New Yorker that shows a stretch of flat land with bumps for mountains—in other words, there was nothing of note between the city that never sleeps and Los Angeles, the metropolis of the West. The beauty of nature is reduced to an unimaginative flat line for longtime city dwellers, accustomed only to the offerings of an urban jungle: shopping, food, Wi-Fi, bright lights, and ruthless ambition.
New York was everything relevant, where time didn’t stop because every minute was busy working, producing or chasing something to see, to watch, to buy, or to consume. The only climbers I knew back then were of the social or corporate-ladder variety.
Two years ago, in an unassuming old Daily News garage in Brooklyn, I stumbled upon rock climbing on a spring day. You know how the story goes—climbing saved my life. I was weak then, miserably hanging in limbo after leaving the fashion and start-up world, dissatisfied with my work and writing, and my destructive relationship was on its last leg.
I fell. A lot. I hated not being good at something right away, but I kept going back because there was something attractive about climbing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Somewhere between falling on V1s and V2s, I fell hard for climbing and headfirst into this strange but alluring world where time slowed down. People were truly passionate about achievement for and in relation to themselves only, and encouraging of those around them.
Soon I had a job at Brooklyn Boulders that combined my passion for writing and climbing, and a year later, I even broke up with NYC to move to Colorado.
What I couldn’t quite put my finger on at first was this: climbing is arguably one of the last frontiers that is free from the chokehold grasp technology and the nonstop 24/7 state we’re currently trapped in, constantly staring at screens.
Climbing demands focus and undivided attention to the present moment on the fringes of society, off in the mountains, with no real rules or structure, no set goals or KPIs. However, as it develops as a sport and industry, climbing will inevitably be engulfed by capitalism, technology, and social media.
There are “now very few significant interludes of human existence (with the colossal expectation of sleep) that have not been penetrated and taken over as work time consumption time, or marketing time,” [Jonathan Crary, 24/7], and climbing may be one of the last modes of human existence that exists outside of the cultural hegemony of iPhone.
But the iPhone flipped toward climbing is what simultaneously grows the sport from the fringes to the masses and manipulates its true nature.
The seedy Brooklyn neighborhood, where the original Brooklyn Boulders is, is now trendy and no longer on the fringes, parallel to how the climbing industry has been rapidly evolving. We’re currently at a critical mass tipping point—the effect modern society has on climbing can be directly challenged by the effect climbing could have on modern society.
Climbing as the Last Social Frontier Untouched by Technology
Nearly every climber will speak about the meditative nature of the sport, and during an era where anxieties run high and mindfulness is trending, the focus training necessary is more valuable than ever. Nearly one in five Americans are afflicted with anxiety disorders. Kids and adults are being diagnosed with ADHD at higher rates than ever before, and cell phone addiction is rampant, due to the dopamine triggers of alerts, notifications, and likes.
It is not surprising that many people clutch their phones closely by their sides at all times, as if protecting their own life—because in a way, our lives are contained within. Our contacts, our social media profiles, our photos, our apps, our maps—these are all functionalities people have grown highly dependent on. Even in social settings, people tend to quickly pull up Instagram or a newsfeed to fill the gaps in conversation, or worse, ignore what’s happening in front of them entirely.
While most social activities rely upon consumption (of alcohol, food, or drugs), climbing relies on trust, mutual encouragement, and demands people to stay present in the moment and with each other. There’s a level of communication and awareness that creates a unique space for people to participate in an activity together, without the aggressive rules of traditional sport and concepts of winning and losing.
Climbing quite literally takes people to the fringe of society and is an escape from the 24/7 state. The beautiful landscapes that normally surround rock make constantly checking your phone boring, allow humans to realign themselves with nature, and can help decrease the stress hormone cortisol.
Paradoxically, the growth in popularity of outdoor climbing is due to the permeation of iPhones—climbers can share their weekend jaunts to showcase wildly beautiful shots of American dreamscapes like Bishop to Red River Gorge to stunning deep-water soloing shots in Thailand. For today’s professional climbers, maintaining a social media presence and amassing more followers on Instagram is as much a part of the job as is climbing. Many “bucket-listers” visit climbing gyms just for that perfect Instagram post, just to show the world that they climbed up a wall on auto-belay. And the industry encourages this digital awareness of the sport, splashing relevant hashtags everywhere.
Climbing is no longer completely foreign to the public imagination as famous climbers have been making their way into the mainstream media; Alex Honnold has been featured on 60 Minutes, Ashima Shiraishi on the Today Show, and Sasha DiGiulian is spotted in tabloids with a very psyched Jared Leto. Climbers at this level of fame and talent attract big followings on social media platforms, and with that, big sponsorships, giving them the funding to live their dreams like never before.
Perhaps the biggest spectacle was when Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell made their famous ascent of the Dawn Wall. Every moment was meticulously recorded by their phones and the media; they were catapulted into fame, and with them, climbing. The New Yorker even ran an article shortly after, titled “Selling Rock Climbing in the Social-Media Era,” which interviewed Jorgeson at Brooklyn Boulders in New York City, astutely remarking that “climbing has turned into the new squash or tennis for a certain young professional set, projecting an air of health-conscious cool less frenetic than Crossfit and grittier than SoulCycle.”
More climbing gyms are on the horizon, and admittedly, my day job focuses largely on marketing and telling the stories behind climbing in an effort to get more people to climb. Social media is key because, in this day and age, that is how most people connect with each other.
But there is a difference between marketing climbing and marketing objects purely for consumption. The end goal for climbing is to get people to come in and actually connect, face-to-face. One could spend a hundred dollars a month drinking or on a new pair of shorts, or one could spend it on an experience and character-building activity like climbing. What’s also incredible about indoor climbing and technology is that it has made the sport of climbing more accessible for everyone, quite literally. Groups like Adaptive Climbing Group help those with disabilities start climbing, and City Rocks Mentorship programs help create opportunities for underprivileged youth to start climbing.
Yet technology has yet to fully disrupt climbing in the twenty-first century. Most recently, Jon Cheng, a coder and climber in Boston, invented Randori, an augmented-reality climbing game that uses motion sensors and projections onto the walls. The video went viral, getting over two million views, demonstrating both the psych and potential behind what the future of climbing could look like once enmeshed with the digital world.
Traditionalists, naysayers, and haters scoff at the sudden increase of gym climbers and incorporation of technology into the world of climbing. Perhaps they fear that capitalism will “ruin” the sport—but ironically, climbing is inherently a capitalistic game.
The “True” Nature of Climbing: Conquer Yourself, Conquer the World
Climbing is now undoubtedly a commodity. But it is still a way of life and embodies philosophy that can empower people to change their lives.
It’s inherently a capitalistic sport because it fosters an extremely entrepreneurial mind-set. In the words of my fellow contemporary climbing writer, Georgie Abel, from a piece she wrote about climbing and privilege:
“Okay, just to be sure, let’s talk about what we do when we go outside. We rock climb. Okay, let’s talk about how we rock climb. We try to get to the top of things. We view mountains as something to conquer, to stand on top of, to bag, to send. Then, after cutting down any trees and bushes in our way (often on indigenous land!), we cling to small fractures (that sometimes we’ve created on our own!) on rock faces, and if we do it without falling, we grade it, call it ours, and name it something we find inspiring or witty.
In a nutshell, we conquer and name things. You know, for funsies! This doesn’t make us bad people. It just reveals something—our whiteness, our privilege.”
Briefly, climbing is about conquering. And generally speaking, in the history of the world, the conquerors have been by and large white people. Because it is a privilege to be unafraid to go out and try something that nobody has done before, especially when you look like the people who have paved new paths ahead.
Climbing is about conquering the self—to be able to quiet your mind in crux moments, to have the self-discipline to train your body to perform staggering feats of human strength, and to break all the rules society has set in pursuit of something that you love. It’s a pathway toward self-realization over our power to conquer nature and, to an extent, our reality. The mental fortitude that climbing builds in a person is why it is so critical that climbing become more accessible and diverse: with more people moving toward self-realization, we have better chances of equality.
The ideas of capitalism are not dissimilar to climbing—and capitalism is not the problem of climbing; it is the hegemonic structures of a certain brand of attention economy capitalism that turns humans into passive consumers, which is the biggest problem that plagues our world at large.
Climbing turns people into active creators. It allows people to imagine the world differently—I myself have never felt more empowered to make an impact on this world, especially at the tail end of an adventure weekend bouldering in the Rocky Mountain National Park. The height of the mountains around me left me in awe, just as the skyscrapers of the city once did. But the awe of the metal towers left me wanting of materialistic desires and the paths to climb up had already been paved and dictated by other people. The awe of the mountains leaves me peaceful and whole and ready to pave my own path in this world.
But while the number of plastic holds will continue to multiply, the real rock of the world will not. The realities of the declining world around us and pollution of the crags cannot be ignored. If you care about climbing enough, you should ultimately care about protecting the world as much as projecting it.
Climbing won’t remain on the fringes of society for much longer—and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because what climbing does is make room for new ideas, new connections, and fundamentally, new concepts on how to live. It still provides a pathway to an alternate mode of existence. It’s a sport that doesn’t have to play by anyone’s rules. It is crucial, now more than ever, for climbers to focus on how to live and how the world should be.
We can either remain distracted, by technology, by social media, by the state of climbing, or we can choose to channel the power of climbing to realize another world, one that is not so distracted by the 24/7 state, to build a better future.
The mountains have my attention captured more than I ever would have imagined. And yet, I am still tethered to the “real” world; my phone is never far off my side, and after all, my day job boils down to selling people the sport of indoor climbing, which is very much wrapped up in technology. Change is inevitable: climbing will rise in popularity, Ashima will go on to dominate and live her dreams at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and despite the moaning of traditionalists, technology and capitalism will do both incredible and terrible things for the sport of climbing, and for the world, depending on how we influence it.
I will continue to leave my phone and the digital world off on the floor, savoring the moving meditation and beautiful surroundings around me, and will bring that focus back to the daily life that I lead. Technology, while it can be used as a tool of mass distraction, can also be effectively used to spread ideas that can be the catalyst in people to create a concrete impact. I will always continue to climb, but in the end, it is not about climbing my hardest but about conquering myself, to be able to use my force of will to liberate myself from external distractions and expectations of how I should live. And I will continue to write, to use technology to maximize the impact my words can have, and keep encouraging every person to break free and to start climbing up their own path to make their world better.
Cyrena Lee is a proud Barnard College graduate and likes to write and think about how to live, technology, social commentary, and how to bring letter-writing back. She is fond of hot pot, traveling, lucid dreaming, reading, and learning new languages. Climbing is mostly jumping, as she has a negative-three ape index. You can read more of her work at www.cyrena-lee.com.
This piece is an excerpt from Volume 9, The New School issue.
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.