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Climbing’s Growing Problem: The Mentorship Gap

Author: Shelma Jun

March 16, 2018

I found climbing fairly late in my life, compared to a lot of climbers. I was in my late 20s my first time climbing in the Gunks. But I made some good friends who were willing to take me out and patiently teach me how to place gear, build anchors and perform other technical aspects of trad climbing. They also instilled in me a strong sense of climber ethics. And I feel especially lucky to have had such good luck with mentors—because when I look around me at the climbing world, I’ve begun to see a mentorship gap.

What is the mentorship gap?

A disparity is growing between the number of people who are seeking mentorship and the number of people who are experienced enough to provide mentorship. Historically, climbing has been a much smaller and niche community, allowing mentorship to occur more organically. The majority of climbers were experienced, and if you came into climbing as a beginner, it was likely you would be surrounded by experienced climbers. There were fewer quality gyms, fewer gyms at all. If you really wanted to learn to climb, you had to find somebody who could take you out to crag and help you develop those skills and teach you how to be proficient and safe.

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The climbing community was also more homogenous in the past—folks tended to come from similar communities and socio-economic situations, and were predominantly white and male. It was probably easier for experienced climbers to relate and connect with newer climbers because they were more familiar and had similar backgrounds. Mentors looking at young climbers were reminded of their younger selves, which served as a motivation to take a mentee under their wing.

Where’d these new climbers come from?

Climbing, as a sport and a lifestyle, has exploded over that past 10 years. Much of this can be attributed to the popularity of climbing gyms. Climbing Journal reports that 43 new gyms opened in 2017 to bring the total number of climbing gyms in the United States to about 450 gyms. Climbing gyms give access to folks who have historically had limited access—people in dense, urban environments who don’t have ready access to outdoor climbing areas for a number of reasons. These include financial reasons—like the cost of equipment and transportation—and social reasons, like not knowing anyone who’s ever climbed. This increased access to climbing in an urban environment has increased the number of women, people of color, queer and adaptive climbers. Plus, the addition of climbing at the 2020 Olympics and high profile ascents such as the Dawn Wall have also contributed to the interest.

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What’s the problem?

More than ever, the number of new climbers versus experienced climbers is heavily skewed to the former. This has put a strain on more experienced climbers’ ability to mentor new climbers—they’re just aren’t enough of them to go around! Plus, how do you know when a climber is experienced enough to pass along knowledge to a newer climbers safely and correctly? Most new climbers are learning in gyms now, and may never have climbed outdoors before, creating a larger learning curve that many experienced climbers did not have to face. Plus, as the demographics of climbers changes and grows more diverse, new climbers may not feel as connected in the same way to traditional outdoor clubs, or simply may not live in places with much access to the outdoors.

I strongly believe that the mentorship gap is a serious problem we, as a community, should be concerned about. There are legitimate safety concerns with the limited knowledge that new climbers transitioning into the outdoors have. Unlike climbing gyms, where much of the risk is mitigated, outdoor climbing of all kinds requires a certain knowledge of safety protocols and understanding of risky conditions. Like spotting and pad placement, anchor building, loose holds and rappelling. The fact that there are climbers who want to get outside, want to learn more and progress their own climbing but have not been able to find feasible and safe ways to do so is something we need to address as a community.

How much responsibility do we have as stewards of pubic lands, and to the outdoor community, to ensure that all climbers are informed and educated enough to minimize our impact and make sure we are not endangering others or ourselves? Safety aside, as more climbers visit climbing areas, we’re making a larger footprint and we must all be vigilant with following Leave No Trace principles and being respectful to other users of these places.

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So what should we do?

Old mentorship methods no longer work with the current status of the climbing community. We need to create new avenues for folks to access knowledge, information and experience. Here are some steps we can take to help facilitate that:

Many of these ideas are already beginning to happen, but I hope we’ll see them amplified in a larger way. This list is just a starting point for discussion. We don’t have all the answers, but now that we’ve identified a problem, let’s start to try to fix it. Action is the next step. This will be a learning process, and we’ll definitely make some mistakes—but I think this is crucial for the health and integrity of our community.

Images by Forest Woodward, Elise Giordano and Brett Holman.

Shelma Jun

Shelma Jun is the founder of Flash Foxy and the Women’s Climbing Festival. Flash Foxy was created in 2014 to celebrate women climbing with women and to be a place where women can come to feel inspired by and connected to each other. The Women’s Climbing Festival brings 300 women together over a weekend of climbing, panels, clinics and more twice a year in Bishop, CA and Chattanooga, TN. Shelma is a current Board Member of the Access Fund and in 2017, she was named one of 40 women who’ve made the biggest impact in the outdoor world by Outside Magazine. She is also a founding member of Never Not Collective, a new media collective started in 2017 by four unapologetic women of the outdoors that is currently filming Pretty Strong, a featured length women’s climbing film. A Californian based in Brooklyn, NY, Shelma can often be found plugging widgets in the Gunks and getting scared on highballs in Bishop.