Climbing's Growing Problem: The Mentorship Gap

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.

People carrying bouldering crash pads

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.

A person sits in a climbing gym

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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A person wears a climbing harness

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:

  • Creating more ways for climbers to effectively transition from gym to outdoors. This could be more classes and clinics at gyms that focus specifically on transitioning from the gym to the outdoors. Educational resources on stewardship and climber responsibilities should be more easily accessible and broadly distributed. Events like climbing festivals also create opportunities for people to gain new technical skills and meet more climbers.
  • Meeting folks where they are. This starts by identifying who wants help and what resources are currently available to them. Rather than expecting new climbers to adapt to existing infrastructure, we should consider changing and growing traditional clubs to be more relevant and accessible to new climbers. The first step to this is to ask new climbers what connects them to climbing, our community and the outdoors.
  • Helping existing nonprofits and organizations by amplifying how their programs could be helping new climbers. The American Alpine Club and Access Fund are member-based national climbing organizations that have been supporting climbing and climbers for decades. They could help create materials and events that help connect newer climbers to the national climbing community. Outward Bound, NOLS and AMGA are a few other organizations that could be leveraged to create more pathways to informational and educational materials and workshops. This could be the creation of pathways for people who are interested in becoming mentors by offering more programs that prepare folks to be able to teach each other.
  • Step up an industry to acknowledge our responsibility and help create more programs. The mentorship gap is a community issue and the companies in it should be supporting movements to solve it. This could be done in a variety of ways, from supporting organizations like the ones mentioned above, to creating more educational content and leveraging athletes to help disseminate the information.

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.

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Images by Forest Woodward, Elise Giordano and Brett Holman.