I Don’t Want Climbing to be Mainstream (And Here’s Why)

Should we want climbing to be a top-tier sport?

I have a bit of experience participating in mainstream sports. I played football in the great state of Texas for 8 years prior to rock climbing. In the Lonestar state, football is the mainest of the streamest of all sports. Here, watching your favorite team lose a football game is the equivalent to watching your cam creep out of the crack while taking a whipper. That is, it ruins your day and probably your week.

Personally, I love climbing as a counter-culture sport. I don’t identify as a hipster, but I suppose that makes me one. When I started climbing, it opened me up to a whole new world that I never knew existed.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned or maybe I just don’t like change, but here’s why I think our niche sport should stay that way.

Climbing is different. There aren’t many sports where athletes living out of their vans are celebrated as heroes. On the flip side, every year advertisers pump millions of dollars into mainstream sports to get their brands out to the public. The average U.S professional basketball player makes $5.15 million over the course of his career. That’s enough money to hire a guide to help you climb all seven summits nearly six times. (You’d run out around Everest camp 4 the fifth time around) At what point does a sport become less about the passion and more about the luxury lifestyle?

Of course, the opposing argument would say that a little extra climbing capital would be great for the advancement of the sport. And that could be true.

If there is one thing I LOVE about the sport of rock climbing it’s the camaraderie. I’ve been climbing for a while now, and I’ve observed that the friendly climbers VASTLY outnumber the rude ones.

This got me thinking. Climbing is not the most popular, it can be scary, dangerous, and it’s HARD to make money doing it. So why the back-clip do we do it?

The reason we rock climb is because we love to rock climb.

I believe some of the problems with mainstream sports stem from athletes competing for the wrong reasons. Of course, there are those who love the game, but others will inevitably participate for fame, money, or to impress those around them. I really don’t want to see that happen to climbing. It’s great to be surrounded by people who share goals! We wish each other success in getting to the top of that gosh darn wall.

I don’t want to take away from popular games like football. One day I’ll probably remember this blog while forcing my kids to play sports for “character building purposes”. There are plenty of great reasons to play mainstream sports and work with a team. If you play them, more power to you dude.

Is the mainstreamity of climbing even possible?

You may already be noticing the recent expansion of the climbing industry. New companies, gyms, and climbers are popping up left and right. Before you rush to your stockbroker and invest your rainy day money in Black Diamond (CLAR), let’s do a little critical thinking.

Competitive rock climbing isn’t that interesting to watch. DON’T CLICK AWAY. Hear me out. Television is a huge reason for the success of modern sports. The fact is, climbing just isn’t interesting to the non-climber. Personally, I think the problem is that climbers make it look too easy. The most experienced climber’s moves are calculated and smooth. Non-climbers simply don’t understand how hard it is to hold on to that sloper at a 45-degree overhang. To them, each of the climbs looks the same as the one before it.

Maybe it’s just me, but when I climb that bomber V5 on the arete, the ladies never seem very impressed. Then again, that’s probably just my bad haircut.

There are several other reasons I think climbing won’t become mainstream. Access is one of them. Sure there are climbing gyms in most main cities, but there are many rural areas where there isn’t an artificial crag for miles.

Another problem is the price tag. Pricing closes the sport off to a massive number of people who can’t afford the gym membership, gear, and eventual hospital visit.

So what do you think? Should I be rooting for popularized rock climbing? Do you see climbing becoming more popular in the future? I’d love for someone to start the conversation below.

. . .

Thanks for reading,

– Casen

Casen (Contributor) theDIHEDRAL


34 Replies to “I Don’t Want Climbing to be Mainstream (And Here’s Why)”

  1. I think the horse has bolted on this one… pun intended. Palatable forms of climbing (see also bouldering, sport, gym) opened the sport to the masses. Now we have gyms in every city, pro climbers sponsored by adidas and ralph lauren, and climbing in the olymics. It is, most definitely, a mainstream sport now and not a weird oddity like it used to be. That said, there are pros and cons… e.g. crags are more crowded, but an increased presence gives us more voice in access issues. We need to continue to identify the weak points and work on them, because the sport isnt getting any smaller and nostalgia never solved anything.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Great point. Do you think the popularity of climbing will continue to increase? Or will it level out? Personally, I think it will level out around the lines of surfing.


      1. It depends what part of the sport you’re looking at. I think that it will certainly level out at some stage, but I think that bouldering and sport still have a ways to go. But if you still want the “niche” factor, and less crowds, that’s easy – you just have to go for something that the average punter either can’t or won’t commit to for reasons of either laziness or fear. Adventure climbing and alpine climbing are the way of the future if you don’t like crowds. Or maybe just learn to love offwidths 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s a two-sided ridge. On one side, the “wierd oddity” {I like this phrase!} is what I’ve loved about rock climbing (and mountaineering) for years and years [hiking & backpacking used to be wierd too but now they’re pretty mainstream]. On the other side, “wierd oddities” too often get ignored when it comes to access or trail maintenance or campgrounds or whatever else is needed to facilitate you actually touching rock. I’m too am going to go with the “leveling off” theory in that it implies (hopefully) a balance between being an ignored obsurity and every climb being like Yosemite on a summer weekend.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s true. It can feel like a scavenger hunt trying to find the right crag, not to mention the right route! It would be nice for a little extra maintenance. Thanks for the response!


  3. So is this the part where I confess that I’m woefully unathletic and afraid of heights but I’m thinking of giving climbing a try…because my friends invited me along? Sorry to crash your sport. I’ll probably get about 2 meters off the ground and then insist that my talents are better used on “photo-documentation”.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Jerry Moffat, when asked about the future of rock climbing at Silence’s première, explained his opinion beautifully, to which I agree. Having climbing showcased in the Olympics will popularise and glorify gym climbing more, because even at the Olympic level athletes are essentially pulling on plastic as opposed to real rock. By those means, I definitely see gym climbing becoming very popular. But there’s a separate crowd who seek and continue to seek redemption by climbing on real rock outside. More often than not, gym climbing and outdoor climbing don’t always go hand in hand but it indoor routes an be tailored to suit and prepare one’s outdoor goals. Those willing to drive the distance or hike the extra mile to get to that special crag will go the distance regardless of climbing becoming mainstream as it means something different to be outdoors in nature.

    The divergence between outdoor and indoor climbing is emminent and it’s already evident in gyms; there are more parkour-style routes being set, something uncommon on reel rock, as opposed to the “pull, crimp, pull, crimp” style of setting that some of the older gyms still live by. Indoor climbing is always changing. For example, going back to indoor competitions five or seven years ago, one can see the use of volumes were a rarity, but now they are almost always showcased at the competition scene. Route setters are trying to outwit the competititors as the athletes adapt to certain setting styles.

    Rock climbing as a whole will become mainstream, and for a while it may seem a little gimicky since every new gym will try to promote their brand name to get members and turn a profit, in my opinion; the growing number of climbers would mean a higher demand for routesetters around the nation and around the world; constant influx of new climbers would mean the setting has to be tailored to the community, and as the community grows, so do the grades and setting style. There are too many factors too consider from so many different angles that I think will become hard to control over time, as far as indoor climbing is concerned. I know this isn’t an experiment, but a good experiment has one or two variables in order to best judge the specimen or the subjects. Trying to control so many variables in climbing might actually hamper the progress of indoor climbing or the “levelling out” as you mentioned. That being said I don’t see outdoor climbing having the same result. Variables are more controlled to a certain degree given a discipline of rock climbing, given a certain style of rock climbing, given a certain rock formation for rock climbing. These are controlled by nature and we either adapt to get along with nature, thereby conquering our quests and redeeming ourselves, or get shutdown and go back to the gym to relearn the way nature forced us to climb that specific route. As for those willing to dedicate time and effort on climbing a monolith that gives you very little fame and fortune other than a thrill and a sense of self accomplishment, the crowd will keep a low profile, never making it mainstream.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. All I have to say is pah, that bullmalarkey about “Gym Climbing vs real climbing”… I’ll gladly glorify gym climbing and plastic indoor faces; if more people getting into climbing- competitively or not- means more gyms install climbing walls of any sort? I’m absolutely ok with that, because their existence and availability means that I can still continue to participate in a passion I was introduced to at 16 but can barley participate in now at just 27.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. You’re right. It’s impossible to tell with such a wide variety of factors! In the end, I just hope all the outdoor crag holds don’t get completely polished…

      Or maybe that will just push us to find more areas!
      – Casen

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Not wanting a beloved hobby to become “mainstream” is a perfectly realistic- albeit completely kneejerk- reaction to something that we love and have built a wonderful community in over the years suddenly being infiltrated by people we don’t know.

    That being said, it’s unrealistic and absurd. I’ve never understood the ideology, or why people piss and moan about it; yes, with all new pushes into the spotlight come the bad apples. People who make things dangerous, who shake up well established routines, people who aren’t educated or informed… But so too come the people who, having never experienced it before, are struck by the awe of suddenly discovering a passion for something they never knew existed. Something it took that spotlight to pique their interest about. Something they very likely never would have learned abotu otherwise.

    Who cares how they got here. Who cares how many of them stay in the end. Who cares what they prefer- whether it’s an indoor face or an outdoor one- or what they’re even here for (the lifestyle, the street cred, etc)? Be nice to the newbies who have potential and shun the ones who want to spoil it for everyone. And when someone steps out of line, guide them back. Teach them the ropes safely. Be their mentor- because that’s what we are, those of us who came first. That’s what we should be to those who come after us- no matter how they come.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You’re absolutely right Anna! Thanks for the comment. It’s definitely good to focus on the things that we CAN control and not the things that we can’t. What else can we do anyway?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve never stood in line to climb an offwidth. I never stood in line to climb East Gruesome.
    I don’t think I ever will. Nor do I think such climbs will ever be televised.
    At the local gym where I train, the would-be sportsmen have already moved on – to American Ninja Warrior.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re right. Great point. I think there will always be a side of rock climbing that stays for the “crazy people”. Thanks for the comment!


      1. Yeah. That’s true across the board. The Ouray ice park (where I have personally witnessed top-ropers grilling burgers at the base of a climb) is a zoo.
        Go to the Southfork of the Shoshone, and you will be lucky to see anyone at all.
        It will never be plasticized.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi folks!
    I live in Vienna, the capital of Austria (Europe). I started rock climbing and bouldering about 7 years ago. I´ve seen a big change in this sport over the last years, especially the last two year the boulder sport got a big hype.
    When I heard about a new boulder gym has opend in vienna, that was about 5 years ago I really like it. You can go there after work, meet some climbing friends, do some training and have a beer afterwards… it was perfect for our crew to have some fun during the week.
    Somehow everything changed with the hype, our homebase boulder gym doubled the space, opened a secound location in vienna and is already planning a third one. Last year one of their routsetters made his own location. So we got three new boulder gyms just here in vienna, extra to the ones we allready had before.
    I should be happy for that, but I´m not really. All the locations are really crowed these days. And I realized that the are starting to set a lot of the routes for beginners, cause they bring the money (buying equipment, and booking the training courses).

    Outdoor it´s nearly the same problem, if you don´t have the time to go far away from Vienna be prepaired for a crowed climbing spot.

    Is climing and bouldering mainstream? Well it´s on the way to become a mainstream sport here in Austria, with all it´s ups and downs.

    At least there is one good thing, most of the newbies sharing my spirt loving the mountains, rocks and nature itself.
    So when I see it from this aspect I have to shout out: Go out discover the mountains and love the nature.
    I will go to steeper walls and to more secret summits if I wan´t to enjoy it alone 😉 .

    Thanks for your interesting post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply Peter, I think you’re absolutely right. In the end, it’s all about making the best out of whatever comes our way!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I am not a climber. I rappelled in the military and did an indoor facility for a couple of months back in 2001. That said, there is nothing indoor where I currently live and I mean within 200 miles. I have been considering opening an indoor facility because I love sports that are not routine and that have some danger to them while also being skill based. Good topic. Nice discussion points.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Also in trail running I think beginners do percieve the difference between one route and another for how difficult etc. Like wow a 20 mile run versus a 3 mile one. Perhaps that should have been non climbers butI don’t know, we’re talking passion here. As soon as you try and fall off, tired and amazed it looks different, also for each person. Grading helps all abilities, kind of demonstrating the hidden nature of defying gravity.
      Personally I love indoor climbing for the sociable atmosphere added to the non serious physical preparation and consequences as I am out of the habit the latter especially now. Mt Fitzroy on pinterest just reminded me today of the real stuff though.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I believe that the sport will become more mainstream, the olympics will see to that. In the U.K. I believe membership for the BMC has risen year on year. I know that I have seen rises in both the amount of climbing gyms and the amount of people attending them. It is only natural that this will overspill into the crags and mountains. I’ve not been climbing for ten years yet, so I’m part of this newer climber movement, however I’ve only met one climber that I disliked, and everyone else has been cool.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Very interesting! Makes a lot of sense to me! My cousins’s son is really into mountain climbing, Michael Haag. Would have loved to do it in my younger days!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. My partner is a mountaineer, which is definitely off the radar for most people.He’s now embarking on his biggest ever adventure, which is climbing Mt Everest. I’ve tried a bit of rock climbing, but we don’t really get the good weather in the UK to take it up seriously.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Easy – everyone should give it a try, and then stay in the gym and leave the outdoors for those who are committed to it. Apart from at windgather, which in the UK is kind of like an outdoor gym wall 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I dont think you can be described as a hipster unless you have a beard you could hide a badger in.
    But I digress. Climbing has become v popular whee I am – Yorkshire , england , so much so that my daughters junior school (6 to 11) invested in an outdoor climbing wall and my good friend and neighbours daughter has just come 2nd in the 8 to 14 Yr old British championship. My poor daughter is terrified of heights so it will never be goer. Still I don’t think we will be seeing it in the Olympics anytime soon

    Liked by 1 person

  14. “equivalent to watching your cam creep out of the crack while taking a whipper”

    Is this climbing jargon or a euphemism?

    Seriously though, I think you are right with the access argument. Despite climbing becoming more popular, there is probably a ceiling for the same reason dressage equestrianism or polo never really took on in the ghetto.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I feel the same about trail running, hiking, and camping. Sadly the parks are getting too crowded, actually filling up, as in closed to more people , on weekends. Until they open more parks , I hope the trend goes flat. There’s already difficulty in getting into many races due to limited capacity. Yes, we want people to join the fun, but not all in one place! Spread out a bit. 🙂 Like, go run,hike, camp , live in some other state , besides Texas.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I think that the popularity of mountaineering is at its maximum in the long run. And I mean both climbing in extreme conditions on the highest ridges and climbing on vertical walls. It will still be plus or minus the same percentage of people in the entire population. Of course, my dream was to be one of those people looking around from the top of Mount Everest and taking a picture of the night sky from there. Then I got old, got fatter and more comfortable … I missed it …✌✌✌

    Liked by 1 person

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