Blue-Collar Climbing

Climbing feels like a blue-collar sport.  You gotta get dirty, sweaty, your hands get calloused, you bleed.  It takes work to get to the crag, hiking through thicket, fighting off poison ivy, battling mosquitos, enduring extreme heat or cold.  Climbers have armpit stains on their t-shirts for sure.  Generally, climbers pack in and pack out their own gear, food, and water.  After a day of climbing, your muscles ache, your back hurts, and there is a high probability that you smell a little bit like butt.

I grew up in a blue-collar family, a blue-collar town, and prior to climbing I dedicated much of time to another blue collar-sport.  Basketball!  Basketball is interesting in terms of social stratification.  It’s a sport that almost anyone can afford to play.  All you really need is a ball.  Most cities, big and small have basketball courts and hoops sprinkled throughout the town.

Growing up, I would spend hours and hours at whatever basketball court would be active on any particular day.  If I wanted to find a game of half court hard-nosed 3 on 3, I’d head to St. Mary’s parking lot.  If I wanted a game of full court 5 on 5 I’d head over to the county park (this place had the benefit of working water fountains), St. Thecla, had rims low enough for us to almost dunk on, plus streetlights for playing at night, and Chippewa Valley HS had glass backboards, with single rims, and actual nets.  

Chippewa Valley HS was the boujee high school on the “right” side of the tracks, and so whenever we made it over there, we were often met with some level of contempt.  I guess we didn’t have the right shoes, balls, or style.  The thing about basketball though is that once that ball goes up in the air, none of that other stuff matters.  All that matters in the end is whether or not you can put the ball in the basket.  We’d win some games and lose some games, but never once did I feel like the outcome of the competition was based on the brand name emblazoned on the sides of my shoes.

Certain forms of climbing, especially bouldering have some strong similarities to basketball.  If you’re in the right location of the planet (a location with rocks to climb), then all you need is a pair of shoes.  

Climbing is a blue-collar sport, and like most blue-collar activities, you get out what you put in.

Traditionally climbing has been a sport for dirtbags, by and large it still is, but climbing has a wide appeal.  And the folks with the white collars, the folks from the “right” side of the track, the folks with the designer beanies are coming and will continue to come in droves.  The climbing crags, walls, and gyms, like the basketball courts around the world should be open and welcoming to everyone equally no matter where you come from or what color your collar is.

As the great philosopher Socrates once said “It’s not the name brand on the front of your toga that matters, what matters is who you are on the inside”.1

So, to anyone out there struggling to fit in because you can’t afford the expensive name brands, or you have to wear your brother’s hand-me-down shoes, or your sister’s harness, because your shirt isn’t adorned with the face of a mountain, or your pants aren’t the right color, to you I say…CLIMB ON!

  1. Socrates never said that…but at the end of The Apology he did say: “Still I have a favor to ask. When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to punish them; and I would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything, more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing, – then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing. And if you do this, I and my sons will have received justice at your hands. “

21 Replies to “Blue-Collar Climbing”

  1. Same deal with photography. The best gear in the world won’t take a decent image if the person behind the camera doesn’t have the heart to develop the needed skills. Conversely cell phone cameras can produce excellent images when used by an artisan. Climb On Indeed!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That is a great thought, and great point about photography. There really does seem to be this race for name and price points! Thanks for sharing that insight!


  2. Reminds me of Don Whillans – one of the great post-war British mountaineers – who started as a plumber. If you’ve got the skills to climb, you will; if you don’t, no amount of “boujee” designerwear is going to get you off the ground.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ll check him out. It reminds me of this quote that ‘a good craftsman never blames his tools’. There is something darkly entertaining about athletes who make up and look at their shoes as a place to escape criticism.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This made me think about the boys on bikes from my misspent middle age (late 30s/early 40s) They were definitely from the wrong side of the tracks. They showed up at my house (on the wrong side of the tracks) with safety pins through their nipples and homemade mowhawks and patched together BMX bikes made from random spare parts. I took them in my truck — with my dogs — to dirt jumps they and other kids had dug and built themselves. They rode while I hiked the hills. After I saw their sport, I wanted to film them, and I did often forgetting to take the lens cap off the camera.

    Some of them fell by the wayside. Some of them thrived. Among those who thrived is one who now has his own company in Phoenix and two little kids he’s teaching to ride BMX but they have fancy uniforms, belong to a team, get absurd trophies for any small victory, ride on scientifically designed BMX courses, travel all over for competitions, etc etc etc

    I was following him on FB for a while but it made me feel weird and I realized that something is lost in the gentrification of the sport. I wouldn’t want his kids to endure some of the things their dad had to, growing up in poverty, struggling to stay on the right side of the law, but the originality and creativity of those dirt jumps and the feeling of freedom those kids got being there and developing competence away from parental support and guidance? I watched the youngest one practicing a 180 at a concrete storm ditch. He did it over and over, crashing into the fence many times, until he got it right. It was insane and beautiful at the same time, his perception of himself as an immortal being in his quest to master that trick. What those kids got from that sport practiced that way had no prizes at all except mastery, which, I think, is really everything.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was such a great addition to this post…I feel like this entire story works as perfect example of whatever a blog Afterword would amount to. Thanks for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Those chain nets were my favorite…most of the nets we had at the parks were just remnants hanging from one side of the rim with duct tape, but there was that one rich school where it was like playing in a different world, nets and all!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My husband wears the same bright colored pants as the farmers and construction workers in South Africa. He has had probably 15 pairs of the same pants over the years (usually red or orange sometimes blue). They are loose, flexible, really tough (perfect for bushwhacking our way to the crags) and cost about 50 rand. We starting noticing a trend of large groups of younger climbing generations coming out to the crags tricked out in all the fancy gear and mostly just lounging around on the rocks. A few always say “wow, cool pants” realizing you don’t need all the pricey tags to be a great climber. Great post and reminds me to also re-duct tape my puffer.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Reminds me of hunting. It went from spending time in the woods and securing meat to – Look at my Camo and look at my fancy gear. Yet the people with the fancy gear aren’t any more successful because hunting it all about skills and abilities. Great post reminding people what it is all about!

    Liked by 1 person

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