Get ready to hit the gym and climb this weekend. Thanks to The North Face, gyms across the world are hosting free climbing on Saturday, which has officially been christened Global Climbing Day. The initiative is part of the outdoor company’s a larger campaign called “Walls Are Meant for Climbing,” the purpose of which is to encourage people to think about walls as a way to create connections, not divisions.
“[Walls have] been at the center, to some degree, of everything that we’ve done,” says Tom Herbst, global vice president of Marketing at The North Face. “So with all the conversation [about walls] in culture, we felt like we have a point of view and something to say about walls being a place to unite our communities as something that actually brings about trust and partnership.”
The North Face will donate $5 to Paradox Sports — a non-profit that makes climbing accessible for people who are physically disabled — for every person that comes out to climb in one of the participating gyms, until donations total $50,000. It also has committed to donate $1 million to the Trust for Public Land over the next three years, with the purpose of putting public climbing walls in underserved communities.
To celebrate Global Climbing Day, we talked to Herbst about the initiative, the rise of climbing as a sport and the culture surrounding it.
Tell me about the rise of climbing as a sport.
Climbing in the U.S. really started in the late 60s, as the generation that was coming home from World War II really took a lot of the skills and equipment back with them. It was sort of born here in the Bay area, starting with the founders of The North Face who headed out to Yosemite and saw these massive walls rising from the Earth. With a bit of counterculture spirit that was alive at that time in the Bay area, they detached a little bit from mainstream culture and decided they were going to make their lives’ purpose the summiting of these massive pieces of Earth up here in northern California. And that was sort of the birth of climbing culture here in the U.S. Then over the years that culture evolved with several big personalities arising out of that culture and it was alive and well for a while. And then, about 10 or 15 years ago, the indoor climbing community started growing in popularity. And, as indoor climbing has becoming much more popular, its opened up access to many more types of people who maybe don’t live near big walls or who don’t have a built-in community to get out there and work with other people to get up them. And it helped climbing infiltrate cities and [grew] to really represent a much more diverse swath of the population and really introduce a lot more people to the mindset that drives climbing which is largely about partnership and sort of the internal desire to overcome these obstacles.
Why do you think climbing became so popular?
I think climbing is a unique combination of brains and physical expertise. So you find that a lot of climbers tend to be people who love sort of puzzling things out. Especially here Bay area, a lot of new climbers tend to be software developers and people like that. So, I think that, as opposed to other sports where sometimes it’s just physical ability or, you know, that heart and determination to keep going, climbing also has a real mental edge to it – where every climb is different and every climb is a puzzle to figure out. It takes a different mix of skills that involve thinking through things and then executing the plan. And sometimes that plan doesn’t work, and you have to take notes and learn from it and try again. You see that come through when you talk to Alex Honnold about his recent free solo of El Cap. He can sit down and walk you through every move that he made on the 3,000 feet up that wall, because it was basically one big puzzle that he put together in his head, and choreographed and memorized every move. So, I think that there’s a real mental aspect to it that kind of separates it from other sports.
Do you think that’s reflected in the climbing community?
For sure. There’s a deep and cool memory among climbers. There’s tons of information sharing—probably more so than other sports. I think it draws people who want to find and share that information so you find the community being very open with information and being very helpful. What we hear a lot, especially as first time climbers maybe go to the gym – the climbing gym is their first experience. People feel overwhelmed or intimidated because they don’t really know the knowledge that you need to even climb in the gym. And they come out of the gym for the first time really surprised and pleased by the tightness of the community and people’s willingness to help and share. I think people hang on to the fact that, particularly with climbing. Literally and metaphorically, you’re never quite at the pinnacle. So everyone’s always working on something. And there’s always another problem to solve. I think that mindset really leads to a very inclusive and sharing community in which information flows pretty freely and people are welcomed warmly to that community.
How has North Face contributed to the rise of climbing as a sport?
One of ways is by helping to support and broadcast the achievements of some of the best climbers in the world. Just this year obviously Alex free-soloed El Cap and Margo Hayes was the first female to put up a 5.15a. So, part of it is that we have a team of world-class athletes across a range of sports whether it’s climbers or alpinists or skiers or long-distance runners, and we work with them to help define where the sport is going and what the new achievements are. Then, we make sure the world knows about that. That’s one of the ways that we’re getting the word out there about climbing.
Do you see the “Walls Are Meant for Climbing” campaign as another way The North Face has contributed to the sport?
Yeah. That campaign is really about helping people understand the inclusive nature of the climbing community and providing access to it for as many people as possible.
Why do you feel like it’s important to make climbing walls more inclusive and accessible for people?
It promotes partnership. You don’t climb alone. You need to learn the trust and respect of your climbing partner or partners. It’s a sport that challenges you both mentally and physically. It’s as important as ever to get the next generation active, with everything that’s going on in the culture. And so we want to invite as many people into this activity as we can.
Tell me a bit more about what The North Face is doing on Global Climbing Day.
We worked with over 40 gyms to bring free climbing to people across the globe. So we’re working with these gyms to basically open up their doors and say, “Hey, look, anyone that wants to come climb, can.” And, to kind of pay that forward, we’re also donating five dollars to Paradox Sports for every person that climbs in a participating gym on global climbing day—up to $50,000. So right now we have gyms in 30 cities across the U.S, and in Mexico City, in Calgary of all places, and Montreal and Toronto, in Chile, London, Shanghai and more. That’s over 40 gyms in total.
What are you hoping to accomplish?
We’re hoping to introduce as many people as we can to the sport and get people out and continue the conversation around how fun climbing is, but also how the strength of the climbing community provides a place for people to come together.
You’re also committing to a $1 million donation to the Trust for Public Lands. Why do you feel like that’s important?
For climbing, you really just need a partner and a wall, and there are communities everywhere around the world that don’t necessarily have the resources they need to get the next generation out and active and enjoying the outdoors, so we feel like this is a small step in the right direction in terms of introducing kids to getting outside, being active, understanding how those outside activities can help you mature and grow and feel accomplishment and feel a sense of self-worth as you learn to find your way up these walls and eventually reach the top.