Climbing is exploding in popularity – at least that’s what you hear at the gym and at the crag and, of course, all over social media over the past few years. But what exactly does that mean? Who is it popular among? And what are the effects of the growing population of climbers? That’s what the American Alpine Club, along with other organizations including the Access Fund, USA Climbing, and the American Mountain Guides Association, set to find out with their recently released Inaugural State of Climbing Report.
This report reflects the makeup of the climbing community and its interests, priorities, and influences. Here are six key takeaways that climbers should know.
Diversity in the Community Is Lacking
Though the face of climbing is changing, it is still very much a sport dominated by white males. A recent survey by the American Alpine Club to determine the demographics of the climbing community found that “fewer than 20% of respondents were non-white.” The indoor climbing population is more evenly gender distributed – at 42% female and 58% male – but in outdoor climbing, that number changes to 67% men and only 33% women.
Many organizations have been founded to increase diversity, equality, and inclusion in the climbing community, and they are working hard to increase access to underrepresented populations and change these statistics. Affinity spaces created at events by groups such as Brown Girls Climb, Brothers of Climbing, and Flash Foxy help make climbing more “welcoming and equitable” to everyone.
Competition Is Becoming More Popular
In the early days of climbing, climbers competed among themselves for first (or fastest) ascents. That still happens in the world of outdoor climbing, but sanctioned competitions are becoming much more popular. You’ve probably heard that climbing will be in the Olympic in 2020, but that’s just a part of it.
Earlier this year, Denver hosted the 2019 World Cup Ice Climbing Finals, attracting an unexpected 25,000 fans over the weekend, making it one of the most well-attended climbing events ever. It was also popular with home viewers, as hundreds of thousands of people streamed the event online.
In an effort to capture the audience demand, media outlets are embracing climbing, and USA Climbing announced a partnership in 2019 with ESPN to broadcast three adult national championship competitions.
Climbers Are an Economic Force
Climbers have the power to influence communities through their spending habits. It turns out that 84% of climbers prefer to purchase their gear in brick-and-mortar stores. Although the data does not further explain where these purchases are made, this is clearly a way for climbers to support small local gear shops in their cities and towns.
Also, climbers often take trips to climbing destination areas where they are strong contributors to the usually rural economies. A 2019 Access Fund study showed that climbers visiting the New River Gorge region in West Virginia spent “an estimated $12.1 million” which “supported an estimated 168 jobs and $6.3 million in wages.” Similar impacts were found in areas in Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina.
National Organizations Are Influencing Public Policy
Politics affects climbing access, and climbers can have an impact in politics and public policy, thanks to national organizations spearheading efforts to preserve public lands. The American Alpine Club, the Access Fund, and the American Mountain Guides Association are the main groups working on behalf of climbers to encourage stewardship and sustainability and advocate for access to public lands.
These organizations have created ways to connect climbers to political representatives. The Climb the Hill initiative brings prominent climbers and climbing advocates to Washington, D.C. to meet and discuss concerns and create change in policy and land management. The Hill to Crag initiative works the opposite way, by bringing lawmakers outdoors to the natural areas that climbers are determined to protect so they can experience firsthand why these lands are so special.
Stewardship Is Crucial
With the increasing popularity of climbing, there are downsides, including destruction of the natural environment of climbing areas due to the higher concentration of people are using them. The Access Fund has been a leader in creating concrete ways for climbers to take care of their beloved climbing areas through initiatives including local Adopt a Crag events and the traveling Jeep Conservation Teams.
Local and regional groups are also critical in contributing to stewardship efforts, and there are 130 local climbing organizations (LCO’s) across the country. The LCO’s help maintain climbing areas as well as amicably handle access issues in cases of landowner disputes. Without the work of these organizations, many climbing areas would be in danger of being closed to access, or damaged beyond repair.
Injuries and Fatalities Are Not Increasing
Although sometimes it seems that we hear about accidents all the time in the news and via social media, it turns out that despite the increase in the overall number of climbers, the rates of injuries and fatalities are not actually rising. This can generally be attributed to the fact that climbing gear has gotten much better since the sport first started, as well as to the fact that current climbers tend to focus on safer disciplines, such as gym climbing, sport climbing, and bouldering, instead of trad climbing and mountaineering.
The American Alpine Club tracks injuries and accidents through submissions to its annual Accidents in North American Mountaineering Report. These incident reports come from the parks, search and rescue, media, and climbers themselves, but not every accident is reported. But the most serious accidents and fatalities are believed to be reported, and the AAC has determined that the rate of those is not increasing. In fact, the deadliest year in North American climbing was 1972.
The Inaugural State of Climbing Report provides an illuminating look at the popularity of climbing and the power of climbers. As climbing continues to grow, climbers can use this information to create the community they want to see.
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