For the Love of Climbing: Two Tales of Why We Climb

The sun beat down on the orange-hued sandstone, the faces of our party burned red and their shoulders glowed. I was surprised by the heat at Smith Rock in May. The sweltering sun couldn’t diminish how much fun I was having. That experience, that exposure, would influence my life in unexpected ways years later.

What is it about climbing that is so powerfully transformative? 

For me, climbing was about being outdoors and the freedom of movement. I loved it at first pitch. That’s not the case for everyone.

For Stormy Saint-Val, climbing has been about catharsis and rejuvenation. It’s been about feeling comfortable in her own skin and learning to appreciate what you can accomplish today, while maintaining dreams of progress for the future.

She fell in love with climbing eventually, you could say. 

“Do black people climb?”

It’s emotionally taxing to be a stranger in a strange land. When Stormy started climbing she only ever met two other black people at the gym, and one of the guys worked there. 

Naturally, one might wonder, “do black people climb?”

“I’m black, I know I climb,” She laughed over the phone. “Is there a like a group or a Meetup? Some[place] where I didn’t feel marginalized?”

She wanted to know the answer, so she googled it. Naturally.

That’s how she found Color the Crag. CtC is a climbing festival in Alabama with a mission to help build community among historically marginalized peoples in the outdoor space.

She found her answer but she needed to figure out how to make her way down there, and how to pay for it all.

“I was so excited [to find it], but then I thought, I can’t afford this,” Stormy noted, dismayed.

Group photo at Color the Crag. Photo source: Color the Crag


Climbing isn’t cheap

The irony of course is that climbing can be free if you just walk into the woods and find a large rock to scale. 

But it’s rarely that simple, especially as a beginner in a sport that requires a slew of technique and safety equipment. For perspective, climbing has become somewhat of a hoity-toity trending activity where a day pass at a swanky gym in NYC costs close to 50 bucks. Want to buy your own gear? An intro trad set, biners, a rope, shoes, and harness can easily put you back $500+. If you’re a working adult, sure, maybe that’s nothing for you, but for a college student or a guy working at a self-financed startup, money can be hard to scrape up. 

For years I was living a white color paycheck-to-paycheck existence, meeting investors whose car cost more than I would make in the next 36 months. (Yea, I’ve made some questionable career choices, but that’s a topic for another day).

In Stormy’s case, five months at her local climbing gym would put her back nearly $800. As a student on a barista salary that’s taxing.

She resorted to clandestine tactics like pretending to be her friend and using her membership card. (She doesn’t recommend that). Eventually the gym worked out a special deal for her as a local ambassador. 

Sometimes you need a helping hand

Stormy found out about the American Alpine Club’s Live Your Dream Grant, which was an opportunity to fund her training and trip.

She hemmed and hawed, but eventually applied.

“I found the grant three days before it was due. ‘Oh my god, is it worth it?,'” she asked herself. “‘Is this worth my time? How late am I going to stay up to write this application [tonight]? What are my intentions and goals [with this]?’”
 
She went back and forth contemplating the fear and disappointment of not receiving the grant, “And then [I thought], what if I do get it? It’s so much greater. And it was. I didn’t want to miss out on the potential opportunity.”

The everyperson adventure grant

The LYD grant is designed to help “the majority of climbers to pursue their goals, whatever those goals are,” according to Howard Sebold, the Metro NY Section Chair and head of the LYD Northeast selection committee.

This is specifically not for the professional climber. After all, they already get free gear, sponsorship dollars, and most grant money anyways.

Howard relays his own story, “I remember when I was first getting into climbing, and reading the mags—you read all this stuff these guys are doing that are rad, badass kind of things, and you’re like, ‘yea, I’m probably never gonna do that.’ Then occasionally you come across a story about [someone] going to Wind Rivers [or the like], and you’re like ‘whoa, that’s totally accessible to me, that’s something I could do.’ And that got me personally excited.”

That’s why the AAC decided to start the grant, “[the thing is] most of the membership is the everyday climber, the weekend warrior, guys [and women] like me— work five days a week, got a family, don’t climb as hard as I used to. I bring my kids out to the crag, just have fun.”

In the end, it’s about helping people go out and accomplish their own mountain dreams, “it really gives back to our members to help them get outside and climb, to pursue their personal goal.” Whatever they may be.

Author leading his first 5.11a in Geyikbayiri, Turkey. Photo courtesy of friend of the author


For the love of climbing

Life is often punctuated and defined by key inflection points, with a lot of smaller connecting-the-dots in between.

According to Stormy, Color the Crag has been a life changer: “Months later, thinking about all the experience and friendship that I gained from the festival, it completely changed my life.”

She goes on to say, “I’ve been able to eradicate this false narrative that black people don’t climb. There were 500 people there! These are a bunch of people that are also climbing that don’t look like what the magazines are showing, and what narratives you have grown up with.”

“It’s been a fuel,” she accentuates.

She still stays in touch with friends she made at CtC and has found a deeper appreciation for the sport as she’s progressed from VB to V2: “That’s what Color the Crag taught me: ‘be proud of your achievements and honor them for what they are.'”

Overall, the sport has “been a big tool in helping me build my awareness and my confidence in myself. It’s more than physical. And the problem solving aspect of it, too, is so fun. [I’ve been able to] apply problem solving to my own life [outside of climbing].” She’s come a long way from sneaking in to the gym and feeling intimidated by the VBs. She’s hoping to get over her fear of the harness and start sport climbing this year.

On my end, from that initial day at Smith Rock to leading my first 5.11a this past year, learning to climb has been a process of pushing through the fear and going after what I truly want to pursue. That is, in the face of the self-doubt, financial concerns, or whatever other objection I make up for myself.

This year, I’ve got a lot of normal, everyman-achievable goals: Climb 5.11 consistently. Do a multi-pitch trad route. Summit a 5,000m peak. 

In the past I may have chalked these ideas up as unattainable, or at least highly unlikely. Probably wouldn’t even have tried. I’ve learned to let go of pre-conceived notions and to let myself dream, even if just a little. 

We all have our reasons for climbing, and for some, our love of the sport is really about finding love for ourselves. Sometimes a little help along the way–a friend, a community, a dream–can make all the difference.




Want to apply for the Live Your Dream grant?

Howard shares some advice on what they look for:

  • 1) Well-researched climbing objective. Be specific of the why, what, and how. For example, some people have detailed spreadsheets outlining their training plan and gear list.
  • 2) Be clear with how this goal will help you personally progress as a climber.
    3) Think about what it is like to review hundreds of applications. How will your application stand out? For one, tell a good story. (Everyone has a story to tell).

For even more advice, Ben Beck-Coon and Anthony Nguyen, winners of a 2013 Live Your Dream grant, have more tips on writing a great proposal.

The deadline for applications is March 31.





Feature photo courtesy of Stormy Saint-Val

Where to Get Cheap Mountaineering Gear: The Beg, Borrow, and Steal List

Series: How to Start Mountaineering Cheaply




“The mountains are calling, and I must go [cheaply].” *

– John Muir


Mountaineering is an expensive sport. And I’m poor. 

Or that was the excuse I told myself. Have you ever wanted to try something but gave up before you really got going?

Some excuse or another always seems to pop up: It’s not practical, you don’t have the time, you might look like an idiot. You know the drill.

Frankly, the prospect of exuberant cost has held me back for years. Buying all brand new gear, just for the essentials (boots, crampons, ice axe, puffy, hard shell top and bottom, gloves), you could easily clear $1,500 by purchasing top-of-the-line products. 

So I hemmed and hawed and let the sticker shock stop me. It became an exaggerated impediment, like making a Mont Blanc of a molehill, and I needed to recalibrate this mental hurdle in order to move forward.

This past year I got into sports climbing (and progressively bought a harness, draws, a rope,) and realized what everyone else already knew: You should build your kit over time.

And also, you can do this the expensive way, or the “keep an eye out for deals” way.

Photo source: elvesandmagic

What was different between climbing and mountaineering?

Honestly, I just started climbing and got hooked.

Now, because gear has been a crux, this post will focus on ways to get gear cheaply. 

We’ll talk about what gear you need in a future post. And yes, I recognize that focusing on gear first is starting out of order. Bear with me.

In the end, this will be a series about “How To Start Mountaineering Cheaply” covering topics such as scoping out beginner-friendly mountains, affordable guides and courses, requisite skills, training, and more.

Let’s take the first step towards our high-altitude goal.




Photo source: wer.ena

Beg & Borrow

The best place to start is to have friends that mountaineer.

Shit out of luck on that front? Join local mountaineering clubs or seek out forums like Mountain Project to partner up. The clubs might have a gear depot (university programs typically do), and people who are into the sport likely have extras of things.

You can also rent equipment (better to spend $100 for two days of rental gear to try things out before dropping the big dollars).

North America

American Alpine Club
Established in 1902, the AAC is the premiere high-altitude outdoor club in the U.S. Membership provides discounts at major retailers and brands (such as Outdoor Research, Rab, and Backcountry), at climbing gyms, and guide services. With an introductory membership cost of $45, this is bound to pay for itself in no time.

The Mountaineers (PNW)
A nonprofit outdoor community of 13,000+ active members in the Pacific Northwest. They offer trips, courses, events, and have lodges. They are the publishers of the renowned, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.

Mazamas (PNW)
A nonprofit mountaineering education organization based in Portland, Oregon. They were “founded in 1894 on the summit of Mt. Hood,” and offer outdoor education and organized activities for every skill and fitness level.

Colorado Mountain Club
There are over 15 regional clubs that offer ways to meet potential partners through courses and group events.

Appalachian Mountain Club (East Coast)
Founded in 1876, the AMC manages the well known trails of America’s Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions (such as the Appalachian Trail). They have ample member-led events that make it easy to get outside and meet partners.

Mountain Project Partner Forum (U.S.)
There are 21,626 climbers in the Partner Finder as of this post. Search away, reach out, post and do your darndest to be charming.

Europe

I’ll save my breath here.

The Chamois Mountaineering Club (UK): They have compiled an extensive list of over 439 mountaineering clubs from across Europe and beyond.

(Is that cheating?)




Photo source: rirofal

Steal*

*In the, “it’s so cheap it’s like stealing” sense.

Used gear

Because there are plenty of enthusiasts who use their stuff a handful of times and never again. Conserve people, conserve!

Mountain Project: For Sale / For Free / Want to Buy Forum
MP is a U.S.-centric resource for finding routes and partners, sharing beta, and selling used gear. Used climbing shoes seem to be overpriced for some reason, but most other equipment tends to offer deals.

MEC Gear Swap
MEC is a retail co-operative (with over 5 million members!) based in Canada. They are kind of like the Canadian REI with a used gear section.

OutdoorGearLab ebay Store
The OutdoorGearLab’s mission is to create world’s best outdoor gear reviews. They are my favorite resource for gear reviews because they aim to be truly objective by avoiding the conflict of interest that comes with receiving free gear. Instead, they buy everything they test, and then put it up for sale on ebay.

Outdoor Gear Exchange (Burlington, VT)
Gearx offers an online discount outlet and has an extensive used gear section in their physical store (most of which is consignment). 

Outdoor Gear Exchange UK (Facebook group)
Mostly U.S. focused and a grab bag of gear. You have to search for deals but they are there. 

Backpacking Gear Flea Market (Facebook group)
The largest used gear exchange group in the UK.


Outdoor Gear Exchange (Burlington, VT)
Gearx offers an online discount outlet and has an extensive used gear section in their physical store (most of which is consignment). 

Outdoor Gear Exchange UK (Facebook group)
Mostly U.S. focused and a grab bag of gear. You have to search for deals but they are there. 

Backpacking Gear Flea Market (Facebook group)
The largest used gear exchange group in the UK.

Pro-tip: “I found most people sold their stuff at the end of the season, so you can get good deals then if you don’t mind it sitting in the cupboard till the next winter comes round like I did.” – u/connor2210 on reddit




Steeply Discounted

(WeighMyRack searches from a long list of retailers to source the best deals)

WeighMyRack
This should probably be your first stop when you start searching. They began because “we were super frustrated researching gear and sick of getting suckered into buying the ‘on sale” gear,’” Their frustration is your gain.

CamelCamelCamel
An easy to use, price tracking tool that provides price drop alerts and price history for products sold by Amazon. Unfortunately, they had a major “uh-oh” recently and their database server had three hard drives fail. Major catastrophe. It is unclear when the will be back online (but it is worth bookmarking for if/when they get back online) 😦

Backcountry.com
A major online retailer in the U.S. It’s best to wait for their bi-annual sales in February and August. This is usually accompanied by free shipping for orders over a certain amount.

Sierra Trading Post 
Free shipping when you sign up for their newsletter, which often includes coupons.

REI Outlet
If you poke around you can find some good deals in the 50% off section. On occasion they offer 70% off promotions and send 20% off coupons to members.

Pro-tip: A Super Duper List of Gear you can buy on Amazon
u/Jickled on reddit has compiled a fantastic list of gear you can buy at affordable prices. Many of the tips and gear configurations are well thought out “hacks,” such as using 3 season boots with a waterproof outer and boot liners for your (lower-altitude) mountaineering excursions. Well done, sir.




Manufacturer Outlets and Physical Retailer Sales

REI Garage Sale
The somewhat legendary sales–in which it is not uncommon for people to show up hours early–occur at the discretion of each store, but generally about once a month. Items are priced to sell and all sales are final. This is only available to members, but you can usually just buy your membership at checkout ($20). It is best to have a plan.

Pro-tip: “Best time to grab winter stuff though, is around July. Lots of warehouse sales from La Sportiva (check out their factory store), Scarpa, Sea to Summit, etc.” – Long Ranger on Mountain Project




Photo source: natebbrown

Bonus Option – Be in College

College Outside
The organization was started to help more students get outside. One of the perks is special discounts on outdoor gear.

Extra Bonus Option – Prodeals

I first learned of prodeals while attending Outdoor Retailer as a buyer for The Grommet.*

For personal reasons, I was scoping out the backpack section and started talking to Osprey. I was hoping to buy a showpiece bag for cheap during the closing hours of the show. That didn’t turn out, but the rep gave me a prodeal code which let me buy a bag online at ~10% below wholesale price (the price manufacturers sell their gear to retailers). In other words, about 60% off retail. In other other words, cheap.

Anywho, there are a variety of ways to qualify for prodeals. You can be a mountain guide, a ski patrol, an outdoor educator, an active member of the military, a fire and rescue professional, and many more options.

ExpertVoice and OutdoorProlink are options to try and access prodeals.

*(As an aside, the best way I’ve found to get cheap gear was to get free gear; The companies would give us their product to test, and usually let us keep it too. Jackpot).



*Author’s note: “Cheaply” added in, but Mr. Muir did walk from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico (A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf) with little more than a small backpack, a wool blanket, the bible, and a walking stick.


Feature photo source: amanda.be