Conversations in Climbing | Recap

Catch up on the discussion points from the first Conversations in Climbing held on 18 September...

By Jasmin Pillai

On the 18th of September, 2023, the first Conversations in Climbing was hosted at Bloc11.

This session offered an open forum, hosted by Zarier Bardien and Naadirah te Water Naude Moola. For a month prior to the evening, a Google Form was circulated so that people could anonymously submit their thoughts, opinions and suggestions in relation to the topics on the agenda.

The aim of the evening was to have an open conversation with climbers who feel unwelcome, excluded or otherwise marginalised in the climbing community – we’ll use the term ‘non-typical climber’ going forward – and create a space to discuss issues such as what it is like and how it feels to be a non-typical climber, why it feels this way, and why some people are not comfortable in spaces where the sport is promoted and practised.

With this information, the climbing community can collectively set long-term goals to help mitigate these situations and realign current goals to ensure that climbing gyms and crags are more welcoming spaces for everyone – irrespective of and not limited to: experience; race and cultural identity; nationality; gender identity and its expression; sexual and affectional orientation; religious background and belief; marital status; family structure; age; mental and physical health and ability; and political perspective and educational class status.

The topics discussed were as follows:

Barriers to Entry

This can be described as a cost or situation that eliminates certain groups from climbing.

  • Costs can include being able to afford gear to climb, transport to gyms or climbing areas, and gym membership.

[Countering arguments of: “the outdoors belongs to everyone.”]

  • Exclusion within climbing spaces; inclusive of weird looks, eye-rolling, ‘tsks’ and sighs received upon inquiry, condescending tones, and general spatial separation/exclusion. People feel as if they are imposing on a space that they do not belong in or are not worthy of. People feel as if they are seen to be at gyms or crags with an agenda other than using the space to climb, like everyone else.
  • Knowledge barriers: if you are new to climbing, finding crags is hard; you may be too overwhelmed to go outdoors on your own – not only because of the challenge of finding the boulders, but also due to the risk of getting lost or mugged, especially when transport and gear is so expensive to begin with.

Suggested resolutions to this problem are as follows:

  1. Community changes:
  • Awareness and willingness to change our attitude. We design the space. If we want climbing to be more inclusive, we need to be friendly and greet everyone in the gym, cheer for everyone trying hard (creating great energy and community vibes), and have genuine conversations about projects people are working on. Make an effort to learn how to pronounce people’s names and show genuine interest in their development/growth.
  1. Establishment changes (gyms, clubs, NGOs):
  • Member rental shoes discount (if you are paying a membership with how frequently you visit, the cumulative costs of renting shoes can be a lot; this can be looked at – especially if the shoes have already paid for themselves with how often they are being rented out).
  • Host a Colour the Crag event aimed at getting newer and/or non-typical climbers outside onto real rock – establishing at least a sense of community among themselves; since elitism is another issue altogether.
  • Revive MCSA Cape Town – as they used to perform a lot of the functions that would aid in barriers to entry i.e. crag days to take new climbers out, having gear to use for members who cannot afford their own gear, talks to educate people, pass on knowledge about etiquette and looking after the environment (NB: We need more volunteers willing to help with this).

Elitism / “Bro Culture:” 

A group of people actively (whether they know it or not) making people feel uncomfortable in climbing spaces. This does not target a specific gender, there are ‘Bros’ who are not men who give into the culture.

  • Active “bro culture” – loud, inconsiderate, sexist jokes, aggressive, flirty, showboating, dominating (do not allow other people to attempt the same climbing problems as them).  This type of behaviour can be very intimidating and people – not only newer and non-typical climbers, even long-time and experienced demographic climbers –will avoid areas in the gym to avoid encounters with people like this.
  • Passive bro culture – shirtless, beanies, sport-specific branded clothing (ladies and children are sometimes extremely uncomfortable around half-nude people). It is fair to mention that bodies should not be sexualised – but instead, just be seen as bodies; however, bodies that are flaunted in ways and are forcibly imposed on others is not fair.
  • Only grades matter – if you are not there to climb hard, the sentiment is “why are you taking up space on the wall?” – in conjunction with: “if you do not or cannot flash, you are not a good climber.”
  • Elitism – “If you climb a certain grade, only then are you worth speaking to,” gives the air that some people are superior to others. Usually an obvious class gap, i.e. some people may climb hard but are not part of the right ‘crew’ to be recognised. People are not considered climbers if they are not climbing at a certain level – even if they have been climbing for many years. Does the definition of a climber entail that you climb specific grades or is it such that if you actively participate in the sport and try your best, you are recognised? The latter should be the case.

Suggested resolutions to this problem are as follows:

A lot of the above are things that people do that they may not be aware of, or do not see the harm in; this does not excuse the behaviour. It is also especially hard to see exclusion when you are on the inside. It is only when you stand on the outside, and look objectively, that you see who is left out or not approaching a wall because they are shy or uncomfortable.

  1. Community changes:
  • Simple climbing etiquette – if someone who is not part of your group is by a wall, offer for them to climb if they want to. Allow them to be part of the queue. Do not rush them, do not behave like they are inconveniencing you by wanting to try. For more information on etiquette during a climbing session, check out Naadirah’s blog posts on WILD AIR Sports.
  • Understand that people come to the gym for different reasons, e.g. to have fun, self-development, exposure to something new, to feel movement within themselves, or togetherness with others. Climbing hard or flashing boulders is not everyone’s focus.
  • Respect people’s ‘thank you, no thank you,’ response to beta being given. Ask if they want beta first before blurting it out or hopping on and demonstrating how you would climb the problem.
  • Call out people making sexist, racist, political, cultural and religious jokes – also, the use of sensitive terms (“retarded” and “gay” being common as derogatory terms); these jokes have no place in the climbing community.
  1. Establishment changes (gyms, clubs, NGOs):
  • Further talks in the future for those who want to understand and change – these have been confirmed to be hosted by Zarier and Naadirah, as well as the Transformation sub-committee of the Western Cape Climbing Federation, of which they are now a part.
  • Have ambassadors that model ‘safe space’ behaviour and educate people in climbing gyms who are being inconsiderate (people are very unaware of the effects that their behaviour has).
  • Alignment of a common goal for these talks and spaces to be established country-wide, and not just confined to specific spaces.

Difficulties for POC (People of Colour)

Situations, cultural or circumstantial pertaining to people of colour within the climbing community.

  • Culturally – climbing is viewed as a “white people’s” sport, parents may not understand or be supportive of their child’s participation in climbing.
  • People of colour are in the minority in the climbing community. This means they are subject to strange looks and tones within climbing spaces and are subject to the belief that they have an agenda other than climbing in the spaces, because they do not look like everyone else.
  • Simply because you look and sound different can make you feel like you should not be there. Here are some relatable examples: you are the youngest in a room full of older people, you are the oldest in a room full of younger people, you are a man in a room full of women, you are a woman in a room full of men. In all of these circumstances, no one is actively making you feel uncomfortable or left out, but this is still a feeling one may experience.
  • Relatability – finding other people of colour in climbing spaces can make the sport feel easier to pursue because there is someone like you, who understands your struggles has dealt with similar issues, and can offer guidance.
  • Code-switching – feeling the need to assume a dialect and/or tone that is not inherent to who you are to feel like you fit in and be heard, understood or taken seriously when spoken. People should be able to express themselves in the way they are most comfortable and should not change how they present themselves to be properly heard.

Suggested resolutions to this problem are as follows:

  1. Community changes:
  • Mentorship program for POC. It is easier to learn from someone who understands your upbringing, difficulties, background and social situations.
  • Work on making climbing spaces (gyms, crags, community/ university walls) more inclusive. See heading to follow.
  1. Establishment Changes (gyms, clubs, NGOs):
  • Build a community gym in an area accessible to people of colour. This is more likely to build up a bigger POC climbing community.
  • Ambassadorship program so that POC can see that they too have a place in the community.
  • Social media and advertising strategies in establishments need to make an effort to include POC on posters advertising for events, specials, routes/problems of the week, route setting, outdoor climbing, etc.
  • Weekly training sessions with a POC climbing group, led by an ambassador or mentor.
  • Events directed at POC (Colour the Crags, Colour the gym, i.e. bring a POC friend to Amigo Monday).

Inclusivity and Representation 

Inclusivity: The practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalised, such as those having physical or intellectual disabilities or belonging to other minority groups.

Representation: The action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone or the state of being so represented.

Diversity vs Inclusion:  As climbing is an Olympic sport, many people are starting to climb, bringing people of different cultures and backgrounds into the space. In other words, diversity is growing in the climbing community; however, we can have a diverse community without being inclusive. Many of the above headings highlight why climbing is not as inclusive as we would like it to be in South Africa.

Suggested resolutions to this problem are as follows:

  1. Community changes:
  • Have an awareness of this problem; understand that we are privileged to climb.
  • Include everyone in the space, ask people to join you, climb with them, offer beta.
  • It is our responsibility to learn from and have conversations with people in minority groups.
  • Make an effort to learn and pronounce people’s names properly.
  • Make the space feel accessible and offer help to those who want it.
  1. Establishment Changes (gyms, clubs, NGOs):
  • Use social media for people to teach etiquette to new climbers.
  • Find a way to make outdoor experiences more affordable (MCSA involvement). 
  • Have a transformation committee dedicated to enforcing changes.
  • Introduce a ‘graffiti wall/board’ for people not only to share feedback but also to express in writing what they feel suffocated to share verbally.

All the above is a compilation of what was discussed during the evening and the solutions that were suggested.

From the above, it is likely that the transformation committee will put together an action plan to set things in motion so that we can see and measure changes within our community.

Jasmin Pillai
Jasmin Pillai