Climbing is incredible. Climbing is life-changing. Climbing is a sport for the privileged.

It feels almost wrong to write this. I am so completely head-over-heels in love with rock climbing and the climbing community, that any critique feels like betrayal. But that doesn’t mean that we can continue to ignore the issue.

It is always incredibly hard to raise this subject in the climbing community, largely due to the psychology behind rock climbing. Climbing, and the lifestyle that comes with it, is rooted in the human connection with nature and spirituality and other people. This sort of mindset doesn’t really account for the idea of privilege.

It’s wonderful to forget about socio-political problems for a weekend and run away to the bush to talk about passion and the human condition and spirituality, but it’s also wildly irresponsible. Last year, Liz Haas published an article called “The Dirtbag Privilege”, which brought to light the very issues that I’m discussing here. She raises the point that, while “dirtbag” life is romanticized as minimalist and frugal, it is actually made possible through a background of privilege that many people simply don’t have.

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Alex Honnold in his legendary “Adventure Van” (Photo credit: http://www.alexhonnold.com)

There are many climbers that might point out how difficult it is to live out of a van and eat the same food every day and enjoy very few luxuries, but it is undeniable that a certain level of wealth and social support is necessary for this lifestyle. This doesn’t apply only to those that take it to the extreme, but to all of us that can enjoy multi-day climbing trips.

Sure, these trips generally involve living off the cheapest possible food and wearing the same clothes for three days, but that doesn’t make them particularly affordable. I am very lucky in that my tent (and hammock), lifts, sleeping bag, camping mattress, harness and bags are all supplied by friends and family. However, I still pay for food, petrol money, climbing shoes, and camping fees myself. And that doesn’t even account for camping necessities like headlamps, warm clothes, outdoor shoes etc. And even then, virtually all of the things that I pay for are actually paid for by my parents, because I am an unemployed student.

I am so ridiculously privileged. There are so many people I know, students in particular, for whom this kind of activity is just not possible. Beyond the expenses, the time away from home and responsibilities is just too much. And I’m sorry to burst the rainbow-nation bubble that so many South African are living in, but an issue of privilege is an issue of race. I can count on one hand the number of people of colour that I saw at Rocklands a few weekends ago. A black person my age that grew up in a township cannot possibly go camping for three nights. The cost is enormous (even assuming they already own climbing gear), and it is likely they are in a situation where they are needed at home to help look after siblings or other family members. I am incredibly lucky to have the financial resources, and the independence to be irresponsible for a weekend and run off to the mountains.

Of course, I can’t generalise and make the statement that all white people are wealthy and all black people live in poverty. However, it is ignorant and irresponsible to avoid talking about issues of privilege and race in the climbing community. We are in an era of social awakening and transformation, and climbers cannot be left behind in the dirt.

 

Featured Image: http://newknowledgezone.com/7-signs-you-are-a-modern-day-hippie/

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