Historian says rock climbing culture has lost social aspect

story by ELLEN LEWIS

“Climbers’ tales cast light on themselves and the central themes of their time, nature, technology, ect,” said an environmental historian during his guest lecture March 5 at the University of Utah Marriot Library.

“Climbing Alone: The Estranging Trend in Outdoor Sports” focused on how climbing, once a social sport, has evolved to be individualized through changes in technology and society’s attitudes toward nature.

“I would have never expected climbing to have such a interesting history,” said Courtney Gaylord. She attended the lecture because of her affiliation with Mountain Hardware and their sponsorship of professional climbers.  “It went from being ‘us’ to ‘me’, it says a lot about climbers, but also about sports in general.”

The problem today is we only focus on the story of heroes said Joseph E. Taylor, a published history professor at Simon Fraser University. Beginning his presentation with a film clip of the 1963 Everest Expedition, Taylor said the sport of climbing has not always been about individuals celebrating risk and pushing boundaries.

Up until the 1960s climbing was a collection of friends out to have fun, environmental clubs with a social focus including dinner parties and often times dating.

“What they did in nature was deeply related to what they did outside,” Taylor said. These “middle class white playgrounds” focused on relationships rather than the individual approach climbing takes today.

Starting in the 1960s, as standards of living were raised and technology increased, the social way of climbing began to die out. Climbers began to separate themselves as heroes Taylor said, and became less collective.

Athletes had their own cars and equipment so the clubs became less necessary. Climbers aimed to separate themselves as heroes. The sport became more of a lifestyle than an activity.

“The ‘us’ had been lost in climbing culture,” Taylor said. Climbers went as far as breaking laws and living in Yosemite Park so they could climb full time.

Taylor’s lecture was based on his most recent book “Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk,” which won the National Outdoor Book Award for History.

Tall and clean cut, Taylor is a climber himself, and the historian in him drew him to find deeper themes within the climbing culture.

“[Utah] is the epicenter of the climbing and industry,” said Taylor. The lecture was hosted by the American West Center and Utah Humanities Council. Matt Bass, director of the American West Center brought Taylor here because of the local interest Utahans have in climbing.