Thursday, March 30, 2006

Keep Climbing Weird

There's a bumper sticker I see around here that says, "Keep Boulder Weird." It's a lament for the good old days when Boulder was something of a hippie town (or at least trustafarian), and not the overcrowded, upscale "Best Place to Live in America" it has become. Old-time climbers have the same lament, pining for the tribal days when everyone in Camp 4 seemed to know each other, gear was cheap (and you didn't use that much of it anyway), and the rare mainstream advertisement that featured climbing was regarded as a source of wonder and amusement.

Well, guess what? Climbing may soon be a fringe sport again. At least in mountaineering, participation numbers are plunging. There's a recently revived thread on the subject at, from which I stole these numbers provided by Ranger Mike Gauthier. These are registration totals for Mt. Rainier, the premier glaciated mountain in the Lower 48:

Year: 2000= 13,114
Year: 2001= 11,874
Year: 2002= 11,313
Year: 2003= 9,897
Year: 2004= 9,251
Year: 2005= 8,972

That's more than a 30 percent decline in six years. With the notable exception of Denali, numbers at other U.S. mountaineering destinations also are falling, as are backcountry reservations of all kinds at national parks across the country. What gives? It sure seems like the gyms and sport crags are more crowded than ever, to say nothing of bouldering areas. Backcountry skiing is booming. Is mountaineering just too hard and slow-paced for the average outdoorsy American? Did the recession knock the wind out of the mountaineering market? (If so, then why are Rainier's numbers still falling?) Are kids playing the Everest video game to train for the Big One instead of climbing real mountains? I dunno. But at this rate, climbing (or at least mountaineering) soon will be weird again.


michelle said...

I had an interesting discussion w/a friend on his theory of how climbers are self selecting themselves out the gene pool.

Historically, risk takers are the ones who ate (killed the mammoth), explored (crossed seas and discovered new lands) and thus procreated (chicks wanted in a baaaad way) with strong genes.

However, in modern society, there is no survival reason to take such risks. We get our meat at the grocery store and mountains are left for those who have a death wish, or so non-climbers think.

Do chicks still want to mate with the mountain-climbing adventurers? Maybe but only if they have a faaat life insurance policy (though they never cover climbing accidents).

Guess investing money in mountaineering-focused companies ain't the right strategy given those numbers.

powstash said...

Why walk when you skin/climb up and ski down? Besides, who wants to pay to climb something like Rainier (I've done it twice) when there are heaps and piles of other peaks that are equally as exciting with much less fan fare and traffic. My $.02

Anonymous said...

Dougald, I got a lot of grief from the doom-and-gloom crowd over the past years when I've said mountaineering was a self limiting sport in terms of numbers. Our population is aging, and the increase in our population comes from cultures that don't revere outdoor muscle powered sports the way the North American white middle class does. Those two factors are the major contributor to decline in numbers, in my view.

Also, perhaps the Rainier climbers are going somewhere that's less wet and scrappy?

Lou Dawson