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Climbing gyms are hot, but longtime climbers worry gym rats aren’t learning basic real-world safety

Traditional mentorships that have passed down safety tips for generations are fading, even as the number of climbers is growing

Heather Mobley, who is mentored by Marcus Garcia at his Durango Rock Lounge, is preparing for a climbing competition in Finland. She has been climbing for two years and ice climbing for only four months, but competed in the Ouray Ice Fest a few weeks ago and "conquered a lot of my fears." Garcia says gym workouts, known as dry tooling, "builds their confidence, there's good translation from gym to ice." (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Long before Marcus Garcia had scaled the frozen faces of some of the largest mountains on Earth, he was an 18-year-old kid in a Dallas climbing gym. A fit athlete with little adventure climbing experience, Garcia was approached by an experienced climber who offered to take him on a trip to Eldorado Canyon, near Boulder.

With that trip, Jimmy Forester, a climber known for tackling routes where a mistake could result in serious injury, took Garcia on as a protégé, showing him how to safely climb multi-pitch routes, flowing up steep faces, rope length by rope length.

“It opened my eyes up to the possibilities that were out there,” Garcia recalls. “I remember taking a fall and feeling like I let him down because I fell. I remember him pulling me in and telling me it’s alright, we’ll start over.”

The pair descended to the base of the route and began again. This time, Garcia did not fall. As Garcia’s ambitions and skills grew, Forester took him to climb the 3,000-foot granite faces of Yosemite Valley.

Climbing mentorships are the way technical skills, ethics, self reliance and safety have traditionally been passed on to the younger generation. But the popularity of rock climbing gyms in the 21st century has led to an influx of new climbers – far more than can be taught one on one by the older generation. And that concerns people like Garcia, 44, who learned through intense, trusting relationships.

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“That ratio is just not adequate,” says Phil Powers, CEO of the American Alpine Club. “We are going to need more formal education, more opportunities for people to get fundamental education that’s fun, easy, and inexpensive.”

Rock gyms didn’t exist in the U.S. until 1987. In 2018, 78 opened bringing the total in operation to 737, according to Climbing Business Journal.

More young climbers are heading to the cliffs after learning to climb in the gym, where it’s easy to get strong quickly while pulling up overhanging walls on small plastic holds. Garcia worries that without more experienced climbers to help them return to the ground, they’ll quickly be in over their heads. He’s wary of young climbers learning crucial safety skills on YouTube after getting riled up on social media by photos of people climbing ropeless on gargantuan cliffs.

“There’s that mentorship gap,” Garcia says. “Learning the actual ropes. Not just getting strong, but learning to be aware of your environment. How to be self contained, not expecting rescue. How to be self-sufficient.”

Marcus Garcia has been coaching climbing for 13 years. After Garcia’s soccer scholarship fell through when his college cut the soccer program he was forced to leave the school and started competing in climbing competitions in order to get gear. He has now mentored dozens of new climbers safely into the sport of rock and ice climbing. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

After Forester died in a 2006 climbing accident, Garcia took a step back from climbing, not sure if it was something he could do without his friend. After some time, a friend invited him to climb a frozen waterfall near Telluride. Working his way up the ephemeral blue streak on a dark cliffside, he remembered how important climbing was to him. He also remembered the importance Forester placed on passing knowledge down to the next generation.

“I realized he had taught me a lot and I could show other people some stuff,” Garcia says.

Garcia started coaching in 2006 and continued climbing faces and frozen waterfalls never before ascended in the style favored by his old friend. He bought the Durango Rock Lounge climbing gym in 2014 and started coaching kids in bigger groups.

Lindsay Levine, 16, is preparing for a mixed climbing competition in Finland, where athletes scale ice and artificial structures with ice tools and crampons. Garcia, who has coached Levine for three years, runs her through a series of drills, instructing her perform difficult moves in 3-minute intervals, indicating holds with a laser pointer while critiquing her form: “Look at your tool position. How do you fix that?”

Levine jumps between suspended boxes in the gym, kicks the knife-like crampons attached to her boots into the wood of the training wall, and balances on the tiny points of the ice tools she holds in her hands. Garcia tells her to keep her core tight, chest up, and to think about where she puts her feet.

Levine said she appreciates the community as much as the climbing in the gym, where she has made friends and met people who inspire her.

“I feel like I’m gonna pop my retainer out,” high schooler Lindsay Levine said, as she used the spikes on all four of her limbs to propel herself upward on the plastic holds in the Durango climbing gym. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Marcus taught me everything,” Levine says. “Climbing not only sends motivation through the athletic part of my life, but also the academic part of my life. If I see that I can improve in climbing it’s inspiration to see that I can improve in other areas.”

For Garcia, climbing mentorship is a chance to teach lifelong lessons. “All the climbing trips we’ve done together as a group have helped them become their own people,” he says. “That’s what drives me to work with kids, letting them find out who they are, their full potential.”

Garcia is as proud of the passions his students pursue outside of climbing as their consistent success in competition. One woman found outdoor photography through climbing, another writing. Liam Foster, 18, with whom Garcia has a particular connection, is pursuing a degree in theoretical physics in Scotland.

Foster still texts Garcia from across the ocean, asking for training advice and what moves to set up on his climbing wall. “He’s looked through research papers and seen what really works,” Foster says. “It’s great having a mentor like that. He’s brought that old-school mentoring into the modern age.”

Garcia works with his students in the gym, but also teaches them self reliance and the practical skills required to climb safely outdoors. “You want to be safe, but you’ve gotta let them know that this is dangerous,” he says. “Take a moment, be patient and think things through first. That’s what I try to pass on.”

The American Alpine Club has since 1951 tracked data on climbing accidents, which Powers says have not shown a big increase. The deadliest year was 1976, when 53 people died in 137 reported accidents. In 1987, the first year rock gyms opened in the U.S., 32 people died and 192 accidents were reported, compared with 162 reported accidents and 34 fatalities in 2017.  “We’re still worried about that in the future, if we’re not able to train people correctly,” he says.

Powers says training more instructors with local organizations is one way to better distribute knowledge. Through classes with professionals, Powers hopes young climbers will be able to gain the skills they need to adventure safely. But, he says, the classes need to be less expensive. In a sport historically dominated by white men, he believes the community needs to actively work to open more opportunities for women and people of color in teaching roles.

Garcia’s gym offers classes in rope work and rescue skills, with adult classes and reduced-cost options. Still, he most values the moments when he gets to help his students into the next phase of their climbing.

Before Foster left for Scotland, Garcia took him on a climbing trip to the Black Canyon of Gunnison. Seven hundred feet above the river, surrounded by looming dark cliffs laced with webs of white stone, Garcia gave Foster the lead. “He looked at me, his eyes got big,” Garcia remembers. “I said, ‘It’s OK, I know you can do this.’”


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