The Glo­be­trot­ting Climber’s Dilemma



’m gonna say it: Clim­bers are priv­i­leged. Go­ing to the gym, get­ting out on week­ends, trav­el­ing to wild, new places—it all re­quires free time and dis­pos­able in­come, two things most peo­ple on this planet don’t have. Of course, plenty of clim­bers are strapped for cash or have other prob­lems, but ul­ti­mately climb­ing is a leisure ac­tiv­ity. We don’t need it to sur­vive.

The epitome of our sport’s recre­ational na­ture is travel. There’s a seem­ingly end­less amount of rock, and we clim­bers have an un­quench­able thirst. While back­yard crags keep us oc­cu­pied and fit, ex­plo­ration is what re­ally drives us. So we travel, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing new routes, food, land­scapes, cul­tures, and lan­guages. Ideally, it all adds up to make us bet­ter, more open-minded cit­i­zens of the world. But the world is a trou­bled place, and many climb­ing des­ti­na­tions face a litany of so­ciopo­lit­i­cal is­sues, such as the refugee cri­sis and eco­nomic tur­moil in Greece, po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity in Catalunya, Spain, racial op­pres­sion in South Africa, and the on­go­ing bor­der war in Kash­mir.

We clim­bers tend to hop off the plane and head straight to the near­est crag. With limited time and just enough re­sources to make the voy­age, it’s un­der­stand­able that the rock takes prece­dence: It’s the whole point of the trip. How­ever, since we do have time and money—struc­tural ad­van­tages that let us travel in the first place—do we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity

Ito help in the places where we’re recre­at­ing? To ad­dress lo­cal is­sues, be­yond just pick­ing up a few wads of dis­carded tape or “sup­port­ing the lo­cal econ­omy” with a trip to the gro­cery store?

While there are no con­crete an­swers, here are a few things to con­sider when plan­ning your next big trip:

Re­search cur­rent events.

When I stepped off the ferry in Ka­lym­nos, Greece, in Oc­to­ber 2015, I saw a few dozen men, women, and chil­dren out­side the port’s main of­fice, hud­dled in small groups. They looked con­fused and scared, with noth­ing but the clothes on their backs. Be­fore I came to Greece, I was vaguely aware of the Syr­ian refugee cri­sis, that mil­lions of peo­ple were flee­ing the coun­try’s bru­tal civil war. What I didn’t know is that many of them, along with other dis­placed peo­ple, reached Europe by cross­ing the Mediter­ranean via Turkey and nearby is­lands, in­clud­ing Ka­lym­nos.

In 2015, more than 1 mil­lion peo­ple ar­rived in Europe via the Mediter­ranean, with 3,800 dead or miss­ing; from 2016 un­til Au­gust 2018, more than 600,000 trav­eled sim­i­lar routes, with al­most 10,000 more dead or miss­ing (source: UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency). Af­ter see­ing the refugees, I looked on­line and found a group that was col­lect­ing toi­letries and ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties for them. Had I re­searched this be­fore­hand, I could have eas­ily brought th­ese items over. But I didn’t. In­stead, I’d spent hours search­ing the best routes, lo­cal dishes, and apart­ments

to rent. Typ­i­cal for a climber, I’d been ab­sorbed in plan­ning only the climb­ing as­pect of my trip.

There are cer­tain is­sues that tourists vis­it­ing a place for a few weeks have zero chance of chang­ing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help in some small way, even if it’s bring­ing ex­tra tooth­brushes. Also, putting names and faces to a strug­gle might be the driv­ing fac­tor in putting money, time, and ef­fort be­hind a cause you sup­port re­motely once back home, or per­haps you’ll be in­spired to help out in your lo­cal com­mu­nity. At the least, this ex­po­sure can be a topic to dis­cuss with friends when they ask about your trip. Ideally, con­ver­sa­tion leads to ac­tion leads to im­pact.

Re­search where your money’s go­ing.

In 2018, the Ad­ven­ture Travel Tourism As­so­ci­a­tion (ATTA) val­ued the in­ter­na­tional ad­ven­ture travel mar­ket at $683 bil­lion. When­ever I’m pick­ing a des­ti­na­tion, I’ve al­ways thought, “Hey, at least I’m bring­ing money to the lo­cal econ­omy.” I travel, write a story, shoot some pho­tos, and then you see that and want to go there. And so, money flows to the lo­cals in ex­change for them shar­ing one of their re­sources: the rock.

Most of the trips I’ve taken re­cently have been paid for by some­one else: a ho­tel owner, na­tional tourism boards, climb­ing brands, this pub­li­ca­tion. This usu­ally in­volves an itin­er­ary cre­ated by some­one else. We stay and eat for free, of­ten at lo­cally owned spots, like The Crash Pad in Chat­tanooga, Ten­nessee, or Ab­dul­lah Ali Al Zal­abeyh’s house in Wadi Rum, Jor­dan, but some­times in chain ho­tels and eater­ies. As a re­sult, we don’t have to­tal con­trol over our own itin­er­ary. How­ever, it’s within all of our power to re­search how to be re­spon­si­ble con­sumers abroad.

There are a few ways to do your own re­search: buy the climb­ing guide­book (sup­port the lo­cal guide­book au­thor!), check out sug­ges­tions on Moun­tain Pro­ject, read Yelp re­views of lo­cal es­tab­lish­ments to sup­port th­ese busi­nesses, and reach out to lo­cal clim­bers on so­cial me­dia for rec­om­men­da­tions. Also, con­sider that when vis­it­ing a na­tion with a no­to­ri­ously cor­rupt govern­ment, your sales-tax dol­lars may be feed­ing that cor­rup­tion—you could even choose to avoid cer­tain coun­tries.

Think of your in­ter­ac­tions with the lo­cals as a cul­tural ex­change, not char­ity.

Rick­ety one-room houses built on stilts and muddy front yards filled with scrag­gly dogs and bare­foot kids line the nar­row streets of West Ti­mor, In­done­sia. Multi-gen­er­a­tional fam­i­lies have small plots of land for sub­sis­tence farm­ing and earn just a few thou­sand U.S. dol­lars a year. Sit­ting there with my iPhone, $5,000 in cam­era gear, and a Mac­book Pro when I vis­ited in 2017, I ini­tially felt bad for how lit­tle the lo­cals had. I viewed them as char­ity cases, im­pov­er­ished souls in need of my help. In this re­duc­tive, bi­nary view, their sit­u­a­tion was “bad,” while mine was “good.” But as I came to see, some In­done­sians are happy with what they have and some de­sire more, just like peo­ple ev­ery­where.

It’s in­evitable to ex­pe­ri­ence eco­nomic dif­fer­ences when we travel, and the same goes for cul­tural dif­fer­ences. In Jor­dan, I watched a fully cov­ered wo­man run into her back­yard when she saw me walk­ing down the street. Ev­ery night, I ate a de­li­cious meal cooked by a group of women whom I’d never see or be able to thank. I was clas­si­fied as an “hon­orary man” by Jor­da­nian men as a way to ex­plain me not wear­ing a burka. On one hand, the lo­cal mores seemed op­pres­sive to me as an Amer­i­can wo­man. On the other hand, as that Amer­i­can wo­man, what did I re­ally know about their cul­ture, one I was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing for the first time? I’m sure th­ese wo­man would see my life back in Amer­ica, liv­ing in a van with my dog to travel and climb, as ab­nor­mal, too.

It’s not our job to be mis­sion­ar­ies sent on a right­eous as­sign­ment to re­shape the world ac­cord­ing to our own per­spec­tives. How bor­ing would the world be if it mir­rored the likes, dis­likes, and ex­pe­ri­ences of a 32-year-old climber girl from Alabama? My time on the road has helped me re­al­ize that travel—what we put into it and what we get out of it—is a mat­ter of per­spec­tive. No, we can’t fix the world’s prob­lems by buy­ing a ticket to Ka­lym­nos or Catalyuna. But we can re­main in­formed and aware, then take small steps to make life bet­ter for oth­ers, both abroad and back home.


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