To get a sense of what it is like to jump into the Discourse of climbing, what better way than to ask a climber? In this interview with fellow friend and climber, Laura Sowalskie, we get some insight into the process of joining the climbing community and coming into contact with the language. Laura was nice enough to answer my questions, which will hopefully provide a little context into what form the Rock Climbing Discourse takes.
~ Laura leading up “Oompa,” 5.10a, Red River Gorge, KY ~
So, Laura, where are you from?
Central New York.
How long have you been climbing?
Four and a half years since starting and two years seriously.
What type of climber would you describe yourself as?
Primarily a sport climber.
What is your favorite climbing area?
The Red River Gorge (Kentucky).
Do you climb in the gym, outside, or both?
What are you favorite climbing words or phrases?
Have you ever noticed the existence of a climbing language?
Where do you notice this language?
Really any time when talking to climbers about climbing, when they describe the routes they climbed, the manner in which they climbed them, and the quality of the climbs. Their language is riddled with terms that non-climbers would not understand.
Among what types of climber do you notice it?
All experienced climbers. It actually takes a while as a beginner to understand what all the terms mean. You have to have quite a bit of experience, or have done a decent amount of research to really understand all the terms. For example: send, onsight, flash, and redpoint are all terms for completing a climb that mean slightly different things, and a beginner may not pick up the subtle differences right away.
Does this language derive far from non-climber language?
Not exactly. There are lots of foreign terms, but many of them make sense in the way that they were derived from everyday language. Send comes from the word “ascend” meaning to go up.
What are the first few words you think of when you think “climbing language”?
On belay, send, onsight, beta, crag, bomber, flash, take, in direct, whipper.
How is “climbing language” integrated with your primary language?
I often use climbing terms for nonclimbing scenarios, usually only when interacting with climbing friends. I’ll sometimes ask for “beta” on something when looking for more information, or tips on how to do something better. Sometimes with certain friends, we shout “send it!” when someone is about to do something. I find myself describing non-climbing things as bomber, rad, sweet, and gnarly after spending lots of time around climbers.
What uses does the climbing language serve?
Integrating climbing language into everyday situations is often comedic. It’s like an inside joke with your climbing friends. There is definitely an aspect of camaraderie when using climbing terms while talking to climbers. It’s exciting to meet other people who speak the same language, especially when you meet them out of the climbing context. It almost makes you feel like you belong to an exclusive club. It’s like meeting someone else who’s wearing Chacos [a brand of sandals]. You feel an affinity with them. And of course, there’s practicality to it. It makes things simpler when there are specific terms for certain features or scenarios that everyone knows. It makes it quicker and easier to describe what a climb looked like, tell a story about how a climb went. It also makes it easy for people on the ground to communicate with a climber on the wall – the sort of scenario where messages need to be concise.
Does climbing language form a piece of your personal identity?
I would say climbing more than climbing language forms a piece of my identity. But you really can’t be a climber without using the language. You can’t interact with other climbers without understanding the language.
What do you like about the climbing language?
It’s pretty relaxed. Anyone can begin to use it without feeling like they’re “faking it.”
Do you notice a language barrier between beginning and expert climbers?
Certainly, because the beginners don’t know all the terms yet, and for the experienced the words are so part of their vernacular they may not even realize they’re using unfamiliar terms.
If so, what is the nature of this barrier? Are beginners marginalized because of their looser grasp of the language?
The only problem is when beginners don’t speak up and ask about terms they don’t know. Most climbers are happy to explain what they mean. But if the beginner is too shy to ask, they’ll go on being confused. But some beginners may feel left out because they’re intimidated and afraid to ask about terms they don’t know.
As a beginning climber…
Were you ever intimidated by experienced crushers? Did their use of a developed climbing language take part in that feeling?
When I first started, I didn’t necessarily feel intimidated, but I was slightly embarrassed on a couple occasions when I found out a term didn’t mean quite what I thought it meant. But it was more embarrassment at myself than feeling like I made a fool of myself in front of others.
Did you ever feel confused about what climbers were talking about?
I used to occasionally when there were unfamiliar terms used. The subtle differences between onsight, send, flash and redpoint were one of the last aspects I came to grasp.
Did you ever feel left out because you did not have a solid grasp of the language?
No. But I also don’t think I jumped into hanging out with people who were all about climbing until I had a better grasp of the language.
How did you navigate the language barrier? Was it difficult to do so?
On the occasion that I didn’t know what something meant, I would ask. I also had conversations with other people who had a similar grasp of the terms about our understanding of what words meant. And I definitely looked up climbing terminology on the internet.
Is this barrier even prominent enough that it is an issue?
It’s only an issue if you make it an issue. Like any specialized area, there is terminology involved. You’re generally exposed to it over time as you encounter more and more climbing scenarios.
Anything else you’d like to say?
It still bothers me that there’s no climbing term for just completing a climb, whether or not you fall or hang. All the different terms are for completing a climb are all for scenarios in which you free-climbed from top to bottom.
Several valuable takeaways can be brought home from this interview, primarily, that it is not hard to join the discourse. In most cases, when you are a little confused about some climbing lingo and need some answers, all you have to do is ask. Other climbers will be happy to help, which really demonstrates the Karuna nature of this fantastic outdoor sport. There is not necessarily an insider/outsider perspective as mentioned by James Paul Gee. What may occur upon mastery of the Discourse however, is a feeling of “solidarity with a particular social network,” which can be great, especially in the community of rock climbing.