In college freshman English, we had to read Beowulf. The assignment was onerous for most of my classmates, but one woman seemed to suffer above all. She sighed and rolled her eyes through every class discussion; I expected a convulsion at any moment.
And finally, it came. During a passage where the hero holds forth about what he’s going to do to Grendel’s mama, she burst out, “You know, that’s what I hate about Beowulf. He’s constantly bragging and showing off. In fact that’s all this whole story has been about. It is the shallowest thing I’ve ever read!”
I was dumbfounded. “No,” I offered,” it’s not bragging, it’s a kind of oath. He says all those things, in front of those people, there’s no way he can come back empty-handed.”
Beowulf’s soliloquy was Spray. Even back then, when I was a measly scrambler armed with a piolet, the climber inside me recognized it. Since the beginning, when climbers have encountered other climbers, they have sprayed about what they did and what they were going to do. From Cham, to Sheffield, to Camp 4, if you talked smack to those in the know, when you sobered up the next day, you had to fulfill your destiny.
My brother used to yell at the TV. He had all kinds of advice for the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive squad. He really did know something about football and often the coaches would actually do what he yelled at them. Nevermind he had never played football. And, he was 12 years old. But he didn’t seriously think he was advising the team. The tirade was just a means of vicarious participation. In climbing terms, it was Beta.
Spray and Beta are not such bad things in person. You can see the sprayer getting wound up to do something. The Beta, though it can be a little much, has an encouraging tone. However, Spray and Beta shifted to the internet, stripped of tone and context, come across like bragging and showing off, and the result is the shallowest thing you’ve ever read: climbing social media.
Of course, few things are all bad. The four main climbing sites, (Mountain Project, Rockclimbing.com, Summitpost, and Supertopo), have some great photos, gear reviews and trip reports. In other words, with some editing they’d make decent online magazines. The problem is, they don’t have a good editing process and they don’t want to just be magazines, they want to be guidebooks and chatrooms as well.
The community content guidebook is a guaranteed failure. A good guidebook gives the reader a sense of the area, provides inspiration and gives enough specific information to get a climber up the routes without sucking the adventure out of it. To effectively accomplish those tasks, the guidebook needs the unity of purpose a single author/editor provides. Otherwise, it ends up a pile of puke – you can sort out a few savory bits, but they are partially digested and tainted by the mix.
A chatroom might seem like the ideal internet venue for climber Spray, but think back to Beowulf for a moment. When he stood up to Spray, the audience could see his scars, his sword, and the crazy in his eyes, and he could see that they were not much different. Participants in an online forum are just lines of type with silly pictures next to them. The people behind the words may be anchored to their chairs, a wide load in their khakis, a coke and a sandwich their only comrades. In such circumstances, Spray inevitably devolves to wanking.
So, save yourself the trouble and buy a reputable guidebook if you want to go climb in a new area. And if you want to look online for information or inspiration, stick to regional sites like Gravsports or Montanaice.
But for those who love bad movies, Twinkies and True Stories of the Highway Patrol and can’t help but lurk – I mean look (and I’ll confess to all of that), here’s a quick rundown of your climbing social media choices:
Supertopo: Cali-centric with some (intentionally) amusing forum topics and good gear reviews. Typical user may have some difficulty urinating, may also be a member of Mountain Project. Mostly about rock climbing.
Summitpost: Cosmopolitan, with the best fund of information. Typical user is chronically constipated, may also be a member of 14er’s.com and eHarmony. Mostly about mountaineering.
Rockclimbing.com: Some interesting and (unintentionally) amusing forum topics. Typical user sleeps in a bed that has a canopy or is shaped like a race car, may also be a member of Access Fund and Explorer Scouts. Mostly about what the name says, more sport than trad.
Mountain Project: Colorado-centric with great photos. Typical user owns a letter jacket and loves to give nuggies, may also be a member of Supertopo or Summitpost and a porn site. Mostly about trad climbing.