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Climbing culture in Germany

German vs American Climbing Culture – Mainstream or not?

German vs American Climbing Culture – Mainstream or not?

The United States is well-known for enjoying different sports than the rest of the world. American football and baseball are on par with soccer in terms of cultural influence and presence. All three are staples of childhood with American kids being in little league football team and Europeans joining youth soccer clubs. But what about climbing culture?

Let me preface the rest of this post as being my personal impressions and opinions.

Tldr; Climbing is more mainstream in Germany having little association with counterculture, mainly due to geography.

German vs American Climbing Culture

In the United States, climbing is nowhere close to a mainstream sport. Due to the massive size of the United States, there are simply many places where climbing isn’t possible. So right off the bat, it’s nowhere as common as Europe. Germany by contrast, is the size of Montana meaning everyone has climbing opportunities within a short distance. Similar to little league in the US, it is common for kids to be in youth climbing teams or clubs. This may be true to a lesser extent in the north which is much flatter than southern Germany.

Moreover, with the Alps running through countries like France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia, mountaineering and climbing have long been not just a common sport but an avenue for nationalism (first ascents, naming peaks, routes). The comparatively short existence of the United States and lack of neighbors also means climbing has not had as much time to become a means of national pride or expression.

Individual vs Team Sports

Despite being a more individualistic country, Americans focus on team sports. Indeed, it is apparent nearly everywhere, whether school or work, that American culture values teamwork very highly. This is another contributor to climbing being seen as an outsider sport. It’s not about team work. It’s you vs the rock. In that sense it’s closer to say golf or running.

In my personal experience, many of the people who came to climbing are exactly those who dislike and even hate team sports. Suddenly finding climbing was like a “hallelujah” moment when for the first time it was clear, you could “play” a sport without all the jerseys, team work, locker rooms etc. This was exactly the case for me, who has only ever engaged in other “lone” sports such as competitive rifle shooting and skeet.

Germany, by contrast, tends to put more value in individual personal development and expression and does not value teamwork for its own sake. It is a means to an end. The heavy emphasis in schools and by society overall just is not present here.

Conclusion:

With a longer history, climbing became an organized and well known sport quicker in Europe than the United States. The more organized, the more mainstream in a sense. Consider the DAV which was founded as early as 1869. Additionally, given the massive spaces America has to offer, the culture of road trips, exploring the frontier and distrust of the mainstream, climbing tended to be attractive and associated with those outside the system and non-team-players.

Finally, excepting the very recent development of competition, climbing has never offered any kind of tangible sport-like benefits: no trophies or achievements, school teams or household names. Your average person understands that a summit is impressive, but not redpointing a 5.12 or a first ascent in the backcountry. Contrast that with trophies, cups and international competitions for other sports. Everyone knows what Major League is, or NFL or FIFA.

In conclusion, climbing’s different place in German and American culture is primarily due too geographic influence and secondly to cultural. But no matter where in the world it’s done, it’s still downright awesome.

 

New bouldering grades at my gym

New bouldering grades at my gym

In the United States, we have the V system for bouldering problems. In France, they use the Fontainebleau, or font scale. Yet, while Germany has its own UIAA system for roped climbs, there is no standard for bouldering which initially confuses us poor foreigners.

How boulder problems are often set in Germany:

First of all, I can’t promise everyone uses this system. But it’s common in one variant or another. Problems are color coded with a letter to indicate the wall and number for the route, written on a colored tag. So, you’ll see “M5” at the start of a route and then you look at the top to find the end of M5. Note the grade is indicated by the color, NOT the number since boulder problems are numbered instead of named.  And best of all, problems are set in a single color. You won’t find a mess of tape surrounding every hold like in the US. The same goes for normal routes. Ordnung muss sein!

My gym’s modified font scale

Below, you’ll see a photo I recently snapped of the new bouldering grades at my local gym in Stuttgart.  It was a new year’s surprise and came in response to customer gripes. In German, it says on top “Explanation of the Grade Signs” and then features a table with the French or Fontainebleau grading scale on the left hand side and the gym’s new system on the right.

The bouldering grades at my gym were originally white, yellow, blue, red, black (from easiest to hardest). But this of course meant each color contained many grades. The new sign explains they are split into six categories: easy, moderate, medium, tricky, difficult, and extreme and  still color coded. Basically they just added orange. Nearby Cafe Kraft in Vaihingen uses the standard font system which includes several additional colors. For more info on the history of bouldering and grading systems, check out 99boulders.

bouldering grades

 

Below, is the “true” font scale that Cafe Kraft uses. Given they’re a purely bouldering gym or Boulderhalle, it is unsurprising.

 

bouldering font scale at cafe kraft

Stay tuned for a brief overview of the UIAA grading system for roped climbs.