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.
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.