Born to Climb: From Rock Climbing Pioneers to Olympic Athletes

By Zofia Reych,
Published by Vertebrate Publishing, 2022

Zofia Reych is a Polish climber and Masters-prepared anthropologist , currently based in Fontainebleau, France. Their book, ‘Born to Climb’ looks at climbing history from fresh perspectives that include heritage, sociology and culture. I learned, for example, that the modern Olympic movement had its roots in the small Shropshire town of Much Wenlock with the egalitarian 1859 Wenlock Olympian Games. The idea was later picked up by a wealthy Frenchman who, after visiting Much Wenlock claimed the idea as his own, and at the 1894 Sorbonne Congress led the formation of the first modern International Olympic Committee. Reych weaves this fractured beginning of the modern Olympic Games into the 2020 Olympics (postponed to 2021) when climbing made its first unsettled reappearance since the 1930s.

The author’s bio uses pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’ and the adjective ‘their,’ reflecting Reych’s preference for ‘non-binary’ identification, which may have stemmed in part from historic gender issues in climbing and organized sports as well as their own gender identification. Here in Canada, ‘non-binary’ was part of the gender identity rights legislation, Bill C-16, passed in 2017.

I was impressed by the book’s general quality and academic style, almost a textbook for sport climbing. A substantial hardback, its end sections include a climbing glossary, acronyms, grade comparison tables, extensive end notes, further reading and an index. The end notes are sufficiently interesting to warrant keeping a second bookmark there, although this does interrupt the reading flow.

‘Born to Climb’ follows the evolution of climbing, beginning in Europe and the UK. The author lived in Sheffield for a while after completing their Master’s degree in London. Sheffield is a city situated on the edge of England’s Peak District National Park and is one of the UK’s meccas of outdoor pursuits.

The book has broader geographic reach, and I found the historic section on Yosemite especially enlightening: specifically, the discussion about the genocide, mistreatment and displacement of Native Americans in the chapter ‘On Stolen Land.’ Even today, Reych suggests, climbers rarely move beyond the history of their sport to consider its cultural context. Yosemite’s first champion, John Muir, while passionate during his lifetime about Yosemite’s natural beauty, and still today universally revered by outdoor, climbing and environmental enthusiasts was, like many other early naturalists according to Reych, “not interested in the welfare of its original inhabitants.”

The book bounces around a fair bit, mixing selective climbing history with the author’s personal anecdotes. ‘Born to Climb’ had its inception during an early Covid lockdown and might have been an accident of the pandemic as much as an intentional work. Part autobiographical and part academic research, it helped fill the unexpected hiatus in Reych’s social climbing activities and their work as founder and organizer of the Fontainebleau Women’s Bouldering Festival.

This is far from a detailed history of climbing and mountaineering, there are many more in depth histories available; but it is refreshingly different as it follows the cultural and contextual evolution of rock climbing and bouldering to competitive climbing, especially its discussions about competing factions, ethics, and evolving styles.

I am more of a backcountry and mountain wanderer who generally eschews organized sports, but having agreed to review this book, I found it engaging and different, a worthy addition to climbing literature. As new climbers progress from the gym to the outside world of rock, Reych hopes to engender s greater realization that they are part of something bigger, with responsibilities to the environment, society, and the future of the sport. The book would be especially interesting for those just starting out in the sports of rock climbing, bouldering and competitive climbing.

Reych’s MA thesis, ‘Climbing Women and Niche Media: Beyond Alternative Femininities’ can be downloaded from Reych concedes that the thesis may have become dated by the rapid evolution of social media.

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