We caught up with anthropologist and climber Zofia Reych on the heels of her book Born to Climb – a love letter to one of the world’s fastest growing sports. Throughout the pages of her book, she provides readers with a fascinating account of climbing – from its origins to pivotal moments to the often overlooked gender divide.
Read on to learn more about the inspiration, purpose, and passion behind the writing of this book.
Tell me a little bit about your journey in writing this book.
Writing Born to Climb: From Rock Climbing Pioneers to Olympic Athletes became my longest and most engaging project. For climbers, projects are routes that need to be revisited many times in order to be completed. Usually, a climber chooses a project that is too hard for them at the point when they take on the challenge. Then, the process of finding the best method, getting stronger, etc. allows them to level up and potentially complete the climb. But you never really know whether you’ll make it or not, and this uncertainty brings a psychological dimension to projecting. In a sense, it makes every climb an adventure — and writing Born to Climb felt like that too. It was a journey on which I probably learned as much about myself as I did about writing a book.
How did your background in anthropology give you a unique perspective on climbing?
Thanks to my studies in anthropology, I was able to see climbing within a broader context — not as a standalone discipline, but one that was shaped by a host of sociopolitical processes. Without context, the stories of legendary climbers and the breakthroughs they accomplished are dehumanized and almost meaningless. To give an example, the accelerated development of Yosemite climbing in the fifties and sixties was directly connected to the zeitgeist: cultural revolution, Vietnam war, the beatniks - Royal Robbins and Warren Harding couldn’t be who they were without that context. And climbing wouldn’t be what it is without the history of Native erasure which led to the creation of the great American national parks. These past events continue to have an impact on what climbing is today — and an anthropological approach connects individual human experience with this wider picture. It allows us to make sense of why things are the way they are.
What things did you uncover in your research into the history of climbing that you found most interesting?
Although climbing’s roots were dominated by men from the upper classes, I was surprised to learn that from early on, there were more women present in the mountains and on the rocks than we are aware of. However, unlike their male counterparts, they usually didn’t have the time, resources, or the desire to produce accounts of their adventures. Men, who were members of clubs and had to affirm their social standing by impressing their peers, would go on to give presentations, write articles, books, etc. It’s a bit of a simplification but women came back from their outdoor exploits only to find themselves behind on house chores. Research into letters, personal journals, etc. is now revealing that there were more daring female adventurers than we realize, and the extent of the social barriers they had to overcome.
What do you hope to tell people about climbing in this book that they might not know?
Despite its rich history, a multitude of disciplines, competitions, and styles, climbing should remain a personal endeavor, which means that everybody has the right to do it in a way that is best for them — within the boundaries set by sustainable outdoor practices.
Writing Born to Climb, I felt a sense of liberation which derived from learning just how varied and, to a large extent arbitrary, the discipline is. Putting the strict rules and objectives into perspective can help anybody, from new climbers to pros, to discover what climbing really means for them.
Can you talk a little bit about the gender divide in climbing?
Outdoor and adventure sports such as climbing, surfing or mountain biking have a unique history which separates them from traditionally competitive disciplines. They were initially practiced in remote locations and attracted a lot of characters very critical of the mainstream culture. They became a unique blend of machismo, often associated with daring feats, but also a certain degree of freedom from gender stereotypes.
Now, as climbing is rapidly establishing itself as a mainstream spectator sport, female climbers are astonishing audiences worldwide with their skill and strength — but the fact that their prowess often comes as a surprise is a clear indication that society still tends to expect less of women.
The way that the gender divide plays out in climbing is incredibly complex and fascinating, and its entrance into the mainstream narrative makes it even more so, with both hopes and fears for the future.
What have been some of your favorite climbing experiences? And why do you love the sport?
I am actually enjoying my favorite climbing experiences these days, with no pressure to perform, no expectations and no negative emotions. I live in the Fontainebleau Forest with word-class bouldering on my doorstep, and I just go out and climb whenever I can - it simply feels amazing.
Climbing was not always that simple for me, and I had my share of slightly dangerous adventures and bad decisions, and some of them found their way into Born to Climb. These stories are a counterbalance to the main narrative full of great climbers doing amazing things because while they are those who shaped the sport, climbing experiences can be exhilarating and life-changing, no matter the level.
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