Monday, April 22, 2013

The 'posse' in modern climbing

Originally, a group of people (especially in the Old West) banded together for purposes of law enforcement (and harassing Indians). From 'posse comitatus', Latin for "power of the county". Posse Comitatus is also the name of various white supremacist organizations that have appeared in the US over the years.
He's got the posse after him because he killed a man.

your crew, your hommies, a group of friends, people who may or may not have your back.
me an' my posse gonna hang tonite.

Among climbers, a posse is a group of friends that climb together. The large, forceful posses that you see are almost always from a place [like Boulder] that has far more climbers than climbs. It appears to be a sort of gang structure that assists it's members.

Sadly, the climbing posse almost always injures non members.. What we see at the cliff, and at the camping area, is aggressive pack behavior, with little regard for smaller, weaker groups. There are late night parties after every other camper is asleep, and the seizure ['locking down'] of entire cliffs and camping areas. While the individual members act civil, or even downright friendly, the posse acts to drive off others and seize territory. Sometimes aggressive dogs or dog packs are involved.

The mean dog thing does not seem to be consciously examined by the posse members themselves. I have been told that a given dog does not like men with hats, or that a given dog is a shrewd judge of character, and is just doing his or her job! The pets have picked up on the aggressive, proprietary attitude of the owners, and efforts to quiet them really serve to drive them to new heights of aggression. They do not actually speak English, and respond to the owners irritated tones rather than the false content of the shouted sentences.

It is fitting to compare a posse to an urban gang. Both are designed to control a precious resource that is desired by all. The gang 'locks down' a profitable crime method like drug sales, and provides personal protection for the individual members. The resource for a climbing posse is access to busy cliffs during peak hours. The analogue of personal protection is protection and enhancement of ones reputation. A friendly interpretation is that membership in the posse helps the world to realize that the members are some of the strongest, most skilled and multiply talented humans on earth. A cynical interpretation is that posse members drive off competitors so that they can lie to the outside world about their routine accomplishments. Many of us have seen the resulting cycle of tantrums leading to forgiveness and contrition. Every failed lead or bouldering attempt must be presented as an error by God, where a ridiculously talented individual is cheated of his or her rightful place in the athletic world.

Strong posses in an area make membership almost mandatory. In addition to access to the cliffs, they control scarce potential mates, the mechanisms of climbing notoriety, and thus, access to 'free' climbing gear and sponsorship money. [I used the word 'thus', to make my infantile argument seem scholarly!] Climbing magazines are published in places where the posse system is strongest, so members are richly represented. A climber who has decided to become famous will be rewarded by moving to Boulder, and joining a strong posse. There is a curious side affect that I have noticed. A small minority in these areas resist posse membership. These are strong individuals, that are driven from within themselves, and require no assistance to obtain mates or fame or support. This is what is really required to be a climber, so there is this spin off of renaissance individuals who are forged and driven off by the posse system. It is a treat to meet and climb with them, even though they hail from the legendary areas of climbing fame.

We are left with the question: Is there any alternative to this system of aggressive posses? It can seem pretty hopeless, when you arrive at a climbing venue to find the resources controlled by the largest and least friendly groups. They are amazingly disturbing, and can not easily be disturbed. For instance, a large posse can show up late at night to an area of dispersed camping, and push in between any 2 small parties. There is no way for sleeping individuals to discourage them. Likewise at the cliff. A huge posse can show up late in the morning, totally hung over from their night of disturbing quieter campers, and dominate the cliff until it gets dark once more. As individuals, they would be fairly pliable, but as a group they do not behave like humans at all. Their behavior is forged in a painful crucible, where a dramatic scene that is uncomfortable for an individual climber is entertaining to their group.

I do have an answer. In my decades of observation, i have noted that the very strongest climbers, [possessing internal reservoirs of personal integrity and sportsmanship], are not part of this less evolved system. It is always the weak that band together to use force of numbers and questionable tactics to replace inner strength. If your goal is to 'recreate' yourself in the outdoors, then aggressive pets, posse membership, and name dropping will obscure your goal. Physical strength, and admirable fortitude comes from within a quiet, non-aggressive person who can feel the earth. It can never be taken by force. Rock climbing is a dance, rather than a battle. Despite faked victories, climbing 'warriors' will fail, and 'dancers' will eventually succeed.

It is worthwhile to leave your own barking dog at home, and go out of your way to climb with other dancers. Refusing to defend some fragment of public land, join no posse, and worship not their names. It takes some effort to climbing talk and name dropping around the campfire. But, it is REALLY not necessary to spend the night securing climbing partners and specific climbs.  One can use the time to explore the [often] surprising mental equipment of one's camp-mates. At the crag, An emperor with no clothes requires a lot of very loyal subjects. A well behaved climber can appear alone with whatever is in their pack, and no planning of any kind!


  1. i would encourage comments and a debate on this subject. let her fly.

  2. i would agree with you on most of it but really its all about avoiding the peak hrs (ie. weekends) and having a plan and a backup plan if your routes are taken before you get there but if you must be around big crowds, try to enjoy it and meet some new people otherwise you'll just be having a bad time. trying to change people and their behavior is just not a viable solution. you of all people should know by now how to find a peaceful spot when all the main areas are hectic. trust me i avoid entire areas when i know its going to be a zoo. however, climbers who disrespect their and our climbing areas by trashing it up is a whole other subject, one that should be emphasized more. earth and all its parts are for ALL to share, singles and groups alike. it seems like europe has some sort of system for areas that are heavily used but im not sure what it is if it even exists

  3. thanks for that detailed and helpful comment Moe. Again, i am trying to bring light onto the new system of protecting an outdoor resource with large group size and pets, rather than methods of avoiding aggressive groups. I believe that posse members themselves are unaware of their own behavior, and will change it when they see it clearly. I am making a movie, called 'A Life Well Wasted', which will provide examples of awesome sportsmanship and helpfulness at the cliffs. This should work the other side of the equation, in providing a template for better behavior at the rock climbing area, and proving that cooperating works better than making war.

  4. This strikes me as somewhat reactionary and alarmist. Generalizations that apply to the behavior of your "climbing posses" likely apply groups in general, not just climbers, and likely have very deep psychological and sociological roots. Some people are more comfortable in groups, and others in more solitary settings.

    But I don't feel climber groups are nearly as bad as you make them out to be here. In my fairly extensive experience in Joshua Tree, the most offensive groups were "campers" (folks simply getting away for the weekend) rather than rock climbers. By definition, groups at craigs will utilize more of the resources (climbs, space) than pairs and individuals. This really can't be helped. If some outing club has ten top ropes up in some area, then you just wish them a good day and go somewhere else.

    There are also virtues of "posses" that are completely overlooked here. Likely, in stark contrast to you, I very much dislike climbing with strangers. I think it is dispositional (and I'm not even considering safety advantages of knowing your partners well here). If you are the type of climber who is a generally a loner but content to latch on to a different partner every other day or week, more power to you, but I am pretty much the opposite type (which is not to say I have not met great people climbing who originally were "strangers). The days when I had a group of friends I climbed with quite frequently (what you would call a "posse") were some of my most memorable and fun of all. There are MANY things that annoy me about average climbers (taking it so seriously, placing such a virtue on "mileage" or routes done in a day, getting angry at failure, vacuous mentalities, moronic and repetitiveuse of slang, etc.) and I was fortunate to have a "posse" of like-minded friends to enable me to go out climbing, yet insulate me from all of this (what WE take to be) bs. It didn't hold sway in our group, and if we witnessed it, we could have good fun taking shit about it to each other. We were a group of "outsider" climbers and very much liked it this way.

    I don't know the specifics but you obviously have problems with dogs. You'll likely never see eye to eye with a dog lover so there's little point to debate. Suffice to say, I put up with barking, a few aggressive encounters and even a dog bite here and there to be able to hang out with the myriad of awesome dogs that accompany their owners on climbing outings. I would assume you are very far away from this mindset. So, you will continue to grunt and groan to yourself and on the internet until you die about dog owners (I'm sure you'd agree that if there IS a problem, it's with the owners, not the mere existence/behavior of the dog). I'm glad this is one of the few things that doesn't bother me about climbers.

    Finally, I love your "I use the word 'thus' to make my argument sound sophisticated" line! It really lightened the overall tone of this posting for me.


    1. o man, this is a great comment!

      i am very pleased to hear from a dog lover and happy posse member.

      First, let me say that I am a dog lover as well. I actually house sit and take care of dogs. On public land, I enjoy the dogs that play or sit quietly, and not the dogs that guard resources by barking and biting.

      I have spent a lot of time at JT, and believe that there is a different dynamic there. I recognize that you do not love generalizations and pigeon-holing. But, you tend to have more friendly house pets from LA, and I get to recreate around the vicious sled dogs and 'rescues' from Boulder and other towns in Colorado. Needless to say, there are some great dogs mixed in, but you really remember the ones that bite you, and run you off from a crag. It is one thing to be defeated by a large commercial group, and quite another to be chased away by a single small party with a pack of mean pets.

      Secondly, I have been guilty of exactly what you say. That is, latching onto strangers. I was an itinerant shoe repairman and a bit of a loner. I lived right at the area, without communication devices. Depending on who you ask, i was either a great friend and resource, or a total cancer to the climbing community that required radiation therapy and surgery. Like it or not, I became a well know climber. Judging from the comments on 'a desert life', it was mostly a success. Judging from an internet roast of my person that occurred, my life was a huge failure.

      I thank you for pointing out some of the benefits of belonging to a posse, and, as you might imagine, I have been welcomed by many that have a warm and excellent agenda such as yours. This post was not intended to supply tools for avoiding the larger and less genuine posses, but as a message to the members themselves. I am overjoyed that a happy posse member took the time to read it, and to correct some of the oversights and errors!


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I am a fine art photographer and filmmaker. Lately, I have been doing panoramic images of the Canyonlands area, and printing them using archival materials. These large images are placed in work cubicles and homes, and can sometimes briefly transport the viewer to a contemplative location.