Climbing Vernacular



May 5, 2020

Informant Data:

EG is a  21-year-old student in her sophomore year at Dartmouth College. She was born in Seattle, Washington, United States on February 9th, 1999. E has three younger sisters of ages 19, 16, and 14. Her mother is a physician assistant, but has been at home with her and her sisters since she was born. Her dad works on software for a start-up studio. Her family origins are irish and german. Her great-grandparents immigrated from Ireland and Germany to the US. Her family is “some-degree” of catholic, but she is not personally religious. E is white, upper-middle class. She started climbing outdoors her junior year of high school. All her climbing until college was outdoors. Her mother climbed when she was in college, but the family was not involved in Edel’s climbing. She would climb with friends during high school and learned from two teachers affiliated with her high school. Her siblings have tried climbing with her but do not climb on their own. She is a leader for the Dartmouth Climbing Team and the Dartmouth Mountaineering Club (DMC). She is also the current chair of the DMC. She teaches others how to climb outside and continues to progress her own climbing. 

Contextual Data:

Cultural Context: There are two main climbing communities: outdoor and indoor. The atmosphere of these two types of climbing are very different. Indoor climbing relies a lot less on technical skills and the risk of serious injury (i.e. death or paralysis) is a lot lower. This leads to outdoor climbers on average being more serious or careful than indoor climbers. Part of what makes outdoor climbing so unique is the emphasis on both strength and technical ability. These technical skills can only be learned from “time on the rock”. The more experienced a climber is the more they are respected. 

Social Context: The vernacular term “gumby” is used during conversations between advanced climbers to describe a new climber showing up at the space where they are climbing. The term can refer to climbers indoors, but it is far less common. It can also be used when recounting the events of the day to other climbers after leaving the climbing spot. The term is associated with certain stereotypes of new outdoor climbers such as: playing music or taking up a lot of space by the rock or having shiny, new gear. An example of the way “gumby” can be used is: “Do you see that guy playing music at the base of the crag? Ugh, what a gumby.” Climbing vernacular folklore is used to create a sense of community among climbers. Knowing vernacular means that climbers are instantly accepted in different climbing locations, regardless of if they are locals. This is particularly important because climbers travel a lot to find the best climbing. The unique vernacular defines a group that is “in the know” and therefore respected more as climbers. Vernacular also promotes verbal efficiency and defines ideas that are important to the climbing community, but do not exist outside of climbing. 


I have recorded “gumby” as closely as I could to the way EG told it. The following description is from the notes I took during the interview, and are paraphrases of what she shared during it.

The term “gumby” is a lightly derogatory term for a newer or more beginner climber. This term is applied because newer climbers don’t usually know the norms or climbing, especially in regards to safety, so actions they take could be dangerous due to inexperience. In particular it stems from a climber not following outdoor climbing etiquette practice, like taking up a lot of space at the climbing area. As noted above, this happens most often when indoor climbers go outside for the first time. This term likely stems from the use of the word gumby in modern American culture to mean stupid, particularly with a connotation of being young. Therefore for a person to be referred to as a “gumby” they are inexperienced or young and thus seem stupid or unaware.

Roxanne Holden, 21

Dartmouth College

Russ 13

Spring 2020