The cancellation of Olympic College’s mountaineering course has
sparked many questions about why such a respected and longrunning
program can’t seem to drum up enough students.
I wrote first wrote about the course’s cancellation in this blog
about a week ago and then got into the issue a bit more for today’s
paper. You can read that story
The reasons for the course’s struggles are varied. It could have
something to do with the fact that P.E. is no longer required for
graduation. Sticker shock may be a factor. The course costs just
over $600, and students must buy their own mountaineering clothes
and boots and cover gas for field trips in the Olympics and
Another factor: mountaineering isn’t as popular as it once
“We’re in a time of Xbox and PlayStation and instant
gratification,” O.C. mountaineering instructor Kevin Swem told me.
“It takes a lot of effort to get into the mountains to see these
beautiful places. Now you just don’t see that many people in the
Sure, people still hike and camp, and rock climbing has exploded
over the last two decades. But mountaineering appears to have lost
the allure it had during the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. It is, after
all, a sport that requires you to spend days trudging upwards into
increasingly cold and treacherous terrain.
Swem says he occasionally gets interest from young rock
“But they have no snow and ice experience,” he said. “And they
have no desire to get out in the cold, doing things like crevasse
The number of young Americans (aged 18 to 24) who participate in
mountaineering (classified as “ice climbing” and “traditional
climbing”) has dropped by 17 percent since 2006, according to the
Outdoor Foundation’s 2013 outdoor recreation participation
Rock climbing (including bouldering and indoor climbing) remains
popular, but even it is showing declines, falling by about 5
percent over the same period.
In all age groups, the percentage of Americans who participate
in mountaineering held at about .7 percent between 2006 and
Rather than climb mountains, Americans appear more interested in
outdoor activities they can do close to home and for short periods.
Participation in triathlons (cycling, swimming, running) has
exploded, growing by 174 percent since 2006, according to the
report. Skiing is seeing a resurgence, with telemarking growing by
136 percent and freestyle by 90 percent.
The outdoor activities with the highest percentages of
first-time participants in 2012 were stand-up paddleboarding,
windsurfing, triathlons and kayaking.
An old mountaineer called me to say he was confounded by the
fact that a shiny new REI just opened in Silverdale, and yet the
O.C. mountaineering course is struggling to survive.
He proudly told me his father’s REI membership number was in the
low double digits, and that REI was founded mountaineers who wanted
quality climbing gear.
But that was the REI of his father’s generation, back when
mountaineering was front and center. I wasn’t sure if I should
mention that it isn’t ice axes and carabiners that greet you at the
Silverdale REI store’s entrance. At last check, it was yoga
Photo: A climber ascends Mount Olympus in September 2013.
Courtesy of the Sierra Club.
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