If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

Bro culture in adventure sports

Photos courtesy of Shifting Gears, a nonprofit that creates welcoming and inclusive outdoor experiences.

By Jason D. Martin

It was a perfect day at the Mt. Baker Ski Area – crisp and cold with powder and sunshine. And people were out having fun. I certainly was, as I skied with my two tween children. It was also December 26, so it was really, really busy.

That’s when it happened. A male skier with a big beard in his late 30s slid off the exit ramp from Chair 5 and began to weave through slower skiers. That’s where he made his pronouncement. “There’s a lot of gape on the mountain today.”

Gape is short for gaper, a word used to deride beginner-level skiers and boarders. In this case, the comment was meant to belittle everyone on the blue run. It was meant to tell them that they didn’t belong on the run because there was someone better there, someone who owned the run, someone who had been skiing for longer than they had.

This individual completely and totally discounted the fact that he was on an intermediate trail. Instead, it was more important for him to put the people on this run down.

As a professional mountain guide, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered this attitude in the mountains. Climbers will flock to a popular classic route and then complain about people on the line who are climbing at their limit. Skiers in the backcountry will lecture groups about why they shouldn’t be there. Climbing club instructors will shake their heads in disapproval at independent climbers who are doing something they don’t like.

This doesn’t just exist in the mountains: select groups of surfers exclude others from a surf break, mountain bikers put down “newbies” on their trails and on the internet, this toxic attitude is ubiquitous.

Those most impacted are those who often already feel like they don’t belong.

In the outdoor industry, this attitude is often referred to as bro culture. The term bro culture was originally coined as a catch-all to discuss the hypermasculine attitude associated with fraternities, high finance and the tech industry. Sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia and binge drinking have all been linked to bro culture. But so too is the idea that certain spaces and jobs are only for people who fit a certain profile.

Bro culture in outdoor adventure sports could be defined as a culture that promotes the exclusion of others through belittlement, slang, skill, clothing and equipment. Active bro culture promotes exclusion through the acts of putting people down and indicating – verbally and sometimes even physically – that they shouldn’t be there. Passive bro culture is the act of intentionally showing somebody that they shouldn’t be there because of their skill, lack of knowledge of sport-specific slang, or a lack of “appropriately” branded clothing or gear.

Those most impacted are those who often already feel like they don’t belong. They frequently include people of color, women, the LGBTQ community and those who don’t have traditional “outdoor athlete-type” body types.

There are a lot of conversations within the outdoor industry about diversity and opening our sports to more participants. At the American Alpine Institute, we are actively working on this. The American Mountain Guides Association, REI, the National Outdoor Leadership School, the Association for Outdoor Recreation and Education, the Outdoor Industry Association and hundreds of other groups are also deeply involved. Perhaps the biggest barrier to the participation of new populations in outdoor adventure sports is not the cost, or the remoteness or the lack of instruction. Instead, it’s the attitude that some people just don’t belong.

Our public lands are under attack by those who would like to see them privatized and destroyed for industry. We need people who understand the value of these lands to work as stewards, rangers, outdoor educators and guides. We need future generations of politicians, scientists, naturalists and climate activists to be inspired by the land we love. If the current demographic trends continue, the United States will become a majority-minority country by 2043. If we embrace bro culture and continue to bar entry to those who don’t already fit the narrow mold of outdoor recreation, then who will take the reins in the future? Who will fight for our public lands?

We are so deeply inspired by the adventure sports we participate in that we don’t say that we climb; we say we’re climbers. We don’t say we ski; we say we’re skiers. We don’t say we surf; we say we’re surfers. These activities are more than just distractions to us; they define us. It is deeply arrogant to believe that we are the only ones who deserve this. What right do we have to block others from such inspiration?

Jason D. Martin is the executive director of the American Alpine Institute, an AMGA Certified rock and alpine guide and a widely published outdoor writer. He has guided extensively in the Cascades, Joshua Tree National Park, Red Rock Canyon, the Sierras, Alaska, the Coast Range and in the Andes. Jason lives in Bellingham with his wife and two kids.