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  • Writer's pictureBecca W Meier

Stone Locals: Bridging the Empathy Gap

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

In Patagonia’s new film, Stone Locals, we are taken on journeys around the world following Kathy in Chattanooga, Dario in Kentucky, Daniel in Germany, the Keithley family in Utah, and Jumbo in Japan to explore the multi-faceted and complex impact of climbing on one’s resiliency, sense of community and family, artistic influence, and mental health. Although many of these matters have been explored in films in the past, the unique themes among the stories told by Mikey Schaefer and Cheyne Lempe through these climbers’ lenses bring unique positive attributes of rock climbing to the forefront. Although I will not dive into each of these climbers’ remarkable stories, I feel it is important to discuss the themes that were deconstructed so beautifully in this film.

This past year I conducted a study concerning the influence of rock climbing on women who experience mental illness (specifically anxiety disorders and depression) while completing my Master of Social Work. Through powerful conversations concerning trauma and mental illness, I found overwhelming positive qualities of the sport, including an increased sense of resiliency, self-determination, and self-efficacy. While watching this film, it became clear that the narratives and resulting impact told by the climbers highlighted reach much further than the broader climbing community has possibly realized. The stigma of mental illness reaches much further than the relatively small community built by this sport, but this film and the broader narrative gives us the opportunity to tackle sometimes difficult discussions head-on.

Kathy Karlo describes the opportunity given to rock climbers to “bridge the empathy gap” by participating in open discussions involving trauma, mental illness, and climbing. Not only do I identify with this personally, but I also see her facilitating these open discussions firsthand on her popular podcast, For the Love of Climbing. As she describes a personal traumatic experience in Stone Locals, it is evident that diving into these topics with other climbers was a pivotal part of her journey to work through personal strife and re-gain a sense of self. It must not be overlooked, though, that the difficulty in developing resiliency when the cause of trauma is due to the sport and/or community itself is immense. This is another major theme found in my research, as many participants described their sense of self in the rock climbing community also aligning with the source of their pain as well as recovery.

As depicted in Stone Locals, Daniel Pohl has made Germany’s Avalonia into an artistic and unconventional bouldering paradise. His vulnerability in this film should not be overlooked as he discusses the systemic discrimination of those experiencing mental illness by the state as well as the ways he has developed coping mechanisms. In one scene after describing his experience in a psychiatric hospital, he explains that “it is important the world knows it’s not always happy.” Although this was intended to be specific to his story, I believe it is essential for climbers as well as the broader community to let these words sink in as we digest how open we are willing to be concerning our own experiences with mental illness, whether it be personal or about someone we love. Daniel also expands the climbing narrative by integrating art into his method of resiliency and coping, as well as cleaning up the beautiful space in which he lives and inspires many. Again, this can be seen in my research as a major theme: the importance of the outdoors and appreciating solitude in nature.

There is a swarm of discussions to be had about Stone Locals, and I truly hope that it brings about moments of vulnerability and openness concerning mental illness, community, sexual assault, family, and artistic expression. I know that for me, personally, the first viewing caused me to leave the room to fully grasp the ways some stories mimicked my own. As individuals and a climbing community as a whole, we have a unique opportunity to see, as Kathy puts it, “vulnerability and strength as the same.”

If you feel like these conversations, topics, or events resonate with you, I strongly encourage not only watching this film but also holding space for conversations that dive deeper into mental illness. Our climbing community can play a significant role in creating a more open and vulnerable space in these conversations. If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out to SAMHSA (800-622-4357), the National Suicide Hotline (800-273-8255), and/or listen to a podcast discussing the stigma of or normalizing mental illness and trauma such as Hilarious World of Depression, Unlocking Us with Brené Brown, and most importantly, For the Love of Climbing. Thank you so incredibly much for reading, and I hope to continue this conversation long after #stonelocals is no longer trending on social media.

Further Resources/Links:

Patagonia Film Stone Locals

Kathy Karlo's podcast For the Love of Climbing:

Make-it-Ok Campaign

The Hilarious World of Depression

Salt Lake Climbers' Alliance

Reclaiming Control in the Vertical Realm: A Qualitative Study on Female Rock Climbers with Mental Illness by Becca Wallingford Meier:

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