Scandalous! Conservatism, Contradiction, and Conflict in the Climbing World

lightning_clean_up

Recently, climbing has experienced quite a few scandals, some more serious than others. From Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk’s bolt purge on the infamous Maestri Compressor Route, to the most recent Everest debacle, the climbing community has been swirling with opinions like a money booth full of phony 20-dollar bills.

But even seemingly minor scandals have generated heretofore unprecedented and widespread levels of outcry, backlash, and threat-making.

For example, James Lucas and his decision to erase the hand-drawn lightning bolt from the famous Yosemite boulder problem Midnight Lightning. The late John Bachar sketched the bolt in climbing chalk around the time of the problem’s first ascent in 1978, and it has persisted in one form or another since then. Lucas not only brushed away the pseudo-historical pictogram, but also wrote a blog about it, garnering loads of attention, mostly critical.

Then there’s the Gunks chipping scandal. The sin of physically and permanently altering a rock climb to “bring it down to one’s level” was only part of the story here. The other part was that a still-anonymous set of individuals created a hidden-camera video that clearly showed a well-known local with decades of first ascents to his name going to town with masonry tools on some established but unclimbed roof project. Further, the video was released onto the World Wide Web via the Dead Point Magazine website, whose editors reaped the rewards (and frustrations) attending any scandalous media scoop.

So what can we take from all this?
First, we can see that everyone loves them some scandal pie, and in the Internet age it’s an all-you-can eat buffet. Thanks to social media, blogs, and Web forums, everyone from n00bs to crusty veterans can spray their opinions across the globe with push-button ease, adding their two special cents, piling opinion on top of opinion and misunderstanding atop misinformation, until the whole climbing world is, at least briefly, afroth.

But if you’re reading this or any blog, you already knew that…

Perhaps more surprisingly, we can also take that climbers, as free-spirited as we might fancy ourselves, are all about rules, and many of us are downright conservative in our opinions. What is valid or invalid, cool or lame, ethical or un- is of great personal import to us, despite the fact that our “rules” are usually little more than rough amalgams of personal opinion, loosely supported by logic and a vague sense of the collective judgement, prone to change with time and geographic context…

What was once commonplace (siege tactics or pounding pitons up immaculate granite cracks) is now taboo. What’s kosher in some regions (rap bolting with power drills and painting route names at the base of climbs) is verboten in others. What was once considered cheating (hangdogging or training specifically for a climb) is now the norm.

But even within a narrow geographic space and timeframe, the “rules” are a lot less clear and simple than we, ever our brother’s keepers, would like them to be.

Rebels vs. conservatives
For example in the Midnight Lightning scandal, let us consider some simple propositions seemingly at odds with each other, all held to be true:

  • Leaving tick marks = Bad
  • Drawing a big chalk lightning bolt on a boulder just because you climbed it = Good
  • Erasing others’ tick marks and graffiti = Good
  • Erasing a big chalk lightning bolt on a boulder = Bad

No one could give Bachar the “right” to draw on the Columbia Boulder; he claimed it, egotistically and likely never guessing the bolt would remain as long as it has. After a while, the bolt magically morphed from a fleeting, rebellious yalp of youthful exuberance into a symbol of historic importance, at which point the conservative tendency to fear and resent change kicked in.

“You were totally out of your element in removing such a historical symbol that has endured over 30 years in Camp 4,” wrote one commenter on Lucas’ post about erasing the lightning bolt. “You were wrong to assume that it is your right to remove such a beloved visual artifact from the climbing community,” wrote another. Sadly, commenters didn’t stop at criticism — several threatened to physically assault James or slash his tires. Others claimed their children were devastated by his act.

We can see the same appeal to the significance of “historic” artifacts with the bolt removal on Cerro Torre. One commenter on Kennedy and Kruk’s statement on alpinist.com, echoing a common sentiment, wrote, “No one can erase history. You simply had no right to remove these pieces of metal because you climbed a free line nearby.” But unlike Lucas’ act of chalk removal, Kruk and Kennedy’s de-bolting was also seen by many as an act of idealism, perfectly in keeping with the spirit of modern alpinism.

Who is to say what’s right in these cases? Not me certainly. Perhaps it would be best to put it to a vote, as several web citizens suggested. But only local climbers can vote. Or only ones who’ve been climbing 10 years or more… Or only folks who can redpoint 5.13 or harder are allowed on this ride. Sure, now we’re getting somewhere.

Chipping and the ultimate sin
Even on the topic of chipping, the most clearcut of ethical issues, there is also internal contradiction in the generally accepted “rules.” For example:

  • Chipping or drilling for the purpose of making a climb easier = Super bad
  • Gluing broken holds back on to keep a climb from getting harder = Pretty much cool
  • Pry-baring loose blocks and de-vegetating the hell out of cracks and landing zones during route development = All good
  • Drilling holes for the purpose of inserting bolts for protection = Good (depending on local ethics and laws)

Bill Ramsey, a professor of philosophy at UNLV and exceptionally strong climber in his own right has made probably the most intelligent defenses of chipping over the years. In a comment on climbingnarc.com post about the Gunks chipping scandal, he highlighted the logical inconsistency of climbing’s internal rule system by saying, “I find it bizarre that many climbers strongly condemn [chipping] and yet often actually praise [altering rock and vegetation during new-route development], all the while insisting on a strong commitment to environmentalism.”

I think everyone can agree that the ideal* is to limit our alteration of the rock to an absolute minimum, but the response to the climber caught on the Gunks Chipping Cam™ was so vitriolic not because of practical concerns like environmental or access issues, but because we love to express righteous indignation towards a rule breaker. Maybe it makes our own transgressions feel smaller or farther away — glass houses and all that…

The way things should be
In the end, the lightning bolt was re-drawn by someone else who probably had no particular right to do so and the Gunks chipping scandal faded into the background noise. The community publicly shamed, berated, and even threatened a few climbers for breaking the rules… and then went back to their projects that someone else rap bolted and aggressively scrubbed and comfortized, replete with chipped and glued holds or heavily landscaped landing zones, speckled with tick marks and chalk spots, and so forth.

And all was right with the world.

–––––

*while we’re talking about idealism: surely we can do better than turning on each other like pitchfork wielding mobs. While the Internet doesn’t seem to encourage civility, moderation, or empathy, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for those things. 

 

Looking and Seeing

look_and_see

In the late 1970s, two of America’s best rock climbers were on a tear in Yosemite Valley, putting up new boulder problems left and right. Visionaries, both, neither Ron Kauk nor John Bachar saw the line on the Columbia Boulder, right in the middle of Camp 4, an area packed with climbers all season long. Instead, a climber Bachar described as “a drug addict, schizophrenic, and a wild guy” spotted the line first. John “Yabo” Yablonski, addled as he may have been, he was the one who saw possibility where no one else did.

As a photographer (aspiring and amateur, admittedly), I have been snapping pictures of the world around me ever since my parents bought me my first SLR in the early 1990s. Since then, my time with a camera in hand has taught me a lot about seeing — the first step in the art of photography. Strangely, this is easier said than done. Anyone can look (“A beautiful bridge! How exciting! I’ll take a picture of it!”) But to make that picture even hint at the power of the bridge you experience in your marrow, at least with any consistency at all, you have to condition yourself to see what is there. What is really there.

I know this must sound basic, or hopelessly oblique — of course you have to see! But looking is not seeing. You have to look to see, but it is quite easy to look and not see — In fact, I think it is our default mode. The photographer, the climber, the scientist, the writer — basically anyone trying to make or do anything worth a damn — must strive to see what is really before her. Only then can she decide how to proceed.

There is the bridge: sprawling span of steel and stone, rooted in earth and water. The sun hits it from this angle, throwing shadows in such a direction, stretching shapes from light and dark, illuminating some textures and obscuring others. Now frame it in your camera’s viewfinder. What does the camera see? Will that red and white tugboat be in the picture? Perhaps you should wait until it moves forward a little. Maybe wait a minute more, until it crosses that ray of light. To find the image you seek you must become, as Minor White writes in his essay “The Camera Mind and Eye,” like a sheet of film: “seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second’s exposure conceives a life in it.”

To look, you need only your eyes — to see, your mind comes into play. When you see, you’re not just observing what is outside of you, but also what is inside. Both the external and internal fall under the heading What is There. “He can look day after day — and one day, the picture is visible!” writes White. “Nothing has changed except himself.”

When Yabo looked at that wave-shaped hunk of granite in Camp 4, he saw a way for a human form to navigate its spartan surface. In a similar way Charles Darwin, on observing an orchid with an eleven-inch nectary, saw that there must be a moth with a proboscis long enough to reach the nectar in its bottom. Only four decades later would the actual moth be discovered. Any scientist could look at the oddly shaped nectary, but not anyone could see its implications.

Luckily, like any skill, one can practice seeing (although, as far as I know, there’s no rulebook for it). A simple exercise: next time you’re looking at something, whether the face of a rock, a subject to be photographed, or some problem in your work or professional life, take the time to look for what is truly there. Don’t let other’s opinions or your own expectations overly influence you. Ask yourself again and again, “What is there? What is there?” When you do that and do it well, answers start to present themselves.

What to do with those answers? That’s another story…

Climbing Back to the Beginning

Gym climbing scene distorted into a circle

Before you study Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; while you are studying Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers; but once you have had enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and rivers again rivers.
— Zen saying

On the first attempt, Lois tied in and climbed the blue route almost to the last hold. Somewhere near the top, she was too tired to sort out a tricky sequence and sagged back onto the rope.

“Aw, shoot!” she shouted, “I almost had it!” I lowered her to the ground.

Lois was a new climber, a woman in her 40s looking to try something different. Like most people coming to climbing for the first time, she was unsure of herself on the wall, afraid of falling, and quick to shout, “Take!” when something didn’t make sense. The route she just attempted was at the edge of her ability. As her instructor, I had recommended she try a new climb, just to see how she would do. We were both a little surprised at the result.

“Nice work up there!” I encouraged her. “Let’s rest for five minutes. You’ll get it next time.”

But when the five minutes were up, and Lois re-checked her knot and began to climb, things didn’t go so smoothly. She managed to reverse every move she had done just right the first time, steeping left foot where she should have gone right, crossing up her hands and having to match on every hold, throwing herself around awkwardly instead of using balance to stand up and reach. Whatever intuition had propelled her up the route on her first attempt was now mired in a fog of indecision. After much frustration, Lois reached the top of the wall and asked to be lowered down.

“I don’t know what happened,” she said. “Everything just felt wrong. I was trying to remember what I did the first time, and threw me off.”

Lois’ experience is not unusual. There is a funny phenomenon in climbing where your first attempt is near perfect, but your second (and third, and even fourth) are all mixed up. From what I can tell, it’s a case of your body understanding the best course of action and your brain subsequently getting in the way.

Philosophies and religions throughout history have suggested that we must seek to return to some sort of original state. In the Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra identifies this as a central aspect of Zen: “The process of enlightenment consists merely in becoming what we already are from the beginning,” he writes.

In Ecclesiastes, the speaker writes, “God, when he made man, made him straightforward, but men invent endless subtleties of their own.”

In the Tao Te Ching, passages like this one are common:

Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.

Similarly in climbing, I believe most of us carry a certain innate understanding of movement in our bones, but that we have forgotten, or confused that understanding.

Lois, like most of my students at the climbing gym, came to me from a life spent seated: at work, at home, in the subway, in a car…. I don’t believe she had ever done anything much more physically complex than riding a bike on a paved surface or assembling Ikea furniture. In her decades of risk-averse life, she had grown afraid of heights. Any original knowledge of movement had been overwritten by a set of culturally accepted rules designed to minimize risk.

But on her first attempt on that blue route, for whatever reason, maybe because she didn’t have time to think about it, her unconscious self was able to flow freely up the wall. When she tried to remember what she had done, she created layers of anxiety and doubt that muddied the process. Her third attempt was little better than the second, the fourth a bit better still. On the fifth attempt she finally managed to climb better than the first. It took her almost an hour to return to her starting point and consciously understand what some part of her understood almost instantly.

It seems silly, but I think this kind of cycle is necessary. Intuition alone or intellect alone will only take us so far. Each person must work through long, confusing, or awkward periods of trial and error to come back to the place where he or she started. Through the course of a lifetime, we make many such circuitous journeys, on the wall and off, but it is not a case of simple repetition. When we return to our starting point after trials and tribulations, everything looks different because we have changed. We have gained a new perspective to take with us on the next climb.

“First” Ascents for Everyone!

Ethan Pringle on the FSOA of Lost in Translation (5.13; four pitches). The Great Arch, Getu, China. Photo: © John Evans
Ethan Pringle on the FSOA of Lost in Translation (5.13; four pitches). The Great Arch, Getu, China. Photo: © John Evans

The world of climbing is all about firsts. First climb of the grade, first free ascent, first female ascent, first ascent in winter… . To do a thing before anyone else is to become a glorious human bullet point in the history books — or history blogs, as the case may be today.

But damn, being first is hard! Not everyone can be first — that’s why it’s called “first.” After that, well, the scrap heap of history is full of unmemorable people who did things second, third, fourth, or seventy-sixth. As Ricky Bobby said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

This state of affairs is all well and good for the Sharmas and DiGiulians, the Messners and the Hills of the world, but where does that leave the rest of us, who dwell unexceptionally in the middle of the bell curve? Nowhere special, that’s for sure.

Luckily, with a little creative thinking, there is hope for us all.

First, consider what makes you wonderful and unique, like a snowflake. Consider your physiology, your skill sets and perspectives, the clothes you wear to climb, your cultural background, etc. Therefore, it should be no great challenge to find a way in which your ascent can be the first of its kind — a qualified FA, if you will. Below are just a few examples. Can you think of any others?

FCA (First Costumed Ascent) – You might recall a scene in the old Cooper Roberts climbing flick Sessions in which Ana Burgos climbs some boulder in Hueco Tanks while wearing a rabbit costume. This was almost certainly the problem’s FBSA (First Bunny Suit Ascent). Similarly, the late Kurt Albert made the FLCA (First Lederhosen Clad Ascent) of Devil’s Crack, in the Frakenjura, and Ethan Pringle made the FSOA (First Spiderman Outfit Ascent) of Lost in Translation (5.13), a limestone multi-pitch on the Great Arch in Getu, China. Thousands of FCAs (not to mention their opposite, First Nude Ascents) await. In fact, I know a friend who has a banana suit you can borrow if you’re interested…

FTFSA (First Tripping Free Solo Ascent) – The late Major League Baseball player Dock Phillip Ellis, Jr., claims to have pitched a perfect game while under the influence of LSD. Along similar lines, legend holds that a certain Gunks climber showed up at the Lost City area tripping his balls off and proceeded to free solo Survival of the Fittest, a powerful 5.13 with a jumble of big pointy rocks for a landing. Although not recommended for a whole slew of legal, ethical, and safety reasons, many FTFSAs remain to be claimed the world over. On the other hand, FSAs — First Stoned Ascents — have pretty much all been ticked at this point (sorry, dudes).

FMURA (First Most Undesirable Route Ascent) – In the Tao de Ching, Lao Tzu writes: “True goodness is like water. … It goes right to the low loathsome places, and so finds the way.” So can the crafty FA-hunter find what he or she is looking for by going straight to the lowest, chossiest, most tick-and-spider-infested pile in an area and proceeding to climb. Enjoy!

FSTAA (First Shorter Than Average Ascent) – Shorter than average climbers (≤5′ 9″ for men and ≤5′ 4″ for women) will often use height as an excuse for failure on a route. Such excuses rarely hold water, as many of the world’s best climbers fall into this category and most rock climbs offer a variety of holds for short- and tall-person beta alike. However, it is true that certain climbs are known for their “reachy” nature. A prime example is Dogleg, in the Red River Gorge. For those six feet or taller, it is appropriately graded at 5.12a. But for the 5′ 5″ Mike Doyle, who made the FA of Lucifer, the Red’s first 5.14c, Dogleg‘s reach-crux was a serious challenge. After sending, he logged it on sendage.com with the note, “1000th attempt, finally stuck the dyno. Some people say 6c-/7a+, I say 8c+ :)” With typical Canadian modesty, Doyle suggests his ascent might not be the FSTAA: “For all I know, Lynn Hill and Katie Brown tag teamed flash ascents of this beast.”

FNCSA (First Non-Climbing Shoe Ascent) – Before 1980 and the invention of sticky rubber climbing shoes, pretty much everything was a FNCSA. But in the modern era of climbing, the undeniable advantages of skin-tight footwear with super-sticky soles means that few new routes or problems get done in sneakers, flip-flops, unshod feet, etc. The world is your oyster here, but first a tip: train on a campus board and pull-up bar to prepare for those footloose moments when your painted wooden kletterclogs refuse to stick.

FPPA and FGA (First Pre-Pubescent and First Geriatric Ascent) – For the very young and very old among us, simply doing a climb at whatever age you happen to be might qualify as an FA of sorts. But don’t count on it — the roster of wee tikes and old farts getting after it grows longer every day.

F[Insert Your Ailment Here]A – Erik Weihenmayer, Hugh Herr, Craig DeMartino, Ronnie Dickson — all guys who climb harder than you despite facing challenges like blindness or missing limbs. Their FAAs (Fist Adaptive Ascents) are the stuff of legend and not for the average climber I’m addressing here. For folks like us, there are far-more accessible FAs for the taking, such as the FEDA (First Explosive Diarrhea Ascent), the FAUA (First Alopecia Universalis Ascent), or the FNAA (First Nut Allergic Ascent). Are you one of the 6.974 billion people on planet Earth who suffer from a physiological or psychological ailment, impediment, or challenge? Then there is a qualified FA out there waiting for you. To quote Brad Pitt in Troy: “Take it; it’s yours!”