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. 

 

6 thoughts on “Scandalous! Conservatism, Contradiction, and Conflict in the Climbing World

  1. Richard Dickie Llewellyn

    As one of the aforementioned noobs, its intriguing to see the inner politics I hadn’t known existed.

    I can appreciate the lighting bolt saga, as one who has followed graffiti wars over here in Good Old Britain when Banksy went over the last remaining piece by 80s graffiti artist Robbo in Camden London, and can see how such a symbol can be formed and coveted.

    Altering routes is something else. Denial of route altering I would say is a definite issue, as one could be reaping ill gotten praise akin to using a ladder and taking a picture from the top! Having said that, we are very used in our country to the land being ripped apart for towns and cities, so what difference a few taps with a mallet to make a route more accessible to more people, than to tear the land and build an indoor leisure centre with facilities for everyone to pay and play. It’s a difficult debate, with many sides, and no right answer other than from the collective opinion right or wrong.

    Reply
    1. thestonemind Post author

      I think the rules of climbing are, at heart, basically the rules of a functional society: Don’t lie (about your ascents, the style in which you did something, etc.); don’t steal or damage things that don’t belong to you (one could say chipping in some instances is a theft of the possible, and it certainly is damaging… although less so than many much more accepted practices); but perhaps above all is the dictum that we should not harm each other, and I think this is one place that the collective, in all its crowd-sourced wisdom, often fails. As a group, it is far too easy to act despicably towards each other. And groupthink can easily pave over very real complexities — the shades of grey if you will — of a situation, drowning out dissenting voices and rushing group members along to judgements than many of them as individuals, if left to their own deliberations, might not make.

      Reply
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