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


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, 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 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. 


It’s Not Cool To Care

Oh, El Cap? Yeah, we climbed that. No big deal...

I was at the gym a while back when a climber I know showed up looking shredded, with muscles and veins a-bulging. He warmed up on a few easy problems, did a few cursory shoulder stretches, and then floated all over my project like he was wearing some sort of anti-gravity shorts from the future. After prancing like a My Pretty Pony up the climb I’d been hammering away at for weeks, he gave me a little “What’s up, dude,” nod, like he didn’t just burn me off. In a show of faux humility, he said something about how hard the climb was for him, as he hadn’t had time to train, lately.

“Yeah, me neither,” I replied, absentmindedly pinching my pale muffin top, glazed in effort sweat and powdered with gym chalk. Then the dudebro with the Bruce Lee abs spun a yarn about his injured finger and how busy things were at work. He made it sound like he hadn’t touched a hold in years, but I could tell by the scabs and callouses on his sausagey digits that he was lying like a shag carpet.

Why would someone obviously so fit, who puts so much effort into his sport of choice, want to pretend that he doesn’t train? What’s wrong with training, anyhow? It’s how we get better, after all. But on closer examination, we can see that training equals caring, and, if I learned anything in high school, it’s that caring isn’t cool.

One Strap Vs. Two

I was reminded of this strange aversion to caring while watching the pretty-funny remake of 21 Jump Street last week. Here’s one scene, as two young-looking cops prepare to go undercover in a high school:

Jenko: Are you two strapping?
Schmidt: My backpack? Yeah.
Jenko: I gotta be seen with you. You gotta one-strap it. Seriously, I’d no-strap if that would even be possible.

Why does Jenko insist on one-strapping it? Because it is a lackadaisical gesture, a physical embodiment of not caring. To put the straps over both of his shoulders would indicate that he cares about lame things, like school, proper spinal alignment… or anything, really. Jenko goes on to offer up the “three rules of coolness,” the first two of which are: “Don’t try hard at anything,” and, “Make fun of people who do try.” The movie spends a lot of time dealing with this Catch 22: by creating his “rules of coolness,” Jenko is violating his first own rule. Devising rules about not caring means you care too much.

There’s a history of the too-cool-to-care attitude in climbing. You can see it from the early days, when the Valley bums were viewed as the apotheosis of the sport. They smoked pot, they drank, they loafed and lolled in the grass with their shirts open to the waist like Walt friggin’ Whitman. Then, when the spirit moved them, the ascended the sheer granite faces, buoyed by updrafts of cool. Or so it seemed.

Tony Yaniro was one of the first climbers to hang-dog climbs and rehearse moves. He invented route-specific training devices to help him redpoint — an early version of the campus board, for example. Not surprisingly, he was criticized for his tactics under the guise of ethics. Yaniro would do anything to send, which is probably why he was the first person to climb a 5.13b/c way back in 1979. But to the climbing establishment of Yaniro’s day, it wasn’t cool to care… at least, not that much.

Another example? Go back and watch the Big UP video Rampage. You’ll see a young (emphasis on young) Chris Sharma goofing around in the back of a Winnebago, making fun of training and doing sit-ups in a show of mock-caring. Next we see him monkeying around in the branches of a tree, as if that’s the only training he needs to climb some of the hardest routes and problems in the world. The implication is that he’s a natural (which he is), and that naturals don’t have to train to be great (which, on the contrary, they do). Today, an older, wiser, and stronger Sharma has come to grips with caring, to the point of caring too much. And let’s not forget Alex Honnold, who lives out of a van just so he can spend all of his time climbing, often without a rope and right on the edge of annihilation. When the reporters ask him to explain, he always insists, with a wide-eyed gaze and the tinge of a smile, that his exploits are “no big deal.”

The Myth of “The Natural”

The mythology of The Natural is a powerful one, and it’s perpetrated in many a human endeavor. Child savant musicians, baseball players, math prodigies — all of these are supposedly born, not made. But while natural ability undoubtedly plays into the greatness of many of the worlds Greats, there is always a component of hard work — grueling, repetitive practice — that goes into that greatness. Even the 12-year-old pianist who seems to channel Bach has put thousands of hours of practice into her art. It’s just when she’s at the helm of that Steinway, we see none of it; we see only a seemingly magical feat of musical skill. The much-publicized story of the climbing prodigy Ashima Shiraishi plays this out. Despite her relatively few years, she trains like an Olympic athlete. It is the combination of her talent and her focused effort that have made her the subject of several short films and articles in the Times and the Wall Street Journal, among others. The truth is, behind every amazing send there are 100 days at the crag or the gym and 1,000 falls and failures.

The title for this post came from a discussion with my co-worker, Chuck Odette. We noted the strange tendency of some climbers to “closet train” — to secretly work out and then deny it, like the fellow I describe at the beginning of this post. We agreed the that such behavior is silly, juvenile, even. Chuck is 56 years old and he recently FA’ed a 5.14b. He’s got an eye on retirement, for Chrissakes — too old to pretend that climbing comes easy for him. Indeed, Chuck is all about caring.

Chuck will be the first to tell you that he’s made sacrifices to maintain a high level of fitness and skill on the rock. He climbs often and regularly, using his vacation days to stay on schedule. His diet is plotted to the calorie. He eats in The Zone, which means turkey sandwiches on low-carb bread, diet soda or water, and low-fat yogurt sprinkled with protein powder. Even when we’re all packing our spray-holes with greasy pizza, Chuck gets the salad, chicken on top, dressing on the side. He indulges in a beer only after a good send. And at work, he does yoga, opposition workouts, and martial arts “katas” behind the building during his lunch hour. Chuck knows that if he wants something enough, he has to work for it and work hard. It would take too much energy to pretend not to care. Plus, it wouldn’t be honest. Chuck loves to tell people the secret to his success, because he knows there are no shortcuts. First, you have to want it. Then you have to be willing to give up a lot to get it.

Bill Ramsey, another middle-aged crusher with a penchant for suffering, came up with a handy mental model called the Pain Box. The box is divided in two with a movable line in the middle. The space within the box represents the sum amount of pain one will feel in one’s life. On one half is he pain that comes from hard work. On the other half is the pain that comes from sucking. You can have less of one kind of pain, but that just means you’ll have more of the other. Ramsey, like Odette, touts the benefits of self-discipline as the path to achievement. Good things don’t just happen to us — we have to work for them. And if they do just happen to us, how good can they be? After all, we didn’t earn them.

The Rebirth of Cool

Which brings me back to 21 Jump Street. When Jenko and Schmidt arrive at the high-school, where they’re trying to infiltrate a drug ring, they find that everyone is two-strapping it. Much to his dismay, Jenko, a jock during his high school tenure, discovers that the cool kids are now into computers and science and get good grades. Caring, much to his dismay, is now cool. In this brave new world, Schmidt, once bully-fodder, must deal with the corrupting influence of popularity. Likewise in today’s climbing world, openly caring is becoming the norm. With a whole crop of climbers bred in gyms and the growing popularity of competition climbing, especially among the youth demographic, trying hard is fast becoming the thing to do. Not caring either means you’re a) lazy, b) not that into what you’re doing, or c) trying to cover up just how much you really care about being good. Either way, you lose.