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. 


Looking and Seeing


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…