No Advantage Without Disadvantage

A woman rock climbing in Maple Canyon, Utah.
Skinny ropes or fat, light and fast or slow and heavy, tall or short… There is no advantage without disadvantage.

One wise colleague of mine when I worked at Petzl had an accent that was a mash-up of German (his first language), French, and English influences. He wielded all these tongues, and a few others, fluently. Thus, when rolling out his signature aphorisms, he could take on the air of a sort of Teutonic Yoda character, imparting know ledge in a unique polyglot grammar at once entertaining, endearing, and thought-provoking.

Like any master seeking to instruct, my colleague deployed maxims as needed—to lighten the mood, inject caution into a debate, or to put a fresh perspective on things. There were enough of these little nuggets that some enterprising soul produced an unofficial T-shirt with a list of them printed on the back, “Use with care, as hedgehogs make love” and “We risk to become professor ridiculous,” among them. But there was one simple phrase of his—not an original, granted, but a favorite—that always stuck in my mind: There is no advantage without disadvantage.

He might bring out this saying while we debated mountaineering’s thirst for ever-lighter equipment, or solutions to a tricky rigging problem. Even though it wouldn’t point directly toward a resolution, it reminded that with every “new” answer to an old problem, there’d be trade-offs.

For example, faster and lighter is the alpine trend these days. Less gear and less weight mean quicker ascents that take advantage of fleeting favorable conditions. It’s great style and inspiring, but also leaves climbers exposed. Fast and light often means going without extra food, fuel, or layers, meaning that any unforeseen circumstances that stop forward progress can turn fatal. There is no advantage without disadvantage.

Lighter gear is nice, but when we remove material from a piece of personal protective equipment, we must compromise in some other way. Think of skinny ropes. That 9.1 is great when your clipping the final piece of pro at the end of a 150-foot pitch, but when you see your rope raking over the edge of a rough flake, you’ll be wishing for your trusty old 10.2 again. No advantage without disadvantage.

It’s common for shorter climbers to cry foul when a tall climber skips a move (or a whole sequence) on a climb. But being tall isn’t all upside for climbers: physics tells us that longer levers make climbing-adjacent movements like pull-ups more difficult, and plenty of high-steps and heel hooks that work great for a small or medium-sized frames aren’t options for bigger ones. In fact, many top-flight competition climbers are shorter than the average. There is no advantage sans disadvantage.

Or consider: a lot of climbers want freedom to roam, so they get a beat-up old van and live a threadbare lifestyle on the road until injured, broke, or bored. It can be great for your climbing, but hard on the bank account and future career plans. Such a dirtbagging lifestyle also often means forgoing such practicalities as health insurance, which is fine until the day it’s not. A steady job is the obvious solution, but of course the trade-off is time, flexibility, and freedom. Take your pick, but there’s no advantage without disadvantage.

The Petzl Grigri is another good example. In exchange for the convenience of a belay device that locks down on the rope and helps to catch a fall, one must accept greater weight, diminished versatility, and increased complexity. For some uses, the Grigri’s advantages outweigh the disadvantages; for others they don’t—it all depends on your specific needs and what you value most. There is no advantage without disadvantage.

Most of us are engaged in a constant search for advantage in one way or another—shortcuts to bigger, better, faster, more. But I think the world is more intricate and interconnected than we tend to notice. For this reason, the phrase “no advantage without disadvantage” is worth meditating on.