No one ever wrote a climbing rule book but that doesn’ mean climbers don’t know what is good and bad style – and what isn’t fair play. In this second article on the big issues facing climbing, we look at the importance of ethics and style and how they are changing.
Climbing is a very natural activity, but a very artificial sport. How many of us have ground our teeth at some wise-ass shouting: “Hey Spiderman! There’s an easy way up round the back!” This is, of course, almost always the case.
The general public can see the point in climbing Everest. The challenge is obvious. But what we, as climbers are doing, and what the general public cannot see, is that a challenge doesn’t have to be public. Each of us can challenge ourselves with our own rules for the satisfaction of just ourselves. That is the great appeal of climbing. Getting to the top of anything doesn’t have to be the point. It’s how you get there, the style of the ascent, which really matters.
When we look at Everest in the 21st Century, we’re not shocked that so many people want to climb the thing. It’s the style in which they climb it, with massive Sherpa support, bottles of oxygen, miles of fi xed rope, and guides to lead them. Where’s the challenge in climbing a 51-year-old route in that style? Some will even claim that this kind of person isn’t a real climber.
Of course, how we climb is a personal choice and we’re free, more or less, to climb how we choose. But over the decades, those that have earned the most respect for the way they climb their routes have been those that have thought most carefully about the style and ethics they use to climb them. Because a route is more than just the area of rock or ice covered during an ascent. Implicit in its definition is also the way in which we cover the ground.
Climbing doesn’t have any rules to tell you how to cover the ground, unlike many other sports. There is no offside, no handball and no penalty boxes. Most of us love this idea of living without rules. Most of us accept that you don’t damage the rock or the environment in any way. We agree that whatever you do you should be honest about it. But beyond that, you are free to enjoy climbing in whatever way you want, and the more fun you have while doing this the better. What climbing does have, are ethics.
Ethics are used as an almost moral guide to the challenges that climbers set themselves. It sounds simple, but ethics are one of the most complicated issues in climbing. They emerge naturally from what we value about climbing, which is how a sport climber can view trad climbers as needlessly reckless, and a trad climber thinks a sport climber is missing the point. When someone makes an ethical decision, they make a decision to climb a route in a certain style, and that style might compromise the climber’s chances of getting up the route.
This decision will be based on how the climber believes a route should be climbed. It is based on what they see the challenge as being. In a way, it is done because the climber feels that it would be better to fail in one style than to succeed in another.
When Lito Tejada-Flores wrote his seminal article Games Climbers Play in 1967, he argued that a handicap system had evolved to equalise the challenge and maintain the feeling of achievement in each climbing category, and this system was expressed as the ethics of the various climbing games. So whilst using a ladder to bridge a crevasse on a Himalayan mountain wouldn’t ensure certain success, it would be absurd to use a ladder to summit a boulder.
Ethical climbing merely meant respecting the set of rules of the game being played. Think of a fi rst ascent. A climber may want to do a new route, and may feel that the best way to do a first ascent is on-sight, starting at the bottom and leading into the unknown. It is easy to see how this lessens their chances of success, as the climber won’t know the grade, nor whether it is even possible to climb the route. As such, many people argue that on-sight fi rst ascents are the greatest challenge in climbing.
There are many examples of epic first ascents on Cloggy or in Scotland, where massive amounts of commitment are needed to get up climbs. Conversely, some climbers will compromise on their ethics to get a route in the bag, and it will be left to those who come after to improve on that style. First ascents are where the pressure of ethics is most keenly felt. When someone claims a new route, the claim tends to stick as long as the ascent passed the most basic requirements. It is extremely rare for a fi rst ascent ever to be disregarded.
In the end no one discounted Ed Drummond’s first ascent of Midsummer’s Night Dream in 1973, even though his tactics were questionable, using a bolt, skyhooks, several pegs and top rope practice. And although omitted from the 1976 guide, his name is in there today. As long as the first ascensionist is willing to make the claim, they are accepted. This goes for chipped routes, routes with rest points, routes with aid points, routes with side runners, routes that used chalk, routes with bolts, routes with pegs, routes with shoulder stands, nicked routes and crap squeezed-in eliminates.
But as a general rule, all subsequent ascents are required to at least match and preferably improve on the style of the first ascent. A very interesting example of ethics at work was seen in the 1980s in Huntsman’s Leap in Pembroke. Pat Littlejohn is responsible for a huge number of fantastic new routes both in Britain and abroad. He has always aspired to doing his routes in the best style possible, frequently climbing them on-sight. He was also an original member of the ‘Clean Hand Gang’, a group of South West climbers who rejected the use of chalk, as they felt its use compromised the onsight experience for subsequent climbers.
In the recent video Sea Fever, Pat described early ground-up ascents in the Leap. He then returned one weekend to find that Peak District climber Gary Gibson had laced the Leap with abseil points, had cleaned and prepared lines for climbing, and added copious amounts of in-situ thread runners in the process. This went against the ground-up ethic that was generally accepted in the area at the time. Despite this, Gary’s claims would be accepted. Under threat and forced into action, Pat first climbed Witch Hunt and then White Hotel, the latter being one of the hardest ground up fi rst ascents ever completed.
It’s interesting to see what can be achieved with a bit of healthy competition. Pat could well afford to be more relaxed when his lines were all left to him. When the heat was turned up, he was willing to compromise his ethics - but not much. For some of these routes, he abandoned his clean-hand ideals and borrowed his mate’s chalk bag. To further blur the edges, not long after, Gibson lost out on a route he was trying to solo when Simon Nadin led it with a side-runner.
Several years later Pat caused outrage in North Wales by placing a bolt on the Lleyn Peninsula. None of us are perfect. But there is a general consensus in Britain about what constitutes the ideal fi rst ascent. And without ethics, climbing is merely athletic attainment. It becomes about the summit, not the route, the destination rather than the journey. Himalayan siege mountaineering, aid-bolting your way over Malham Overhang, even most headpointing on grit, all of it boils down to doggedness and application.
As Reinhold Messner said, that is tantamount to murdering the impossible. Climbing is becoming mainstream. Modern Britain, refl ecting modern America, prizes goals, achievements, the next level. Those new to our sport could easily think that it is all about doing E10, 9a+ or V15. Perhaps it will go that way. But if it does, I think climbing will become an infinitely less interesting activity.
So let us try to always remember how we climb is as important as what we climb. This is not to say that nothing should be bolted and no one should toprope and the only way to climb is onsight solo naked and barefoot. But that we should measure our achievements by the standards that we set ourselves and not some random number or grade. When Lito Tejada-Flores wrote his article, most climbers still at least tried most games that climbing offered.
Nowadays the sport is more fragmented than ever. Dry-tooling, deepwater soloing, modern bouldering, headpointing; none of these were around in 1967. But there is still a great deal of respect for those who can master different disciplines. That remains the great strength of British climbing. Plenty of climbers are still interested in the head games as well as performance, and still prepared to climb on everything from gritstone boulders to granite peaks in the Himalaya.The narrower the game becomes, the narrower the rewards and the narrower the minds of those who seek them.
So what has the BMC got to do with all of this? To be honest, not much. Or at least, not much beyond making sure that everyone is heard, that tradition is respected and that the crag environment is not undermined by what climbers do. The BMC has never been and never could be an arbiter of ethics.
That’s up to you lot, out there. Just don’t cock it up.
CASE STUDY: THE INDIAN FACE
Clogwyn Du'r Arddu has long been a forcing ground of ethics, with The Indian Face (E9 6b/c) taking things to a new level in more ways than one. The first part was first climbed to an old bolt head by John Redhead in 1982. In 1983 Jerry Moffatt found a way past the bolt, which he removed, to create Masters Wall, and in 1986 Johnny Dawes rose to the challenge of the headwall to take a major leap forward for British climbing. The route had to wait eight years for this repeat by Nick Dixon in June 1994 after four sessions of practice and preplacement of most of the protection.
"The upper wall is really hard, the gear now too far away, death real and looming, and it's too much to remember. You can't headpoint it like a grit route; the bubble is going to burst and you'll be there naked, humiliated, and grasping at life. All you'll have is experience, a moment, and regret." - Nick Dixon, 2nd ascent.
Several days after Nick Dixon, Neil Gresham made the third ascent.
"For a split second of complete tranquility, I actually don't mind giving in. I resign myself to defeat and prepare for the unimaginable." - Neil Gresham. 3rd ascent.
John Redhead, despite placing the original bolt was unhappy with pre-practice being employed. 10 years later the route has not seen another repeat. Nick Dixon went on to climb Face Mecca in 1989, also on Cloggy, coining the word headpoint for the pre-practiced approach used.
We asked the three ascentionists of The Indian Face just what they thought about ethics.
"Each route offers a challenge, and each climber is in a bracket. I onsighted some of my first ascents and headpointed others, but that’s just me. Others might succeed on one yet fail on another - it’s all down to personal characteristics and the route. Some people are tall, some are short. Some routes are clean and open, others dirty and blind - it’s never linear or rigid. But however you climb what you will know is whether you’ve taken the route as an adversary or friend, simply used it or really known it. And whether what you’ve known is then available to other people.
Climbing rock is interesting. We climb on the rhythm from which we were made and get to experience a fresh rhythm each time. If we chip, bolt or top rope, we’re reducing our interaction and our whole experience. So which level of interaction do you go for - is it worth making the compromise?
These days there is a certain falsehood in the media and industry, which drives a compromise, not in ethics but in personal standards. So and so might go and climb X at Curbar without practice, but not give a sh*t about it, they just want the attention.
Whereas in the past, even though someone may have chipped something, they did it because they adored it - they just loved the climb. It used to be about going out and doing what you wanted, and if that fitted into a framework, fine. Now you have to defi ne yourself, the media projects an image and some people seek out available slots like consumers. Look at all the brands, the lifestyle thing. Everyone wears the same, it’s like uniformed anarchy."
"I sometimes wonder why The Indian Face doesn’t see more attention, since it's an amazing line, one of the best. An ascent would still carry a lot of kudos and there are people out there quite capable of doing it. It might well be that there’s a perception that it should be saved for the onsight now, a mindset thinking, “it’s only F7c”. But if you think like that, you’re misunderstanding the nature of the route. It doesn’t lend itself to an onsight, no matter how good you are.
It’s blind, smeary and insecure. Even if you’re young, talented and bold, you could land yourself in big trouble 30 ft out from poor RPs - it's totally unforgiving. Or the lack of interest could just be down to fashion, the focus has turned away from the mountain crags towards bouldering and walls. But one thing is for sure, this country is incredibly healthy with its different genres and the consensus that defines them.
There are new routes in the Alps by Pat Littlejohn that haven’t even been credited to him because he didn’t bolt them - instead the equipper gets the credit! That's insane, history becomes completely meaningless. "
"Pre-practicing the most difficult trad climbs seems to be accepted now, but there is a process of evolution at work. Climbs which are first established with such headpoint ethics now stand as onsight challenges for future generations. It’s a shame to apply headpointing to lower grade routes.
When I first got into grit I was encouraged to leave the E5’s and 6’s alone until I felt ready for the onsight - not only does this reduce polish, but it encourages you to work at being good at onsighting. Today it’s established that every effort must be made to place the gear on the lead when headpointing, but this wasn’t certain until very recently. Ten years ago it was still unclear whether a pinkpoint was acceptable; a method used extensively in the US and Australia. So when myself and Nick Dixon climbed The Indian Face in ‘94, we were used as case studies for public debate.
I tried to place all the gear on lead but fell off reversing to the floor, and went back and climbed it with the gear (that I’d previously placed) still there. At the time, people were reluctant to directly criticise, purely because the issues weren’t cut and dry. But that ascent ironed out many grey areas and today I’d definitely either attempt the down-climb again, or place all runners on the lead. The big thing that’s changed about modern trad climbing is the need for openness about ethical practices.
It frustrates me sometimes to hear older climbers going on about the good old days when men were men, and yet it’s so obvious that a fair number of historic ascents just wouldn’t be accepted if similar tactics were used today. And worst still when some of these climbers come forward to criticize the new generation. After all, who was John Redhead to criticise Nick Dixon and me for top roping The Indian Face when he placed a bolt in it? I appreciate that the sport needed to be pioneered somehow, and that this process will involve an element of experimentation, but there’s a difference between making attempts to establish ethical boundaries and blatantly contravening the ones that have already been set.
Tactics such as leaving the ropes clipped up for multi-day yo-yo’s and lowering down to rests are things that you just don’t hear any more, and that’s surely a healthy thing. More importantly though, if a first ascentionist of a bold climb is blatantly misleading about the tactics they’ve used then this could potentially endanger subsequent ascentionists - a practice to be deplored. "
And a few others had something to say on the subject too:
"The most exciting aspect of climbing, onsight new routing on sea cliff or mountain crags, has slipped out of vogue. But it will be back, seducing suitors to walk for miles, get covered with bird sh*t, fashion a special rack and risk capsizing in some unseaworthy craft. I can't wait!"
"On grit, the repeated placement and removal of nuts and cams is having an extremely detrimental affect. Placements are being worn away at an alarming rate, sometimes in a way that improves their holding power, and sometimes not. Cams in particular eat away at the sides of cracks to create concave surfaces. This improves the placement, but by destroying the hard patina of the rock, the rate of erosion increases.
So I feel that the dogmatic insistence that leading is somehow morally and environmentally superior to be flawed. Top roping is currently seen by many climbers as somehow wrong, when in fact, this form of climbing avoids the placing, loading, and sometimes violently removal of the hallowed leader protection which causes such damage.
The growing hostility to top roped climbing is fuelled by the BMC’s statement; “The BMC strongly supports the approach to climbing based on leader-placed protection which makes use of natural rock features,” and a rethink is surely required in order to preserve the crag environment. I would also like to clear up something whilst not wanting to enter into a bolt debate. Several years ago Steve McClure and myself made the second and third ascents of the Pembroke route The Big Issue. This route was given huge publicity, and used to push an anti-bolt pro-environmental agenda.
But I can tell you that viewed close-up, after the bolts were hammered flat, and alternative fixed protection (jammed wires and a peg) were placed, it was a total mess. The route has never really been climbed in a traditional style to this day, and remains a de-facto sport route - just that now it’s even more of an eyesore. After our ascents, we removed as much of the jammed gear as we could - but is a jammed wire really “better” than a stainless bolt?"
"Hard Grit did wonders for British climbing, resulting in more people headpointing hard routes, but the ensuing hype deflected attention from the true British ethic of ground up ascents. I always used to be against the use of plentiful matting for bold routes. I wanted to recreate, or where possible improve upon the styles of previous ascents.
To me, improving upon the style a route has been climbed in can be as important as the first ascent itself. Although having said that, I’ve still got a lot more respect for someone who climbs Ulysses ground up, above four pads, than for someone who sits in their proverbial armchair, “saving it” for the onsight.
In some ways British trad climbing has moved on a long way over the past 15 or 20 years, but there are some aspects that have remained stagnant, or even regressed. A lack of quality first ascent lines remaining seems a plausible but feeble excuse. Efforts like Johnny Dawes’ ground up attempts on Hardback Thesaurus for example, are rarely, if ever, seen nowadays. "
Read the full set of articles:
Big Issues part 1: The state of British climbing
Big Issues part 2: Ethics
Big Issues part 3: The eleventh commandment - the crag environment