Ethics and climbing

Posted by BMC on 30/03/1999

Whilst there are no rules in climbing a code of ethics has evolved over time.

Rock climbing
Some are simple, such as a rock climb cannot be claimed as climbed if a fall or a rest have been taken. Equally, top-roping a route does not count as a valid ascent. Every climber will play by their own personal version of these ethics, some content to claim a climb if for example the hard part was completed before falling off, others not. Obviously this is up to the individual and only becomes of concern if a “new route” (previously unclimbed line up a cliff) is claimed, or if the climbers involved are operating at the top level of the sport, where different styles of ascent are a large factor in success.

The most serious ethics and those that arouse most opinion amongst climbers are when the actual nature of the rock is altered. Chipping the rock for example, to make the climb easier, would permanently scar the rock, destroy the routes style and character, and is certainly regarded as unacceptable. Equally serious but more complex is the issue of bolting climbs. For non-climbers a quick explanation is needed at this point:

Climbing has evolved since 1890’s, and during this time pieces of equipment to mimimise falls (protection) have been invented. Protection is fitted into cracks etc. in the rock by the leader to hopefully prevent him or her falling too far. The second climber removes this protection as they climb, thus the rock is ascended with no physical effect upon it. However some rock is unsuitable for this style of climbing (natural leading), so bolts are utilised - these are permanent metal fixtures drilled into the rock to provide pieces of protection.

A lot of cliffs in Europe are bolted, but it is less common in Britain. Some steep limestone crags are ideally suited to bolting, and this is generally accepted, and it is common consensus that say gritstone be bolt free. Problems occur at less well defined types of crag, i.e. less steep limestone, with a documented history using only natural protection. Inevitably some people will want bolts placed, whilst others will be opposed to it. It is important that such disputes are settled in a reasonable manner, since rock is a finite resource. Once a bolt is placed, even if it is later removed, a permanent scar will be left. This can lead to considerable conflict, and in an attempt to rationalise the situation, the BMC adopted the following policy at the BMC Annual General Meeting April 1992:

"The BMC strongly supports the approach to climbing based on leader placed protection which makes use of natural rock features. The BMC believes that care and concern for the crag and mountain environments is of paramount importance.

The BMC accepts that in exceptional circumstances, agreed by the BMC, fixed equipment may be utilised for lower-off or abseil points to avoid environmental damage or maintain access.

It is the policy of the BMC that the use of bolts and other drilled equipment is only legitimate on certain agreed quarried crags and agreed sections of certain limestone crags. Lists of agreed locations will be maintained by the local area committees.

The BMC is firmly opposed to retrospective bolting (i.e. changing the character of a route by placing fixed equipment where none was previously used). Climbs should only be re-equipped on a basis of common consent established at open forums."

Definitions
The above policy was drawn up using the following definitions:

  1. Drilled Equipment: any belay, aid or protection point placed with the aid of a drill (e.g. any bolts, drilled threads, drilled piton placements, etc.).
  2. Fixed Equipment: any permanent or semi permanent belay, aid or protection point (such as bolts, pitons, threads, chocks, etc.) placed on the first ascent of a climb.
  3. Re-equipping: the replacement of fixed equipment.
  4. Retro-bolting: the placement of bolts for belays, aid or protection points on climbs which did not utilise fixed equipment.
  5. 'Other' retro-equiping: the permanent or semi permanent placement of bolts, pitons, threads, chocks, etc. after the first ascent of a climb.  
Mountaineering
Mountaineering is a more complex sport than pure rock climbing, but with a single aim - to reach the top, with aid climbing, resting etc. all accepted. Accordingly the biggest crime is to make a false claim of ascent. Although summiting is admittedly the main goal, the style of ascent is becoming increasingly important, in the past mountains were seiged by large scale expeditions, but today this is regarded as environmentally damaging and frequently unnecessary.

The name of the game is lightweight, fast moving, low impact expeditions. Placing excessive fixed gear is considered poor practice. Expeditions should now take responsibility for the environmental effects of their rubbish, and the BMC are has drawn up detailed environmental guidelines for expeditions.

The UIAA published a code of practice for those commercial companies who organise expeditions to 8000m peaks. This paper suggests an appropriate level of experience for clients and states they should be fully aware of all the risks involved in climbing on these very high mountains. In addition British 8000m operators have formed a self regulatory trade association called IGO8000 which aims to ensure good practice and minimum standards.



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