Playing by the rules

Posted by Andy Stewart on 03/02/2002
Jim Graham, Den Lane. Photo: Messenger.

It has struck me that anyone with a grudge against climbers could quite easily spoil their fun. It doesn’t need a hammer and chisel or a wire brush with six-inch nails stuck in it.

I remember a conflict with bikers that led to a favourite quarry traverse being smeared with grease. Fifteen years later the traverse is almost as slippery in places, but this time it’s the relentless passage of feet that has done the damage. In an era of access for all, to suggest otherwise would be at best undemocratic, and at worst elitist and arrogant. It’s not unreasonable to assume though that this freedom will simply attract desirable like-minded individuals to the sport. Increasingly our freedoms are managed for our own benefit, and the BMC works hard to represent what is basically a fairly anarchic bunch of individualists doing their own thing.

It’s the flouting of the code of ethics by a minority of insensitive individuals that provokes outrage amongst those who play by the rules. Many of us have been incensed at one time or other when a piece of rock has been ‘ruined’. The rules of the game can seem arbitrary to an outsider. I’ve never seen these rules written down though, and I think they are probably acquired by some form of osmosis. They change over time, and some would say that they have evolved to reflect a purer ethic relative to what has gone before. Look at the peg scarred cracks, which now go free, or the rusting dodgy aid bolts which protect some gritstone routes such as Berlin Wall. Ultimately it’s about respect for others that reins in our anarchic tendencies. Or maybe it’s conformity and fear of upsetting the status quo? I might even hope that it’s an increasing environmental awareness and a sense of responsibility or stewardship.

Those who choose to break the mould tread a tightrope between being labeled visionaries or vandals. Controversy comes with the territory, but they have at times shown the way beyond an obvious impasse. Who can honestly say that they have never enjoyed doing a sports climb? Being realistic, a proportion of new routes have always been chipped and probably always will be. I’ve enjoyed climbing some of them, downhill Racer being a notable example. They occupy a spectrum from the blatantly vandalised to the artistically altered, being a reflection of the obsessiveness that climbing sometimes engenders.

This year I walked away disappointed after trying a new route and discovering that it lacked a couple of crucial holds. The rock was blank, but it occurred to me that if I banged a peg into a weathered seam I could prise out a lump of detached rock to create a hold. The route would have been quite spectacular. I walked away disgruntled, torn between wanting to profit from the investment of time and energy, and on the other hand respecting the consensus opinion of what is cricket end what is not. I had committed nothing more than a thought crime. But the potential desecration of an obscure, unclimbed quarry wall pales into insignificance with the heresy of altering an established route, especially on god’s own gritstone. Changing a way up rock architecture lovingly created by natural processes rather than explosives. Now that beggars belief!

There’s a crucial issue of discretion regarding how we treat the medium we like to cling to so tenaciously. Wire brushing in itself is not the problem. Some areas require wire brushing just to make boulder problems or harder routes possible- Wimberry or Kinder Northern Edges for example. Softer grit in other areas won’t stand this kind of treatment. Once the hard surface layer has been removed the rock beneath can become very sandy and easily eroded. There is the thorny issue of sustainability, which is easier to ignore than to address. With a marked increase in numbers over recent years, what will become of the most popular routes and problems in ten or twenty years? Admittedly no one wears nailed boots these days, but many of us like to push the limits of friction on smears and tiny edges. What have we to look forward to other than polished, tired venues? On the positive side there is an increasing recognition of the consequences of over-use. We now have resin coated holds at the Bridestones. Bouldering mats seem to be doing a good job by allowing vegetation to thrive at the bottom of popular problems.

This is a far cry from the anger of seeing a favourite boulder problem vandalised by someone who either doesn’t or should know better. The reaction might be just as strong from a nature loving dog walker seeing the results of heavy-handed pruning at Woodhouse Scar. Whose sensibilities are more important at the end of the day? We all make an impact and maybe we should aim to tread lightly (if you will forgive the pun) as a guiding principle.

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