Tricksters and Traditionalists

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In every major climbing area in the country, it is possible to see climbers rappelling cliffs in order to preview crux sections of proposed new routes, to rehearse moves, and to place protection. When these climbers finally decide to do their routes, they often fall repeatedly and rest on their protection. The new protection devices, Friends, encourage this behavior; since the protection is more easily assured, climbers can push closer to the point of falling.

Clearly, rockclimbing styles are changing. "Tricksters" are bending and altering the traditional rules of the climbing game. In the traditional style, climbers do not alter the rock in order to free climb it. Nor do they preview routes on rappel, or fix pro¬tection on aid or on rappel with the intention of immediately trying to free climb. Aid climbing is done to get to the top, not to set up a route for free-climb attempts. Likewise, in traditional style the climber might fall a few times trying a free climb, but he or she doesn't rest on the protection between attempts. The traditionalist knows there is a time and place to give up. The conflict between tricksters and traditionalists is no small issue. Before 1970 there were few, if any, tricksters; nearly all the routes were done in traditional style. Now, tricksters are continually creating new routes with their controversial methods. Also, capable and respected climbers subscribe to the methods. Vern Clevenger tells of times and places he stood on protection bolts to place others and previewed or rehearsed while on rappel. Jim Bridwell has doctored rock selectively and has placed bolt ladders to protect free climbing. John Bachar rests on hooks while placing protection bolts. Reportedly, Ray Jardine "sculpts" holds on El Capitan. These expert climbers, of course, do not use the controversial styles everywhere or every time. They all have climbed ferocious routes in traditional style.

Nevertheless, respected climbers not only use the new styles, they defend them. In an article on face-climbing styles and standards in the 1982 American Alpine Journal, Bruce Morris reports that many climbers in Tuolumne now subscribe to "the construction of a line of technical difficulty at almost any price." He quotes "notorious local Claud Fiddler," who asks, "How can a route be worthwhile unless 'questionable methods' were employed on its first ascent?" Of Vern Clevenger, Morris writes: "He demonstrated a willingness to cheat selectively ... as long as it extended the upper range of the free-climbing spectrum." The attitude seems to be, so what if protection bolts are placed on aid or rap-pel, as long as the resulting climb is a good one? So what if a flake or crack is slightly altered to make a great free climb? Why should climbers be bound by old rules—or any rules—when creating new routes or trying to free climb old routes?