Tricksters and Traditionalists

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Climbers are not alone in making agreements about competition in their sport. Bagging game with a bow and arrow is much more impressive than with a rifle, and kayaking a rough river is a greater achievement than doing it in a tube raft. People participating in these sports agree to reveal what technique or style is used because the achievement and stature of those responsible are thereby defined. The achievements in any sport arc remembered, written down, and discussed for many years. For that discussion to have any meaning, people agree not to imply they used a bow and arrow when they used a rifle, or used a kayak when they used a raft.

Other agreements guard against actions climbers find offensive. For example, when climbers agree not to paint their names on walls, blast out ledges, fix cables, or otherwise drastically alter the rock-scape, they do so because most climbers are offended by the result. Similarly, many climbers are offended by an extra piton or bolt added to an established route. Upon finding such additional protection, they feel the same as they would coming across names spray-painted on the rock. A bolt and a pin added to a route at Lover's Leap, in California, once caused much debate. Several climbers still feel the protection should have been left as it was originally placed. The thirty-odd bolts placed on the regular route of New Mexico's Shiprock over the years so outraged climbers that one fanatic spent half a day removing them. On Yosemite's Lost Arrow Tip, six extra bolts were added in the 1950's to John Salathe's original ones. Some thought the bolts demeaned Salathe's efforts and should be removed. They were. In short, agreements between climbers about style are useful and important because they enhance or protect the climbing experience. Contrary to what tricksters say, climbing style is not a personal matter.

Of course, there is an exception to the agreement against altering protection on established routes: the first-ascent party may indicate better protection is needed. The Snake Dike on Half Dome provides a good example. Seasoned climbers, making the first ascent using marginal protection, realized only at the top that the moderate route was destined to become a popular climb. Therefore, they gave the next party permission to add numerous bolts, thus ensuring that beginners would have a safe and enjoyable time.

It is not only on established routes that climbing or protection styles are more than personal matters. The same is true for first ascents. There were once plenty of new routes for climbers to "hunt"; so it didn't matter that some people used "bows" and others used "guns" to do the coveted climbs. Plenty of "game" existed for each. But now that game is scarce, climbers employing different styles are in competition for new routes much more so than in the past. A first ascent accomplished by preplacing bolts or pitons on aid or rappel removes the opportunity for another party to make the first ascent without using these techniques. The same is true for first ascents done by rehearsing or resting on protection.