Tricksters and Traditionalists

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Unfortunately, much of the discussion about climbing styles is so off base as to discourage serious debate. For example, tricksters say their style brings them closer to physical and psychic frontiers. Bruce Morris claims that to climb beyond "temporal ethics" is to take "mystical steps toward achieving a deathless super-consciousness." Does this Nietzschean rhetoric really clarify matters? Traditionalists say their style makes routes more challenging because there is less reliance on equipment and more emphasis on the act of climbing. Arguments go on endlessly about psychic rewards and purity of heart; it all sounds like a Sunday sermon. No wonder so many dismiss the whole matter.

The way to wake up the debate is to shift the focus from style to impact. Whether the bow and arrow or the gun provides the better experience is not at issue. The much-needed focus of debate is not what trickster style does for its adherents, but how it affects climbers preferring other styles. In the economist's jargon, tricks create an "externality," a negative public consequence from private action. Traditionalists are getting less information than they want or need to measure achievements. They are finding scarred rock or protection altered from the first ascent; they are getting fewer chances to try their style on first ascents. These important, concrete issues can and should spur intelligent debate.

From such debate, climbers can get down to the business of mending old agreements or striking new ones. Everyone will be awake for the ensuing discussion. The tricksters will have their points:

—Who are traditionalists and why have they been so quiet if they perceive so much harm? How many are they?
—If traditionalists repeatedly fail to make a first ascent, shouldn't they agree to give us a chance?
—Will traditionalists agree that some climbs will never be done in their preferred style? If so, why should those walls be left alone forever?