Tricksters and Traditionalists

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Tricksters and Traditionalists
A Look at Conflicting Climbing Styles

COLORADO CLIMBER PAT AMENT recently watched people dragging a thirty-foot ladder up scree slopes in Boulder Canyon. Were they on their way to a high-wire act, he inquired? No, no act; they just needed to preprotect a new route with a bolt twenty feet off the ground.

In Yosemite Valley, holds are chopped ("sculpted," say the defenders of the action) into the rock to allow tries at free climbing El Capitan. At the other end of the Valley, on Glacier Point Apron, a string of aid bolts is placed to protect free climbing on Hall of Mirrors. Reportedly, protection without aid was possible, but on a less direct line. The route is then touted as one of the greatest new free climbs in Yosemite.

In Tuolumne Meadows—in the high country of Yosemite National Park—routes on every major dome are done by placing bolts and pitons while on rappel, by standing on bolts to place others, and by creating bolt ladders to protect free climbing. In the latest Tuolumne innovation, leaders place protection bolts while hanging from hooks attached to flakes and knobs. In the same area even the long-standing agreement to respect the protection style of the first-ascent party is weakening: a bolt was recently added to an established route on Daff Dome.


Picture Note: The ultimate refinement of "traditional" climbing: John Bachar free soloing a classic jamcrack on the second pitch of Outer Limits. Since a fall during unroped climbing high above the ground proves uniformly fatal, few climbers practice the pure but risky style portrayed in this and the following two photographs, all taken in Yosemite Valley. Lanny Johnson.

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?

The conflict between traditionalists and tricksters extends to methods of reporting new routes. Whereas climbers once agreed to report their first-ascent style openly, now information about style is not readily forthcoming. Some tricksters simply refuse to say how they did a climb, perhaps believing the style of ascent is no one's business. They may not lie about how they climbed, but often they remain silent about their style of ascent until asked directly. Their silence creates an awkward and misleading situation. For example, Morris remarks of a Tuolumne first ascent: "No one will ever know for sure whether [the leader] drilled all the bolts strictly on the lead." And referring to Piece de Resistance, another Tuolumne climb, Morris states, "Only one bolt—but [the climbers] would never say which one—was supposedly drilled on aid." Other climbers acknowledge their aid ladders or rests on protection, but only to close companions. The information rarely gets into print. Journal articles relate heroics, not style, and modern guidebooks, short on history but long on route maps, contain few references to the style of ascent.

Climbers arguing for full disclosure of style perceive a glaring contradiction in the paucity of reporting. Why are tricksters so loud in defending what they are doing but so reluctant to reveal their style of ascent? It appears tricksters want a free ride on the backs of people climbing in traditional style. Because tricks are a relatively new phenomenon, climbers unaware of the inside story presume traditional styles were employed and give their respect accordingly.

It is time to reexamine the issue of climbing styles. The first question is obvious: why should there be any agreement about styles? The answer is equally clear: because these agreements safeguard the climbing enjoyment of others. Some agreements between climbers aim at facilitating the competitive side of the sport. Contrary to cherished belief, climbing is a competitive sport. Climbing a route all free, with limited protection, and on the first try means much more than climbing it after rehearsing moves or placing protection on rappel. Consequently, climbers should agree to reveal how new routes, particularly hard ones, were done. Only in this way can climbers test themselves by trying routes in the same or better style.



Bachar on Crack-A-Go-Go. Lanny Johnson.

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.

Tricksters defend their actions by means of two popular but fallacious arguments. The first is that no matter how a first ascent is done, traditionalists can always climb the route in their preferred style. They can bypass protection placed on rappel, and they can try a route without rehearsing or resting on protection. In so doing, they can experience their own "first ascent." The problem with this contention is that it discounts the importance of first as¬cents for others. Removed forever is the unique opportunity for a first ascent in traditional style. Obviously, a special satisfaction comes from doing a first ascent, naming it, telling others the story, being recognized, and adding one's name and accomplishments to the history of climbs in an area.

Tricksters raise a second argument: "Tough luck." They say the first-ascent party always has denied others the opportunity for a first ascent, no matter what the style. To be sure, people using traditional styles do deny first ascents to others, including climbers employing the new tricks. The rebuttal, however, is simple: bullets kill more easily than arrows. Where game is plentiful, it doesn't matter who uses what weapon. But when game is scarce, it certainly does matter. Guns remove more game for bows than vice versa. It is for this very reason that bow users are allowed to hunt before the regular season opens. It is also the reason that certain weapons are restricted in hunting and fishing. Consider the rightful ire of a flyfisherman observing someone building a trap or dynamiting the water!

Not only do tricks remove opportunities, they create certain dangers. Where a first ascent is rehearsed by top rope and preprotected, for example, traditionalists may be endangered in subsequent ascents. Traditionalists may not be able to place protection on the lead and, not having rehearsed the moves, may fall at a dangerous point.

Again, climbing style is not purely a personal matter. It affects other climbers in various ways. On established routes, adding protection offends climbers who wish to do the route in its original style, or as the first-ascent party intended the route to stand. Consequently, many climbers still agree to honor the protection style of the first ascent. On new routes, both climbing and protection style can affect others as first-ascent opportunities grow scarce. In this case, climbers employing preprotection, rehearsing, and resting on protection are more easily able to do first ascents than climbers choosing not to use these styles. For all these reasons a majority of climbers prior to 1970 agreed not to employ certain styles on first ascents. If a route could not be done in the traditional manner, the prevailing agreement was to leave it for better climbers—or future generations—to try.

Tricksters should reconsider what their climbing styles are doing to others and change their actions. First, where preprotecting, rehearsing, and aid ladders are employed, they should be widely reported. Guidebooks and climbing magazines should report the style of ascent. Without this information, other climbers cannot know what challenge has been set before them. Trusting climbers who presume traditional styles of ascent may even be endangered as they try to repeat certain routes. Second, tricksters should stop using their techniques on new routes in areas where first-ascent possibilities are scarce and where other climbers want to employ traditional styles. Third, and as a last resort, tricksters might confine themselves to places where the opportunities for new routes are plentiful. In such places they are less likely to happen upon established routes they feel need alteration in protection or in the rock itself. If they want to preprotect, rehearse, or create bolt ladders for free climbing, their actions will not greatly inconvenience traditionalists.



Bachar Near the top of Hardd. Lanny Johnson.

The last two points are the most difficult for tricksters to accept. After all, they believe their style is applied only when traditional styles cannot be used. Perfectly capable of climbing in traditional style, tricksters feel they know its limits. They feel that few, if any, climbers will be deprived of first-ascent opportunities. A recent case in point is the Bachar-Yerian Route on Medlicott Dome in Tuolumne Meadows. This spectacular route ascends a black water streak on a dead-vertical golden wall. The leader placed protection bolts while hanging from hooks affixed to knobs. The climb is superb, the line is direct, the protection is scanty; it is hard to imagine the route could be protected without resorting to a trick such as hanging from hooks. Surely, say the tricksters, no opportunity for traditionalists was removed in this case.

Perhaps the Bachar-Yerian Route could not be done any other way, except by rappelling to place the bolts. If all the routes done by tricksters were this impressive and difficult, there would be less to discuss. Within a few miles of the Bachar-Yerian Route, however, numerous examples abound of climbs where tricksters have removed very real possibilities for traditionalists. Handjive, on Lembert Dome, originally protected by placing bolts on rappel, lay well within the capabilities of climbers of the time to protect on the lead. Hoodwink, on Harlequin Dome, was first done with an aid ladder to protect free climbing. Traditionalists of the day could have done the first ascent without the ladder. Death Crack, once rehearsed by top roping, is now led occasionally on sight. Blues Riff, once protected on aid, is now done without this style. In the last two cases climbers of today were deprived of the opportunity for first ascents in traditional style. Other examples exist where climbers of the era, or those of the next generation, could have done—or would have wanted to try—trickster routes in traditional style.

The irony of the Bachar-Yerian Route is that John Bachar's usual climbing style suggests how the route might have been done to no one's objection. Since Bachar free solos routes of the highest standard, one gets the impression he put in his bolts for subsequent climbers. Suppose he had put in only those bolts that could have been placed without hooks and let climbers scratch their heads for years to come. Neither the traditionalists nor the tricksters could then object to losing the first-ascent opportunity to such a fine climber and so pure a style.

Whatever real or supposed opportunities were removed by the Bachar-Yerian Route, the style of ascent still disadvantages climbers preferring the traditional style. In the hands of lesser climbers, "hooking" is certain to remove ever more first-ascent possibilities for traditionalists of today and the near future. It is possible also that advances in protection technology will allow routes like the Bachar-Yerian to go without hooks, rappel placements, or aid ladders. Or perhaps more climbers will soon accept less protection, in line with Bachar's usual climbing style. The point is that tricksters should not presume to know the limits of traditional styles or styles less dependent on protection. Also, they should not presume to know how many climbers prefer traditional styles now or will in the future. Traditionalists may be a silent majority or weekenders who rarely have the time or contacts to make known their preferences. Considerable unthinking arrogance lies in the presumption that one knows the capabilities and preferences of everyone in the growing population of rockclimbers. Tricksters should also realize a first-ascent opportunity comes only once. Restocking can revive game populations for those fishing and hunting. But once the first ascent is bagged, it is gone forever. This fact alone should give pause to those who use weapons others in the sport refuse to employ.

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?

And the traditionalists will have their points:

—How can we strike agreements with tricksters to ignore certain walls, areas, or established routes?
—If tricksters continue their ways, why don't they at least agree to report their style of ascent in articles and guidebooks?
—Should there be experiments with new bolting technology? Would climbers use the technology more to climb in traditional fashion or more to place aid ladders for protection? Or both?

Agreements among climbers about styles have changed and will continue to change. Although tricksters now dominate the scene in many climbing areas, they have not buried previous agreements favoring traditional styles. Agreements against tricks, for full reporting, and for preservation of established routes have a sound basis. They have protected the fundamental interests and experiences of climbers for many decades. Consequently, the agreements may have more proponents than tricksters know. At the very least, such agreements govern an older generation of climbers who still climb in the traditional style. Other proponents may be occasional visitors to climbing areas, who are numerous but not generally vocal about style. Also, a younger generation now beginning to climb will soon discover the reasons for agreements about traditional style. Many will be in a quandary about how new climbs are done. They will consequently find it hard to measure themselves against the challenge. And they will watch as beautiful, improbable walls succumb only to those who practice special tricks. It is likely that many in this generation will demand to know how first ascents were done, to try the "impossible" without resorting to tricks, and to experience the rock and protection of classic routes as they were originally. Perhaps it will not be long before demands for old and familiar agreements rise up like so many poltergeists. If so, what will the tricksters do? Agree or not? Abide or not?

Ascent, Sierra Club, 1984