After The Owl Roof

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Letter to Editor


I recently completed a first ascent in Yosemite which brought to discovery something about newly emerging ethical standards. The climb involved surmounting a ten-foot roof on a formation called The Owl. Peter Haan and I had attempted this roof last year, but failed at the lip. This time, I jammed out to the lip to find a chockstone with sling and carabineer had magically appeared since last year. It made the climb possible, though not a cinch. I thought it possible that I was doing a second or third ascent, though later found my ascent was the first. The chockstone had been placed on rappel by two climbers who were then unable to get past it. I began asking climbers in Yosemite and Tuolumne Meadows if there were many "doctored" routes done recently.

Informally surveying climbers on the history of any route brings forth a variety of stories. However, it seems climbers agree several routes in Yosemite are doctored. Chockstones have not often been placed, but holds have been sizably improved or created outright by first or later ascent parties on several routes. Among them, Outer Limits, New Dimensions and the Gripper. On these routes, the creative urge was apparently not in response to loose or dangerous flakes. The desire to make a line go free seemed to be the motive.

In addition to doctored routes, there are several with bolts placed on rappel from above. In Yosemite, Split Pinnacle was perhaps the first; more recently, the list extends to Stepping Out and the Nabisco Wall. Outer Limits is reported also to have a bolt placed from above, though primarily because of loose rock. In Tuolumne, several bolts were placed on rappel to do Hand Jive. There is no bad rock within miles of this climb. In the Tahquitz area, a new route called Duck Soup was also pro┬Čtected by placing bolts on rappel.

Finally, some of the climbers I have spoken with recently claim several routes have been done "aid-free." One version of the aid-free ascent involves placing pitons or bolts with help from the rope, then immediately free-climbing past them. Hoodwink and the Handbook, both in Tuolumne, were reportedly done in this manner. Another version of aid-free climbing is to aid climb a new line, leaving protection in appropriate places and return shortly thereafter to free climb the route while desperately clipping into the fixed protection. The prize is a first free ascent. A few climbers contend the aid bolts placed on Crack of Despair were placed with the intent of returning to free climb the route, though most disagree and feel the aid was placed with the sole intention of putting together an elegant and largely first free ascent. While agreement on Despair was not universal, most felt English Breakfast and Leany Meany were more certain examples of aid-free climbs.

While the evidence is not crystal clear or in great preponderance, it does seem there are at least some relatively new routes being done in a manner outside the ethical tradition of certain areas. For climbers who have helped establish the tradition, it is disturbing to see old norms unravel. One is tempted to become a referee. If there were a hand- book of rules for rock climbing, and if it were a purely competitive sport, unethical ascents would be clearly identified and not tolerated. No one would get onto the track with electric shoes. But when an essential purpose of climbing is to enjoy the personal experience, and when the rules are not set down in tableau style, the referee becomes a buffoon when he calls unfair or out-of-bounds. In such a setting, all that the defender of tradition can do is argue for the merit of the values he supports and hope others will agree.

The argument against doctoring routes, placing bolts on rappel or climbing in an aid-free manner has been stated many times in many places. Briefly, the argument contends that the challenge of establishing a route lies in surmounting difficulties by the act of climbing. The removal or alteration of the difficulty and unknown elements, whether by chopping holds, preplacing pitons and bolts or aid-free climbing, detracts from the merit of the climbing act. In the extreme, climbing up a ladder which rests against a wall makes the act of climbing less remarkable and meritorious than ascending the wall itself using natural holds. This is not to say a single chopped flake is equivalent to a ladder; but that the motive to subvert the challenge is there, and the resulting climb is less admirable for it.

Again, one can't dictate such values. Perhaps the desire for future first ascents will compromise traditional ethics. One can only hope climbs done in the best style will be admired and imitated in the future. Certainly my ascent of The Owl was no shining example. I should have removed the chock-stone and then tried the ascent.

Summit, 1973