Tricksters & Traditionalists Revisited: 2006

Article Index

Climbing Styles Revisited:
Where Now and Next?

Tom Higgins

When I wrote "Tricksters and Traditionalists" in 1984,1 climbing styles loomed so large and burning climbers first nearly came to blows over it in a Tuolumne parking lot. Erasing routes began. The Tuolumne guidebook featured multiple pages on contending styles of the day.

Now, with commonplace route working bouldering style, tension rests, bolts placed from above or on hooks, sport style seemingly ended the tension between traditional and all that wasn't. In fact, climbers calling themselves traditionalists, new or old, climb and enjoy plenty of sport routes. Isn't the style debate of yesteryear dead?
Apparently not. A review of recent climbing magazines, web site chatter and forums shows there are still two camps on styles picking at one another. The same old nagging erosion of comradeship and clarity in climbing persists. Maybe parking lot brawls have ended, but not the simmering war of ideas and wills.

After twenty years, don't climbers deserve better? What can be learned? What might bring calm and resolution? What follows isn't an old traditionalist's rant, but a search for settlement.

Styles: Not A Dead Issue

In spite of the obvious acceptance of sport climbing, the merit of contrasting traditional style now receives the same attention and energetic defense as twenty years ago when sport was trick. On the amicable side of the trad/sport divide, climbing websites (e.g. Supertopo, Tradgirl) provide the option of signing in as a "trad" climber, or climbers often voluntarily do so. Numerous posts suggest excitement about doing some traditional routes, fascination about how old and bold were done, and praise for traditional style. Within the last year or so, Climbing, Rock and Ice and Summit have run articles on "ethics" and "styles" describing the challenge and adventure associated with traditional styles.  In web site discussions of "best climber," nominations include John Gill, Royal Robbins, Lynn Hill in the U.S., and in Britain, John Dunne, climbers ascribing to traditional styles.2 In a PlanetFear post, we hear a typical pithy support for trad style, " … 5 years spent finessing their next micron grade advance  … hanging on the 4th bolt of Mecca … to most of us … is the big so what."
On the contentious side of the divide, the heat of twenty years ago marks the scene, especially when styles involve bolting. Some of the longest threads (ten pages or more) on Supertopo, Rock Climbing, Climbingboulder and NE Climbs web sites feature intense discussions of excessive sport bolting, bolting near cracks and retro-bolting of trad routes. "Braying jackass" is reserved for the leader of a party adding bolts to an exiting El Cap route to facilitate free climbing.4  In the North East, the addition of bolts to a 30 year old route without permission of the first ascent party (The Prow) brings controversy, as does the removal of a sport route in the vicinity of a traditional climb (Crack In The Woods). There, a secretive (but named) bolt remover roams, bringing praise and ire. In the U.K., about adding bolts to established routes where cams and nuts once did the job, a poster warns, "Why do you think there are no bolts on Pembroke limestone … it's because the moment a bolt is placed in that sacred stone, someone takes it out"5  

But bolting is not the only style issue riling climbers; pre-placed protection, long route working and new artificial tools add to the fire. Ascenders of a route in the Gunnison of Colorado6  using rock picks to advance indicate there are "appalled critics." The "king of Yosemite big wall free climbing"7  reminds us, "El Cap is for having fun … not for having fights and criticizing others" after grumblings about his falling "dozens of times," "fixing lines" and "top-roping" to do the Dihedral Wall free.8  Likewise, a recent free ascent of the Nose was greeted in Supertopo first by "Wow," then by "preplaced gear?" and "Skinner style ascent?" Posts wanting clarification on style often are not far behind reports of latest feats.9  A Supertopo poster reflects many opinions, "Some … were saying jugging up to a highpoint reached by previous … climbing … does NOT a free climb make."

The Regulatory Pandora's Box

More indication style issues aren't dead is the growth of climbing regulations, due in part to the volume of sport style bolting. In the Flatirons and Eldorado, (city and state land respectively), officials require permits for new bolted routes. At Joshua Tree, the National Park Service prohibits bolting in wilderness areas and power drilling altogether. Placements in non-wilderness areas require a permit. Devils Tower National Monument bans new fixed anchors. A proposal to ban fixed anchors in wilderness areas of all national forests is under consideration by the US Forest Service.10  In the Gunks, of course, land in the private reserve is simply off limits to bolts or pitons, except for replacement of fixed pieces put in before 1986. At Hueco Tanks, Texas, new bolting is prohibited and many areas are closed to climbing. Official "tour guides" must accompany limited numbers of climbers to permitted areas. The Pandora's box of official regulation is wide open.
In the face government regulation, climbers in some areas back into the corner of self regulation. In a discussion of climber's policing themselves in part to keep regulators at bay, authors of Tuolumne Free Climbs11  admit, regrettably, "yes, (bolt) chopping still occurs." Because of rising concerns from land managers at Pinnacles National Monument, climbers there have agreed to no more sport bolt routes, as the forthcoming new guidebook will state. Climbers around Boulder weigh the policing of their area organizationally. A web site for the Bolder area surveyed opinions about a possible climbers forum to protect "trad" cliffs such as Cob, Bell or Castle.12  Seventy seven percent favor the forum.

Why Can't We Just Have Fun?

So why won't the style dispute calm down? Why does the debate turn ugly with name calling, route altering or protection removal? Why can't both camps stop sniping, especially where there are regulatory consequences? Why, in short, can't we just have "fun?"

Though it is hard to see through all the sparks, both camps in the style debate give highest merit for key elements of a traditional free ascent - protection along the way and lowering without rope rests to start over after no or few falls.13  In fact, the reason sportsters keep at their repeated attempts, falls, hangs, preplaced gear and the like is to get - finally - an ascent without tension and falls. Both camps agree, then, the closer to a traditional free ascent, the higher the merit.

So what's the problem? The camps argue not about the final product of a traditional free ascent, but how it is attained and the resulting merit. Because styles made acceptable by sport climbing vary so much today, it's hard to know how (never mind if) a traditional free ascent was achieved. Without knowing, it's also hard to assign merit to the route creators; to feel good about reading about latest achievements in magazines, journals, guidebooks and web sites; to hear from and honor the game leaders; in short, to enjoy the sport in all its dimensions. Akin to the steroid controversy in baseball, uncertain means sour the game.

The bundle of means to an end now undermining clarity fills an entire page of a recent magazine. Close to traditional coined in "Tricksters and Traditionalists" are "onsight" and "flash" for getting a climb first go without falls, tension, practice or previewing. However, outside of these styles are others practiced to get the coveted "free" ascent:

- redpoint for making it without falling or tension, but usually after numerous attempts with falls and tension, sometimes with protection preplaced (pinkpoint)
- batmaning for gaining the highpoint by using the rope for continued attempts
- hangdog for falling repeatedly and resting on protection
- headpoint for leading after toprope practice, sometimes with preplaced protection.14 

No wonder the camps wrangle. Multiple means lead to multiple takes on the merit of how we climb. What could be more important to the joy of the game?

Time For Traction

One response to the style controversy is to discount it. After all, advocates of bamboo (versus graphite) pole fly fishing rave about the "spiritual experience" involved and "history and tradition that goes back 150 years."15  Aren't climbing style arguments the same, a kind of enduring, spirited sparring? No. Fly fisherman, cyclists or hang gliders rarely attack one another so concertedly or invite regulation by using a particular pole, bicycle or glider. Climbing style arguments are not just persistent but divisive, as the tone of web, journal and magazine discussions shows. The arguments also confuse measures of success and satisfying history.

How might things settle down? How to get traction? To start, climbers and their media should be more careful with their brains and tongues. Certain patently unsound positions need to rest:

From Sportsters:

- Rap bolting leads to less bolts. Writing in the 2005 AAJ, the creator of the first sport route on Fairview Dome recently claimed, "I do believe rap-bolting produced the better route with fewer bolts." Yet the bulk of rap bolt routes are done where it would be impossible or extremely difficult to place the bolts on lead without aid. For example, who can seriously argue Tuolumne as a whole would have fewer rather more bolts if rap bolting had not begun there? For example, the south end of Maroulmne Dome has about 200 bolts spread over routes within 50 to 100 yards (if your eyes can stand it, make your count from the guidebook, third edition). Most never would have been placed without rappelling or hanging on hooks. A climber defending rap bolting as reducing bolts needs to think not only about his or her route, but the door it opens to others to use the same technique across the entire area of the climb.

- Some routes whether bolted or sieged with regular hardware will not "go" any other way. First, the argument is contrary to years of climbing history. Any issue of the AAJ teaches today's impossible is tomorrows test piece and the future's cruise. In the latest, we learn of the first "flash" ascent of the NW Face of Half Dome, and repeat free ascents of the Nose route apparently in good style. Psychedelic Wall and Uncertainty Principle have yielded to onsight ascents.16  Second, and more importantly, it is exactly right that there will be rock which can't be done without sport technique, but climbers are under no obligation to climb everything and to think otherwise can damage the sport. Turning back before the fiftieth fall on a siege attempt off a web of fixed lines, before drilling another in a grid of bolts may be good not bad things. Such restraint may not only reduce berserk storming raining on the game but hold off regulators.

- Don't worry - it's all relative. Because acceptable styles vary across time and place, a favorite argument reads, "Almost all climbing - unless you go at it shoeless, naked and unroped - is aid." And if all is aid, what's the sense in worrying about rankling on "free" styles? This same reasoning followed upon "Tricksters and Traditionalists," pointing out "traditional" in the article itself was a collection of tricks, including chalk, sticky shoes, Friends and bolts themselves.17  Of course style issues are relative to time and place, but aside from pointing to the need for localized solutions, what's the conclusion? Should we all just laugh it off? Wishing, as they say, doesn't make it so. For better or worse, rock climbing is stuck with a persistent and divisive battleground. Poo-pooing the debate denies the dispute is real and centers on how we climb and use protection, not what we wear or dab on our hands.

From Traditionalists:

- Traditional climbing is good for your life. Claiming spiritual benefits from traditional climbing is akin to pouring gas on a fire. It may feel good but solves nothing. When a traditionalist contends style transfers benefit to one's life and make up, others only get mad. "Such careless treatment of the twin ideals of partnership and the meaning of the rope pisses me off. The rope is a religious icon to me …" Likely reaction: for religion, I'll go to church.  "What you learn in climbing can embolden you for what you face everyday in life." Likely reaction: are sport climbers inferior beings? Nor do vague assertions about the psychological ramifications of running it out or risking a bad fall advance the cause of those interested in preserving or advancing interest in traditional style. "The unconscious promise was that a trial by a big enough fire (referring to "sketchy runouts" and "miserable walls") would burn off our personal underbrush and unveil some special real estate "Likely reaction: If I need psychotherapy, I'll find a therapist.18 

-Death defiance equals growth. Mixing up traditional climbing styles of protection and rope reliance with death defiance not only doesn't provide a compelling rationale for the style, it smacks of an unconvincing ego trip. "Our Brotherhood (sic) values courage over technique because we believe that the risk of death is a necessary component of spiritual growth … when the threat of death urged me to give all of myself … courage won over doubt and I felt purified." Likely reaction: do I have to die to be a traditionalist? Or, more savagely, Why aren't more traditionalists dead?

From Huff and Puff To Resolution

Climbing is not fly fishing where the joy is precious but calm. Nor is it skiing whose pleasure is pure zoom. Nor is it sailing, skydiving, golf or a host of other sports. It is more because it fulfills more deeply. It has the satisfaction of making something because unlike the fish released, the ball flying, the snow tracked, a new climb is forever. Like choreography, it can be experienced again and again in the way it was first done. For years to come, each party puts hands and feet exactly where the first did because the creation is - literally - set in stone. After, each climber goes away judging and remembering the experience. Occasionally, they are awed. Further, climbs generate a written record set with numbers, lines and, sometimes, stars. If deserving, climbs and the creation story enter guidebooks. More complete tales are published and saved in personal and organizational libraries. Climbers gather, laugh, cry, share brews and remember. Legends and lore arise and stay.

For routes and deeds done to be understood, honored and remembered, the style of first ascent is critical. We care how the rock was traveled, when, with what protection, gear, attempts, falls, recoups and retreats. Styles of first ascents rather than a peripheral or merely personal matter are central to the entire merit and meaning of the game. For this reason, climbing deserves better than endless debate, never mind recriminations, retaliations and official regulation. Climbers for their own best and richest enjoyment need to agree on first ascent styles for their area; how the game will go; what's permitted and what isn't; and what will be told and logged, all so merit and history can be clear and meaningful. Climbing can be a lifelong pursuit, from beginnings when newcomers search for rules of the road, to days when health and youth allow filling up and making ones mark, to waning days when reflection and reading become the final joy. For each phase to make sense and render the most pleasure, consensus on styles is preferred to conflict, murky methods and high tension.

Specifically, climbers need to organize, agree on what is acceptable on particular cliffs and disseminate written resolutions through guidebooks, signs, web sites and regular meetings. In Pinnacles, NE and Colorado, meetings, forums and committees (voluntary or otherwise) are beginning vehicles for developing and revising bolting agreements, and staving off unreasonable restrictions. In the NE, for example, one respected local, Al Hospers, indicates periodic meetings of climbers are necessary and needed for maintaining consensus ("Valley" has become the traditional area and "Rumney" the sport area). In Britain, informal bolting agreements govern Stanage and Raven Tor. "No fixed anchors on grit. Then a few miles away, there's a cliff sporting bolts … almost anything goes. Such a balance should be revered."19

For agreements to stick as new climbers enter the game, there is need to go beyond occasional meetings and forums around flare ups. Worth considering are ongoing local committees formed through nominations and election processes used by the AAC or Access. As Dave Turnbull, British Mountain Council CEO states, "If complacency rules, then climbers will take the path of least resistance or a minority will take matters into their own hands. The results will be random and out of our control."20  Democracy isn't easy and free spirited climbers will find many reasons to oppose organization and agreements; but, a bit of democracy is better than righteous hullabaloo and ripe for consideration after twenty years of dogged consternation here and abroad.

Once such committees are formed and meeting regularly, they may strive for constructive agreements serving the interests of both traditional and sport climbers. Certainly bolting will figure high on the agenda. Agreements about bolt versus natural anchors, retro-bolting of traditional routes and bolts near cracks may receive attention. More generally, agreements might center on "trad zones" where the rock will be left completely alone for those preferring to do ground up routes and attempts, with or without bolts. Perhaps attention also will focus on walls to be left for the future - no climb zones. Each area will decide for itself what issues are important and how to address them. After agreements are stuck, they need to be added to guidebook introductions, noticed on signs and brochures for an area and posted regularly on web sites.

Depending on local preference, severity of differences and threat of regulation, committees might address a few particular issues, e.g. bolting, or an array of issues comprehensively. Limited agreements might start on protection and anchor bolting. A more comprehensive approach might include setting standards for ascents to be included in area guidebooks and histories. Suppose, for example, a committee agrees to first ascent guidebook credit only for routes done on lead with no weighting of the rope except for descent to an unweighted stance or beginning of a pitch for another attempt (or for retreat, of course). Attempts are unlimited, but not use of tension - a less stringent but similar approach used in climbing competitions where no tension and only one attempt is allowed.21  Pre-placed protection (bolts or otherwise) might be allowed or not, depending on the cliff or wall area. Where cliffs are packed with routes, remaining opportunities scarce, tensions high between sportsters and trads, and land mangers hovering with regulation threats, committees might agree to stringent standards; elsewhere, less stringency might apply.

Agreements centered on style for guidebook credit will curtail squabbling about best first ascents deserving and undeserving of inclusion in the guide; or ambiguous, strained attempts at comparing the achievements of those climbing in different or unknown styles over time. As well, the associated problems of "grid" bolting, trails to everywhere, scrubbing and the like also are diminished with lowered incentives to climb everywhere by any means. The point is not whether the example approach above is too restrictive or infeasible. Each area can decide all the variables for themselves. The key point is the entire spectrum of style issues - first ascent credit, clear history, route preservation and environmental impacts - can be tackled by organization and agreement on standards for first free ascents in guidebooks.

In Sum

- The style of rock climbing continues to be contentious, with no sign of arguments and actions abating.
- The two factions in the game, traditionalists and sportsters, appear less interested in resolving the debate than sending it to screeching heights.
- Climbers deserve better than they are getting in the clash of styles, both for their personal enjoyment and for the long term history and interpretation of the sport.
- Much needed is attention to stable, standing, area climbing organizations agreeing on bolting and more general climbing styles, including encouraging such styles through guidebook first ascent attribution and histories.

Another twenty years will tell the tale. Style warring will persist or moderate not through wrangling but agreements.

1. Ascent, 1984.
2. See Rock and Ice 138, Summit 36 and Climbing, July 2005.
3. "Best Climber in the World," by Ian Parnell, from July 2, 2003.
4. "Weenie Boy" post, Supertopo, December 10, 2005.
5.  Mick Ryan, October, 2004,
6.  AAC Journal 2005.
7.  Bill Wright summarizing California climbs in AAC Journal, 2005.
8.  "Dihedral Perspectives," Tommy Caldwell, AAC Journal, 2005.
9.  Supertopo, October 26.
10.  AAC Access News, 11/22/05.
11.  Supertopo, 2003.
12.  See "Community" under
13.  In the days before the two camps evolved (roughly the mid 70's), "free" then didn't necessarily mean no falls and never before attempted, but did mean no or minimal falls, no rope rests on any attempts, and generally few attempts.
14.  For a worthy but eye glazing attempt at sorting out the terms, see Summit 36.
15.  "Master fly rod builders …," San Franciso Chronicle, December  18, 2005.
16.  "Yosemite Valley, Big Wall Onsights," Alpinist Climbing Notes, 12/12/2005.
17.  Letter from Jeff Achey, Climbing, 1985.
18.  All quotes in paragraph are from various authors in Rock and Ice, December 2004.
19.  Kevin Thaw in Summit #35.
20.  "Big Issues, The State of British Climbing," Summit 35.
21.  See Rules 2005, UIAA International Climbing Competitions.

 Source: Unpublished Pondering