Reflections On Styles

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Reflections On Climbing Styles

ANYONE WHO HAS CLIMBED one or more of the new, difficult routes created by the latest generation of climbers must have come away more than respectful of these recent achievements. Whether the new routes be in California, Colorado, New York or elsewhere, they are often more bold, sustained or technically difficult than the hardest routes of even a few years ago. Free-climbing in Yosemite, Tuolumne and Tahquitz, about which I am most familiar, has entered a period of tremendous advance, with more achievements to come.

Yet, many members of the latest climbing generation admit that some of this progress has come by means of modifications of previously acceptable free-climbing styles, and it seems at least some new free styles are here to stay. To cite an example: rightly or wrongly, I chopped the bolts from a free-route in Tuolumne a few years ago, because they were all placed on rappel. My intention was to provide Tuolumne climbers, including myself, with the opportunity to climb the route in traditional style. These bolts were recently replaced, again on rappel. Perhaps the motive was spite, but, just as likely, it derived from a belief that creating routes on rappel is sometimes acceptable. Whatever the case, the lesson is clear: no free-climbing style will forever be held up as acceptable, and some styles once thought to be improper will not always be considered so. I have concluded that the debate about climbing style is therefore essentially useless if its objective is to persuade the majority of climbers to conform with certain free styles.

If it is useless to protest certain free-climbing styles, let us hope it is not useless to ask that descriptions of new routes, in guidebooks or articles, include information on climbing style. It is no longer sufficient to say that a route was done 'free', because the term simply does not convey the same meaning as it once did to those interested in subsequent ascents. Free ascents sometimes now involve such strategies as pre-protection, previewing, doctoring and sieging. Because of this, subsequent ascent parties are likely to encounter unexpected trouble or even danger (i.e. be sandbagged) without information about the style of an ascent. Also, there is no way to gauge the merit of an ascent without information on style, and, like it or not, we all receive and give admiration and respect in climbing, according to our perceptions of how a route was done. As it is no longer enough to know that a mountain was climbed until we know if the ascent was alpine or siege, so it is not enough to know if a route was done free until we know about its style of ascent.