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.

How might route-descriptions include information about style? Perhaps one way to begin is to categorize and name the varieties of free-climbing styles, so that some common language might develop to convey style information. As I understand the varieties of new free-climbing styles (some are old styles, of course), they fall into the four aforementioned categories: pre-pro-tection, previewing, doctoring and sieging.
Pre-protection involves controlling the difficulty of free-climbing by at least two distinct means. One is the placement of protection on rappel, before first climbing the route. The protection may be fixed, as in the case of a bolt, or removed by the last team member on a climb. Obviously this particular strategy, if unrevealed, puts uninformed, subsequent ascent parties at a disadvantage.

The second main pre-protection strategy involves aiding a section of a climb, then immediately freeing the section with all the protection in place - so-called 'aid-free' climbing. On blank rock, for example, a team may put in a few bolts by standing on each bolt to place the next. Once the bolts are in, the party free-climbs past them. There is a fine distinction between this type of climbing and the freeing of a bolt ladder first placed with only the intention of aid-climbing. But there is a difference: the one strategy consciously uses aid-climbing to make free-climbing possible, the other does not. Where the protection is by bolts, preprotection does not make subsequent ascents dangerous, but it does remove the opportunity for others to try a first ascent with fewer or no bolts. However, where aid-free climbing is done with nuts, which are removed by the last team member, then subsequent ascent parties are truly sand¬bagged if they have no information about the style of the ascent.

Previewing ascents also takes at least two forms. In one version, the party rappels the route to be done, and examines or even tries out hard sections. Sometimes this is done in conjunction with the cleaning out of cracks or removal of lichen. In another version, the new route is first top-roped, so that all the moves are rehearsed. In cither case, the challenges of the first ascent or first free ascent are entirely different to those of subsequent ascents done without previewing. Again, in fairness, route descriptions should include mention of previewing, so that climbers are alerted to probable difficulties.

Doctoring may involve fixing chock-stones, chopping holds or making other physical alterations to the rock. Doctoring first ascents causes little danger to subsequent ascent parties but much alarm to climbers who had attempted the route before it was done with doctoring. For these climbers, as well as others who might wonder why the climb was not done earlier by seemingly capable climbers, it is important that the route-description should include reference to any doctoring. Here, it is in fairness to earlier aspirants that climbers should reveal the style of their ascent.

Sieging used to refer mainly to the fixing of ropes on long aid-climbs to allow easy access to high-points. But now there are a variety of free-climbing styles which might be called sieging because they involve various ways of husbanding resources by skipping over the climbing of certain route sections.

Yo-yoing is one such siege tactic, in which the leader climbs until he or she is exhausted, then falls off, rests, hand-walks the rope to the high-point and proceeds to climb again. In one version, the leader remains the same. In another, the belayer and leader swap positions. This strategy, when used as a way of saving strength during the placement of several protection bolts on a hard, crackless lead, probably need not be revealed in route-descriptions. But when done repeatedly where nut protection is being placed, particularly when the lead is switched, it is only fair that subsequent ascent parties be alerted to the tactic. Information to the effect that "the Xth pitch was yo-yoed on the first ascent" should suffice in the route-description.

Another siege tactic sometimes employed on longer free-routes is for one or more team members to jumar large portions of the climb, so as to save strength for their leads. A commonly accepted version is for each climber in a two-man team to climb only half of a new, hard, first free-ascent. In extreme cases, the 'gang-bang' brigade jumar pitches which they might not be able to climb even at full strength under best conditions. Here, the specialist pops off on to the rock and free-climbs a pitch which others of the team jumar. In such cases, any one member of a team may climb only a small fraction of the route. Again, the technique must be revealed, so that other climbers can understand what has taken place.

The final siege tactic with which I am familiar involves breaking up a particularly difficult pitch into one or more pitches by means of hanging belays. This is apparently not a widely used tactic, but, even if occasionally used to make a section go free, it can befuddle uninformed climbers.

All these climbing strategies, coupled with the great abilities of the new generation of climbers, will continue to create incredible new free-climbs in years to come. Some will bemoan these strategies, call them unethical, and not accept them. For the moment, I think it is better to argue for and against whatever styles we each believe in, but hold no false hopes for the conversion of anyone to our preferences. The only styles against which we really should rage are those which prevent other climbers from climbing in his or her preferred style. Of all the styles discussed here, perhaps only doctoring and aid-free bolting prevent others from having the opportunity to climb on undisturbed rock. The tactics have only private consequences as far as the rock is concerned, though the climbing difficulty encountered by subsequent parties will be affected by these styles if the climb is merely given a rating and described as a 'free ascent'. For this reason, it is important that route-descriptions reveal information about pre-protection, reviewing, doctoring and sieging. 

A discussion about the ethics and attitudes of the current American rock-climbing scene, illustrated by photos of a number of recent hard routes.

Mountain # 53, Date Jan/Feb, 1977