OPINION - Commercialisation: Changing the Face of Climbing

© adidas

To kick off a new 'Opinion' column on UKC, we go back to the age-old ethics debate of bolting: when and where is it appropriate, and how is commercialisation affecting the traditional ethics of climbing and mountaineering?

Let us be clear, bolting is, in certain cases, a necessary evil and is here to stay. I think we might all agree that in a perfect world, bolting and the wider environmental impact certain climbing techniques inflict would not exist. We would leave no spittled chalk, no rubber streaks, no tired rock. All climbing, we must accept, has an impact and there is a responsibility on every participant to limit it.

A volcanic pillar on the island of São Tomé and Príncipe, featured in a recent Adidas video  © adidas
A volcanic pillar on the island of São Tomé and Príncipe, featured in a recent Adidas video
© adidas

However, where these limits should lie are sensitive – we have had this debate. Messner, Chouinard, Wilson, Edwards, The Cornish, they’ve all had their say. The parametres of what is acceptable are subjective, however, even in this present day much can still be said for Messner’s ‘Murder of the Impossible’; are the limits of climbing pushed by our own courage, or by a willingness to assault a cliff with bolt and drill?

That said, Lito Tejada-Flores (in a seminal essay, ‘Games Climbers Play’, that should be read and studied with all the fervor of learning to tie a fig. 8) defined ethics in a neat package back in 1967; that as objective risk increases the number of restrictions one places on themselves can decrease. For a boulderer, with fewer objective risks, it is accepted that items such as a mat and shoes are the acceptable limits of an ethical ascent. For the expedition climber, everything is fair game; bolts, radios, helicopters, ladders. And this scale slides depending on the ‘game’ a climber wishes to partake in.

This debate of how and where to set this limit is healthy, and in fact necessary. Climbing is a beautifully autonomous activity, so much so that we as a community are the only people who can hold ourselves to account. It’s a decade old debate and the battle lines are very clearly drawn.

For the first time since its inception, though, we are standing on the edge of a precipice. A new challenger has appeared on the horizon and we seem unable yet to entirely make out its detail. Modern day climbing cannot be considered anarchic, nor subversive. It is not the 1970s sub-culture that actively resists assimilation into the societal ‘norm’. Mountain culture is reaching an audience and participant like never before. And when the likes of Adidas and Nike begin cashing in from the desires of the populace you know you’ve made it to the big time.

Such commercialisation is changing the face of the sport, reducing its complexity and history down to such grey, one dimensional ‘musak’ as to render it part of the broader static buzz of everyday life. Suddenly we’re amongst new territory, a place where Simpson and Yates may as well be a publishing firm and Messner’s mountain firsts are apparently still up for grabs. Commercialisation is reductive and will eventually consume itself. It cares not for the richness of feeling, for the lived experience of the community, but only for profit and will pillage both the mountain community and the mountain environment for all its worth.

Enter, not from stage right, but from the depths of a trapdoor in the floor: a recent short video published and sponsored by Adidas – Gareth Leah and Sergio Almada bolt a new big-wall line up the 455m face of Pico Cão Grandé in São Tomé. A video that makes no apologies for cutting from shot to shot to shot of drilling and hammering. Tone is everything and the edit sets an uncomfortable one which does not do justice to the sensitivity of bolting on such a remote location. The style of the ascent is at odds with the location; a pristine and unspoilt wilderness that is laid low by an all-out assault on the rock (over 200 bolts on 455m of rock).

'A video that makes no apologies for cutting from shot to shot to shot of drilling and hammering.'  © Adidas
'A video that makes no apologies for cutting from shot to shot to shot of drilling and hammering.'
© Adidas

The ‘Big Wall Game’, as Tejada-Flores defines it, is ‘characterised by the prolonged periods of time spent on the walls and by the fact that each member of the party does not have to climb every lead […] The full technical and logistic equipment range is allowed.’ So, for the purposes of assessing whether São Tomé was ‘ethical’ or not, one can clearly see that no margins were crossed, the ethics themselves are broadly correct – if a little unsettling to watch – and the basic principles of a big wall ascent were followed.

The problem however lies within its portrayal, and the reductive tone the film sets. What Adidas are condoning, and indeed profiting from, is the systematic destruction of a pristine natural environment. The ascent might be ethical, but was it stylish? Screaming 200 odd bolts into rock and crawling upwards. But more importantly for the mountain community is that this commercialisation is happening so quickly that the historic ethical debates that our sport is founded upon are being lost amongst a whirlwind of quick to produce and quick to consume media. When Adidas publish a film on a new route in São Tomé that displays a complete disregard for the sensitivity of bolting ethics, we must all raise our heads and take notice. Not because bolting is inherently unethical, but because it is portrayed in such a reductive way to such a large audience that it lays out our sport and the values it holds in the entirely wrong light. It forewarns of a future where generations of future climbers have no understanding of ethics, of style or of impact.

Business has no interest in the edginess or culture of climbing, it wants to package it down in as neat a box as possible and sell it to as many laymen as possible. Make no mistake, such a film is advertising, and serves to commercially benefit the company. It does not serve to develop the cultural vibrancy of the community and does not take any interest in the ethical debates that our history is founded upon. Such content will continue to reduce our sport until it is on its knees, has no dignity, no ethics and no direction before steamrollering forward on its merry way.

Clearly, such organisations are not going to attach a recommended reading list to every product or media item they publish. It is, therefore, up to us to keep such debates current and keep our values alive for new participants. The likes of Wilson and his contemporaries are still as relevant as ever and must be at the forefront of all our minds in the face of this new adversary; one that risks destroying the very history and tradition that our community is built upon. Tejada-Flores, and the rest, are the vibrancy of culture that accompanies climbing, and in the same way that we are accountable for our own codes and values, so too are we accountable in ensuring that our story and the ethical debates that shape it are not lost amongst the modern day white noise that threatens to make us forget who we are.

We contacted Gareth Leah to hear about the film from his perspective. He commented:

'I read the comments on the UKC forum and can honestly understand where people are coming from. It's the odd thing about opening new routes, people are quick to cast judgement though almost none of those doing so have ever opened a new route or been to the location in particular to understand. It's very easy to cast opinion when you've never actually been in those shoes. For this route in particular, sure the route has bolts, however, much of the route has massive sections that are unprotectable with traditional gear (the first 3 pitches for sure) and in the places where the climbing is easier, you still can't fall, the bolts would act more to stop you dropping off the cliff rather than avoiding injury. 

It's true that maybe the video did not do its best at portraying the entire story and its struggles, mainly due to the fact that the storms don't allow the cameras to be out so it could seem like a holiday vacation with some gung-ho bolters. This is far from the reality. Nor does this video touch on the fact there are many bolts on other attempted routes on this peak that are unfinished. To me, this article seems like a badly researched piece that is a direct attack on the ethic based on nothing more than a couple of shots.

There have been several unsuccessful attempts of the route since we established it which would be worth looking into, I'm sure they can shed some light on the route at hand and the conditions there.'

Watch the video below:

13 Feb, 2017
Totally and utterly agree with this. When I think of 'Red Bull' and 'climbing' together, I want to throw up. However I have considerable sympathy with Gareth Leah. I didn't know that there were other attempted (and bolted) lines on the peak, nor that there have been failed second ascents. So - where exactly are we now re Gareth Leah's route and the 'local ethic'? He's dead right that few people criticising the style of new routes have done significant amounts of new routing themselves. I've placed somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 bolts and I can tell you two things. It's bloody knackering placing bolts and surviving the attentions of many dozens (hundreds?) of loose blocks whizzing around can be extremely fraying on the nerves. And that's just at ground level in England! I wouldn't have wanted to be up on that peak - it gave off a kind of 'Troll Wall in the Tropics' vibe - a dangerous place. Mick
13 Feb, 2017
I can understand what Mick says, but there's a mindset that says "we're taking drills and hundreds of bolts to guarantee success" that's totally at odds with most people's definition of adventure. For complete contrast, how about Pat Littlejohn's Dark Safari (600m E6) on the N Face of Poi in northern Kenya
13 Feb, 2017
Anyone else loving the irony?
13 Feb, 2017
Perhaps the use of bolts like this suggests that it should remain unclimbed.
13 Feb, 2017
"should", according to whom? I'm a huge advocate of adventure in climbing and the use of 'clean' methods wherever possible, but I have to admit that there are some rocks that simply don't lend themselves to anything other than a bolted style. Tsaranoro in Madagascar is a very good example - there really would be not a single route there without at least some bolts, and consequently this magnificent climbing ground would simply not exist as a climbing objective. Not now and not ever. Contrast that with many of the tepuis I've climbed in Venezuela where, by and large, routes are protectable without drilling, as long as you're prepared to accept long runouts and big uncertainty. Trying to fit all of the rocks in the world into the same ethic not only wouldn't work, but its lack of targeted reasonableness would lead to a lack of respect for the ethic/style/rule itself, which inevitably would lead to plenty of people rebelling. Imaging declaring that it's only reasonable to drive at 40mph max, based on a life lived in urban environments. There's a whole world of motorway out there that simply doesn't fit the experience nor the approach. Whether this particular rock is one that could reasonably only be climbed by extensive bolting is a question I'd leave to those who have actually been there and tried to climb it.
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