How do YOU like it? Fast or slow?

© Alex Messenger

Johnny Dawes tucks into the BMC and Climbers Club free food.  © Alex Messenger
Johnny Dawes tucks into some food from the BMC and Climber's Club. But is it fast food? © Alex Messenger
Do you like to grab a burger or are you the sort who prefers to wait for a slow-cooked casserole? A strange question perhaps for an article about climbing, but it's relevant to a new understanding of that old battleground - the comparative merits of traditional and sport climbing.

As even the definition of 'climbing' seems disputed by some particularly entrenched combatants, let me be clear that by climbing I simply mean the physical act of movement up/across/down rock. It's irrelevant whether it involves placing gear or not – that's why we have two different words:  'trad' and  'sport'. It seems petty to try and make any other meaning fit. 

As a fresh faced top-roper I was innocent of the lines drawn until I started to become conscious of mutterings: off-hand, often bitchy, comments. 'But it's all just climbing', I thought. 'What's the fuss about?' Two years on and I've a better understanding of the squabble. Good news - I think I've found a way to negotiate a sort of peace.

Try this: think of sport climbing as 'fast food' and trad as 'slow food'. Work with me on this. It's not as crazy as it sounds. I'm talking about convenience food on the one hand, and those lovingly imagined, prepared and savoured Nigella experiences on the other. 

It's all to do with mindset; what we want out of the sport. And it's undeniable that there are advantages to 'convenience' food. Some of us can't be bothered to cook. We're not fussed about how to make a pizza and don't need to know exactly what it's made of: we just want something to satisfy us, quickly. 

When I started climbing I was entranced by the sheer physical energy of it and the personal challenge of finding my way to the top. I just wanted to climb – and the more climbing I did, the more I enjoyed the momentum of the act as well as the quick-fire decisions and the instinctive reactions. I liked it because I didn't have to think about it too much.

My first experience of trad climbing left me frustrated  - it seemed to involve hours of hanging around, and the frequent halts to take out bits of gear spoilt my pleasure. I was clear that sport climbing was what I wanted to do – and I spent many happy hours at Portland. I wanted that sense of immediate satisfaction: I wanted a full belly.

But I went back to trad and, over time, it's started to make more sense to me.  I'm beginning to see something different and (dare I say it) more rounded is offered by trad. It's a process I can have a say in - what I eat, where I eat and how I eat. 

Pete Robins - Sandwiches at Bas Cuvier - did he eat it all at once?  © Jack Geldard
Pete Robins - Sandwiches at Bas Cuvier - did he eat it all at once?
© Jack Geldard, May 2008

Dragon Cam 1  © UKC-Gear
Jack Geldard having a true trad climbers lunch...
To wring all I can out of this analogy, I would say a climber's rack are the ingredients; the rock's features – the cracks, fissures, choke-stones, threads and sticky-out bits- are the cooker; placing gear is the cooking process, or the preparation if you will (stay with me on this, it will turn out all right in the end), and climbing is the savouring of the meal.

Placing gear requires intense scrutiny and an understanding of the nature of the rock – limestone and grit are as different as hot chilli peppers and sweet capsicum. The whole process demands a different approach- slower and patient; thought is needed about what each step will add to the meal.  Decisions are made right from the start about the process and ingredients- from where to belay and where the route should go, to how much gear to put in and what gear – some of us like to have control over the size of portions, the texture of our mash, and the hotness of our curry. And it's a continuous learning experience - during a route the trad climber increases her knowledge of the whole process but like any cook, there's the risk that if she gets the mix wrong, it could be a disaster. It could be inedible. The soufflé may be flat; the cakes burnt. All the gear could rip out.

Trad climbing has more layers of challenge to it; gear placement has to be as good as, if not better than, climbing skill. There's a great satisfaction to be had in both the making and eating of the meal. A ready-bolted route makes the climb a 'ready-made' meal. A sports climber will just snaffle down the finished article, not caring about the origin of the snack- someone else has done the cooking: someone else has decided how it will taste. 

And that's the limitation here for the sports climber – the recipe (route) has already been decided; the ingredients and how much of each is used depends someone else's experience and taste buds. 


"Big Mac with cheese and a round of fries please."

...Left hand up, finger edge, hang it. Clip. Right foot oout, left foot up, snatch undercut with right.

"Do you want some ketchup?"

"Yeh, ketchup and pickle?"

...Power up. Clip. Finger edge with left, share. Right foot in dimple.

"Oh 'n' throw in a thickshake - strawberry."

...Left foot smear. Left hand up for a tiny.

"Have a nice day!"

...Rock into finger edge. Jug with right. Lock. Lock. Grab belay.

"Jeez. I still feel empty."

By Craig Smith, first published in On The Edge Magazine 16

I would stick my nose out and say sport climbing is about instant gratification, and, like eating a ready-made meal, it's all over very quickly. sport climbing is climbing for its own sake - the success and enjoyment of the challenge is measured by the finish - by the full belly. 

This approach has its dangers - the rock and the environment are seen as only a means to that end, not integral to the whole experience.  If you're living on a diet of convenience food then you don't really know or care where the ingredients are from, never mind what they are – as long as it's satisfying and tastes good. 'Slow food' requires an understanding of, and a respect for both the ingredients and the cooking process. 

But it's not all bad. A real attraction of fast food is its cheapness, which doesn't have to be a bad thing. Climbing is an expensive sport. Just buying shoes, harness, and rope is costly - buying a full rack is painful. So it makes the sport more accessible if all that's needed are quick draws, slings and a few karabiners. There are times I don't want to lug my crammed rucksack to the bottom of a crag, spend hours trying to find a route, don two ropes and half a ton of gear, and then walk half a mile to find a decent belay point at the top – when all I want to do is just climb.  

There are criticisms from both sides about the comparative amount of strength, stamina and endurance involved in each. Trad climbers complain about the sports climbers 'easy life' – how they can 'take': resting to regain strength, look at the moves ahead, and change their position on the rock. I have some sympathy with this - look at it from their point of view: it's like going down the pub in the middle of making a hollandaise sauce. And I wouldn't like to encourage comparisons – there's little difference between the pain felt from oven burns and the pain of a burnt mouth from eating a pie straight from the microwave– they hurt just as much as each other. 

Don't get me wrong. This isn't to ignore the fact that we all have different tastes and we can eat a varied diet from different sources. I've had takeaway fish and chips this week, been out to a restaurant and also cooked a two-course meal. Like everything, it's all about balance  - and most trad climbers I know are quite happy to do a spot of sport climbing.

And, when I'm fed up with walking uphill with rucksack weighing 14kg on my small frame, feeling like a beast of burden, I sometimes even consider becoming a fruitarian - a soloist – which involves no preparation or cooking AND it's free. 

fishinwater  © fishinwater
© fishinwater
Sarah Flint (aka fishinwater) writes a bit, climbs a lot and prefers to be outside rather than in some office staring at a computer.

She got bored with her previous obsession, gardening, a few years ago, and found the strength and fitness developed in the 13 years she had been head gardener, suited climbing perfectly. Since then she's been greedy to cram as much climbing experience into her life as possible.

Where before she wrote about vegetables, she now likes to write about all things climbing and is keen to share the learning curve of her new addiction. She's based in the south west which is ideal for popping out to a crag before lunch and whenever the addiction calls.

She has a blog on called 'Off the Wall' which is mostly about how not to climb.

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22 Oct, 2009
"I think I've found a way to negotiate a sort of peace." From this opening line I was expecting a level handed argument not a regurgitation of trad snobbery. As she states climbing should be defined as the physical act of moving across the rock face, therefore the feast is in the movement and not the gear placement. I believe the analogy makes more sense if you refer to the cooking method. A trad climber uses a Victorian stove to cook the same meal that the sport climber cooks on their modern appliance. If a trad climber enjoys the rose tinted pleasure of cooking the old fashioned way then by all means feel your boots but don’t look down your nose at people who have found a way to enjoy the same meal using a modern oven.
22 Oct, 2009
That's a rubbish analogy that completely misses the point of sport climbing, IMHO. Take Rich Simpson doing Action Directe as an example: months and months of specific training, learning of movement engrams appropriate to that angle and that style of rock, long hours practicing the moves, learning the subtle nuances of the rock and the holds and how they respond to humidity, and getting the movement precise enough to the extent where he could do it but only when conditions were exactly right - working towards that precise confluence of factors - this is supposed to be convenience food?! The two problems in the article IMHO are 1) that despite protestations to the contrary it looks at all climbing like it's supposed to be about placing gear, and 2) that it's view of sport climbing is the convenience bolt-clipping view of sport climbing - ie. onsighting well within your grade on bolts.
22 Oct, 2009
A random article which seems to be a thinly disguised pro trad rant against sport climbing even though it claims to balance "the comparative merits of traditional and sport climbing"... Rich Simpson was a great example but also think back to Ben Moon who was trying what became Northern Lights for 4 years without success... hardly your burger and fries at the drive thru!
22 Oct, 2009
Take a poor analogy then roll out and stretch until breaking point. Result? A tedious and hackneyed comparison between sport and trad.
22 Oct, 2009
I was reading an article last night by Steve McClure about the amount of effort he spent on Overshadow. Convenience - NOT Therein lies sport climbing's problem - the term has been hijacked. We need to coin a third term that means 'conveniance climbing' which won't hurt the sensitivities of the participants. Graham: a trad and part time convenience bolt clipper.
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