Mixed Climbing, why, what, where?

© Laurence Gouault
Stevie Haston has an article series at UKClimbing.com - The World of Stevie Haston.

Stevie is sharing his climbing life, from the very beginnings described in this first article, through the slate scene of North Wales in the 1980's, passing by the valley of Chamonix and his cutting edge alpine ascents and landing firmly at the World class sport climbing achievements that have shot him once again to fame in the last couple of years.

Stevie's climbing life started properly back in the 1970's and his climbing CV is virtually unparalleled. For a full run down of his climbing life see this UKC Article: Stevie Haston - The Timeline.

His previous articles in this series have been:

This article series is supported by Grivel, one of Stevie's sponsors. There is a message from them below.

Grivel UK  © Grivel

A message from Grivel:

Grivel have produced climbing equipment since 1818; we are now 190 years old. Our headquarters are in Courmayeur, Italy, at the foot of the highest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc.

Our company is considered to be one of the world's leading brand names in mountaineering equipment producing crampons, ice axes and ice screws. We also design and manufacture helmets, rucksacks and last year introduced a range of quickdraws and karabiners.

We want to maintain our traditions, keeping in touch with our mountains and the men who challenge them.

We are proud to be a sponsor of this series of six articles by Stevie Haston at UKClimbing.com, and hope you enjoy the third one, GGG...Gogarth! below.

Stevie Haston - taken from his blog 'Rime Rimed Tec Specs' - March 2010  © Laurence Gouault
Stevie Haston - taken from his blog 'Rime Rimed Tec Specs' - March 2010
© Laurence Gouault

Mixed Climbing, why, what, where?

Climbing is the most diverse and diverting sport I know, that's why I love it. It ranges from tiny insignificant boulders, to mighty Himalayan giants, and it encompasses many skills and levels of sporting fitness: it is complete in itself, and outside the mundane controlled world that most of us are forced to live.

Climbing is in a way, the anarchical rebel yell against the stifling ordinariness of the human matrix. You know this. But do you? Do Boulderers who ponder sit down starts understand the greater whole? Do the career alpinists worry about the commercialisation of golden ice encrusted spires? Do mixed climbers worry about the scratches that they leave?

Climbers are generally reasonable fun-loving people with a great deal of respect for the natural world but occasionally they are just as selfish and almost as stupid as the common heard. The generation of climbers that I grew up in and those before, traditionally had a very wide base of climbing and understood many aspects of the sport. Today we have climbers who will never get outside of a climbing wall on the one hand, and pros who drive around in high powered cars on the other caring about nothing accept their popularity ratings. There is often no middle ground or meeting, there is no sympathy or understanding. Discussions about ethics or problems are decided by the self interested people on the internet, if they discuss at all and it doesn't dissolve into raging abuse, and a popularity contest.

Well my fellow climbers, we should try a little harder. If we don't want our sport lost, or changed, or imposed on, we should try and agree among ourselves before things are taken away from us.

Mixed climbing is a very traditional part of our sport, it is the link between rock and ice, it is the magic middle ground that can open the door to the pleasure of 'full set conditions' on splendid poetic peaks of power and majesty. Mixed climbing also damages rock unfortunately, and here we have a problem to solve. Mixed climbing is very popular and is in Scotland one of the cornerstones of our sport, it is something Brits have a right to be proud of because it has always been done here. Many innovations took place in Britain, from the Pterodactyl, the Snowdon Mouldings fibreglass shafted axe to the Vulture axe.

All climbers damage and erode the thing we love, just look at Stanage Edge! Stanage looks appalling, it's a victim of its accessibility. Is Snowdon as beautiful as it once was, obviously not. But we let these things continue, through laziness, or an inability to agree.

Recently we have had climbers mixed climbing at Millstone Edge to the considerable consternation of most climbers, and the dawning of an appreciation that some climbs in Scotland are really dry tooling. If this continues, and I am sure it will, we will have a big problem. Many cliffs all over the world have been taken away from the climbing community, often for spurious reasons. Archaeologists want to earn money digging up rare plants and disturbing nesting birds, but that can be ok, even when they find nothing. But a great climber at the peak of his powers leaves just a few scratches on a seldom climbed buttress of rock and it is deemed deplorable.

Hill walkers have left more scratches on Bristly Ridge and Crib Goch than recent dry toolers. But it will get worse, so now is the time to start thinking about it. Another problem is that the evolution of equipment has rendered mixed climbing much easier and this, coupled with a greater understanding of techniques, will lead to more people doing it, after all it is fun and a very traditional part of British climbing.

There have been a few meetings around the country trying to discuss what are viable objectives for mixed climbing, but these have proved fruitless. In Europe it has proved a lot easier to gain some consensus, and decisions about climbing are made by climbers. Crags are allocated or agreed as dry tooling venues, and are set up and established. There are even crampon and axe crags, and only axe crags, an interesting innovation more similar to a climbing wall situation. There are cliffs with hanging stalactites of wood, that I find fun and very realistic, and so do lots of other users. The popularity of some of these cliffs is interesting in that ten teams are very common, and people have a lot of fun and progress very quickly. The other plus is naturally there are no weather or conditions necessary, all year round climbing is possible, and best of all no early starts.

Stevie Haston with a brand new, very lightweight, super-axe from Grivel  © Laurence Gouault
Stevie Haston with a brand new, very lightweight, super-axe from Grivel
© Laurence Gouault
In Britain we have some dry tooling cliffs, but probably not enough, but why not? It's partly because we think of dry tooling as a foreign and unnecessary fad, something un-British and therefore wrong. But we have always had dry tooling in Britain we just called it mixed climbing and got on with it. Most of the hard routes in Scotland are dry tooling by another name. They have always been dry tooling; we are deluding ourselves to think that 3 centimetres of melting rime is anything but a thinly veiled excuse.

So it's about time that firstly we recognised our own hypocrisy and then made some decisions about what is reasonable. Climbing is full of storms in tea cups, of flaming passion about minor infringements of ethics but we are often blind to the more important things. Overuse at Stanage, guided and group hogging of cliffs, tribes of bematted boulderers ruining ordinary walkers' dreams of a country walk by their Cirque du Soleil antics and accoutrements.

Climbers are good at self regulation and often come up with excellent compromise proposals, witness the way we get on with bird protection organisations. There are fairly strict laws concerning birds, but no real laws against damaging rock, but a case of criminal damage on private property would be very likely to succeed. The damage to rare plants in Scotland, Wales and the Lakes is very real and we need to think about certain routes in particular. To put it into perspective though, a major road development, a ski station, or even the increase of car-park size in National Parks is more of a danger, and much more of an eyesore.

So is scratching the rock with axes and crampons so terrible after all? Is it one of those things like chalk marks that we need to just keep our mouths shut as it's a price we pay to broaden the athletic endeavour of our sportsmen and sport? Well clearly yes and no. Just as chalk marks can become excessive so can the damage to rock.

Some rock climbs are not very good anyway, being too grassy and wet to provide a challenge to modern rock-climbers, and it is normally these climbs that make the best challenges for mixed climbers . There was definitely not much to worry about until the Scottish elite tried to catch up with rest of the world standards but things are coming to a head now. Some of the latest additions to mixed climbing are definitely dry-tooling and are encroaching on quality rock climbing.

What to do? I have no interest in being dictatorial or judgemental, in fact my sponsors are much more inclined to tell me to brush it all under the carpet, and what is worse I design axes so I am in effect cutting my own throat. I have personally been involved in the development of mixed climbing for a long time and witnessed many abuses and many trashed routes so it is with some experience I speak.

Certain limits must be made and leading climbers should at least pay lip service to them, they shouldn't be seen to be offending too much. Dry tooling venues should be set up very quickly to take the brunt of the damage, and tempt people away from easy targets like Millstone. In any case really hard routes with the big M grades are much easier to construct than to find au natural. If you are very good and very strong, it might be best to recognise your need for attention and competition and travel to Europe, and do the very amazing and taxing stuff they have over there.

The other outlet for your enthusiasm is organised competitions, there are plenty and people have a great time sharing their passion. Ultimately there is the world cup which although it is not for every one might prove a harmless outlet for an axe-wielding hyperactive sportsman.

There is a final consideration which you can choose to ignore: if mixed climbing is the link, where is the whole? The whole are greater climbs, the Alps and beyond. Mixed climbing may have come of age but the full palette of alpine climbing techniques is yet to be applied to the great faces of the Himalaya.

The Future is Mixed.

You can follow Stevie on his blog as well as in this series of articles at UKClimbing.com .

Stevie Haston is sponsored by:

Grivel/V12/La Sportiva

"Some of my best times were in North Wales doing new routes in the Slate quarries, and on Gogarth, in the late 70s and mid-80s. Concurrently visits to the Alps in winter started my tally of solos of alpine routes to...

Stevie's Athlete Page 7 posts

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21 Feb, 2011
What is so insignificant about small boulders? James
21 Feb, 2011
nice article....oh and how are those sweet looking axes? btw - not sure i would call Millstone an easy target....any fule should know axes aren't welcome there.
21 Feb, 2011
Great article Stevie. Any recommendations on continental dry tooling crags for relative beginners?
21 Feb, 2011
Good piece. That axe looks identical to the ClimbBuBu Flamingo. I seem to recall hearing that Grivel have bought into them so could be finding it's way into the main range by the looks of it. Saw a gnarley old dude climbing on a pair of them last year in Cogne, he said they were awesome (well in Italian) but they were a mission to get hold of because the only stockists are or were around Arco. Fingers crossed they make it over the channel at a manageable price. The only dry tooling crag I know for certain is White Goods near Ruithin. Any others (not including sport chalk down at Saltdean)
21 Feb, 2011
You may have answered your own question. Mick
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