Mick Ward assesses the state of play in this game we call 'climbing'...
Our climbing world may well be in the best state than it's ever been. And yet it may also be under threat. Complacency might be fatal.
Back in the 1990s I wrote an article entitled, 'Climbing Towards the Death of Culture'. What, you don't remember it? Shame on you... (Only joking!)
The central tenet was that, in a world where people seemed to be losing their culture at an alarming rate, by contrast, climbing culture stood relatively firm. Now obviously there are lots of climbing cultures (the big waller may not have so much in common with the boulderer) but they all stress that climbing is a potentially hazardous pursuit, you're responsible for your own actions and that success must be truly earned. In a world where so much is dumbed down, climbing achievement is genuine. Sure you could top-rope them to death but, for most people, leading Left Unconquerable or Great Wall requires genuine commitment. If they fail, well at least they tried. If they succeed, they taste the nectar of success. Often success on routes such as these brings memories which will be cherished for the rest of your life.
My thesis, more than 20 years ago, was that the core values of climbing were vitally important in a world where standards were generally getting trashed. An underlying concern was that those core values might come under threat as climbing became increasingly influenced by the world beyond it.
Some two decades on, where are we? Clearly our world is getting environmentally trashed at an alarming rate. In the social sphere, in areas such as education, standards have diminished beyond belief. Politics, certainly in the UK, have become laughable at best, tragic at worst. 40 years of neoliberalism have created toxic organisations and dreadful working conditions for most of the populace.
By some kind of ironic contrast, it seems to me that climbing is in a better state than it's ever been, certainly in my lifetime. Yes, our little community, a microcosm of society, can become painfully fractious about trivia. But when it really matters, we seem to come together and petty differences are shoved to one side.
The good old days... when climbing was wild, scary and most definitely counter-culture
It's tempting for people of my vintage to bang on about the good old days (particularly the 1960s and '70s) when the climbing world was wild, scary and most definitely counter-culture. Yes, it was fun while it lasted. But there were dark aspects. Many climbers came from grim environments where violence was the default mechanism for conflict. Drink and drugs prematurely ended many promising climbing careers (including mine). Women were treated dreadfully. Anti-social behaviour was rampant.
What's it like today? Immeasurably better. You go out to most crags and people are really nice! They're helpful. They'll readily share information. The strict pecking order of yore, where top climbers - and those who regarded themselves as top climbers - wouldn't give you the time of day, has vanished. The pathetic local heroes have slunk away. Sadly, so too have many of the wild individualists. But hey, you can't have it all.
What happened - what changed? I think the world (including our little climbing world) became more middle-class. Violence and anti-social behaviour became increasingly frowned upon. Women have entered climbing in their droves and thank God for that. Very few of them will countenance violence and anti-social behaviour – and they'll make damn well sure that men don't either.
The climbing world has binned the formerly rigid caste system, based on ability (or supposed ability) and become egalitarian in a way I could never have imagined. There are only a few degrees of separation between any of us. It really doesn't matter very much whether you climb 6a, 7a, 8a or 9a. There's a strong sense that we're all in this together. The glitterati of the climbing world will happily associate with utter punters, like us. Yes, I accept the argument that it's partly brand promotion - but it's not just brand promotion. A few years ago, while soloing at Avon, I bumped into a beginner and took him up some routes. He was middle-aged, not athletic, not in any way gifted. But he'd somehow discovered climbing and loved it. Good enough for me! When we next met, not only had his climbing blossomed but he'd been to all manner of climbing events and met many of the stars. Everyone had been friendly and kind to him. Quite by chance, he'd stumbled across this wonderfully supportive community where complete strangers will just help you because – well because that's what we do.
Climbing is different...
Climbing is different from many other activities. I'll give you a few examples. For four years, Chris Sharma struggled with the first ascent of Realization, the first confirmed 9a+ in the world. On his final, successful, trip, he brought along his mate, Dave Graham, and promptly gave him all the beta. Although I believe that Graham has never succeeded on this route (you can't win 'em all), at the time he certainly seemed the obvious contender. Yet Sharma gave him all the beta. Why? Because, in climbing, that's what we do.
When Rolando Garibotti gave Alex Honnold his crampons on the Fitz Traverse, he was fully aware that he was doing three things. He was making his own descent more dangerous. Conversely he was ensuring far greater safety for Honnold. And, crucially, he was almost certainly giving away his lifetime dream – the first ascent of arguably the greatest remaining alpine-style challenge in the world. Why? Because, in climbing, that's what we do.
The desire to help each other is hard-wired into all of us. But, in climbing, that desire is far, far greater than in the general populace. As Simon McCartney's book, The Bond, vividly demonstrates, climbers will go to almost any lengths to save other climbers' lives. That ethos of support runs right through our climbing world, even if it's just helping someone on a sport crag or taking a beginner out and keeping a benign eye on them.
The conclusion of my article 'Climbing Towards the Death of Culture' was that the culture and the values of climbing were vitally relevant to a world which was rapidly going to hell on a handcart. In my view, over the last 20 years, the world has generally got much worse (e.g. politics, environmentalism, education) while our little climbing world has generally got better.
Under threat from two directions
So why am I writing this? I'm writing this because there are absolutely no grounds for complacency. I fear that our climbing world may come under threat from two directions – externally and internally. If I'm wrong (and I dearly want to be wrong), well, you've wasted a few minutes reading this. Sorry! But if I'm right - or even vaguely right - then we must be on our guard. When I wrote 'Climbing Towards the Death of Culture', I was in my mid-forties. The maths – and a dangerous lifestyle - suggest that I won't be issuing warnings in another 20 years. So if these arguments have any validity whatsoever, they must resonate with other, younger people, who may re-shape them and use them in ways which I probably can't imagine.
The 1990s were an interesting decade for commercialism in UK climbing. Although climbing walls had been around for a while, they were generally run by non-climbers. Climbers chafed at bureaucratic restrictions which were often ill-informed and downright silly. When the Foundry opened, it provided a welcome role model of a good wall run by active climbers. Unsurprisingly it worked. Other walls sprang up; generally they also worked. And suddenly you found dodgy guys in suits hanging around walls, not because they were interested in climbing but because those walls were making a profit. Top climbers were getting relatively lucrative sponsorship deals. There was a whiff of big money in the air. But maybe there wasn't quite enough big money because gradually the suits disappeared, doubtless to more fertile pastures.
Fast forward a couple of decades and we have climbing in the Olympics. Lead climbing? Fine. Bouldering? Fine. Speed climbing? What the f*ck!? Speed climbing has been around for an awfully long time; it's the form of climbing most beloved of totalitarian regimes. Doing The Nose in under two hours involves huge risk and an impressive array of finely honed skills. By contrast, racing up a wall on top-rope is pretty much monkey on a stick stuff, no matter how physically impressive. It's antithetical to much of our history and culture. I believe it's in the Olympics purely to package climbing as yet another product for mass consumption, i.e. maximum profit.
The commoditisation approach
For mass consumption, you package things. To package things, you reduce them to commodities. To reduce them to commodities, you dumb them down to the lowest common denominator. This is exactly what's happened in education. Qualitative experience becomes derided as 'intangible'; all that matters are quantitative measures. Sometimes the quantitative measures are of dubious relevance and sometimes they're heavily 'massaged', i.e. fiddled. You strip out history and culture because you don't give a damn about history and culture; all you care about is making as much money as possible, as fast as possible. With climbing, you define it as a sport, with role model climbers as athletes – who do exactly as they're told, observe their contracts to the letter. That's how they, in turn, manage their careers, i.e. make money.
When Ashima Shiraishi got her sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola, for me a great big red flag went up. Sure, Clif Bar and Red Bull had already sponsored climbers. But Coca-Cola? That was a step change. Do the Coca-Cola people care about climbing? Unlikely. Why should they? Why should people at Clif Bar or Red Bull care about climbing, beyond using it to advertise their brands? But while one might argue that Clif Bar and Red Bull were after (slightly) minority markets, Coca-Cola are after a totally mainstream market. Got a pulse? If you have, you're a potential Coca-Cola customer. Coca-Cola sponsoring climbing meant that for them climbing won out against other disciplines. Crucially - for us - it meant that climbing is no longer viewed as a minority pastime. Dumbed down, it's close enough to mainstream to bring in big bucks. Let's have it in the Olympics too.
The first free ascent of the Dawn Wall received unprecedented media coverage all around the world. Little attempt was made to understand its significance. I can remember an interview with Honnold, the look of horror and disgust on his face as he realised that the 'top news presenter' hadn't been arsed to do the slightest bit of homework about climbing. The (entirely deserved) success of movies such as Dawn Wall and Free Solo will further alert people to money-making opportunities in climbing.
By defining climbing as a sport and by defining climbers as athletes, you gain control. Clif Bar binned some of their 'athletes' because they refused to be controlled. They were intent on engaging in risky practices – hey, that's what they did - and it's likely that Clif Bar didn't want any media fallout if it all went horribly wrong. When Dean Potter died, although they probably liked him and very much regretted his demise, the executives at Clif Bar may well have heaved great sighs of relief that they'd cancelled his contract and weren't going to get media flak.
Regulation, regulation... and yet more regulation
Once you get control of something, you regulate it remorselessly – because regulation, under the guise of engendering safety, gives you ever more control – and, well, because regulation spawns another array of compliance industries, thus bringing in even more money.
Consider the following tale of (seemingly total absence of) regulation. One evening I was at the top of Blacknor, on Portland, banging in some abseil stakes, a monster sac of new routing gear beside me, when an old buffer approached. (Well, when I say 'old buffer', he was probably younger than me – but you get the picture!) After a bit of chit-chat, the conversation went something like this:
"Have you informed the coastguard about what you're doing?"
"Have you informed anybody about what you're doing?"
"Are you a member of a climbing club?"
"Have you got any qualifications for this?"
Thus emboldened, he moved straight in for the kill.
"Look, mate, do you actually know what you're doing?"
It was a pretty vehement reply and the poor old sod got quite a shock. Now obviously he didn't know that I was going to ab through the dreaded slat band to an abundance of tottering blocks. I was then going to remove aforesaid blocks, do loads more cleaning and place bolts which need to be good for the next 20 years, at least. No qualifications – isn't that a bit scary? Well, shouldn't I have qualifications? Shouldn't it be mandatory for all equippers to have qualifications, to have their equipment checked regularly, to have insurance and to wear helmets at all times? And why stop at equippers? Why not make these things mandatory for every climber?
When you look at it like this, climbing is a regulator's wet dream. But we inhabit a world where (dumbed down) qualifications routinely mask incompetence. And while checking your gear, having insurance and wearing a helmet might all be good ideas, making them mandatory kills the spirit of climbing stone dead. The spirit of climbing is free choice, with underlying judgement. You might have a great day out; alternatively you might get killed. You constantly use judgement to make choices. It's precisely the application of such judgement and the exercise of such choices - where rewards can be high and so too can penalties - which makes climbing so alluring to many people.
I worry that the money men and women may destroy the spirit of climbing. I worry that regulatory industries may destroy the spirit of climbing. Ironically they may not even make it safer. The more you sanitise things, the poorer judgement becomes. This is already happening.
A huge structural change has occurred in climbing
When I began, in the 1960s, virtually everybody came into climbing from hillwalking. Sport climbing didn't exist. There weren't harnesses, belay devices, wires or cams. Protection was dire. The then 100-year-old maxim still applied: 'The leader must not fall.' As I can vouch, with a then shocking four lobs in five years, falling off hurt. All of those four falls were groundfalls. One should have been fatal.
Trad climbing is all about problem solving. Hillwalking was a very good preparation, for it too is all about problem solving. The then prevailing mountaineering ethos (which covered both hillwalking and rock climbing) held that you must be able to look after yourself. You must be able to navigate. You must be able to bivouac. You must be able to cook in the outdoors. Sometimes you would be tired and hungry; at other times, you would have to endure extremes of heat and cold. You had to be able to make decisions in environments where getting it wrong might cost you your life. The result was an array of incredibly rich experiences which, more than half a century later, I still savour.
Nowadays, of course, most people come into climbing from walls, either lead walls or bouldering walls. They don't get tired, hungry, hot or cold. They don't have to navigate, bivouac or cook outside. All they have to do is climb – in an environment which is as safe as it's ever going to get. Consequently they're free to race up the grades in a way which formerly was unimaginable. You can't race up the grades when your first mistake may cost you your life.
On climbing walls, what distinguishes one 'route' from another? The grade. The number. So now, when people go outside, increasingly they distinguish routes by their grades, their numbers. The 6b. The 7a. The HVS. The E1.
When I was 21, I led Cenotaph Corner. It was sopping wet – and, pretty soon, so was I. But it didn't really matter because I knew that I was climbing the most amazing line, shrouded in history. However, if I'd just done 'the E1', what would that have meant? Very little. Because 'the E1' – the grade - is no more than a commodity. (How do you know something is a commodity? When it's easily reducible to a number. The triumph of quantitative over qualitative.)
Crags as free outdoor climbing walls
When people go from climbing walls to the outdoors, very often climbing walls remain their psychological template. For instance, many people probably view Portland as a free outdoor wall. But it's also a collection of sea-cliffs – with all that this entails. I remember meeting one guy, climbing wall born and bred, who told me, "Every year, when I come here, I re-calibrate, I look for what's changed." Wow – what enviable maturity! Entirely understandably, most people don't have this level of maturity. They expect to climb the same grades outside as inside. If they go on to trad, often the grade imbalance will be massive. Why? Because they don't have underlying problem solving skills; they just have climbing skills. To compensate for such a lack of problem solving skills, it would be no surprise if they wanted climbing to be sanitised. But if you sanitise climbing, you remove its soul. It becomes just another sport.
But isn't climbing a sport? It's very often termed a sport. Sports are defined by overt competition and by rules. By these criteria, competition climbing certainly is a sport. But I hope we can agree that climbing is about far more than competitions. For many of us, the competition is with ourselves, not with others. In general, climbing has consensual norms rather than rules. There aren't rules that you can't peg London Wall or The Nose – though there sure as hell are consensual norms that you shouldn't do either.
Wars are fought with language; often such language is decidedly Orwellian. Which would you prefer to do – a 'modern' route or an 'old-fashioned' route? You'd probably plump for a 'modern' route. You'd almost certainly like the sound of a 'sustainable' route; that's got a nice ring to it. What if I told you that the 'modern, sustainable' route was simply a bolted route? Would that make a difference? Maybe; maybe not. Perhaps you think I'm being a tad picky about language (a typical fault of writers). But what if I told you that this example comes from an article lauding the emergence of a sport route in a trad climbing paradise? And what if I told you that the article pushes 'modern' and 'sustainable' as the way forward and suggests that it's a way of raising the standard of living of the locals? The likely reality of the area being filled with bolted routes would be a short-term influx of visitors, a temporary cash injection, the place almost certainly getting trashed and the visitors binning it for the next fashionable venue. So much for 'sustainable'! Be in no doubt of the power of words. Climbing simply as a sport; climbers simply as athletes (sure, top climbers train as hard as any athlete, I'm not arguing otherwise). By commoditising climbing ourselves, we leave the door wide open both to rapacious commercial exploitation and to equally rapacious regulatory exploitation.
The more we govern our own affairs, the better
Best if we decide where pegs should be used and where they shouldn't. Best if we decide where bolts should be placed and where they shouldn't. Best that we decide holds shouldn't be chipped or glued on. To an outsider, some of our decisions might seem downright arbitrary. But they're informed decisions (e.g. no bolts or pegs on gritstone), made by us for one reason: to maintain each form of climbing as a game worth playing. In the 1960s, Lito Tejada-Flores gave us a useful taxonomy, 'Games Climbers Play'. And that's really what climbing is – a series of games, such as bouldering, cragging and big walling.
It may be that climbing, as a series of fascinating games, is safe for evermore. But I wouldn't bet on it. My experience of change is that you have trends (e.g. people increasingly coming in from walls, rather than hillwalking), you have events (e.g. Coca-Cola sponsorship, climbing in the Olympics and mass media), you have a lull where little happens (now?) - and then the shit hits the fan. If I'm wrong – great! But, if I'm right - or even vaguely right - then we must be on our guard. Each generation has an obligation to pass on climbing to the next generation in as good a shape as possible. Climbing resonates with the human spirit; that's why we do it. In the 21st century, the human spirit is coming under attack as never before. It's up to us to defend climbing as something vital, a series of alluring games, infinitely worth preserving.
(With gratitude to Ian Parsons for help with proofreading and the late Al Evans, Rob Ferguson, Ian Parsons, Fiona Richardson and the late Mike Richardson for help with the photographs.)
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