Clean Climbing: The Strength to Dream

In this three-part series, Mick Ward explores the ethos of 'clean climbing' and how it has shaped the equipment we use and the ascents we make.   Part 2: The Strength to Dream

Mick Ward 31st October, 2022

For Doug Robinson

For over 100 years, the distinctive ethos of climbing could be summed up in five words: 'The leader must not fall'. And then something happened.

Climbing is a natural activity. A young child will scrabble upwards, given half a chance. The desire to go to the top of a hill lies in most of us. We are enquiring creatures.

Although people have always climbed, albeit sporadically, mountaineering and rock climbing, as we know them, are Victorian inventions. Many early proponents were gentlemen-adventurers. Titles such as 'Scrambles Amongst the Alps' and 'The Playground of Europe' have a wry, understated appeal. Already the distinctive culture of climbing was forming.

Kern Knotts Crack.
Kern Knotts Crack.
© Jim Lancs

Yet these men were deeply aware that they were playing a game—quite literally—of life and death. In 1860 the Matterhorn was 'the last great problem'. Edward Whymper devoted five years to an increasingly obsessive series of attempts. Finally he succeeded. 'One crowded hour of glorious life'. Then a bitter aftermath: four deaths and the lives of the three survivors irrevocably blighted.

Matterhorn disaster.
Matterhorn disaster.
© Gustave Doré

The leader must not fall

People grieved; yet climbing continued. Later 'last great problems', such as the North Face of the Eiger, also saw fatalities. Again people grieved; yet climbing continued. For over 100 years the potential deadliness of climbing was enshrined in a five word dictum: 'the leader must not fall.'

What kind of people climbed? Principally young men, from about 18 to 25, who wanted to test themselves. It's probably no coincidence that this is the classic age of a combat soldier. However, many climbers were social outsiders, far too iconoclastic and bohemian to ever want to become soldiers.

Climbing was a different way of proving themselves. You weren't putting other people in the firing line; you were putting yourself in it. Often the danger was shared with your climbing partner but nobody else. You might not like each other but there had to be absolute trust.

At around 25 though, with marriage, mortgage, a career and babies, climbing became increasingly harder to justify. You needed to spend time with your wife and the young ones. And if you got yourself killed, what became of them? No, climbing was simply too selfish an act. Better to bid it farewell, cherish your memories, accept your lot and get out the lawnmower.   

Tony Booth – original dirtbag climber.
Tony Booth – original dirtbag climber.
© Chris Booth

Climbing - the preserve of 'crazy people'

'The leader must not fall' was the most harsh dictum imaginable. It dictated whether you would be able to climb—or at least lead—in the first place. And it abruptly terminated climbing careers, particularly if hard climbing was involved.

That dictum existed because, with poor protection, climbing falls were usually ground falls or factor two falls (twice the distance between the last piece of gear and the climber). This meant that most routes were potentially death routes. In my first five years of climbing, I took four lead/soloing falls. I hit the ground every time, twice from about 30 feet. One fall was nearly fatal. I was left with undiagnosed PTSD.

Not that this stopped me. Huge run-outs were just part of the deal. For instance, on my first proper lead, a 500-foot V Diff in the Mournes, I had probably less than five runners in total. This was perfectly normal. You can see why climbing was the preserve of 'crazy people'.

Pitons made a difference, though not a huge one. I remember leading the first pitch (Hard Severe/VS) of Dot's Delight in the Mournes in big boots, which would have been wet and muddy from the approach. Only one runner in maybe 50 feet; a sling looped on a rounded flake. I reached the belay, knowing that the single piton wasn't in situ. Neither of the two pegs I carried would fit. The only option was to climb back down. I was reversing rounded rock, making insecure friction moves close to my leading limit, in wet, muddy boots, with poor protection, then no protection. Just another day at the crag.

Pete Biven on the first ascent of Hearse Arête
Pete Biven on the first ascent of Hearse Arête
© Roger Bacon

Climbing was about two words: mind control

Back then climbing was about two words: mind control. If you weren't 'steady under fire', either you'd get yourself killed or you'd have to drop out of climbing altogether.

Two words changed all this forever: better protection.

In 'Thou Shalt Not Wreck the Place' we saw how pitons were rudely usurped by nut protection. The fabled 1972 Chouinard Climbing Catalogue included Doug Robinson's seminal essay about clean climbing. Robinson's plea wasn't the only one. As early as 1911, solo climber extraordinaire Paul Preuss had debated the use of pitons. More latterly, in 1967 Royal Robbins wrote: 'Nuts to You' for Summit magazine and Tom Frost contributed 'Preserving the Cracks' in the 1972 Alpine Club Journal.

As Victor Hugo sagely observed, there is no idea like the idea whose time has come. And, from several proponents, clean climbing was an idea whose time had most definitely come. The notion of 'leave no trace' (in this case, no ugly piton scars) held immense appeal to the early 1970s counter-culture. Wires and hexes made a huge difference. They changed climbing forever.  

Chouinard Stoppers  
Chouinard Stoppers  
© Chouinard 1978 Catalogue

Wires and hexes massively cut down the commitment

In 1974 leading American climber Jim Erickson had the first wires I'd ever seen. They were Chouinard stoppers. He got the two smallest sizes in on the crux of The Thing, which then boasted the most spine-chilling guidebook description of any British route. For us, those two wires seemed like bombproof protection. When Joe Brown first did those crux moves in 1956, he'd have been totally unprotected above a dire landing. In nearly 20 years there been a bare handful of repeats. But those wires massively cut down the commitment. The floodgates opened; in time The Thing became just another E2.

Later that summer, I made an early ascent of a soaking wet Aladdinsane (E1 5a) at Trowborrow. Somebody kindly lent me the two biggest Chouinard hexes. You may not think much of two hexes in 90 feet but believe me, it's a lot better than nothing.

On the aptly named Post Mortem (E4 5c) in the Lakes, brilliantly led by my mate Deak, the crucial runners were the biggest Chouinard hex in the main crack and the smallest Chouinard stopper in a subsidiary crack. When Paul Ross did the first ascent in 1956, he could only dream of runners like these.  

Chouinard hexes.
Chouinard hexes.
© Chouinard 1978 Catalog

For the first time in climbing history, you could risk falls

Better protection meant that you could push harder. And people did. Joe Brown regarded Right Wall (E5) as the first significant advance since his era. It would have been unthinkable without wires. In just a few years climbing went from around E2/E3 to E5, then E6, then E7. Much the same thing happened in the US. The 1970s brought the fabled Stonemasters, ripped, honed bodies, psyched guys—and one woman, Lynn Hill—who wanted to climb hard forever.  

In the 1970s many climbers pushed hard. Stoppers, hexes and RPs (from Roland Pauligk) made it possible to push hard. But something else happened too, something which probably nobody anticipated and which even now may be only dimly appreciated.

Trad climbers are most at risk in their early years. They need to survive their apprenticeships. I survived my trad apprenticeship (just!) on routes which may have been technically easy but were mostly still death routes in terms of lack of protection. But hexes and the bigger stoppers meant that many easier routes could also be protected.

So, for the first time ever, people could work their way through the grades in relative safety. When cams came out in the late 1970s, few people could afford many. We agonised about the ethical implications for routes such as Calvary at Stanage; fragile flakes which might snap with cam use. But the writing was on the proverbial wall. By the early 1980s, armed with far better gear, people who wouldn't have dared to lead protectionless VS ten years previously, were confidently climbing E1 and E2.

Jim Perrin on Cenotaph Corner (with a massive '70s rack!
Jim Perrin on Cenotaph Corner (with a massive '70s rack!
© Paul Ross

Climbing became accessible to many more people

Technological change tamed many routes. Consequently, the level of commitment dropped dramatically. The demographic started to change.  

In the 1980s, sport climbing arrived. I remember a friend sniggering when I used the term. I also remember a 1964 photo of that same person entering the niche on Cenotaph Corner with just one runner at around 15 feet. For about 60 feet he'd been in groundfall territory. To a guy like this, sport climbing was like something from Mars. For some of the US climbing royalty, 'sport climbing [was] neither' and 'sport climbing [was] the child that ate its own mother'.

The 1980s bolt wars were an ugly case study in how not to manage conflict. The most common justification for bolts was that the elite could push harder. But, when we got into the 1990s, predictably there were calls for sport climbing for everyone. This eventually meant thousands of easier routes being bolted.

In much of mainland Europe, bolted routes became the norm, not the exception. Climbing walls, wires, hexes, chalk, cams, bolts and bouldering pads all started with the elite and ended up being for everyone. Climbing became increasingly accessible; consequently more and more people piled in. 

Early sport climbing: Malc Taylor on The Land that Time Forgot
Early sport climbing: Malc Taylor on The Land that Time Forgot
© belperpete

Where did this leave clean climbing?

Clean climbing was in ruins. You could scarcely claim that lines of bolts were 'leave no trace'. You could scarcely claim that swathes of chalk ('paint by numbers') were 'leave no trace'. You could scarcely claim that rubbish at the crag was 'leave no trace'.

Royal Robbins had baldly stated: "Better we raise our skill than lower the climb." But wires, hexes, cams (which pretty much superseded hexes) and particularly bolts proved all too ready substitutes for skill. For Doug Robinson, a principal proponent of clean climbing, cams were 'plug and go'. Bolts were most definitely 'clip and go'.

For those who viewed climbing as a mind game, the climber being tested by the stone, it seemed that technology was killing its distinctive spirit. In Yosemite John Bachar inherited the purist mantle of Robbins. He led by example, with decades of hard soloing, e.g. the first complete solo of the Nabisco Wall (5.11c) and an astounding ground-up first ascent of the terrifying Bachar-Yerian (supposedly 5.11+, but please don't bet your life on it).

Bachar took boldness to a new dimension. And he said rap bolting (i.e. drilling top-down, from abseil) was an abomination. For this he was vilified.   

The black streak of the fearsome Bachar-Yerian.
The black streak of the fearsome Bachar-Yerian.
© Dave Musgrove Jr.

Climbing doesn't need to be either/or

But was he right? In the 1970s rock climbing split away from mountaineering, became a discipline in its own right. Before, climbing had been process, i.e. exploration and engagement between you and the rock. But the inception of trad pre-inspection and top-rope practice resulted in arguably better products (i.e. well-cleaned routes, with superb technical moves).

Sport climbing carried this idiom further. But should climbing be about process or product? Might products end up as mere commodities?

Decades later, I now spend much of my time abseiling, cleaning and agonising over the optimal placements for bolts. I want the best products I can—for people to enjoy in relative safety. Yet I'm mindful of what Bachar and Robbins said. Their souls speak to my soul. But if I want process, engagement, commitment, all I have to do is head for the mountains or abseil into a scary sea-cliff and it's there in plenty.

Climbing doesn't need to be either/or. You can have both—just not at the same time. You can choose whichever of the 'games climbers play' that you want.

Would sanitising kill the soul of climbing?

However, the diversity on offer should not blind us to an awareness that there's been a huge structural change in the climbing population. Its present size is highly dependent on climbing having become vastly safer through better protection, via wires, cams and bolts.

If climbing reverted to a 'leader must not fall' array of death routes, how many of us would continue? I'm guessing it might not be so many.

Moreover, these days most climbers start indoors. There's nothing wrong with that; for instance, it's how Honnold started. But previously most climbers transitioned from hillwalking and scrambling, so they had prior exposure to problem solving and managing risk in the outdoors. Wall-bred climbers tend to lack these skills.

Obviously indoor walls are as safe as can be. But 'safe as can be' is scant preparation for the 'not very safe at all' environments of many mountain crags and sea-cliffs. Should we make mountain crags and sea-cliffs safer? Should we sanitise them? If we did, would this kill the soul of climbing? Has the soul of climbing changed anyway?

The fabled 1972 Chouinard catalogue cover
The fabled 1972 Chouinard catalogue cover

A simultaneous exploration of the environment and of self

Fifty years ago, in their plea for clean climbing, Chouinard, Frost and Robinson noted: 'The fewer gadgets between the climber and the climb, the greater is the chance to attain the desired communication with oneself—and nature.' For them, 'the adventure inherent in the experience' was a simultaneous exploration of the environment and of self.

For most—though not all—modern protagonists, beset with gadgets including apps and off-the-wall training tools, climbing is little more than another recreational activity, albeit one with a fascinating history and culture. 

In one sense, clean climbing was of its time. It succeeded triumphantly. The cracks of Yosemite and untold other climbing areas were saved from piton destruction. It's no fault of the authors of clean climbing that their movement was swept away by climbing advances.

It's ironic that the principal facilitator of those climbing advances—better protection—was initiated by their stoppers and hexes. It's ironic that better protection made climbing accessible to untold thousands who would never have dreamed of getting involved in the mad, bad old glory days.

Clean climbing holds a message for all time

In another sense though, clean climbing holds a message for all time. Today our untold thousands are creating hitherto undreamed of ecological pressures. Clearly 'leave no trace' will not be possible for most, if not all of us. But we can still learn to leave minimal trace.  

We can also learn to manage the social environment as well as the natural environment. Otherwise both climbing and the environment may be ruthlessly sanitised, commoditised and monetised, trashed beyond repair?

The front cover of the 1972 Chouinard catalogue had a Chinese motif which, on the face of it, seemed to have precious little to do with climbing. But I think these guys were saying, "We're about beauty. We're trying to find elegant solutions." And they did indeed find a most elegant solution to the pressing problem they faced.

That 1972 catalogue was arguably climbing's first significant ecological initiative. Fifty years later, in a very different and ever-changing world, we face many more ecological problems. The message of clean climbing—that we can find practical solutions in a humane manner—is arguably more important than ever before.  

With many thanks for photographic help to Roger Bacon, Nick Biven, Chris Booth, Pete Clark,
the Chouinard 1972 catalogue, the Chouinard 1978 catalogue, Jim Dominy, Gustave Doré, Dave
Musgrove Jr, Paul Ross and Rob Ward

This article was sponsored by Patagonia.

Other articles in this series

Thou Shalt Not Wreck the Place: Climbing, Ecology and Renewal

Custodians of the Stone

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