Custodians of the Stone

In this three-part series, Mick Ward explores the ethos of 'clean climbing' and how it has shaped the equipment we use, the ascents we make and the community we build. 

Mick Ward 5th December, 2022

For Yvon Chouinard

Once we were few. Now we are many.

Climbing has changed.

"So what you're saying is… it's just a numbers game?"  An irritating drawl from a friend, long ago. But he had a point. Since then the numbers have grown massively.

Once you rocked up in the back of beyond, camped in farmers' fields. You didn't understand their world and they didn't understand yours'. But things worked fine.

Except when they didn't. In the 1970s there was trouble at Chapel Head Scar when trees were cut down. Then Craig y Forwyn was banned by the farmer who was treated badly.

Ambleside on summer weekends was filled with drunken climbers, sometimes fighting, dossing wherever they could. Chamonix was infested with many of the same people. Again there was drunkenness. And fights. And shoplifting.

The laissez-faire model really only worked when numbers were very small

Nowadays there are far more outdoor users, huge increases in van ownership, in people going up Yr Wyddfa. The results? Inconsiderate van use. Queues for selfies - and the occasional punch-up -  on Yr Wyddfa.

Nowadays I live on Portland, a premier site for sport climbing. A UKC thread a couple of years ago, entitled 'Do the people of Portland hate us?' elicited some interesting replies. Many of the problems encountered here are found elsewhere, so it's a useful case study.

Queues at the 2003 DWS festival at Connor Cove, Swanage.
Queues at the 2003 DWS festival at Connor Cove, Swanage.
© berie

Perhaps the most fundamental problem is a pronounced disconnect between locals and climbing visitors. There's much 'quiet poverty' on the island. People who feel disenfranchised may not take kindly to brightly garbed, seemingly affluent young people blithely using 'their island' as a disposable playground.

A few potential problem areas…

Let's wander round the island, list a few potential problem areas. The threat of a beautiful coastline - and crags - being destroyed by quarrying. Irresponsible camping. Inaccurate reporting of climbers' behaviour. Ignoring bird bans. Unauthorised bolting. Unauthorised debolting. Chipping. Terrible belaying. Inconsiderate parking. Dangerous parking. Stolen gear. Flying rocks, fridges, sofas, hay bales. I could go on… but don't worry, I won't.   

Similar problems have been observed elsewhere. One commentator suggests that contributory factors have been population change and consequent culture change in climbing. For him many climbers have become slaves to social media, heroes to their fanbases, however tiny. Outdoor crags may be viewed as free gyms.

Such climbing consumerism, with little regard to the environment, may account for some (but not all) of the problems listed above. It certainly aligns with inconsiderate van use, and with selfies/punch-ups on Yr Wyddfa.

What's the solution? To diminish the power of your ego. To look around you. To begin to care. To start to redress the balance from mindlessly taking to also giving back.

An original Portland staple bolt - installed pre 1995.
An original Portland staple bolt - installed pre 1995.
© Marti Hallett

How can you give back?

You can give back with time. You can give back with money. You can give back with both time and money. For instance, most of us clip bolts. A small monthly standing order to a bolt fund will eventually become a significant amount. Litter needs removing. Vegetation needs managing. Paths need clearing. Crags need maintenance. Bolts need replacing.

Mindless consumerism will destroy not only climbing but our entire planet. Viewing this world merely as a giant shopping mall - or climbing gym - is a recipe for disaster.

We can't avoid taking from the world but it's worth stopping to consider what we can give back. One measure of a person's life is how much they've given minus how much they've taken.

The social world

While ultimately it's all one world, a useful division is between the natural world and the social world. We've briefly considered the natural world. The social world is much more complex.

The core of the social world is language; today language is routinely weaponised.

For instance climbing is typically described as a sport. I'd argue it's an array of possibilities. Sure, competition climbing is a sport. But new routing? Winter climbing?? Himalayan???

By ignoring the possibilities and their attendant continuum of risk you can seemingly reduce climbing to a discrete unit, ripe for commoditising. The commoditising may be employed either for making money or for social engineering (and attendant careerism). Once climbing was for outliers. Only when it became sufficiently mainstream – and sufficiently lucrative - did beady eyes fasten upon it.

Lynn Hill on The Nose.
Lynn Hill on The Nose.
© Google Streetview

"It goes, boys!"

Throughout history, the UK climbing scene has generally been viewed as a white, middle-class activity practised mostly by men.

In the 1970s, the Climbers Club admitted women and people from more modest backgrounds. In the early 1980s, at an historic ladies meet, Rosie Andrews and Jill Lawrence led Right Wall. In the 1990s, Lynn Hill freed The Nose with the immortal words, "It goes, boys!"

So class divisions diminished. Women came through. Macho sexist attitudes slowly withered. Women have gone on to climb E10 and 9b/+. In some areas (e.g. new routing) they're distinctly under-represented, though some have pioneered to an exceptional level. Spaniard Sílvia Vidal has put up some of the most committing routes ever, unsupported - without even a mobile phone - while Italian prodigy Laura Rogora has made multiple first ascents up to 9a. 

Sílvia Vidal on her first ascent of Espiadimonis.
Sílvia Vidal on her first ascent of Espiadimonis.
© Silvia Vidal

Creating opportunities… and helping others

Racism seemed particularly pervasive in the UK for the first 20 years of my life, causing misery to those subjected to it. I turned my back on my country and spent time in a climbing community which had pronounced class divisions, was macho, deeply sexist. From my experience as a white man, racism seemed to be absent in the climbing community. But there were also very few people of colour participating in the sport for racists to target.

Undoubtedly, however, those of different persuasions, whether via race, gender identity, sexuality, body type or psychological trait may feel uncomfortable in environments where they're in a stark minority. Thankfully, these days the UK climbing community is diversifying, helped by initiatives such as Colour Up, a group of mainly non-white climbers, though open to everyone. As of now it's Bristol based. But it might be a good idea to export the model to other cities, other communities. Its founder, Carlos Casas, seems engagingly open to the notion that we can learn from each other and with each other.

There's a route in the Mournes called 'We're All Learning'. One way of viewing our time on earth is as a learning experience. We all have frailties. We're all imperfect. We all have lessons to learn. Maybe we can work together to mend a broken world?

For our world is broken in so many ways. One problem is the present poverty crisis in the UK. Arguably the biggest deterrent to people getting into climbing is lack of cash to drive to a wall and pay for entry. Bouldering walls in public parks would make entry level climbing much more available. It would be interesting to see how many might wish to progress in climbing and what other climbers can do to help them. It would also be interesting to subject initiatives to academic study and go from anecdote to evidence.

Cemetery Park Boulder
Cemetery Park Boulder
© Robin Mueller

Managing interfaces

I mentioned the Portland situation merely as an example of problems typical to climbing areas. Solving many of them boils down to change within the climbing community and managing interfaces between the climbing community and other communities.

Back in the day, you rarely came across other user groups. You do now. Portland is shared with walkers, birders, sculptors, cavers, canoeists, sailors, spear fishers and scuba divers. They've as much right to be here as we do. Some of them (e.g. birders) have very powerful lobbies indeed.

We need to heed lobby groups. We can be blindsided by political organisations. For instance, a few years ago, some of the best climbing in the Grampians was abruptly closed down. A while back, most of the climbing in the Costa Blanca was similarly threatened with closure. It didn't happen but it still might. The US faces its own climbing access problems at a governmental - and environmental - level, as the hunt for fossil fuels and raw materials threatens climbing areas of cultural and ecological importance.

Taipan Wall - now closed to climbers.
Taipan Wall - now closed to climbers.
© Rog Wilko

Representation and taking action

In neither case did there seem to have been significant negotiation or even discussion. Some organisations couldn't care less about democracy. It's therefore important that climbers be highly organised.

How do we do it? BMC area meetings are excellent venues to raise incipient problems before they get nasty. But they require participation.

Sure, everyone can – and should – have their opinion on the internet. But sometimes there's no substitute for being there in person and hammering things out. Every meeting I've attended has been a scrupulous example of democracy in action. But not every country has the equivalent of the BMC.

It's not about us unilaterally doing what we want. It's about us finding ways to live together on this planet in a humane, decent and reasonable manner and ensuring that nobody gets bulldozed out of the equation.

Women's Trad Festival - fun in the rain!
Women's Trad Festival - fun in the rain!
© Roxanna Barry,uk

Regulation vis a vis responsiblity

It's a pretty safe bet that our world will become ever more heavily populated, with more and more interest groups all wanting their say – as indeed they should.

It's probable that there will be more and more pressure for regulation. Mandatory climbing insurance, mandatory helmet wearing, mandatory first aid skills, mandatory training, mandatory accreditation, mandatory continuous professional development.

There's nothing wrong with any of these per se; it's the word 'mandatory' to which I take exception. The whole ethos of climbing is taking responsibility for your actions. For instance, in my view it should be you and you alone who decides whether to wear a helmet.

The conscience of climbing

Climbers are by and large very welcoming people. Everybody should have a voice. Everybody should have the same rights. However, with important issues, out of the babel of voices we must achieve democratic consensus. Sometimes to be heeded we must act as one.

And we have a plethora of talents. We have people who are world-class in many disciplines. Put our hive mind together and there's as much intellectual and professional expertise as any comparable body of people on the planet.

One important voice is that of Peter Beal – American 5.14 climber, gifted writer, college professor, humble guy. Peter has probably raised more ecological concerns than anybody else. I would urge you to read him where you can. Peter really is 'the conscience of climbing'. If there were a Chair in Climbing Ecology - and I'd respectfully suggest there should be - he'd be the perfect person.

Yvon Chouinard, pioneer of Clean Climbing.
Yvon Chouinard, pioneer of Clean Climbing.
© Tom Frost

Clean climbing – a moral compass

We began with the clean climbing manifesto of 1972. I'd argue that it's more relevant than ever. Sure we leave traces (bolts are a pretty permanent trace and heaven knows I place enough of them). But even with bolting we can still act in a thoughtful and considerate manner.

We can take care that what we do serves the climbing community. We can give back to that community. In my view clean climbing is a moral compass pointing towards what we should do and what we should be.

When you get old you realise that our time on this planet is little more than the twinkling of an eye. We're soon gone. It's what we do when we're here and it's the legacy we leave behind which matters. In our glory days we may have thought we owned the crags. In truth we were no more than temporary custodians of the stone.

We need to leave all that we possibly can for the present generation - and for generations to come. We need to leave a sense of why climbing matters. Yes of course it can be recreation. It can be many things. But most of all it is resonance with the human spirit.

With many thanks for photographic help to Roxanna Barry, Marti Hallett, Robin Mueller, Sílvia Vidal and Roger Wilkinson.

This article was sponsored by Patagonia.

Other articles in this series

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

Clean Climbing: The Strength to Dream

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