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/ What can we learn from the past...?

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C Witter on 10 Sep 2018

I've been reading Dougal Haston's In High Places and I watched the Hot Aches film The Pinnacle t'other day. Both have me thinking about what we can learn from the past - from older ways of climbing, now considered outdated, but undeniably skillful.

With regard to winter climbing, it seems that a fundamental change occurred in the late 50s/60s:  the basic idea had been to use your ice axe to shape the snow and ice to accommodate hands and feet, enabling "free climbing" of the ice. Where that failed, using pitons and slings or combined tactics was more or less legitimate. Now, shorter axes and front points are used to directly ascend the ice/snow, considered by some as a form of "aid". It also strikes me that the idea of a "winter ascent" as opposed to "an ascent is winter" is a very modern distinction. I'm not yet quite sure what I've learnt from this, but it certainly felt eye opening.

With regard to rock climbing, I certainly admire the boldness of some of the earlier climbers - and it strikes me that they were able to cover ground a lot faster because of their different techniques, i.e. using less gear and sometimes moving together. I remember reading about early Wasdale climbers, and the extent of what they could do it one day. It's certainly an incentive to economise on gear.

I do wonder about climbing some of the old gullies and chimneys - both whether this could reveal forgotten joys and also whether some techniques have been lost. I always find climbing the "outside" of wide chimneys somewhat terrifying. The gear is often poor, the exposure is sometimes terrifying, and the mode of ascent feels very insecure. On the other hand, I'm quite drawn to the idea of ascending sopping gullies, though I imagine in reality it would be a bit of a shocker. I've not yet done any of the Classic Rock gullies, but they've always appealed! 

I've also read a lot of accounts of people rock climbing in really atrocious weather (particularly in Scotland) - something that continues to perplex me, as whenever I've climbed in bad weather I've found it really hard going to trust my feet. This has been true in both rock shoes and big boots, both of which seem to skid around once the rock is well lacquered with water. If anyone has any insight into rock climbing well in the wet, please let me know. Likewise - any tips on climbing steep grass, a la Dr. Bell, much appreciated. On a side note, has anyone tried climbing in nailed boots?

Finally, it does seem to me that back in the day complete punters were very willing to take on some pretty serious and difficult climbs with fairly basic gear. This ethos seems to have changed, somewhat - perhaps with the extreme specialisation of training and technique needed to climb the hardest routes today. I wonder what that has done to climbing?

Any ponderings very welcome!
CW

Misha - on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

That you don’t need bolted belays at Stanage...

Trangia on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

When I was in my teens I knew Dr Charles Warren of pre-war Everest fame, and who with Colin Kirkus had first climbed Bhagirathi lll in the Garhwal Himalaya in the 1933 a world height record at the time. He was an amazing gentleman, and an inspiration to me at a time when I was just getting into climbing and mountaineering. Very "old school" who had started whilst at Cambridge and a self confessed "night climber". Perfectly comfortable on VS (the hardest grade at the time) in nailed boots and a hemp rope tied round his waist. No modern protection and long bold run outs. 

He told me to never not climb because it was raining or bad weather. that way if you did get caught out in a storm, you wouldn't be intimidated because you had experienced it and would know you could cope.

 

Post edited at 19:40
AlanLittle - on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

> Now, shorter axes and front points are used to directly ascend the ice/snow, considered by some as a form of "aid"

Really? By whom?

I started climbing in the early 80s, just after the modern ice tool & front point revolution of the 70s. I did a bit of ice back then, although never very much, and I don't remember anybody thinking the new techniques were anything other than a better, faster, safer way to climb harder things. There was Chouinard's elegy to the graceful dying art of French crampon technique in Climbing Ice, but I don't recall that was ever any suggestion that front pointing with dropped pick tools was in any way ethically questionable.

Pursued by a bear - on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

There's a view that climbing in the wet in nailed boots is more secure, the nails offering greater traction on slippery rock.

That, of course, leaves scratches; and is no longer considered good form. I've never tried it myself.

T.

john arran - on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

... that until the latter half of the 20th century, countries in Western Europe were frequently at war with one another.

I wonder what caused the change?

C Witter on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to AlanLittle:

Yes, it seemed absurd to me, but it's a point raised partly in jest by Robin Campbell in 'The Pinnacle'. It does reveal how revolutionary dropped picks and frontpoints were!

 

C Witter on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to john arran:

The further development of internationalised capitalism, decolonisation, the decay of the aristocracy and the extension of democratic rights to the working-class. Now the former colonial powers are "trading partners" and global power struggles (e.g. between the US and Russia) are fought out in the Middle East...

But, more importantly - what about climbing?

john arran - on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

You're trying too hard to not acknowledge the elephant in the room. Understandable, I suppose, given your position on such things.

GridNorth - on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to john arran:

> ... that until the latter half of the 20th century, countries in Western Europe were frequently at war with one another.

> I wonder what caused the change?

The UN, Nato, the threat of mutually assured destruction, the decline of Empire building, an increase in world trading and a more enlightened view of relationships but I bet you meant Brexit didn't you

Al

olddirtydoggy - on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

The thing we can learn from the past is to look forward to the future.

Sounds like one of those pointless image macro's on social media.

wbo - on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:isn't the real title of this thread 'what can we learn from climbers of the past'?

 

stp - on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

Climbing on wet rock varies a lot depending on rock type. Limestone, particularly polished limestone is, can be nearly impossible when wet. But other rock types, like granite, can be much better.

I remember one Christmas when I was in Cornwall with a friend on a climbing trip. It poured with rain and my friend sensibly refused to go out. But I was determined to climb no matter what so I ended up going down to Sennen and soloing a bunch of easy routes in my wellies.

These days there's no need to do that of course. You just go indoors instead. Maybe the lesson from the past is that things are much better than they used to be.

C Witter on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to stp:

Soloing easy routes in wellies in the rain sounds like a grand Christmas day out!

 

C Witter on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to wbo:

Yes.

C Witter on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to john arran:

My position on the EU? I don't remember ever expressing it on UKC, and rarely express it anywhere else, so I'm surprised you think you understand it. But, anyway, I honestly hadn't guessed that "the creation of the EU" was the answer to your rhetorical question until I had already posted my reply, on account of that being a patently absurd excuse for an historical explanation. By the by, since my partner is Italian, I work in a university, and I'd prefer not to see basic commodity prices sky rocket, Brexit is not really my cup of tea. But, that's irrelevant...

stp - on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

I was cured of any intention to climb in the rain on a subsequent trip to Cornwall. On that occasion I climbed the Classic Rock route 'Doorpost' - this time with ropes and a partner. I managed to successfully tick the route but I realised at the end the experience had been totally miserable from start to finish.  Probably why I've never made the transition to being a mountaineer.

C Witter on 10 Sep 2018
In reply to Trangia:

On "night climbing" - it seems many in the Scottish scene of the late 50s, e.g. Mitchell, Smith and Haston, used to relish finishing winter climbs in the middle of the night, walking off the Ben in the dark and getting back to the hut at 5am, despite having no torches... Quite incredible!

It also seems to me that part of the thrill of climbing in pre-war years was that you couldn't fall; the game of climbing has massively changed, to the point where perhaps some of those people wouldn't see the point of climbing anymore because it's safe. And some old "VS" routes certainly get harder grades now!

Having said that, reading about Haston persuing "direttissima" lines that relied on bolts really altered my views on bolts. It seems to me, reading what he wrote, that using bolts really was, for some climbers at that point, about exploring the unexplored - lines up faces that no one had climbed, which flew in the face of the establishment's common sense. It's easy to overlook that, when there is a kind of "commonsense" but trite equation of trad ethics with adventure climbing and bolting with the newest specialised gymnastic feats on the one hand and convenience and commercialisation on the other. Likewise, Warren Harding's bolting again flew in the face of the establishment, to climb what many thought unclimbable... On the other hand, I think Bonatti's concept of "the murder of the impossible" is powerful and valid. But, understanding a little of that history really opens up many of the unexamined dichotomies that plague debates about bolting, sport climbing, trad, etc.

...which doesn't mean we need to reopen debate about bolting UK crags...! Just that trad "ethics" regarding "acceptable" gear are actually anything other than traditional - they're very modern!

Trangia on 11 Sep 2018
john arran - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

> My position on the EU? I don't remember ever expressing it on UKC, and rarely express it anywhere else, so I'm surprised you think you understand it. 

I may have been confusing you with another poster, in which case I apologise.

Mick Ward - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

 

> It also seems to me that part of the thrill of climbing in pre-war years was that you couldn't fall..

Generally speaking, until the introduction of wires (early '70s) and cams (late '70s - but most people carried few, if any, for quite a while), falling off was a bad idea. Even Diffs and V Diffs required a degree of steadiness which is well-nigh unimaginable today.

 

> the game of climbing has massively changed, to the point where perhaps some of those people wouldn't see the point of climbing anymore because it's safe.

Climbing is as safe/dangerous as you chose. Are Great Wall and the Boldest safe?  You wouldn't want to fall off them!  Would think the routes on the back wall of Wen Zawn hardly qualify as safe. Craig Doris??

 

> And some old "VS" routes certainly get harder grades now!

There's no longer the slightest excuse for undergrading.

Mick

 

 

krikoman - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

Entering into war, or anything else I suppose, without an exit plan, can only lead to misery.

 

aln - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

Didn't they used to climb with socks over their boots/shoes when it was raining?

GarethSL on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to aln:

That was going to be my contribution to the thread.

If I remember correctly woollen socks were the best. I believe it may originally have been a Joe Brown idea, but cant say for sure though I'm certain I read about it in an Andy Cave book.

Made me wonder if those felt soled boots used for fishing could have any merit in wet mountains.

Post edited at 11:50
cander - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to GarethSL:

Long before joe brown, socks over plimsoles  has been around for a very long time.

cander - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to GarethSL:

Tricouni nailed boots where still mentioned in the literature when I was a lad in the 60’s thinking Blackshaw I’m sure he mentioned them as ideal for wet whether - although I never met anyone wearing them, I did meet people who had worn them - Charlie Wilson of overhanging bastion fame (amongst others).

C Witter on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to Trangia:

Bloody nora - no wonder they were so good at climbing chimneys! 

paul mitchell - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

That the more you sit down,the more you have to sit down.

The more you climb,the older you get.

Falling is reverse levitation.

Once your hair's gone,it's gone.

Solo grit is better than solo sex.

George Washington could have had a good dentist if he had lived a bit longer.

The more powerful the right wing press,the more authoritarian the regime that follows.

saying yes  to the missus can bring peace.

Always brush your teeth after every meal.

Lankyman - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to aln:

> Didn't they used to climb with socks over their boots/shoes when it was raining?


I recall Brian Evans giving me this tip and we were still using it in the 1980s although not on hard stuff. It does wear out your socks quickly and I suppose climbing walls had a greater appeal for most?

baron - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

One lesson from the past which might help present day climbers is that it is possible (desirable?) to climb at a high standard without using chalk.

Robert Durran - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to baron:

> One lesson from the past which might help present day climbers is that it is possible (desirable?) to climb at a high standard without using chalk.

Just the opposite; the generally far higher standards today is partly due to the use of chalk.

oldie - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to Pursued by a bear:

> There's a view that climbing in the wet in nailed boots is more secure, the nails offering greater traction on slippery rock. <

Only tried them once (borrowed boots). Different nails on different parts of the sole for different purposes.  They may well have been unaffected by wet conditions but seemed awful in the dry anyway, possibly partly due to my inexperience.



oldie - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to GarethSL:

 

> Made me wonder if those felt soled boots used for fishing could have any merit in wet mountains. <

There were actually felt-soled climbing shoes for wet conditions still being sold in the late sixties/early seventies....I remember seeing some in Lawrie's delightful shop near Marble Arch (no shop window just small brass plaque on door). I bought my first mountaineering boots there though ridiculously heavy by modern standards. 

 

baron - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to Robert Durran:

> Just the opposite; the generally far higher standards today is partly due to the use of chalk.

Terminal Twilight - E7? - 1984.

Chalk free first ascent, yet all these people who can’t get up a V Diff without the white stuff? 

Trangia on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to oldie:

>  I bought my first mountaineering boots there though ridiculously heavy by modern standards. 

Yes but they were so rigid you could stand with ease on the tiniest of titsi witsi holds and great for pain free jamming, so long as you could fit them into a crack.

 

Robert Durran - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to baron:

> Terminal Twilight - E7? - 1984.

> Chalk free first ascent, yet all these people who can’t get up a V Diff without the white stuff? 

There may be the odd exception, but maybe the same talented person would have been climbing E8 with chalk. There is absolutely no doubt that chalk allows everyone to climb harder, whether that's E10 or V. Diff. I struggle to second routes without chalk which I can lead comfortably with chalk. It's no different to improved protection devices or stickier, more precise boots.

The trouble is that people look back at what the elite were doing decades ago and imagine that was the norm. It wasn't - today's punters climb what the elite were climbing in the fifties, and punters in the fifties probably weren't climbing at all!

baron - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to Robert Durran:

But the thread title is ‘What can we learn from the past?’

Not ‘What can I use to let me climb harder?’

I don’t want to return to ‘the good old days’ but I’d love to see routes and boulders not plastered in unnecessary chalk.

Robert Durran - on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to baron:

> But the thread title is ‘What can we learn from the past?’

Yes, and I was arguing that we can't learn that chalk doesn't make a big difference!

 

C Witter on 11 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

Another thing I wonder is... are there some cracking routes that people used to think of as "classics", but which are less climbed today (particularly in the Lakes. E.g. I remember H. R. Griffin talking about Woodhouse's Route on Dow being a particular favourite, though it only gets one star now and only has 35 longs compared to almost 800 on Giant's Crawl.

p.s. I'm aware of Rog Wilko's great Neglected Classics list!

earlsdonwhu - on 12 Sep 2018
In reply to oldie:

I remember going to Lawrie's and being served by an elderly lady in an apron who looked as if she had never been up a mountain. Nonetheless, she was helpful and polite.

oldie - on 13 Sep 2018
In reply to C Witter:

Should the need arise its useful to be familiar with older techniques (and their limitations) requiring minimal gear eg classic abseil, ab with sling and krab, and waist belay. Indeed it could enable lighter loads when doing something like the Cuillin ridge. Sometimes modern climbers are incredulous about any possiblity of holding leader falls on a waist belay whereas many who started out 50 years ago probably did just that.
There was a ukc thread some time ago where two experienced climbers said how much they'd enjoyed climbing a long enchainment with single rope, waist belay and a few runners....I think the replies were unanimously in agreement. 
We may have lost the simplicity of older styles at the expense of actually carrying more equipment than we need, and possibly many trad climbers have not taken full advantage of modern gear being generally far better and lighter. Surely it detracts from enjoyment carrying huge racks, two 60m ropes, excessive emergency items etc to a low grade climb in the mountains (perhaps giving an extreme case here), It may limit the actual amount of climbing done and on occasion may contribute to exhaustion (we might criticize people needing rescuing for having too litle equipment but perhaps they sometimes have too much). 
 


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