Evan Thomas Creek is a popular intermediate ice climbing area. The main attraction is a trio of neighbouring two-pitch routes: Moonlight, a nice solid WI4; Snowline, a soft touch WI4; and the ugly duckling, 2 Low 4 Zero, a scrappy M4. While climbers would queue up for Moonlight and Snowline, 2 Low 4 Zero saw little traffic. There was a reason for it: in spite of the moderate grade, when thin 2 Low 4 Zero was a serious lead on marginal gear.
Enter Pat Delaney and Mike Trehearne, two local guides, who decided to remedy this situation by retrobolting 2 Low 4 Zero up to Haffner Creek standards. Their stated reason was to open up the route to more traffic in an overcrowded venue visited mostly by climbers of average abilities. As one might expect, the online reactions were swift and polarized: some people were happy to see the route made safe for all, others condemned the act, even accused the protagonists of retrobolting the route for guiding purposes.
One of the most insightful comments on this tempest in a teacup came from my philosophically inclined friend, Ian Welsted. He pointed out that in any ethical discussion it helps to be clear on the underlying values. His remark got me thinking about the Cerro Evan Thomas controversy in the light of what the local climbing community might in fact value. I know, I know, “it’s only climbing,” but taking a broader view makes for an interesting and maybe even useful exercise. So, if you are willing to play along, let me ask: what do you consider to be important in climbing? In alphabetical order, here are some possibilities:
- Accessibility. Routes should be climbable by as many people and as often as possible, not just by the hardcore one season out of three. “The mountains are mine as much as yours to enjoy.”
- Adventure. A rather vague concept, but two key ingredients are uncertainty (“I’m not sure I can climb this.”) and risk (“I could get hurt climbing this.”).
- Athleticism. Climbing is about pushing one’s physical limits, about pullin’ down way up there.
- Cerebral exercise. Climbing is more than just a physical activity. The mental game is just as important as the physical challenge.
- Natural environment. When establishing new routes and out climbing in general, we should seek to tread lightly and minimize our impact.
- Ownership. A new route is like an artistic creation. While the first ascentionists might not own the land, only they have the right to decide what happens to the route.
- Safety. Climbing should be a fun, safe pastime, not an exercise in risking one’s neck. No climb is worth getting hurt for.
- Tradition. The achievements of earlier generations should be respected. Existing routes should not be modified to suit current likes and dislikes.
Some other value conflicts can be a bit less obvious. We are fond of simple rules of thumb, such as “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” or “Thou shalt ask first ascentionists for permission before retrobolting their route.” But what value(s) exactly would the latter rule have us respect? (I prefer not to think about the kinds of values implicit in the former.) It is tempting to say tradition. But what about Jeff Marshall, the author of such inspired runout classics as Astroyam, retrofitting his route Excalibur, and erasing the ledge fall potential on the crux pitch with closely spaced bolts? In this case his actions (and the rule about first ascentionists deciding the fate of their routes) were consistent with the value of route ownership, but most definitely not tradition!
On 2 Low 4 Zero Pat Delaney and Mike Trehearne came down in favour of accessibility, safety, and (to some extent) ownership, at the expense of adventure, cerebral exercise and tradition. Whether you consider the retrobolting a good or a bad thing depends on what you consider to be important in climbing. So, what is it going to be?
Gery Unterasinger skipping Maestri-style bolts on the last pitch of Yellow Edge. What is that all about?