Sunday, March 4, 2012

Give me convenience or give me death?

While the climbing world at large was distracted by the controversy over the chopping of Maestri’s bolts on Cerro Torre by Kennedy and Kruk, another bolt-related spat gripped the Bow Valley. The Rockies' version went the other way, however: rather than bolts being removed from an established route, they were added to one. Let me explain.

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.
Clearly, it is not possible to hold on to all of these values. More often than not, we have to choose between adventure and safety, accessibility and tradition, athleticism and cerebral exercise. For example, by extensively drilling holds at the Playground, a popular drytooling venue, Pat Delaney and Eric Dumerac decided accessibility and athleticism trumped the natural environment. (Having said that, chipping need not always enhance athleticism. With chipped holds the crux pitch of The Jimmy Skid Rig goes at M11. Without manufactured holds, the flaky, overhanging limestone might well have been impossible to freeclimb - or maybe, just maybe, it might have been really hard and cool. But there is no doubt that chipping the route made it accessible to more people, myself included.)

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?


  1. I'm squarely in the adventure, cerebral exercise, natural environment camp. I favor bolts for rappel stations as I think they tend to be better for the environment in the long run.

  2. However, looking at the largely favourable on-line and on-the-ground responses to the retrobolting of 2Low 4 Zero, Pat and Mike might be the ones more in tune with the local ethos. Yes, the retrobolting went against some long-held principles, but it seems to be what people want. Let us say someone went ahead and removed the bolts. Given how quickly much of the community has embraced them, would this be no more than the act of an out-of-touch trad fundamentalist?

  3. As long as there are climbers, and as long as there are bolts, there will be controversy. It's a long standing tradition as deeply rooted as any other in the climbing community. There will never be a consensus one way or the other so pick your side and have at 'er.

  4. Ken,

    I do not think the choice is quite as black-and-white as bolts vs. no bolts. A bolted route can be quite adventurous (think of any number of eighties-vintage Yam routes) or a pleasant clip-up (like many recent additions to Yam). Bolts can be used to open new routes or to change old ones. In the end, a bolt is just a tool. We are the ones choosing how it is used.

  5. I didn't mean to imply that it was a simple bolt vs. no bolt issue. Clearly it is not. Yes, we are the ones choosing how the bolt should be used but when it comes to the subject of retrobolting there is always controversy and rarely, if ever, consensus. My original comments were really in reply to your question "So, what is it going to be?".

  6. What I find interesting is that it's always the "Elite" climbers that make such a fuss. I feel that if it's up in the Alpine let it be, don't use bolts. But you're talking about a one pitch wonder with very little gear. If the people who where the first to ascent the route gave the ok what's the big deal.

  7. 'The width of the pinnacle of achievement in any sport is proportional to the width of its base. And in a humble way he may discover something of true worth.' - Dick Sale

    In hockey there is an old saying "practice like you play" So whether it is in the alpine or at a crag.. practice like you play, if crags are meant for practice, how will one succeed in the alpine without the skills gained.. while practicing?

    'The mountains have rules. They are harsh rules, but they are there, and if you keep to them you are safe. A mountain is not like men. A mountain is sincere. The weapons to conquer it exist inside you, inside your soul." - Walter Bonatti.

  8. Brandon you and your quotes have made some good points. Something to consider....But I also think that it is good to practice somewhat safely at times, because even falling on a one pitch wonders can have some devastating consequences if you are on trad and it's a run out. You need to have both options.

  9. It is so human to polarize an argument. I am sure a caver and a sunbather could try to rationally argue the values of dark and light. If I am honest with myself I CAN see circumstances where all of the stated values above are important to me. It just depends on our perspective. This is because I have traversed a lot of different skill camps and situations in my climbing. Learning "PEACE" and "Acceptance" perhaps trumps everything. While still collectively deciding WHERE different practices are acceptable.

  10. Andy, I agree, both options are extremely important, especially considering not everyone wants to climb at the level that is dangerous. And this is why we all love craging. However, everyone makes a decision to get on a route, if a route is dangerous and they continue, that is the freedom of the hills.
    It is important to not erase history, period.
    "In overstepping our limitations, in touching the extreme boundaries of mans world, we have come to know something of its true splendor. In my worst moments of anguish, I seemed to discover the deep significance of existence of which till then I had been unaware. I saw that it was better to be true then to be strong. The marks of the ordeal are apparent on my body. I was saved and I had won my freedom. This freedom, which I shall never lose, has given me the assurance and serenity of a man who has fulfilled himself. It has given me the rare joy of loving that which I used to despise. A new and splendid life has opened out before me." -Herzog
    I doubt he wrote this after clipping bolts, just saying.

  11. Well Brandon looks like we agree...

    Raph, thanks for posting a blog. It's always very interesting what you write. Please write more. Hope you're well.

  12. Hi Raph,
    thanks for another great post that makes us think about our actions in our beloved mountains. Generally I think everyone should be able to do whatever he likes to do out there, as long as he/she is honest about it and has somewhat a reason to justify the action taken. Something like the 'Freedom of the Hills" might sum it up, isn't this the very reason we all share and go out, try to have some fun and adventure, with or without bolts, away from speed limits, park permits and income tax reports.
    Without taking any sides and judging right or wrong: It just seems a bit odd to me that the thoughtful and honest process in bolting a mini route like 2L40 can raise so much stink in the climbing 'community', but getting away with the aid drilling and artificial monster chipping of a Jimmy Skid Rig with major trash littered at the base of the route 4 years after the fact was never really questioned by the ever so ethically inclined internet judges.
    The smell of spring is in the air, I even got bit by my first Mosquito of the year in Haffner today, play safe, Gery

  13. Gery,

    you're right, it's odd that there was some much ado about the retrobolting of 2L40, but none over the chipping and garbage on TJSR. Maybe 2L40 is simply on a lot more people's radar screens, while TJSR sits there out of sight and mind like a strip mine way up north. Then again, I never heard any complaints about the chipping at the Playground, and that place is not exactly obscure. Go figure!

    And yes, spring is in the air. I had my first day out on rock on Saturday, so much fun!


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  15. Gery,

    I think the stink about 2L4Z had to do with the fact the FA team was never consulted, once they weighed in, end of discussion (unless the golden rule of FA team approval is out of date?)
    I think TJSR was never really fussed about because the chipping was done by one of the world best mixed climbers, WG and not really talked of (freedom of the hills).

    When we first got to the base of the route in 2006 we found two fixed ropes and a rack on the left hand smear, they had been there for a long time... we do not know who that was from but we did not raise a fuss, there is gear all over the hills.
    I know of a few big mixed routes in the ghost right now being worked on with fixed ropes and a ton of gear at the base. I also see buckets stashed at sport climbing areas (some old and not in use) random gear on the routes and spread around the general area... how is this any different, stick clips strewn around a forest is no different then a water bottle at the base of the route? Not that this justifies us leaving gear up there.
    Either way TJSR is now free of the trash and Ironically I am heading to the water wall in Grotto now to climb some 'enhanced' routes!

    Happy Spring!

  16. Hi Raphael. Drill is a very powerfull machine. If you choose, as we have all seen, you can create holds, remove shitty rock, and install bolts etc. With the drill in my opinion comes a bit of responsibility. It is also a good idea to look into our history to find out what works what doesn't. I think drilling/inhancing holds doesn't work. I have a hard time considering glue as acceptable resource.
    I have installed quiet few bolts and the community has not said anything yet. If you find yourself drilling couple of times and each time community goes wild you may need to look at what you have learned from the past. I think it is quiet simple.
    As guides these guys have even greater responsibility to pass on all those lessons. In a way they are our educators.
    I vote no buckets at crags.
    Let's talk toilets at busy areas.
    I vote Raph for president.