The Gray Zone

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GelsaThere was an interesting post over at the Climbing Narcissist page a little over a week ago that offered a comparison between American and European climbers, and why it may appear that the Euros are leaving Americans in their dust in terms of pushing the grades (“Is Europe Taking America’s Lunch on the Rocks? Yes…and No”).  Guest writer Justin Roth of Urban Climber offered this keen analysis that very well may go to the core of the differences in approaches:

In the US, bolting has been, and in many places still is, considered taboo. It’s seen as destroying the natural environment, leaving your mark on a wild place that should be preserved for others, or even a form of cowardice (gear takes more guts and more ingenuity, right? Ever heard of the Bolt Wars?). This is mostly because we have so much terrain here in the states that accepts gear. Our culture puts trad climbing up on a bit of pedestal, and looks down on those who “number chase.”


Personally, I don’t care where the climber came from when they made some kind of evolutionary leap in their climbing medium.  Sure, I would love it if the sport got a little more attention in the States (because, frankly, if golf can be televised, there is no reason why climbing can’t be made interesting for television).  It did, however, remind me of some intellectual debates I have had with climbing partners over the years. specifically about style, ethics and access.

WolinsOn the one hand, there is my friend John: a long-time climber and outdoors-man, hippie (and I mean that in the nicest way possible, John), and someone I consider something of a mentor in my vertical pursuits.  He is also what I would consider, based on our many conversations on the topic, a climbing purist.  He eschews the concept of bolting (though he has claimed to have “clipped a bolt or two in [his] day”, something that I really need proof to believe) and unlimited access to climbing locales, preferring the approach of climbing at your own risk with the gear that the rock will take and keeping the environment as wild as possible.

ChuckOn the other hand, there is Chuck, who has described himself as my “padawan” in terms of climbing.  Chuck generally takes the approach that climbing should be open and accessible to all, that there shouldn’t be “secret” crags and has no compunctions about (the theory of) bolting a route if necessary and removing small trees if it will protect the fall or top out of a problem.  (This isn’t to say that he has a scorched earth policy either, but rather a quality climb policy.)

I have had numerous discussions with both about our approaches to climbing, and often I find myself straddling the gray area between the poles of both sides.  I clip bolts, and I set pro.  I prefer natural approaches and settings, and I have trimmed back creepers to free a rock face.  But going back to the original quote, it seems that we, as American climbers, have decided on an ethic that really only allows for a particular type of climbing, and then sets individual climbers against each other based on this ethic.

Here is my issue with the whole “ethics” discussion: ethics implies a set value of behaviors determined to the “right”, and all other behaviors that don’t fall within that rigid definition are “wrong”.  There is no room for debate, discussion, or exception.

Take for example the notion of “First, do no harm.”  Seems like an easy enough concept to uphold, and an ideal that perhaps all climbers should adopt.  But what does that mean?  Does it mean that the act of bolting a route is ultimately harmful and should not be undertaken?

Here is something to think about: the very act of being in the outdoors is an act of harm in the strictest sense.  No matter how careful we are, we leave out mark every time we venture outside of our homes into the wild.  Even using established trails (which had to be formed somehow to begin with, an act of destruction) will leave some trace of our passing.  Every time we climb a route, we erode it, ever so minutely.  We leave traces of our chalk on the rock.  And every one of us as seen the results of pin scars, old pitons, and even the wear marks from repeated cam placement.

If we are going with the concept of “Do No Harm”, aren’t their multiple ways to achieve this end?  Should a route with ample protection be bolted?  Probably not.  If there is no way to safely protect the route with removable gear?  Maybe that is just left up to the local community.  As long as holds aren’t being manufactured through chipping and gluing, as long as habitats are not being destroyed, couldn’t both approaches be acceptable?

There is one approach that John and I both share without argument or debate: not every rock needs to be climbed by everyone.  It is OK to have some things off limits…there are plenty of other places to climb.  We shouldn’t approach climbing with a sense of entitlement.  The Gunks may turn into a circus on the weekends in the spring and fall, but there is hardly so much overpopulation there that it is required that the closed sections be opened to the public.  Find something else to climb.  Go explore.  Wait your turn.  Relax.  The rock has been there for millenia…it will still be there in a few days.  And who knows?  You may find something new…

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2 comments so far

  1. Chuck on

    Hey Brian,
    I think you explained my view point a little farther to one side than I actually hold. I’m really not about removing small trees from my path and I don’t always believe in bolting.

    You were correct about my feelings toward “secret” crags, though.

    • clmbr121 on

      I suppose that the explanation was a tad simplistic, but I was using it more as an example of the differing view points between two climbers. I know that you have a balanced approach, as does John, it is just that you both have a different sense of balance.


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