Friday, 15 May 2015

Clean Climbing

Any old Iron?:Pete Livesey circa mid seventies.Photo John Cleare

There used to be so few climbers that it didn't matter where one drove a piton,there wasn't the worry about demolishing the rock. Now things are different.There are so many of us and there will be more. a simple equation exists between freedom and numbers; the more people the less freedom.If we are to retain the beauties of the sport,the fine edge, the challenge,we must consider our style of climbing; and if we are not to destroy and mutilate the routes,we must eliminate the heavy handed use of pitons and bolts

Royal Robbins 

Ten years ago I gazed in awe at one of Britain's tigers at work on Malham Cove's Right Wing Girdle. From a basking stone I watched in admiration as Dennis Gray rested on a sling before a difficult move. Perhaps I marveled more at his skill in placing a sling good enough to rest on than at his ability on the climb. I could only dream of the day when I too would have the skill and daring to place a sling and rest on it. Here was rock-climbing at it finest, the most modern and ultimate of challenges — or so I thought! It is almost a contradiction to talk about the ethics of such a wonderfully anarchistic pastime as rock-climbing. Ethics, someone will reasonably point out, are entirely personal and are nobody else's business. True, but everyone must have some historical background on which to base his personal ideas on rock-climbing behavior.

In the beginning it was the Alpine Club, then the Climbers Club and the Fell and Rock who, by suitably caustic ethical comment in their universally read journals, moulded the axioms on which the individual based his ethics. How the cutting comments on pitons in the Fell & Rock Journal shaped the ethics of Lakeland climbers for years to come! In later years, when news of the doings of Brown and Whillans had filtered through to the climbing world in general — perhaps three or four years after the events — people realised that aid had been used on many routes. But Joe and Don were the best, their routes were much harder than any before, and the new ethic was accepted.

Unencumbered by the restrictions of a patriarchal establishment the Rock & Ice had created new rules for themselves, and as established folk heroes their rules were rapidly mimicked — as one might expect. Lesser climbers adopted codes allowing themselves one or two points of aid per route; the difference now however was that Brown, Whillans and their colleagues could have climbed these routes entirely free. As early as 1939 Colin Kirkus had written . . nobody has the right to climb with pitons a route which is conceivably possible without . .

Colin Kirkus: Ethically as pure as the driven snow!

Another decline in the traditionally clear division between artificial and free climbing came from that forcing-ground of British aid-climbing- Derbyshire Limestone. Fiercely steep routes, sometimes old aid climbs, were being attempted and it became acceptable to rest on-piton-or nut runners so long as height was not gained through their use. A smug complacency settled in — we could always compare ourselves to the peg-packing, etriered continentals and claim our climbing ethically pure — the real rock-climbing. But had we known it, six thousand miles away Americans were rock-climbing with such ethical simplicity that even Brown might have thought again about his routes; had we known it, the rot in Britain may not have penetrated so deeply.

Cenotaph Corner would still carry a HVS A1 rating while Vector would be XS A1 under a purist grading system of the type much used in America. In fact any climb employing a point of aid would incorporate an artificial component in its grading. Hopefully; But I'm back where I came in — and resting on runners and suchlike, all acceptable! Had anyone bothered to step back and take a look it would have been obvious that under this system even the most extremes of routes would be climbed by the many. That is the point in any sport when the sociological factors governing the existence of the game, no matter how anarchistic, begin to modify the ethics. A ball game becomes dull if it is too easy or too difficult to score; governing bodies regularly adjust rules in the light of modern performance and equipment to avoid this very danger. And so in the last few years leading British rock-climbers have gradually rejected more and more of the aid-climbers devices.

We are leaving routes which would require a point of aid now, for better climbers later. We will fail on already established climbs if it seems likely that we need to rest on a nut. I talk of leading climbers in this context because it is they who set the ethics in our game at present. Either by their example of by their writings they are hopefully and continually improving our ethical standards. This is where many readers will grab for their pens and start writing . . . . . but I saw you using a tied-off an ivy frond on the Fang — what kind of example is that? . .' Well, yes, I did — but it saved my life. It was ethical foul but I'm still here. What kind of example is it best to pass on, an example of the worst of one's own ethics — or the best?

Why go into print to publicise one's own ethics? If ethics are a personal code then why not just leave it to teaching by example — and make sure that example is good?  There are two reasons: the first is that today's leading climber is no longer a folk hero as he was in the Rock and Ice era, he is much more of a fly-by-night character. His example, no matter how good, may be forgotten in his wake were it not for the posterity of the printed word. Secondly, the climbing publications do much damage to climbing ethics by their image and content. A climber's own ethical comment is needed to redress the balance. I am frequently driven to despair by such advertisments as... You too can go right up the wall with ease' (with our gear) or You need the best equipment available and . . . takes you! to extremes. Worst of all to my mind was one recent advertisement-Bring Everest down to size!  If those are not blatant ethical fouls then I don't know what is, and to suggest that one can buy one's way up a mountain (despite recent attempts) is surely foreign to any spirit that may remain in climbing.

What then are my ethics, and how did they develop? At first they derived from the example of other climbers, and then my own ideas started to predominate. It is astonishing how quickly they change. Three years ago I would have top-roped a new route anywhere had I thought it necessary. Now I would confine that particular foul only to the boldest of local gritstone problems. Today I would not use aid to force a new route, unless, even with a point of aid, it was making possible a route harder than any before. The excuse for a foul creeps in again! I call these 'tricks' fouls, but when I analyse the situation it strikes me that everything beyond a man climbing a mountain alone and naked is a foul: we must keep our tally as low as possible for our own era in history. All fouls are born equal, it is only local accent, at this point in time, that decrees the use of chalk a worse foul than nut protection.

Here Royal Robbins has something to say: he has the.. concept of climbs as not just lines but as creations containing line and style. To this I would add my own more important concept of creative quality in a new route — that of the aesthetic enjoyment possible from the physical movement involved in the climb — the exhilaration felt after ascending a series of continuously demanding moves. A climb must have this quality to be a worthy creation. On a new climb at Ilkley recently I had a choice: should I take a bold and beautiful little arete that required a piton for a handhold and protection half-way? Or should I scrape out a nearby scoop of soft rock to construct a useable hand-hold and then top-rope the route as it would be protectionless? I chose the latter alternative — the scraped hold and the top-rope — not because pitons are nasty at Ilkley but because the finished product is as fine a series of moves as you'll find anywhere. To have used a peg would have been to break the flow and spoil the prolonged physical sensations.

The tension would have been broken by the escape point in the middle. Again the letter writers reach for their pens: ' . . how can you justify any environmental ethics when you use chalk and scrape holds? Why rid the crags of defacing pitons on the one hand and paint them a different colour with the other?  Well, I have no ethical qualms about the environment; I have never rid a route of its pegs or its aid because it makes the route/crag/national park/ country- a cleaner and more natural place. I just consider that the removal of aid can turn many of the fine aided lines into tremendous climbing experiences as well. How can the climber complain of environmental damage to his climbs when he drives as close as possible to them in his noisy noxious gas-spewing car?

How can the guide-book writer professional hero complain when he condones the building of a modern rescue box as close as possible to the crags? How can the National Park Warden complain as he roams the countryside in his Landrover with his yapping dogs planting obscene signs and turning all available land into expensive camping-car-park complexes? These are my views today. But as I have said, they may change tomorrow, and they do frequently modify but always I hope to permit less fouls than before. Messner has something to say, something that we might consider a pointer for the future: It is impossible, or pointless, to grade a move when you are within ten feet of your last piton - (or nut!)

Pete Livesey: First Published in Mountain Life-June 1975