Friday, 2 May 2014

In Praise of Cheating

Though play as such is outside the range of good and bad, the element of tension imparts to it a certain ethical value in so far as it means a testing of the player's prowess: his courage, tenacity, resources, and, last but not least, his spiritual powers - his ‘fairness’; because, despite his ardent desire to win, he must still stick to the rules of the game.The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a ’spoilsport'. The spoilsport is not the same as the false player, the cheat; for the latter pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle. It is curious to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the spoilsport. This is because the spoilsport shatters the play-world itself. By withdrawing from the game he reveals there relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others."

Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens

Over the past few years monologues and dialogues on what have come to be called climbing ethics have become a regular feature of climbers’ magazines. Tejada-Flores and Robbins have presented intriguing and comprehensive descriptions of how the ethical machinery works or ought  to work, and recently Robin Campbell has offered a shorter decalogue. To be sure, Campbell and others have mentioned their discomfort at talking about ethics in this respect - as if climbing had dilemmas as weighty as those of the medical and legal professions. Recall, though, that in a famous essay on conservation written no less than forty years ago Aldo Leopold urged a further extension of ethical concepts: ethics dealt with property and people at first, he said; but ethics ought to consider unimproved land and the life-forms it supports. Clearly there is a sense in which many young climbers agree with him and want to go a step further by protecting the inanimate world of rock.

Ought one to apologise for adding to this literature? If so, I offer two apologies, alternatives if you like. First, climbing and mountaineering have been great fun and very satisfying. But the threats from technology and population pressure in the past are nothing to the threats looming in the immediate future. I find myself reluctant to agree with David Roberts that the sport is probably doomed and may already be in its last throes. But I am sure that if we want to enjoy these pastimes in roughly the same sorts of ways as in the past, it would be wise to ascertain whether and how we ought to protect them. Second, at some time or other I have flouted almost every rule within an English climber’s reach. And yet, in the very act of committing each misdemeanour, an utterly plausible excuse has been taking shape in my mind. So perhaps I write with unusual  authority and have important new material to contribute?

lt makes sense to begin by scanning the entire field of unethical behaviour on mountains, using ‘unethical’ in our contemporary sense. Some readers may be upset at the inclusion of certain items in this list but all these practices have been complained of by someone at some time. It might be worth adding that less heinous offences, best referred to as breaches of "climbing manners", can also be identified; some of the prototypes of these peccadilloes were excellently dealt with by Winthrop Young in Mountain Craft and more modern forms can be extrapolated. So we begin, obviously, with the use of a power drill to get up a mountain and of a helicopter to get down; with the use of light aeroplanes to look for or at prospective routes; with the use of helicopters, aeroplanes, skidoos, jeeps,scramble bikes and so on, to get men or material nearer to the climb than other or earlier visitors.Next we have the use of pegs, bolts, nuts and slings to allow one to stand or hang in comfort where might otherwise be difficult or impossible; and the abandoning of this or other material on the mountain.

Then there is the whittling away of climbs from below by the use of siege tactics; and the softening-up of climbs from above by inspection or rehearsal by rappel or top-rope and by the placing of useful or displacing of unhelpful material. Here we might add the dissemination of detailed information about the mountain and its climbs in the form of guidebooks,magazine articles, route descriptions, photos and topos. And then comes the guiding on mountain excursions of people who want to go that way but daren’t go there on their own; or of those who might just drift there by chance but who don't understand what the mountain is for; or of people who don't admire the mountain and are scared stiff anyway.All sorts of other complaints have been lodged about the presence on mountains of people with uniforms, or with badges and certificates to prove it; about the building of shelters and refuges; about the overdevelopment of rescue facilities; about the use of rock shoes on easy climbs, and so on. But that will do for a start.

Now it is clear to me that matters of right and wrong in climbing involve actions with effects of two quite different categories. First, they involve actions detrimental to the scene in its widest sense: conservation ethics, called here environment ethics. Second, they involve actions that threaten the accepted styles of climbing : game ethics, is called here competition ethics to emphasise the dominant aspect of their nature. Some activities certainly lead to both sorts of damage but it remains possible and important to separate the categories and effects.We can list the main offences against environment ethics briefly. First, there is damage to the biological life-bank of the cliff or mountain, its plants and bird or animal life, Second, there is damage to the rock itself, considered as something natural and admirable rather than as a climbing problem that might need re-grading after rough treatment.Third, there are the litter nuisances: bog paper on every ledge and bolts in every wall. And, fourth, there is the erosion of the absolute mystery, dignity and privacy of the mountain and the contamination of the local or native culture the mountain stands behind and is coloured by.

Royal Robbins...ethical dude.

There are other problems as well. But in summary these are the sorts of complaints that might be made by non-climbers who love the mountain in an entirely platonic sense. The general type of offence is disturbance. One could say a lot about these matters and if it were claimed that they are outside the scope of climbing ethics the reply is, no, absolutely not, the two areas are inseparable in many instances. But it is true that the most heated arguments at present are about the ways in which climbs are carried out. Competition ethics are based upon a number of factors or desiderata. There is the need to exert oneself; there is the need to scare oneself; there is the need to excel; and there is the example of archetypal climbs.

 Beyond this, competition ethics respond to change: advances in techniques; advances in technology; increases in wealth and leisure; and the effects of population pressures. ln mentioning the more important of these factors, Tejada-Flores’ indispensable description of 'climbing-games' has to be used as a model yet again. One assumes that the reader is familiar with his terminology and ideas and I use these freely here, without keeping bowing to the inventor. One notes that he remarks that the climbing-game hierarchy isn't the only way of thinking about climbing and no doubt he went through a number of alternatives. But an obvious way of describing breaches of competition ethics is by saying that they amount to the use of a handicap-system to assist the climber rather than to defend the climb. The subversive purpose of this essay is to ask how much competition ethics matter; but the question will have to wait a moment.

Having listed offenses against environment ethics we can now look at the flouting of competition ethics. And here the cardinal sin is simply the use of too much advantage, especially in support of a pre-emptive strike. To this we can add the leaving of aid in place, a temptation to subsequent parties. Over the past few years remarks about the use of excessive protection have also been voiced from time to time. And then there is the creation of a variation or traverse which, whilst giving a new climb, detracts from the ambience of an existing line, a question of manners possibly. But the general type of offence is that of reducing the personal handicap in relation to other climbers likely to attempt the same route. It was remarked earlier that some activities offend both ethics and some only one or the other. So, for example, a pure bolt ascent might be held to flout environment ethics (by leaving litter on the wall) and to flout competition ethics(by eliminating the personal handicap). Gardening, on the other hand, violates environment ethics but ratifies competition ethics because it leaves the climb in a more permanent condition; whilst rehearsal by top-rope may be held to offend competition ethics but does not threatenenvironment ethics in the least.

Excursus on sentiment. The great climbs can stand anancient victory piton and the odd retreat pegs; even, perhaps, extended peg and bolt ladders in certain situations depending mainly, rightly or wrongly, on how much anxiety the situation arouses in the average climber undertaking the route. Climbing is an art-form, engaging our feelings; and these mementoes, speaking of the struggles of our predecessors. of success and failure, arouse emotions in us. Even litter, then, may add to the impact of a climb. So here is the related crunch question for frustrated ethicists. Does an unrecorded bolt ascent of an otherwise unvisited wall breach environment ethics ? Or competition ethics Or both? Or neither?

Another general observation on breaches of ethics centres of the relative permanence of the effect. l began by mentioning the use of a power drill to get up a mountain and of a helicopter to get down. Each of these bits of assistance‘ constitutes a total breach of both ethics. But note that the bolting is a relatively irreversible gesture against both ethics: the use of the helicopter insults the environment ethic only until the echoes have died away; whilst it damages the competition ethic for as long as we say it does. Here's an odd difference then. Environment ethics can be breached temporarily, with perfect repair, or permanently and irreparably, or something in between. But how competition ethics are breached depends purely on what we say about the matter. And we are influenced by factors that tend to make us change our minds and construct new rules. One can observe the rules, or one can pretend to observe them, or one can ignore them. And it is those who assume the last two roles who interest me now: the cheat and the spoilsport.

ln climbing, a spoilsport is something more than just a climber who takes an advantage one had not thought of oneself. A spoilsport might be described as a cheat who admits, announces or boasts of his cheating; or, retrospectively, a cheat who gets found out. But, to confuse matters, British climbers use the expression ‘cheating’ in two ways. First, we joke that we are cheating when we use more assistance than is usual; but by this self-accusation we resign from the contest and clear ourselves. Second, we cheat when we don't tell the truth about the aid we've used. The opportunities for this on smaller crags have become less with population pressure. But even on British cliffs there can be few leading climbers who have never found themselves with a foot ‘caught in a sling’, whilst gardening holds. And if any essential aid has been admitted to, dispensable aid is less likely to be recorded. Something can be said in support of both cheat and spoilsport. In defence of the cheat it has to be said that, in contrast to the disturbing practices mentioned earlier, cheating stands alone; it does not really threaten the game of climbing.

Hence the title of this article. In defence of the spoilsport one can say what Durkheim said of other criminals. That his existence is inevitable because he is the agent used to clarify and define the edges of permissible behaviour. Perhaps both cheat and spoilsport might be regarded as the guerillas of the mountaineering world, sabotaging the ethics machine when its workings are causing absurd or undesirable effects. So here's a health to Keith McCallum. Half cheat, half spoilsport, ably seconded by his three fantasised companions (how real and individual were their personalities to him Who was the best of the three? Where did J. S. Martin spend his August holiday in 1967 ?) he blazed his way to glory through fifty dream climbs. One has to give credit where it is due. In The Decay of Lying, Wilde speculates on the character of the true liar - "his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility” - and defines the really breathtaking lie: "Simply that which is its own evidence".The genius of McCallum was of a very unusual, very broad and visionary nature, easily damaged by the cynicism of the a world.

He was able not only to look at cliffs and write up fairly plausible descriptions of impressive lines: but he was also willing and happy to attend climbing club dinners as guest of honour and to make long and stupefying boring speeches about his latest achievements and the state of the campaign. There's conviction for you l One hopes that he has not been too distressed at the response the uncovering of his initiatives drew. It would be nice to think that he might one day return to the climbing scene with new ideas. I will assume now that most of us agree that breaches of environment ethics are matters worth serious thought, even if some alleged abuses need to be looked at rather sceptically. But these are not the main subject of this article so only one question now remains: do competition ethics matter? There are certainly points to be made for and against  them.

Clearly, competition ethics are essential for competitors. They enable them to sort themselves out and to get into order of size, this operation giving great happiness, anguish and excitement. Further, it is surely the case that the better one climbs a route, the closer to the archetypal style, the more pleasure one gets. For the most brilliant climbers, ethical climbing is the only means by which a high enough level of tension can be achieved and that goal becomes more elusive as technique and technology progress. Finally, ethical climbing ensures that some problems are left unsolved; and apart from the fact that this conserves a field of action for the experts of tomorrow it is also claimed that there is an intrinsic virtue in modesty and self-denial.

What, then, can be said against competition ethics? First, that they should only apply to competitors. Might it not seem reasonable for a man to ask to compete, not with other climbers - the collateral competition - but only with the route and his own limits - the vertical competition: and therefore to use whatever assistance he feels to be necessary ? This seems fair enough to me. The joy of climbing includes elements other than the pleasure of excelling, including, as claimed already, the catharsis of exertion and fear; and that satisfaction is quite independent of one’s performance as compared with the standards agree by groups.

lt might be said that unethical climbing is simply a means of avoiding any such catharsis, but this is usually true only for the scornful bystander in a particular situation; the unethical climber is probably finding his unethical solution amply exciting. The excellence of climbs, given a certain length of route, also depends more upon such aesthetic factors as beauty ofmposition, rock architecture, setting and view, than upon the actual method of achieving the hardest move: and on a fairly long route the experience is not much affected whether the crux has been climbed by layback, by jamming, or by standing in a nut sling. So that 60-year-olds, I think, ought to insist upon their right to nut the crucial sections of routes climbed free by 30-year-olds. The fact that this right is derided in Britain at present is lamentable. We have reached the point at which sensitive climbers are having to spend their holidays in Patagonia, where the wind is too loud to permit prolonged discussions on ethics.

But now, unhappily, I reach the problem on which the theorists break themselves: that posed by climbers who, in using extensive aid, reject the competition ethic (since they're achieving a high enough level of tension as it is) but who record their claims to first ascents. Is the First Ascents List a competition ? Does it pre-suppose adherence to the competition ethic of a particular time and place? Or is it no more than it calls itself, a historical record ? At this point I find myself in a bit of a fix. I cannot help commenting here on how irresistible the sexual metaphor appears to be. Don't rape the mountains, says Campbell; leave a few monuments to Virginity, says Robbins. It is a commonly held opinion nowadays that a false value has often been placed upon virginity; and many readers, no doubt, share Dr. Comfort's view that chastity is no more a virtue than malnutrition. Perhaps, then, the metaphor is misleading And yet, in mountaineering the image of the undespoiled seems to remain central and essential. Even those who imply that too much is made of this legend of purity seem, by the very act of recording their unethical ascents, to shake their own case. (Curious, too, to note how many climbers have put on record the fact that they've made new routes without recording them.) From this point several trains of thought depart and it's not possible to catch all of them at once. So I content myself with saying that metaphors of violation ought to be scrutinised carefully. In fact, I suspect that some interesting understandings of the nature of the wilderness experience might result.

My own predilection, and my practice, is for doing new routes as best one can; and, despite my title, for being reasonably honest about the methods used. It doesn't  perturb me in the least if someone has made a new route by using more aid than I find to be necessary on my subsequent ascent. If someone repeats my own climb with less difficulty, I'm suitably impressed; with more, and I'm childishly delighted. I think I know who made the first ascents of the Mont Aiguille, the Devil's Tower, Lost Arrow and whatever, and I know how they succeeded. In a strange way the histories of climbs made outside the competition ethic are often as interesting as those of climbs made within it. So I think that the moderate climber ought to reject the spectatorial role the é/ite have assigned to him.If I find a desperate crack, accessible to me with two or three nuts and slings, I'm not going to watch it for years until someone arrives who can finger up it. His aching fingers will be his eventual reward as my dry throat was mine. His ethical ascent can be used to underline the advance of the generations or simply my lack of skill.

But note that it might also be necessary to record the weather and perhaps other variables; unless it is proposed to forbid the use of aid (or top-roping or gardening en rappel) on new routes except in fine weather. Clearly, the freeing of hard British rock-climbs is basically a fine-weather sport for gentlemen of leisure who can wait for perfect conditions; whilst British rock-climbing itself is (surely?) an alI-weather sport. (I must add here, in relation to the use of aid, that the problems of speed and manners are often present. The objection to the use of siege tactics surely stems in part from a response to the arrogance of blocking and claiming a route in an area In which there is a population pressure problem. And when I encourage old men and poor performers to use aid on difficult routes, I beg them to consider whether they have a right to hold up a queue of climbers who are genuinely longing to ascend that particular climb.

This article has changed shape a dozen times since first I sketched it out. I had a hundred dazzling insights, which I could not accommodate at this length, and. I met a hundred baffling problems, which I could only evade or ignore. The general field of environment ethics, the critical problem of people pollution, the intriguing area of the influence of archetypes. and the matter of orders of preference in the use of advantage. nave had to be passed by. The basic structure of the article to me to be a reasonable way of looking; at the practices of climbers. But now I begin to notice a suspicious resemblance  between the different pronouncements on the subject. each having a catch clause at the end.

Tejada-Flores’ hierarchy of climbing-games allows an ultimate judgement from the concept of good and bad style. Robbins proposes a revolutionary First Ascent Principle and his benevolent ethic allows the moderate climber to have as much fun as he likes; but then he announces a class of actions called Outrages and these cannot be permitted. Campbell outlines three restricted Categorical Imperatives and then comes up with a fourth, Love the Mountain, which can be used to deal with any abuses he may notice. Some readers may think my own suggestions disgustingly permissive; they have probably forgotten my Environment Ethic, which enables me to forbid anything that makes a mark or a noise. Perhaps, from the beginning, I ought to have distinguished more rigorously between clean aid and dirty aid, nut and piton, as the Americans keep doing. At any rate, I write in the certain knowledge that people will let me know where I went wrong.

In the end, especially for those who climb in public, it's a dialogue. It's a good thing that a climber should recognise his capabilities. He should see the world as it is and understand, if he doesn't already, that he may not be the best performer in the game. And it's a good thing also, provided that the environment ethic isn't brutally offended, that a climber should feel free to do his own thing and to reject the rules of others. I take J. E. B. Wright's account of an incident during the German attempt in 1936 on Lliwedd’s then unclimbed Central Gully Direct as a model for this dialogue: Stoeppler had been warned about the Welsh weather and he had a tube fitted to his Bergen Sack which took an umbrella. He was leading with the umbrella open keeping off the rain. Teufel was leading me up Reade’s Crack. Along came five climbers. As they arrived at the foot of Central Gully, bang, bang, went Stoeppler's hammer. The spokesman of the five shouted, "What do you think you're doing?" Bang, bang, went the hammer. This question was addressed several times, in a rising crescendo, to Stoeppler and Schneider, neither of whom could speak English. The banging and shouting went on alternately. Finally Stoeppler said to Schneider in German, "if he shouts again, throw a rock at him."

The stone was not thrown but the banging went on and the party of five continued on their way.’ There are some extraordinarily puzzling questions in the field of climbing ethics and it's rather amusing to see the young philistines torturing themselves with new forms of the sorts of conundrums that have teased philosophers for centuries.But if matters of environmental damage aren't involved perhaps the really crucifying dilemmas are for very small groups of people - the freakishly talented, the disgustingly rich, and the clinically disturbed: but not for you and me.

Harold Drasdo: First Published in Mountain 39