Original High illustration: Unattributed
A casual bystander might be forgiven for not being able to differentiate between a free-climb and an artificial climb. On a hard modern route on a crag like Ravenstor you may see a climber spending several hours on the same few feet of rock, despite its fiercely overhanging nature. Certainly he will lower to the ground from time to time. He may be employing any of the modern armoury of preparation,hang-dogging, yo-yoing, pre- clipping ropes at the previous day's high points. If he is trying a new route you may well notice ropes starting from the top of the crag. We have a complex and curious code of practice which has grown up by historical accident. It is comprehensible and logical to those involved but mysterious to the uninitiated. Our system is creaking at the seams. We have a need of rules to preserve our very limited resources of rock and to keep a meaningful and enjoyable game for everybody. However, out of necessity, our rules have been bent out of immediate recognition by the leading protagonists of rock climbing. Perhaps it is time to clarify and reassess those unwritten rules.
Traditionally rock climbers started at the base of the crag and climbed upwards. This was very logical and efficient on most climbs done until about 1970. It was satisfying and adventurous but, because of the nature of most British crags and routes, was doomed. Unprotected outcrop routes on grit or sandstone always maintained a different set of rules. Top roping prior to a lead was common on sandstone and not infrequent on grit. On sandstone top-roping became an end in itself but gritstone always maintained a strong leading tradition. Grit routes only appeared in the guide after they had been led but top-rope problems which had never been led were traditionally recorded in places such as Harrisons Rocks or Helsby. The ethics on these rocks have been maintained to the present day and most people find them entirely satisfactory even now. Although it is not always overtly stated the cognoscenti are well aware that very few new routes are done on grit without some form of prior inspection, usually including trying moves on the abseil rope if the route is of substantial difficulty.
Sometimes they are top roped but this is scarcely different in my opinion to trying the moves first as gritstone climbs are rarely of sustained difficulty. The situation is far more complicated on other types of rock. Many limestone crags or volcanic crags are loose and vegetated in their pristine state and would not offer good climbing until thorough cleaning had taken place. Consequently climbers began to abseil down and clean routes prior to their lead of the first ascent. Of course while abseiling it was possible to check out runner placements and even try moves on the abseil rope and naturally enough this was what happened in many cases. This trend was started in earnest by Ed Drummond who extensively prepared his routes prior to a lead. He was able to create many fine routes while his contemporaries, who employed traditional tactics, languished in a stalemate; doing new routes on-sight was so scary at the increasing standards of the day, which were dictated by the availability of unclimbed rock, that they could only do occasional new routes. Doing new routes on sight often meant employing aid to garden a crack and many new routes around this time used a few points of aid, which could subsequently be eliminated as the climb became cleaner and better known.
Ed Drummond demonstrating top rope technique on Nelson's Column!
Limestone was so loose in general on the sort of terrain that could be climbed at the time, that cleaning was essential. Tom Proctor was well aware of this and he prepared routes thoroughly, allowing him to reach new standards of difficulty at places like Stoney Middleton. Pete Livesey was the first to really apply limestone methods to mountain crags and he was able to do a magnificent series of first ascents. I remember when Livesey used yo-yoing tactics to do the first ascent of Fingerlicker. It was regarded as outright cheating at the time by many leading climbers. Yo-yoing was soon to become the norm for very hard climbs. More recently climbs have been developed which involve long complex series of moves and if a yo-yo to the ground was taken after each failure or fall it might take hours to work out one hard move at the end of a difficult sequence. Each time you may get a few seconds to work out the desperate move but you need to expand a great amount of energy to get to that point. Consequently climbers have begun to use hang dogging tactics which more or less involve hanging off gear, inspecting holds and moves. After the inspection the climber must lower to the ground again to do a proper ascent.
Numerous variants of the system outlined above have been employed, each climber having his own carefully guarded internal set of ethics. For instance the climber may just lower down to a hands-off rest rather than the bottom of the pitch. What constitutes a hands-off rest is the subject of fierce argument. This complex system of ethics was developed for very hard climbs when there was no other way of doing the routes within existing concepts and methods. Of course, methods employed at the top end gradually percolate down through the ranks and now we see climbers yo-yoing VS climbs. That does not affect anyone and so it does not really matter. Foreign climbers have developed their free climbing along different lines, each style appropriate to the area in which it developed. Bolts are totally accepted in places like Yosemite and Tuolumne where many climbs would be totally unprotected without them. In Tuolomne bolts are usually placed on the lead because of the relatively easy-angled nature of much of the rock. This would of course be totally impossible on a fiercely overhanging limestone climb such as Hangman in Gordale. Americans otherwise have a similar system to us in Britain. France has a different system, probably because their historical traditions were inappropriate for putting up hard climbs in places like the Verdon Gorge. Basically you can do whatever you like so long as you do one clean lead in the end. Climbs in the Verdon are often done from the top down. The top pitch of a route is top-roped first to see that it is climbable. Then protection bolts are placed on abseil and the sequence is repeated for the pitch below until a whole route is created. This system has been highly successful in creating magnificent and very hard free climbs. In a way French climbers started from scratch, rejecting traditional alpine climbing methods as inappropriate for modern climbs. Perhaps the time has come in Britain to do the same.
On many modern climbs the climber is employing a whole array of tactics to avoid the dreaded top-roping but often in practice what he is doing is a highly inefficient way of top-roping. Maybe we should look to the French for our future climbs if we are to progress in standard. Judging by the recent solo of Revelations by a Frenchman their system turns out some brilliant climbers. (Of course their sunshine helps as well). Many modern climbs have not had leads without yo-yos or falls. It would be interesting if a truly clean ascent were to get more credit. The basic idea of free rock climbing is to climb a piece of rock without any physical assistance from the rope. The rope and protection should only be for assurance — as it is they are often extensively employed even in the final ascent. Apart from tactics employed the other issue which needs some thought is that of bolts for protection. Bolts have arrived because the remaining unclimbed rock is otherwise unprotectable. It is fair enough to have the occasional death route but if, for example, bolts had been prohibited at Malham then nearly all the recent new routes would be death routes and no one would want to do them. Yet it is very obvious that people get great pleasure from bolt-protected routes. Bolts are here to stay in British climbing.
Few people would advocate placing bolts on routes traditionally done without them but for the future it is now clear that bolts will play a major role in creating fine new routes of the highest standards. In the past the development of more and more sophisticated nuts and then the advent of Friends kept pace with the climbs that people wished to do at the time. This is no longer true. Everyone has private reservations about just where bolts should be placed. Most people agree that Stanage, for instance, should remain free of bolts but most people who climb very hard routes are perfectly happy with bolts on limestone and North Wales slate. They have not been fully accepted anywhere in the sense that most placing of bolts is still the subject of debate. Some climbers feel that the bolts should. be placed at respectably large intervals so as to simulate the traditional excitement and danger of British free-climbing. This has an intrinsic problem in that you will often end up with only one bolt of dubious holding power between you and the ground. With repeated falls this bolt will eventually fail and a serious accident will ensue. If you are going to place bolts you may as well make the route reasonably safe rather than contrive an artificial danger level based on the quality of the metal in the bolt and the solidity of the rock in which it is placed.
If, as is often the case, the first ascensionist has done extensive preparation of the route then he is in a position to climb the route with very limited protection if he chooses to do so, but where does that leave the next climber who wishes to do a repeat ascent? Prior knowledge may be essential if hidden holds and hidden runner placements are involved. It has become a dodgy business going to repeat a new route in Derbyshire unless you have the inside information. It seems better to create a route which subsequent climbers can do from the ground upwards. It is highly inconvenient if a prior abseil inspection is necessary to do a subsequent ascent. A climber cannot add bolts or pegs to a climb done without them, therefore, the first ascensionist has a responsibility to future climbers. He should seriously consider the problems that will face a climber who is not armed with the knowledge which he learned from the prior inspection.
Alan Rouse: 1985.
First published in High-November 1985.