I’ve come into a pile of REI gift cards lately, so naturally I decided to blow them on some completely unnecessary gear. As I sat at home the other night with my pile of shiny, color-coded racking carabiners for my Mastercams, I realized that I’ve never read the 36 page gloriously illustrated instruction manual that comes along with each ‘biner. What if I’ve been using them wrong all this time? Thumbing through the cryptic heiroglyphs, what I’ve gathered is that it’s a bad idea to pour acid on your fingers, and an even worse idea to let rats chew on your dogbones. Phew. Looks like Black Diamond is backing up my decision to leave the hydrochloric acid at home when I go cragging. Hear that, haters?
However, I’ve lately had reason to doubt my usual self confidence about what is and isn’t appropriate at the crag. I distinctly remember joking with Jed about dry-tooling BBQ the Pope, but it seems that someone has decided to push our sport to the next level by bringing our farce to life. For those of you who as behind as me, last year two Colorado climbers freed an old aid line in the Black Canyon–using leashless ice tools.
At first this seemed puzzling, but thanks to yet another handy-dandy manufacturer created pictograph, I realized the reason: leashed ice tools are just too dangerous! You’ll put an eye out with those things! Or worse:
He had modified one tool for the crux by bolting a Pecker micro-piton to the pick.
When your sick proj requires you to bolt your pecker so you can hang from it, maybe you’re taking your climbing a little too far.
To their credit, the duo have graded the route a rather confusing “VI 5.13- D10+ R,” with the D10+ indicating the difficulty of the drytooling. As far as I can tell, neither climber has claimed this as a truly free ascent, but that didn’t stop a groundswell of butthurt ethics arguments from cropping up all over Supertopo et al. But because all this happened last May I’ll spare everybody the full gory details.
More interestingly, Chris Kalous (whose excellent podcast is worth checking out) has used all this as a jumping off point for a discussion on the battle between free climbing and aid climbing, which is the subtler, sleeker, sexier for the new millenium version of the old bolt wars. A lot of great thought points are raised in the thread, such as:
- If a route is climbed with clean aid, does that forever preclude the placement of bolts to enable a free ascent?
- If a nail-up route is freed, why is it now forever off-limits as an aid line just because some mutant euro managed to slither up the thing?
- Climbers have more complex and passionate debates about ‘style’ than most people in the fashion industry.
- Does bolting your pecker constitute aid climbing?
It’s an interesting subject because it’s one of the few areas in which otherwise inviolate first ascentionist rights are ignored. As aid routes naturally transform into free routes over time, the needs of the free climbers take precedence over the needs of the aid climbers, both in terms of altering the rock to add bolts for protection, and not altering the rock any further with destructive hammering. When Beth Rodden freed The Optimist at our very own Smith Rock, it went from an “aid line” to a “free line” and now nobody is allowed to aid it, even though it’s not likely to see many ascents. Although, it probably wouldn’t see many ascents as an aid climb either–nobody in their right mind would haul all that shit all the way out there just to climb a few hundred foot aid line, right?
As climbing becomes more popular, issues like this cut pretty deep. Should we respect the original style of the route no matter what? If a wall can go free at some incredible difficulty, should it be unethical for everyman climbers to hike it using pins? Does a climber attempting to free a route get a blank check to put bolts all over the thing despite that generally being ethically unkosher?
I would happily answer all these questions for you, but unfortunately I have to get back to checking out route beta on Mountain Project so I can trick my friends into thinking I’m a badass by onsighting climbs when, really, I’m merely flashing them. My friends are such suckers! Further ethical wankery on this subject will wait for a future post…