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Climbing Style and Ethics

How We Climb is Important

By

Eric Hörst crimps up Diamond Life(5.13a/b) at the New River Gorge. Eric established it in 1987.

That style that we use to climb a hard route means everything.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

How we climb a mountain or a route is just as important as getting to the top or the anchors. When we start out climbing, it is easy to think that the goal of climbing is simply to get to the top. But as we progress, learn, and grow as climbers we learn that how we get up a route is important and eventually it becomes paramount. That "how we climb" a route is what climbers call "style."

Climbing Style is Important

The style that you climb a route is important. The purest way to climb is by free climbing from bottom to top without falling, placing gear as you ascend and not grabbing or aiding on any gear. You can up the game by climbing it naked, without climbing shoes and chalk, and without a rope and say that is the purest style of ascent because you are relying on nothing external to climb the route except what the rock gives you, and you are only relying on your own body and rock skills to ascend. That is, of course, absurd because no one climbs that way. Instead, we compromise about how we climb the route and the equipment that we use.

Climbing Technology is a "Blessing and a Curse"

Equipment, besides keeping us safe while climbing, helps equalize our ability with that of the rock. As the great Yosemite climber Royal Robbins wrote in his book Advanced Rockcraft in 1973: "Technology in climbing is both a blessing and a curse; it expands the limits of the possible but robs us of adventure. Since it is technology which makes anything in rock climbing possible, it is technology which we must selectively reject in order to have limits to the possible, for without limits there is no game."

Better Climbing Equipment Affects Style

Climbing technology comes in the guise of better equipment as well as fixed gear on established routes. The new climbing gear makes the climbing game easier. Lightweight aluminum carabiners are superior to heavy steel ones like those used in the 1950s. Today's harnesses are superior to tying the rope around your waist or using a 25-foot-long length of webbing fashioned into a Swiss seat. Spring-loaded cams are easy to place and offer secure protection and anchor placements. Rock shoes have sticky rubber and are designed for different kinds of climbing.

Style Dictates Climbing Experience

No one, of course, advocates not using modern climbing equipment. That would be absurd. Instead we need to think as climbers about how the use of climbing technology can remove us from the essential experience of climbing a rock face. We don't need to let equipment get between us and all the facets of the climbing experience, like exposure, fear of falling, finding protection, and the feeling of accomplishment found after surmounting a serious climbing challenge.

Repeat in the Same Style as the FA

Fixed gear like bolts on established routes also creates a stylist quandary for climbers. Many routes, especially older routes that were put up before the use of portable power drills, often have few bolts for protection. Instead, climbers repeating those routes have to do it in the same style and manner as the first ascenscionists and by doing so, they have a similar experience to those who went before.

Adding Bolts Lessens the Challenge

Some climbers now advocate adding bolts to established climbs, thereby lowering the scare factor and perhaps making a serious climb more accessible to the masses of climbers. As climbers, we need to question that ethic and ask ourselves if perhaps it might be better to elevate our own skills, both physical and mental, to meet that climbing challenge rather than lower it by placing additional bolts that make the climbing experience easier and safer. Fortunately, most climbers respect the style that a first ascent party did a route in and leave it as it is, climbing within the limits that the route sets.

Climbing Relies on Honesty

Climbing, like golf and other personal sports, relies on honesty and integrity. While stylistically it may not be the best way to do a route, but if you step on a bolt or pull on a quickdraw with your hand-just say it. I grabbed a draw and pulled through. There, was that so hard? You can always come back on a day when you're stronger and do the route without that move of aid. It is only cheating and a lie if you say you did the route cleanly, without any aid moves, and without falls when you did in fact pull through. If you lie about how you did a route, no one else, not even your belayer, may know the style you used-but you know it.

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