Falling didn’t used to be a part of climbing rules. You couldn’t fall. If you did, your life was in peril.
“Now I look at climbing as if you’re not falling you’re not trying hard enough,” says Tommy Caldwell, famed rock climber from Estes Park and part of the Dawn Wall duo that completed the alleged hardest rock climb in history earlier this year. “I suppose that’s because of the changes in technology.”
In the last 40 years, climbing has undergone a technological revolution. The development of new gear, methodology and environmental concerns surrounding climbing is a galvanizing debate that has few, if any, satisfying solutions. Yet, in the dawn of a massive climbing boom, with routes established all over the world, gyms sprouting up in all major cities around the country, hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into the climbing gear market and technological innovations, it’s important to reconsider the ethics of climbing.
This past June, Boulder native David Goldstein flew a drone to the top of Peak 9,854, a mushroomlike pillar in southwest Hinsdale County, Colorado The pillar was considered Colorado’s highest and hardest unclimbed peak, until Goldstein and his crew, a father-son duo from Washington, summited it with the help of a drone built by 17-year-old Kastan Day.
Peak 9,854 was the only summit that legendary Colorado peakbagger Mike Garratt, who’d climbed every other of the 189 peaks in the area, left untouched. The pillar stands 60-feet above a loose, steep hillside with a band of crumbly, dirty rock around the base. Garratt illustrated 9,854 as an unclimbable and dangerous peak that wasn’t worth the risk.
The innominate nature of the peak attracted Goldstein. Despite the fact it was technically the second lowest peak in the region and “most people wouldn’t even notice it,” Goldstein did.
On Goldstein’s first attempt last year, it appeared that Garratt was right. It would be impossible to physically climb the pillar’s base. Between the loose rock and the overhung sides, there was no room to place any gear for protection. It was simply too dangerous. Instead, Goldstein climbed a nearby pillar and tried to shoot a bow and arrow, with a rope attached, over the top. When that failed, he looked for a more innovative solution. The next year, Goldstein flew a drone with cord attached to the top of the pillar and fixed a top rope that they could then safely ascend. In the end, it worked flawlessly.
Upon summiting, Goldstein and his crew named the ascent “Drone Home” and invented the new “D” rating system to use for climbs utilizing drones. They rated Drone Home a D3.
Although Goldstein denies Drone Home’s affiliation with technical rock climbing, this event garnered debate on what counts as a true “ascent.” And while peakbagging has seen a drone-aided ascent, climbing might not be to far off the same kind of help.
Since the ’70s, climbing methodology has been growing and evolving. Within the past two decades, gear development has led climbing through a complete redesign. Climbers can push harder and higher because the gear is more reliable. They can move faster because the gear is lighter, and farther because the gear is more effective. With the help of this new technology, what once were only dream routes are becoming realities.
“[Technology] is changing the outdoor experience. There are so many examples of new technologies coming along and the old school thinkers decid[ing] that they’re cheating and that they’re going to degrade from the experience in some way. And then we just adjust. I don’t think climbing is less noble or less impactful or less cool because of technology. It’s just different,” Caldwell says.
Yet, even as we adjust to new technologies, a tipping point lurks. Somewhere along the fine line, technology can switch from enhancing human experiences, to detracting from the pure outdoors.
Jim Erickson, a legendary Boulderbased climber, has been an active member in the climbing community for more than four decades. Alongside establishing numerous important first ascents around the Colorado mountains, Erickson is credited with the invention of the modern quickdraw, a device used to clip rope into gear placed in the rock. Erickson is now 66 and still climbing.
Erickson says the biggest technological change in climbing over the last 50 years has actually been the footwear.
Back in the late ’70s he worked as a guide and climbing in EBs — heavy, sturdy rubber sneakers created in Europe as a compromise between tennis shoes and alpinist boots, which were considered “the gold standard of climbing shoes,” he says. One day, while teaching a group how to climb slab, a type of low angle rock, a student laced up her “new sticky rubber shoes” and walked right up the rock without skipping a beat.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Erickson says with a chuckle.
Now, what Erickson finds most interesting about the evolution of climbing is the process of adhering to the rock. For him, a first ascent would only count if the climber were completely naked, climbing something they had never tried before, without any gear or protection.
“Anything beyond that will affect the actual ability of the climber,” he says, noting the difference even a good pair of pants can make during an offwidth climb, when the climber is likely using her whole body as friction against the rock.
While there are few that parallel Erickson’s extreme view, many appreciate the climbing ethics of his “clean climbing” movement. By steering climbers away from extra aid gear and placing permanent fixtures in the rock, the clean climbing movement helps climbers focus on the simple aspects of climbing.
But history shows that climbing without technology is not always possible. Routes can often be in dangerous, crumbly conditions, like Peak 9,854, or simply have no room for traditional protection. Technological innovations in gear and bolts were invented to help in situations like this. A face might not be safe to climb if repelling down to drill bolts wasn’t possible.
Although world-renown climbers like Alex Honnold are soloing thousands of feet of rock without any kind of protection, perhaps maintaing the integrity of “pure climbing,” this is simply not feasible for many people. Technology has opened the world of climbing to the everyday person. Sport climbing using bolts has assimilated into the norm of climbing with minimal guidelines. Aid climbing (using extra gear to help the ascent) has become a differentiated branch of climbing with its own rating system and technique. And gear has evolved in such a way that free climbing (using only your hands and feet to climb, but with protection, different from free soloing, which is without protection) has become accessible to a largely diversified population.
“We can get closer and closer to the feeling of free soloing without having to actually free solo or risk our lives. And that’s incredibly cool and makes climbing more fun,” Caldwell says.
In the ’60s, level 5.10 climbing was about as hard as it got. Caldwell, who just free climbed a 5.14d wall and who has climbed as hard as 5.15, says that the innovative development of shoes, bolts and safety equipment now leaves 5.10 for beginners.
This growth may follow the same natural evolution of any sport. Consider the mile run. With the advent of new shoes and track material, the run got considerably faster, and it has since plateaued. But will climbing ever plateau?
This is doubtful. Climbing boasts an endless trajectory, virtually unrivaled in other sports. There is always something harder, something bigger, something different. The best climber will always be challenged by different kinds of rock, different styles of climbing, weather and new formations.
Technology may diminish the cathartic powers of climbing. The experience of working out a route without the help of a drone — or other technology — cannot be rivaled. Already having the gear in place for a first ascent climb is not the same as working it out on your own.
This may just boil down to different methodologies. Maintaining the integrity of the climb by not using aid gear and only pushing for clean ascents is important to some people, while others are satisfied by working on a route, sometimes for years and years.
While it’s impossible to say one methodology is better than the other, it’s important to ask the question of where the line is drawn between using too much technology and being unsafe.
As climbing runs its never-ending evolutionary path, climbing ethics become particularly important. How we set the guidelines today will affect how we climb tomorrow.
Beyond gear and protection, another kind of technology — social media — doesn’t sit well with Jim Erickson. Back in the ’70s, Erickson made a climbing video on Half Dome in Yosemite. “I felt very uncomfortable,” he says, remembering the people watching him and having to perform under public pressure. “I couldn’t focus like I normally would at the time.”
Caldwell echoes these exact sentiments. “It was hard to fully be in the moment of the [Dawn Wall] climb,” he says.
The Dawn Wall project featured an unprecedented swath of social media presence and documentary productions. Kevin Jorgenson, Caldwell’s partner on the climb, began using Twitter on the first day to update the public on the climb. On the seventh day, Jorgenson hosted a four-hour live question and answer session on Twitter. Days later, still on the wall working on the project, Jorgenson and Caldwell did interviews with major news sources including NPR and The New York Times.
“My first reaction was: this should not be part of climbing,” Caldwell says. “My curmudgeonly old-school view of [climbing] is this personal relationship with the mountains, and if we’re posting things we’re not really climbing for ourselves anymore, we’re climbing for the impression, for what other people think or how other people are going to view our experience.”
Yet Caldwell is still able to weigh the benefits of social media. “The cool thing is that we’re able to give people a glimpse of what we are doing real time. They’re able to be in that moment alongside us, and that tends to be more engaging to inspire people in a more impactful way.”
Erickson, however, is still wary. “Climbers today are very used to instant gratification. They do a route and it’s posted in a guidebook or online in an article right away. Only 50 years ago, nobody knew about these things until up to 10 years later. People climbed for their own reasons, not fame.”
And according to Caldwell, this is a downside that shouldn’t be taken lightly. “You feel like when you have technology there, or you’re climbing and posting to Facebook right off the bat, it removes you one step from the process.”
In 2014, Caldwell teamed up with Honnold in a very different climbing experience. Together they completed a 5-kilometer traverse along the Patagonian Fitz Roy massif in southern Argentina, one of the most iconic ridgelines in the climbing world. Between the two of them they carried minimalist gear. There were no cameras following them around. They had no cell service. Nothing.
One of the biggest differences that Caldwell notes between the Fitz Traverse and the Dawn Wall Project was how he shared the experience with his partner. “[The Fitz Traverse was] a bonding experience with Alex [Honnold],” he says. “It felt like a realdeal mountain experience. We came out of [it] incredibly close and feeling like brothers in a way that never happened with Kevin, even though I was out there for seven years [cumulative] with Kevin, and it was only four days with Alex.
“I think that has something to do with the fact that with Kevin we let these technologies be part of our experience. And it did. It removed us from the experience itself.”
In everyday climbing and life, Caldwell says his process of dealing with technology begins by constantly reanalyzing the way he goes about things. “Whether we like it or not, technology is a part of our everyday lives.”
The trick is balance.
“It’s possible that experiences [can still be] pure, or more free of the clutter that technology inevitably brings about. But on the other hand, we didn’t have much stuff [on the Fitz Traverse] because of the technology that had gone into what we had. All our equipment worked very well, it was well thought out, so we were able to bring less of it.”
Chris Kalous, founder of The Enormocast, a Carbondale, Coloradobased climbing podcast, doubts that social media will end up having a large impact on the world of climbing. “I don’t necessarily see it as that relevant in terms of changing the way we climb. Now, gear literally changes the way we climb, but social media doesn’t really change anything,” he says.
Honnold, a long-time environmental activist, has his own doubts about mixing technology with climbing. In an article he wrote for Alpinist about a climb in El Portrero, Mexico, he was concerned with the environmental impact that resulted from bringing video and support crew along with him on big climbs.
“I couldn’t help wondering whether making such a big production out of climbing went against all the environmental principals I wanted to stand for. Can RC helicopter shots and minimalism really go together? What did it mean to fly a whole crew down to Mexico for me to enjoy one three-hour climb?” he writes.
Chris Kalous also wonders about the toll that climbing’s popularity will take on the physical shape of the rock and surrounding environment. The climbing boom prompted The New Yorker to coin rock climbing as “the new squash or tennis” of young professionals earlier this year. While this is certainly great for climbing business, more climbers means more feet along trails, more wear on walls and more congestion at climbing locations.
“I want the podcast to be more popular. Businesses want to sell more gear. But everyone involved has realized that we’ve made a deal with the devil,” Kalous says. “These gear companies are selling an image of the wilderness experience. They aren’t going to do an ad with 50 people top roping on a wall. It’s going to be one guy or girl on the wall hundreds of feet up. By promoting the experience, they are paradoxically destroying it.”
Kalous thinks the first impact we’ll feel from climbing’s boom is user degradation. “You’ll go [to a climbing area] and your experience won’t be as fun because there are so many people,” he says.
The growth of indoor gyms, which are predicted for a 15 percent increase in facilities this year, is easy to track. But outdoors, it’s not as easy. The Diamond is a rock face in Rocky Mountain National Park that towers almost 1,000 feet tall, used to be a big deal, says Kalous, because of its height and climbing intensity. Now he finds the Diamond flooded with people on a Saturday, which is dangerous.
Satisfying answers to all these problems may be impossible and should by no means stunt the climbing community. Yet as climbing moves forward, it’s imperative to consider where we’re going.