Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Climbing, and "Rules"

For the first time in 18 months I don't have any serious injuries, and I'm loving it! Yeah, I still hobble a little on my left knee, but I'm climbing full-speed for the first time in a very long time. Pumped silly, hanging on by single cuticle and doing my absolute best to succeed without even knowing that I am until I either get to the top or don't. Only climbing gives me that feeling, and I am damn happy to have it back in my life. Everything else in life works better when I'm climbing enough.


Climbing has a whole slew of rules. The rules used to be quite simple: "Thou shalt not fall" covered most situations. Then the rules got more and more explicit. "Thou shalt not hang on the rope and call it a free ascent. Except when you're working the route to get a free ascent." The rules today are more nuanced and fine than ever, and as a result people are arguing more and more about what constitutes a flash or an onsight or even an ascent. Sometimes the "infractions" are blatantly obvious; there are at least two Everest "climbers" who claim summits they likely never set foot on. This has of course been going on for a long time, but I've seen some examples at the crag where a "bend" in the rules is becoming a common tactic.

I'd like to think we all, in our hearts, know when what we've done matches up to the "rules" of whatever game we're playing. The dissonance comes when any climber claims to have done something by a certain set of rules when he or she didn't. Or changed the rules in a subtle way. Sport climbing, which I've been doing a lot of lately, has lots of rules, and I've seen a lot of rule "bending." In one way this doesn't bother me at all--nothing anyone is doing is hurting the rock beyond what any other ascent does, so why care? But this summer I've seen a lot of rule-bending and it does grate on me. Why? I don't have a clear answer to this question, and the lack of an answer bothers me. It's just intellectually lazy to be bothered by something and not be able to figure out why.

So here are some situations I've seen at the crag of late:

Adding long draws to the anchor to skip moves. The anchor was put in a certain place to clip; the route ends when you clip that anchor. Occasionally a hold will break or the anchor is put into some sort of retarded place, but if a route has been climbed for 10 years with the same holds then there's no reason to remove a move or two, especially if the last move is the crux. I have fallen off dozens of routes while staring at the anchor. If I could have clipped one move lower I would have done 'em...

Clipping the third or higher bolt. Climbing is not meant to be totally risk-free, but it's also not meant to be ridiculously dangerous. I will stick-clip high if the fall is horrible, and if I know I'm not strong enough to try the route safely. Some routes are designed to be done with the third bolt clipped, but most are not. I would not call an ascent where I started with the third draw clipped a "redpoint" in general, and specifically not if the first 50 ascents of the route didn't clip the third draw from the ground on a six-bolt route. Action Direct might be a little easier if you just stick-clipped that tricky clip from the ground...

Having the rope stop a serious swing and still claiming a redpoint. Sometimes this doesn't matter at all (you've got a handlebar in both hands and the belayer shortropes you a bit, so what). But often it makes all the difference in the world. I once watched a very good climber get short roped on a swing and continue to the top. The route was at his limit, and at the time it was among the world's hardest. He came down, pulled the rope and tried another few times before giving up for the day. I respect that, and his eventual send all the more knowing that a slight cheat many people would be happy with wasn't good enough for him. He did his best. I shortroped a friend the other day, he just jumped off. My error, respect to him.

Finally, claiming to have climbed at a certain grade when you haven't. Many years ago I once put on a resume that I could climb, "Up to 5.14." I had climbed a route rated 13d (it was feather-bed soft for the grade and obscure, but it said 13d in the guide...), so in a way I'd climbed "up to" but not 5.14, yeah? Wrong. It was lame. I still haven't climbed a 5.14, or even "up to" one... I've come pretty close (an extendo draw might have helped), but a little word dance using the words "up to" was just that. I changed my resume to reflect reality and not my ego, but I hear a lot of, "I've climbed X route" when in fact the person never did without hanging on the rope. Wait, I have climbed 5.14, that was just a few moments on the rope... My face is still red from the slap my hand just gave it. So far I haven't slapped anyone else, but I've considered it.

So why I do I care? If I'm going to be happy with what I've done then I need to play by the rules I've set out for myself. These rules generally have some sort of historic precedent, or make me feel like I've done my best. I know when I haven't given my best even if my ego sometimes gets in the way. I'm still annoyed at myself for "doing" Genesis (Eldo canyon) when I actually fell off the crux, went back to the no-hands rest at the mid-point lower off anchor and then sent it. It would have been a finer effort to go from the ground to the top, even though others have claimed ascents of Genesis with this rules bend. I never did. Well, maybe once. And that weakness is what bothers me; I hate it in myself. It's like the old battle with annoying friends; generally the characteristics we dislike in them are the same as those that we dislike in ourselves. When I see climbers celebrating after climbing on a route with the third bolt clipped, a swing stopped at the crux and an extendo draw on the anchor I think they have short-changed their success and their integrity. And when I do that it really bothers me... It's unsporting, it's dishonest and it's weak--or at least it is for me in my climbing.

If I have invested meaning to the rules and others don't see that meaning then does that mean my rules are meaningless, or that I don't have to keep them quite so strict? Why not just extend that draw 20M from the anchor and clip it from the ground? Which shouldn't matter in some ways as all climbing is meaningless by any objective measure, but is that really an ascent? Which leaves me right back where I started this commentary from. I either have to get some longer draws to get rid of the last move on a few routes I can't do, or not care when someone else does. Anything else is just pissing into the wind. And I would rather climb 'cause, even if I may disagree with some people about what a send is, I'd still much rather be out there with them and having some fun together than not. I do reserve the old-timer's right to heckle.

So there's my answer: Pull down, shut up, do your best. Or don't, but only the climber really knows what that means in the end. And, like my "ascent" of Genesis 20+ years ago, the truth is always with us even if we don't want to admit it at the time. Looks like I'm going to have to go climb Genesis (not again, but really climb it for the first time) to get that monkey out of my mind. I'll take any motivation I can find to train.


PS-To quote Robert Frost, ""Poetry without rhyme is like tennis without a net" Is climbing without rules like tennis without a net? Wait, I've read some damn good poetry that didn't rhyme... Frost was a wuss anyhow, he should have started bushwhacking when the two roads diverged in a yellow wood. There are fewer rules out there.