Sunday, February 16, 2014

Notes from A GenX Climber

I am not necessarily a fan of defining generational eras, not least because it always seems to boil down to what cool bands you listened to in your 20s. And whining about your fate in the clutches of a less-than-providential historical trajectory seems so, well, negative in the age of social media's Upworthy-esque positivity and uplift. Given the contemporary emphasis on personal brand-building and the "community," it's hard to imagine that there was once a time when many top climbers apparently had an attitude problem best summarized by the 1991 profile of American star Jim Karn titled " The Positive Aspects of Negative Thinking."

I think this stereotype of so-called Generation X has persisted into the present era with remarkable durability. The lycra tights, the wobblers, the dieting, the finicky obsession with technical mastery are all seen as hallmarks of a best forgotten age. Almost without exception the climbers from that era have disappeared from the common knowledge and history of the sport. I think this ought to be changed.

The period of 1985 to 1995 was plagued by dysfunction on a lot of levels but I think its bad reputation is wildly overstated. Among other things this period marked the last time that Americans male or female were serious contenders on the world competition stage. It was also one of the most creative periods in American climbing as the focus shifted from the well-known areas of the 60s and 70s such as Yosemite and Eldorado Canyon to radically different locales such as Smith Rock, American Fork, and Rifle. That era is almost 30 years old yet I don't sense a lot of enthusiasm for remembering it. No photocopied articles or extended reminiscences on Supertopo or coffee-table books  sold through Patagonia books. At least so far.

I think it is increasingly an article of belief that modern sport climbing and bouldering suddenly emerged fully formed in the person of Chris Sharma, a genial and phenomenally talented wunderkind who appeared to refute the intensity and obsessive approach of earlier leaders in the sport. Well maybe. But what is forgotten is the degree to which the leaders of new trends in climbing in the 80s were quite literally attacked by the old guard. Comments by the likes of John Bachar or Henry Barber that hard sport climbing was the equivalent of golf or that the likes of Fred Nicole were merely number-chasing Euros were matched by the destructive and hypocritical bolting wars (of which I was part of). In other words, there was next to no genuine support or positive recognition from the older guard that the world of climbing was changing. Karn lived in Europe in a cheap tent on terrible food while competing in the World Cup. Meaningful sponsorship was unheard of. Too many top-level climbers from the mid-80s to the mid-90s were considered the bastard stepchildren of the sport. We even had the famous "You Suck!" article by Dave Pegg in 1996. There was a reason we sucked and it wasn't just about anorexia and bad attitudes. Who really wanted us to get as good as the Europeans? Answer: not too many people, especially of the previous generation.

This changed with the arrival of the cute and youthful stars who emerged in the mid 1990s such as Sharma, Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden and Tori Allen. Often with substantial parental support or at least approval, they swiftly eclipsed their predecessors, breezing past the obstacles once posed by the old guard of the past. Climbing became a youth sport, not the pursuit of grumpy old men obsessed with ethical purity. Suddenly nobody cared about bolting on rappel. "Number-chasing" was seen as a media-savvy move for climber and manufacturer. Selling-out became a mark of authenticity and commitment to the sport, not a cause for ostracism.

For climbers who came of age in the GenX era, there is a certain satisfaction in seeing the old verities and personalities that dismissed their dreams now fading from view, or at least issued restraining orders, as in the case of Ken Nichols. Sport and gym climbing, and of course competitions are now the standard, not the exception. Bouldering is not just "for practice" anymore. Climbers from the US are still mostly irrelevant in the international scene, with only a few exceptions. And oddly, outside a very very elite crew, the standards set by the climbers of 20 years ago have proven quite hard to get past.

The standard take on Generation X is that they were the most neglected children in American history, overshadowed by the sheer numbers and cultural momentum of the Baby Boomer and superceded by the successive generations,Generation Y and the Millenials. I think this has been echoed in the climbing world to a large extent and those of us who emerged as young adults in the later 1980s are more or less resigned to it. Perhaps, however, a few more people will begin to look around and recognize the degree to which the shape of the sport of climbing is defined by the ideas and ultimately the attitudes of a now obscure group of climbers.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review of The Circuit: World Cup and Performance Climbing

Recently I had heard via Facebook of a new climbing media project  called The Circuit, a magazine dedicated to the World Cup and the climbers who compete in it. I was interested in this for several reasons, not least because it was actually being published in hard copy form at a time when climbing media (and sports media in general) has been focusing on its online aspects. Also, as Eddie Fowke points out below, English-language readers do not get much in terms of stories and interviews about this kind of climbing in general.

 Eddie Fowke, the publisher and editor of The Circuit, kindly sent me a copy for review and I have to say right away that this is one of the most interesting and entertaining magazines I have seen in a long time. Long interviews with leading competitors and other figures such as longtime routesetter Jacky Godoffe and coaching and climbing analysis wizard Udo Neumann provide the best insight into contemporary competition climbing you are likely to find between two covers. Some of the climbers interviewed include Shauna Coxsey, Mina Markowic, Alexander Megos, and Chris Webb-Parsons.The magazine is loaded with high-quality photographs from around the world printed on very high quality stock.  This issue focuses on bouldering both inside and outside but future issues will have other themes.

The first issue has virtually no advertising, though I would expect this to change going forward, meaning an uninterrupted reading and viewing experience more similar to a book. In fact it reminded me of two books from the 90s, Rock Stars by Heinz Zak and The Power of Climbing from David Jones, both of which opened a window onto the state of the art at the time. Also published a yearbook for a few years which I thought was worthwhile for the record it preserved for the world sport climbing and bouldering scene.

Anna Stohr at Milau FR
If you want to get a better picture of how the competitors approach the challenge of climbing in World Cup comps or what the routesetters are trying to do, The Circuit is an invaluable documentary effort in that direction. If the climbing world wants competition climbing to be taken seriously, as in being part of the Olympics, it will need publications like this to help make the case.

I think this is a great project to support so to purchase a copy just go to for more info.
Make sure to check out the Facebook page and blog as well.

In order to get a better idea of what Eddie is trying to achieve with this project, I did a short email interview with him.

1.      When and how did you get the idea that international competition climbing needed a magazine like this?

I’ve always loved climbing magazines and in the early 90’s it was the only way to follow the competition circuit. Sadly even with growing participation and following worldwide there never seemed to be much content in the existing English Language magazines. It’d always be a paragraph or two at best.

If you look at any other sport or activities they have specialist publications that act as aspirational and educational platforms, climbing magazines (again I only speak of English language ones) had never had this niche filled.
I felt it was time to fill that niche and get some psyche out there!

2.      How did you actually get the process started and what did you need to learn along the way?

I’ve been taking photos of some of the top climbers, boulderers especially, for several years now. After my friend James Kassay did some of the IFSC Bouldering World Cups in 2012 and it watched the streams of all of them I decided to attend some of the World Cups myself in 2013.
For the World Cups I was shooting and writing competition reviews for the Australian digital magazine Vertical Life which gave me the opportunity to get really involved and the more people I shared my vision of a high performance climbing magazine with the more engagement and psyche I got back. It just gained momentum from there.
I had to learn every aspect of assembling a magazine from scratch, I was a competent photographer so that I was comfortable with but I had to learn to interview and how to transcribe the interviews. Some interviews I left very natural as I felt by anglicizing the answers it would take out some of the subject’s personality and personal flavor. For instance Mina Markovic is one of the most passionate climbers I’ve ever met, to her English is not a first language but when I tried to paraphrase her answers I would lose some of her passion, her absolute love for the sport. It was very much the same for Jacky Godoffe who spoke with such flair and belief, an open integrity that it wouldn’t have done him justice to water that down.
The hardest two aspects for me so far have been layout and logistics. I had only very limited experience with indesign from about 7 years ago so I had to learn that basically from scratch. I put so many hours into watching tutorials and reading about how to put together a magazine, then I just flogged myself, putting in hour after hour laying up pages… Discarding them… Repeating… It was hard, soul crushing work at times.
Lastly the logistics of freight has been an intense learning curve. To make a self-published print magazine work I needed to keep the costs as low as possible and mailing to purchasers directly from Australia was going to be a nightmare so I ended up having to find a workable freight solution. Not easy!

3.      How did you finance the project? I noticed that there is virtually no advertising.

The single biggest expense for The Circuit has been the time I’ve put in. Compared to most startup businesses, the actual financial commitment has been kept in check by doing the vast bulk of the work myself. Sure traveling to the World Cups last year was expensive but I was going for me, it was also a holiday so I don’t really consider an expense.
Now though, the simple truth is I need to sell plenty of copies to fund this year’s trip where I intend on getting the raw material for the next couple of issues.
I ran issue 1 almost devoid of advertising for two reasons. Firstly I was just so busy that I didn’t get the time to write up proposals for prospective advertisers and secondly I didn’t want to undervalue the advertising space I had available by giving cheap adverts as The Circuit was an untested product. As an aspirational magazine I only want quality advertising and the companies I want to advertise need to be supporting the sport in a positive way.
I know the current magazines operate on a very advertising dependent business model but I think a lot of magazines are just drenched in advertising so I’ve made a conscious decision to limit the advertising space available to let the content shine through.
I only had a single advertising spot in Issue 1 and that was given as a free ad to CAC (Climbers against Cancer). I strongly believe in their cause having spent time with John Ellison in Europe last year and seeing my own father lose his battle with cancer while I was writing the magazine. I don’t have a lot to give back but if The Circuit can raise awareness and give a few thousand dollars to CAC to help in the fight against cancer then it’s a start. 

4.      Is the magazine going to be annual, bi-annual, or more frequent?

Initially we will be an annual publication but long term the goal is to go bi-annual. With the content we have being based around the athletes and legends of the sport two issues a year should be easily manageable. I would rather have a content heavy, quality magazine that is collectable than dilute the content over a number of issues and chase the more news based market of existing magazines. Although magazines have a definite place reporting news, for the most part they can’t compete with the internet. Paul Robinson’s thoughts on reporting news such as a hard first ascent are in the closing interview of issue 1. I agree with what he’s saying and think magazines become the archives for the exceptional, not the 8c’s in a hole as he so succinctly describes them.
I think that climbing news these days is very immediate. It’s like if somebody does something it gets reported on and it’s old news in 24 hours. Whether it’s 8c, 8b flash, whatever it may be. So in that regard I think yes, however I think that really important news like mega first ascents, lots of though needs to go into the news. Grading it, creating it, the climbing media gets such a small amount of the story and for me, when I do a really hard first ascent, a really meaningful first ascent I like to try and bring as much of that story to the forefront of the media as possible. It’s not just “Oh Paul did another 8c first ascent” you know I mean that’s happened in the past and whatever but…
If I do an 8c first ascent and it’s in a hole you know I’ll shoot some pictures, I’ll put them up on Facebook, ok cool, I’m psyched. But if I do an 8c or 8b+ first ascent that means the world to me, I want (and not because I want popularity and fame or whatever) I want people to know because I’m just so proud of the line. I don’t want it to be just another of these little news stories on like “Paul’s done an 8c, here’s what he said.” That’s like, ok, that doesn’t mean anything. That’s why I’m always trying to capture photo, to capture video of these lines that I put up because you get just such a small percentage of what really went down and what went into these lines. That’s what I hope people get from my Instagram and my blog and the photos I post on the internet. It’s not that I’m climbing just to do hard grades, I’m climbing because I want to produce, and make the sport a better sport. To make the sport more worldly in all essences.” (Eds. note, read the rest of Paul's interview in The Circuit)

5.      What kind of readership are you aiming at, what do you want the magazine to provide for its readers?

The Circuit is a platform to capture the history of high performance professional climbers. Through interviews and feature articles I want to get into the heads of these amazing athletes, to learn their stories and share them with climbing lovers worldwide.
I see The Circuit being aimed at two main groups in the climbing community. One group is the aspiring elite who want to augment their vision of the sport with the wisdom of their heroes. The juniors, the local elite who want motivation to put in that extra hour of training in their goal of one day being an elite climber. The other group is normal climbers, lovers of the sport like me who just want to know what makes this incredible sport tick. The people who get up all over the world and watch the IFSC World Cup streams at stupid times of the day just because they love the sport.

6.      In an age where print publishing is apparently on the decline, why did you opt for a glossy high-quality print magazine?

I believe that a printed magazine can have collectible value. A digital file doesn't have that. If a magazine like The Circuit can capture a time and place in the history of climbing it can be placed on a shelf and referenced later. With a digital file odds are it’ll end up on some hard drive that’ll eventually fail, some tablet that’ll get superseded.
One of my main inspirations for The Circuit was Rock Stars by Heinz Zak. Even though it came out in 1997 it is still a fascinating view of climbing in the 90’s, the birth of professionalism. If through a periodical format The Circuit can achieve the same in the 21st century than it will be mission accomplished. To do that I believe print is the best medium.

7.   What directions do you want to see the magazine take in the future?

Building on the first issue I’d love future issues to be more collaborative efforts. I was lucky enough to have a great multilingual European correspondent in Nat Berry help me with issue 1 as well as the talented Dutch photographer Bram Berkien and Dave Mason from the UK supplementing my own photography. For the future I would like more interviewers and photographers on board to bring different perspectives and to let me have some degree of a normal life again!
Ideally I’d like The Circuit to be available at the IFSC World Cups where fans could buy copies and get them autographed by the pro’s. Like how you’d buy a program at a major sporting event now.
Lastly I want to theme the issues. Issue 1 had a working title of Origins and looked at where the included climbers came from. For the coming issues I want to look at climbers who are doing it all on their own for the love of it. The trail blazers of their countries on the international stage.  That and the growth of the sport in the east. From the time of Yuji Hirayama coming to France to pursue his dreams through till today where the Asian climbers are among the best in the world.

Thanks Eddie and good luck with this magazine!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bouldering with Ueli Steck and a New Years Resolution

Sometimes just the right thing comes along when you least expect it. I headed off to The Spot last week in a mood of resignation, a stoic apathy induced by icy roads, cold temperatures and the usual mid-winter stagnation. I warmed up in a non-committal fashion, pumping out on the large semi-greasy holds that this gym favors and which bedevil my dreams of making real training gains. This was going nowhere, I thought to myself, as I scoped out the more vulnerable looking 4-spots, looking for an easy kill or two before reality set in.

Across the room I saw a group of climbers, some of whom I knew, so I went over to say hi. One of them I had not met before but he looked strangely familiar from somewhere. The context of the gym wasn't helping, for good reason, as it turned out. I worked in with the group on a problem that had a hard move at the top, one that I attempted and fell from trying to set a high heelhook to reach the top. The unknown climber said, in a European accent, "That's how to do it" and sent the next try. Then it clicked; I had just given beta to Ueli Steck, recent soloist of the South Face of Annapurna and achiever of too many crazy things to list here. In the confines of The Spot, a normal looking guy in climbing shoes looks very different from someone running up the North Face of the Eiger in under 3 hours.

Ueli Steck taking a break between burns at The Spot

I try not to be too overawed by world-class climbers. You meet a lot of them in Boulder and the average OR show has enough to stage a production of A Chorus Line. What they can do is amazing to me. As it happens, most of them are very nice people as well. For me however Ueli Steck is really a breed apart. And frankly, trying to make the leap from the guy I was trying the purple 5 minus with and the guy who charged up and down Annapurna in just over 24 hours was no easy feat. (Neither of us sent BTW)

We chatted about various things, climbing training, balancing family and climbing time, future plans, pretty normal stuff. And really, besides the sheer insanity of his climbing résumé, he struck me as perhaps the most normal climber I have met in a very long time. Which in its own way was the most inspiring aspect of this meeting; that there might actually be less separation between the great and the rest of us than you might think and that this encounter is much more possible in the climbing world than pretty much anywhere else that I can think of.

I left the gym pondering how I could make the best use of this meeting (besides a quick blog post) for the future. I don't really believe in New Year's resolutions but a good one for this year might be to keep your eyes open for your inspiration and your mind in a state of open-ended expectation. That inspiration may come from out of nowhere, in the least expected fashion. It may be meeting a climbing idol or it may be someone trying their hardest on a three spot. And also train harder. A lot harder. I took a rest day the day after. For his part, Ueli onsighted Octopussy, a classic Jeff Lowe M8 in Vail before heading to Ouray.

This interview and others in the same series gives a good view of Annapurna and Ueli's mindset. Epic TV hasn't organized these well but it's worth searching around for all of them. Also his account of the Annapurna in the latest issue of Alpinist (#45) is well worth the read, an instant classic really.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Las Vegas Excursion

A little over a week ago, I got up before dawn, ate a quick breakfast, packed up and left the keys to my hotel room and hit the road, heading northeast back to Colorado from Las Vegas Nevada. Watching the first rays of the morning sun hit the dry peaks west of the highway near Mesquite, I knew I had a long way yet to go and plenty of time to think about the past week's adventures.

It was decided that I should head somewhere out of town solo the week before Christmas, an opportunity that I was eager to take, having not gone on a dedicated climbing trip in several years. And even if it would be only a few days, the chance to see some new boulders, meet some people, and maybe get some projects for a future visit was irresistible.

I piled a bunch of pads in my car and headed over the mountains in perfect weather. The sun was beginning to lower by the time I went through the San Rafael Swell where you really see the Utah desert landscape along I-70 and as had been the case since I passed Idaho Springs, snow was everywhere. I had had warnings that this might affect the climbing in Saint George but it was surprising to see so much snow that far south.

A quiet night in a budget motel in Saint George was a nice surprise and I took my time getting started as daylight revealed the city was surrounded by snow anywhere there was shade. I wanted to check out Moe's Valley but realized that my car would not handle the ice, snow and mud on the drive in. I realized though that it was just a mile or so, hardly a bad walk in so I hiked in on the road. This was the view from the Sentinel Boulder.
Snowy conditions in Moe's Valley
Undaunted, I started on the easier warmups in the vicinity, getting used to the soft and somewhat sandy rock. Though the landings were for the most part flat, some of the boulders were tall enough to merit care, especially on the topouts. After doing the Sentinel V2 (the groove on the left in the photo above) I did the classic Huntsman Graffiti V5, a series of long moves on small crimps on a leaning wall. This is a problem as good as any I have done in the grade and well worth the effort to visit if you are passing through.

Huntsman Graffiti V5

After chatting with a couple that showed up shortly after (the only people I saw that day) I headed deeper into the valley proper. Again, plenty of snow covered the tops of virtually all the boulders, including most of the classics such as Gription V9 and a problem I really wanted to do, Dead Rabbit, a crimpy V10. Dead Rabbit had 4 inches of snow at the top but the actual problem was dry. The hard climbing ends at a huge jug below the lip so I figured I would call it good if I got there. A big if as it turned out. While I got all the moves quickly, one in particularly proved desperate on the go and after a number of attempts, I was forced to move on. This problem has some of the best rock in the area, more like Joe's than the typical Moe's quality.
The crux on Dead Rabbit V10

Moe's Valley has a lot of boulders!
After this I went over to look for the Lindner Roof V9 which as it turned out was running with water and broken, which should up the grade a bit. In the vicinity, I did a problem called Shoulder Popper V8 which was clearly easier and a very classic crimpy arete named Hermione, a stout V3 or 4. I needed to leave to get to Vegas so I walked back out towards town feeling pretty tired. Moe's is definitely worth a stop though I wouldn't recommend it when covered with snow!

During a slow crawl through the VRG due to a truck accident, I recalled days spent working routes here such as the bouldery Hell Comes to Frogtown and the Route of All Evil. The VRG is blessed with amazing rock yet cursed with a grim location right off I-15. However there is probably no better place in North America for hard sport climbing in the cold seasons of fall and winter than Saint George and environs with numerous 5.13 and 5.14 routes, most of which are not too hard to access.

Two hours later I was in Las Vegas and checking in at the Suncoast Hotel Casino. Well removed from the Strip and 15 minutes from the Kraft Boulders trailhead, this casino is perfectly located for climbers. Throw in the fact that the climbing gym and Whole Foods are five minutes drive away, along with REI and the local climbing store and it's almost like you never left Boulder. The Suncoast is not crazy cheap (Hooters was on Expedia at 14 dollars a night) but I had a big but comfortable quiet room with a short hassle-free drive, perfect for mid-winter long nights.
Suncoast Casino

Wednesday I was still incredibly tired from Tuesday's explorations but I went out to check out the Kraft Boulders, one of the most well known and historically important bouldering areas near Las Vegas. A few tries on Slice'n'Dice V9 went nowhere and I eventually wandered over towards The Pearl, the celebrated classic from decades ago. Facing due south and polished by thousands of ascent, this problem is not a give-away. It certainly looks much better than it climbs with a tweaky shallow pocket and greasy feet.
The Pearl V4/5 Two moves of actual climbing but hard
I ran into Seth Robinson, Vegas local and guidebook author, who gave me a tour of Gateway Canyon, the area just northeast of the Kraft Boulders. This is one of a number of places where the latest development has taken place. In fact while I was there, a crew including Jimmy Webb, Nalle Hukketaival and Daniel Woods was taking down new problems left and right. I think it's safe to say that the guidebooks will need new editions soon.

Speaking of guidebooks, there are two available: one from Wolverine that is a select guide and the Tom Moulin "bible" which is a massive compendium of all the bouldering in the entire region. I bought the latter but found that the binding fell apart very quickly (while reading it in the hotel!) and returned it. I will be waiting for the next edition on that one. For a quick visit, the Wolverine one will work but is also very much out of date out at this point on the newer problems.

One of the best parts of the hike was seeing the remarkable and unique shapes and designs on the walls of the canyon

Erosion on the Keystone Boulder
Powerslave V12, a problem to come back for

At the end of the day we ran into Courtney Woods who wanted to try Lethal Design, a power-endurance V12 near the mouth of the canyon. I was able to take some good photos and also some notes for a possible session the next day.

Courtney Woods working on Lethal Design
This problem is more like a short route and comes complete with a somewhat sketchy topout over large, wobbly, jagged boulders. This landing could use some constructive reworking, no doubt, as it is unnecessarily unsafe.The climbing is intensely crimpy with lots of options for fingers and feet but no real respite until the last good edge before the slab. Armed with ideas and beta, I planned on coming back the next afternoon.

I felt better the next day and warmed up on the Potato Chip boulder which was much more fun than The Pearl and comes highly recommended.
After this, I met up with Courtney and Daniel Woods to head over to Gateway. Daniel wanted to do a problem called Burnt, a low V12 start to a V7 in the Kraft boulders. Unfortunately he had forgotten one of his climbing shoes somewhere and was forced to try it with a Sanuk on his right foot. Fortunately the problem is left-foot intensive. However building sun made it imperative to move on.

We headed over to Gateway and set up the pads for Lethal Design. The first third is sustained to several cruxy moves along a diagonal seam. Then a good hold allows a long reach to a spiky undercling, another good sidepull for the left hand and a final couple of hard moves to a good edge as the angle kicks back.

Working this problem means being careful about skin as too many tries on the same spiky crimp can puncture your fingers quickly. Fortunately the moves are not super hard. The problem's difficulty lies primarily in its continuity and complexity. Satisfied I had worked everything as well as I was going to that day, I headed out with Courtney and Daniel back to the Kraft Boulders hoping to get a good try or two on the Monkey Bar Direct, a steep and reachy V8 right on the trail.

Sadly drained of skin and power, I had to put this problem on the return list. Walking out under spitting rain, I ran into Daniel and Courtney again. Not surprisingly Daniel sent Burnt in one shoe!

Is Vegas worth the trip? Absolutely. It is definitely not the caliber of Hueco Tanks but there are many very worthy problems of all grades and this combined with a wide array of other climbing options and most importantly minimal bureaucratic hassles, make Vegas a prime winter destination regardless of your climbing style or preferred terrain. I only know that I left wishing I had three weeks instead of three days.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bouldering Book Review of Gimme Kraft

Head on over to my blog on bouldering for a review of the excellent book called Gimme Kraft, a new German/English text on climbing training.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Can Climbers Think More Clearly About Ethics?

Can climbers think more clearly about ethics? Is there a way to make ethical arguments clearer and more relevant to the sport of climbing? What has sparked this thought is the recent revelation that Joe Kinder, a well-known figure in American sport climbing, decided to cut down a tree that interfered with the first 20 feet or so of a climb he wanted to bolt near Lake Tahoe. For any number of reasons this was the wrong thing to do but remarkably enough a striking number of Joe's defenders commented online that apparently this wasn't such a big deal after all, because after all, hey it's just a tree, and/or don't you live in a house made of wood so you are just as guilty and so and so on.

I think Joe has received enough of a shellacking from everyone else and I consider him a friend so I am not going to deliver a sermon on why cutting the tree down was a bad idea. But I am going to take issue with his defenders who are among other things  betraying a fundamental lack of understanding of how the sport of climbing actually works. Fundamental to this is an understanding of the principal issues at stake in making ethical decisions, issues that many, in fact too many, internet commenters seem willfully ignorant of.

Ethics is the study of right and wrong, conditions that humans have been aware of since the dawn of, well, humans. The argument can be made that every action we take involves to some degree a consideration of its ethical dimensions. Games, which climbing is certainly an example of, allow us to play with ethical questions in a relatively low-stakes fashion. That is to say, nothing truly significant is at stake regarding whether we get to the top of a climb. Even if we spend $50,000 climbing Everest, whether we get to the top or not really changes nothing of significance. How we treat people or the environment along the way is much more significant than reaching a summit or clipping chains on the proj.

Climbing is not superficially involved in ethics; I would argue instead that ethics is embedded into the very fabric of the game. This is something that a newer generation seems to have forgotten and is worth reiterating. Maybe a good starting point is this argument: There is no point in climbing something that has been altered to suit your abilities. In climbing there is always an easier alternative, such putting up a ladder, or walking around the back, or grabbing a sling, or just lying about what you have done. To climb something honestly is by definition to forego an easier alternative, a weaker alternative, a "less right" alternative. Therefore there is no logical way to avoid the continual presence of ethics in the sport.

Knowing this is central to thinking clearly about how to judge whether actions relating to a climb are ethical or not. So coming back to the alteration principle. Climbers violate this principle in diverse and incremental ways, the least egregious affecting primarily their own experience, the most egregious affecting the lives of others and the environment which we all share. Using shoes or other gear, applying chalk, top-roping or placing bolts are a few examples. Using shoes doesn't involve much in terms of direct alteration of the rock but purchasing shoes from an unethical manufacturer in order to save money seems to be violating some important principle, perhaps that of the Golden Rule as in would I like to be cheated out of my labor or work under a totalitarian regime? Chalk is innocuous enough unless of course I do not make the minimal effort involved in cleaning up my chalk marks, thereby affecting the experience of others including non-climbers. Top-roping seems to fit primarily under competitive ethics, the least significant in real terms of climbing ethical questions. For example top-roping a scary lead first and then claiming a ground-up ascent doesn't affect anyone else's experience very much in real terms. The rock is the same even if you told a lie. If someone else decides to climb ground-up because of a story, that climber is still responsible for his or her actions. Most of these minor alterations can be described as reversible, restorable, or of minimal external impact.

Placing bolts has long been seen as ethically complicated because of the alteration principle and yet is widely accepted in many areas because of an overpowering imperative of safety for many or even feasibility of climbing a formation at all, as in massively overhung walls that could not be toproped or protected by other means, foreclosing any likely possibility of human ascent. That said, they still violate the alteration to suit one's abilities rule and for that reason are frowned on in many places. But even with these examples, we might ask, does this alteration principle provide a guide to ethical actions?

Philosophers often think of ethics in two basic directions, actions based on possible consequences, such as will this make me or others happier or less unhappy,  and those founded in intrinsic moral duty, that is I am doing the right thing regardless of consequences or any benefit or harm that may occur to me or others. I think climbers would do well to consider their actions in both these lights and think both in terms of consequences of their actions and whether there is something intrinsically right towards which we should aim in climbing. I would argue that the alteration principle functions as an absolute one toward which we should aim and that we should acknowledge when we deviate from it. To borrow from Kant's categorical imperative, can we will that all climbers should strive not to alter the rock or the environment?

Looking at various responses to the Kinder incident, I am struck by the degree to which  relativism (the notion that there is no absolute standard of right or wrong) and utilitarianism (the position that actions which result in greater human happiness are more ethical) dominate the discussion. I am also struck by the degree to which an abstract human construct, a climbing route, which has minimal utility and a contrived identity at best, becomes something worth sacrificing a living being for. I think we should ask ourselves why it's acceptable to chop down trees and not acceptable to chop holds.  Is it coherent to argue that since we all drive cars and kill the environment in myriad other ways, we have no standing in criticizing environmental destruction by climbers? Is there a way to respond to relativism and claims of utility?

The argument is made that numerous routes have required "ethical" infractions including bolts, glue, and modified holds to make them "go." My argument is that rock modification is relevant primarily in the context of competition and utility, that is, a better route is a more natural route since as mentioned above, there are any number of ways to "get around to the top", so to speak. If there is perceived utility in bolting or otherwise modifying a climb, it seems logical that this utility should be discussed among the community it claims to benefit, much like a town would debate an eminent domain action to demolish a building. In other words, at the very least, (and I would not argue that it settles the issue of whether an action is ethical) there should be an informed public discussion on the merits of that action.

If this claim of utility is made in regard to living beings, the need for that discussion seems even more urgent than ever. Here the claims of relativism become even more shaky. Following the alteration principle, ending a life is not reversible and its external impacts are potentially considerable. For example, a number of individuals claimed that in the east of the US, trees are very common so cutting them there is not a big deal. California on the other hand is much more arid so the loss of a single tree at a cliff is more serious. But if we look at this from another perspective, say, that of human life, would we be persuaded by the claim that there are billions of people so what's one or two less? And would our concerns about trees or the environment really be nullified by reading paper books or living in a wooden house?

The latter point has some ardent defenders but upon closer examination grows less coherent. On the one hand, a tree is cut down to make a route go. On the other, well what exactly? Is the house built in an environmentally conscious fashion. Is it even a new house? And so on. On the one hand deliberate destruction to make a climbing route "go," on the other, again it's not so clear. The motives of the first action are clear, but those of the second would need to be examined much more closely.

My larger point is that climbing and environmentalism need to get closer together. The contemporary emphasis on expansion and consumerism ("Never Stop Exploring") in climbing should be at the very least matched with an emphasis on limits and consideration of the needs of the natural communities among which we play. Our game, as noted above, is rooted in an ethical decision not to take the easy way. In my view a better motto might be "Never Stop Thinking" whether it's about ethics or our impacts on the environment.