Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The End of Climbing History?

The recent death of John Bachar has had me contemplating more than just mortality and age, it has also led to me to consider a broader change in the sport, namely that history no longer is being made in climbing. I don't mean that there is nothing left to do in climbing, far from it, but that there is no significant innovation in terms of technology, practice, arena, or destination likely to emerge in the future that will be considered truly historical.

While it would take a much longer essay to develop this point, I want briefly to consider where the end of history in climbing occured to begin the discussion. My personal preference is sometime between 1975 and 1985, an era when pretty much every form of technology and practice that we take for granted today was introduced and accepted and has not changed a great deal since. If we look at rock-climbing, this period saw the introduction of camming devices, sticky rubber, adoption of harnesses, and of course acceptance of bolted climbs. We could also throw in psychological innovations such as training, the concept of "beta" for remembering climbs, topos, and high-end free-soloing. Free-climbing big walls was already being explored and achieved in pathbreaking climbs such the Erickson-Higbee ascent of Half-Dome in 1976 and Hudon and Jones on the Salathe in 1980. Sport climbing was well established by the mid-80s and Tribout's 1986 "To Bolt or Not to Be" established a benchmark 5.14. Peter Croft's solos of Astroman and the Rostrum in 1987 mark a new departure in solo climbing. The same trends can be seen in bouldering, aid-climbing, alpinism and high-altitude mountaineering.

Climbing in the time prior to 1990 could still be described as exploratory, historical and foundational in nature but since then, it has become a sport with a well-defined set of practices, pretty clear parameters for performance and not much possibility for genuine innovation. I saw a recent headline on the cover of Urban Climber "5.15b now exists" and thought so what? This kind of ascent is not meaningful in the history of the sport, however impressive the climb, as it represents an incremental advance in physical difficulty, not a new, qualitatively different direction. Does this mean climbing is boring? Not at all. But is it innovative or exploratory in any real sense? Beyond the subjective experience of the individual, I would argue no. Climbing can longer have a history of the kind that was made beginning in the mid nineteenth century with Whymper on the Matterhorn in 1865, and ending maybe with the 1988 Skinner-Piana ascent of the Salathe or the 1985 ascent of the West Face of Gasherbrum IV by Schauer and Kurtyka. We might have news but no more history.


sock hands said...

devil'sadvocacy: all of the historical events you described were mini-climaxes in the trends and preceeding developments that paved the way for the actual event.

history seems mostly defined by reflection/retrospection. what people of the future decide to characterize as a historical event is as subjective as what we each characterize as newsworthy today.

maybe climbers of the future will look back on the current era and identify it not with one easily digestable event, but rather as a movement... when hard climbing became commonplace... when the bell-curve became most steep.... i know you will consider this very boring and will doubt its historical significance, but really, we are not likely to be the judges of such things.

remember that there was an effort to close the US patent office at the turn of the century because everything that was inventable had already been invented.

or wait, maybe not: http://ask.yahoo.com/20050407.html

i guess it just goes to show that even what did occur in history may be subject to interpretation?

bottom line: interesting points, peter, but i'd never bet against technology and progression.

Peter Beal said...

Good points but if you think about it what new technology could you imagine that would really progress climbing at this point without altering the game beyond all recognition? Climbing is very simple at its essence and I am proposing that while advances within disciplines are possible in terms of difficulty or time or other relatively quantifiable measures, ultimately nothing historically important will come out of the sport from here on out. Climbers of the future might look back on this era as one of consolidation but real innovation? I am not so sure. That happened earlier.

The caution about extracting history from news is well taken however so my prediction is fodder for debate rather than a positive pronouncement. Regarding the patent office point, except perhaps the computer, virtually everything germane and useful to everyday existence today had been invented and existed in some form however primitive. I am thinking about anesthesia, automobiles, the light bulb,refrigerators,etc.,
which the previous century lacked but which we in the 21st have not surpassed or made obsolete in any meaningful sense. I may be pushing it here but I can think of very little, outside of medical technology, invented after say 1910 that really has affected or improved everyday life.

Obviously I need to expand on what I consider historically important which I will think about some more.

Anonymous said...

" all of the historical events you described were mini-climaxes in the trends and preceeding developments that paved the way for the actual event."

agreed. not sure why the attempts at big wall FFA's (Hudon/Jones, Erickson/Higbee, Skinner/Piana) are rated as historical events while the actual FFA's are not...nobody remembers those who tried to be the first to fly non-stop from NY to Paris, whereas Charles Lindbergh is still pretty famous...

Peter Beal said...

The Lindbergh analogy is good except that it exaggerates the historical importance of Lindbergh's flight. A quick look at Wikipedia shows that it was simply a matter of time building upon incremental progress. Consider the non-stop flight from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919, 8 years before Lindbergh! The mental and psychological impetus had been building for a long time before. Lindbergh was a charismatic personality whose impact was as much psychological as historical.

A big-wall free ascent is similarly incremental in many cases with a sense of foregone conclusion after a pioneering team comes within a few feet/pitches of success. An attempt of this type is then usually followed by a successful one that few people really care about, unless there is another factor involved, such as the charisma of the climber. A good example is Chris Sharma on Realization. We now are pretty sure that 5.15 existed (Huber, Open Air, 1996, 12 years before the Ondra repeat) earlier but the media surrounding the Sharma ascent built it into something that seemed to be historical.The Hudon/Jones climb on the Salathe was important because nobody had really said before, "Let's just free climb on El Cap and see how it goes." I remain curious why nobody went up and followed through on their work a lot earlier. (Ray Jardine's work on the Nose never earned public approval owing to the use of chipped holds.) The Erickson/Higbee Half Dome climb had the air of being ahead of its time as well. The Skinner/Piana climb,despite its imperfections, fit the same mold. I think if Alexander Huber, or anyone else, had gone up and did El Cap red-point style say, the next year, maybe that would have been historically important. But by 1995, standards had gone up so far, there was little that was truly innovative or path-breaking about the ascent. As Huber was quoted as saying, "It's OK, I have power to waste." His top route grade was 14d at the time, six letter grades harder than the Salathe and he had plenty of long route experience in Europe.

A problem with history is that it tends to remember pacesetters, not rule followers. So those that go out ahead where the territory is unknown, however imperfect their efforts actually were, retain historical value where those who follow in the pioneers' footstep, however much "better" their performance, are just that, followers. So Lindbergh was famous while the second person to fly solo across the Atlantic ( two weeks later in June of 1927)was Clarence Chamberlin and nobody knows of him, even though he went a bit further to Germany.

Anonymous said...

"The Hudon/Jones climb on the Salathe was important because nobody had really said before, "Let's just free climb on El Cap and see how it goes."

Nope. Kauk, Bachar, Bard and Braun freed most of the 5.11 pitches on the Nose in the 70's.

"But by 1995, standards had gone up so far, there was little that was truly innovative or path-breaking about the ascent."

Says who? Freeing the Salathe headwall in one ledge-to-ledge pitch, while also leading every pitch on the same ascent, was probably the most significant ascent in climbing up to that date. Everything up to that were attempts that tried to break new ground but failed.

"As Huber was quoted as saying, "It's OK, I have power to waste." His top route grade was 14d at the time, six letter grades harder than the Salathe and he had plenty of long route experience in Europe."

Didn't you just say Huber had done 5.15 (Open Air) already? So how was 14d his top grade?

He also said at the time that the Salathe was by far the hardest thing he had ever done, and to this day a free ascent of the Salathe remains the Holy Grail of American (if not World) climbing.

"...those that go out ahead where the territory is unknown, however imperfect their efforts actually were, retain historical value where those who follow in the pioneers' footstep, however much "better" their performance, are just that, followers."

Except when the "pioneers" never had a chance in hell of freeing the Salathe in the first place, and with the proper historical perspective the whole thing is viewed more as a photo op/publicity stunt than as an actual serious attempt.

Dave McAllister said...

I would reckon that the likely entrance of climbing into the Olympics will make a bit of history. For better or worse, this can be seen as nothing less than a verifiable advancement of the sport. For better or worse. Anyway, I get the point, but I can't imagine that climbing has nothing new or exciting to offer (other than incremental advancements in grading). I remember reading back in the day of scientists working on a technology that would replicate the texturing of the gecko's feet in synthetic form...that'll certainly change the game if it does indeed come to fruition! I am reminded of the protagonist's words in the great novel "We", by Yevgeny Zamyatin:

"Human history goes up in circles, like an aero. The circles are different -- some golden, some bloody -- but they are all divided into 360 degrees. They start at zero and progress to 10, 20, 200, 360 degrees, and return to zero again. Yes, we have returned to zero. Yes. But to my mathematically reasoning mind, something is clear: this zero is completely different and new. We departed from zero to the right then we returned to zero from the left, and so: instead plus zero, we are minus zero. Do you understand?"

Oh...he goes on and on, but I basically agree with the old boy's wordage...

Peter Beal said...

Huber did Open Air after the Salathe. He did Om (14d) in 1992, 3 years earlier. So he had plenty of experience at a very high standard. Whether or not he felt the Salathe was the hardest thing he climbed is not very important to history, except as confirming the vision of previous climbers, just as Ondra had confirmed Huber's vision on Open Air. The previous ascent clearly had already proved that it could be done.

The characterization of the Hudon/Jones attempt on the Salathe or the Skinner/Piana ascent as a publicity stunt/photo op is both inaccurate and mean-spirited. I have a feeling I have debated with you already on this point.

Anonymous said...

The development and popularization of the indoor climbing gym is a very significant event in climbing's history and one that is arguably still underway. While the first artifical climbing walls were created some 30-40 years ago the indoor climbing gym did not gain mainstream popularity and acceptance until much more recently. For example, 15 years ago you would not have gone into a climbing gym to see 30 five-year-olds, mid-birthday party, running and bouncing all over.

This may not directly correlate to your points about difficutly, vision, and adventure but it is hard to deny the impact and the changes that have occured because of the indoor climbing gym.

It has forever changed the direction and nature of our sport from how people are introduced to climbing, to how socially acceptable it is to be a climber. If that doesn't fall under the category of climbing history, I'm not sure what does.

Peter Beal said...

Good point about climbing gyms which were first introduced in the US in the mid to late 80s, my proposed cut-off date. And they are hugely popular now, absolutely. Like the other innovations of the 70s to 80s they continue to have an impact on the sport but are not qualitatively different from the original versions. I would suggest that they have encouraged the rise in free climbing as the dominant form of the sport, much as bolting did at about the same time.

AB said...

Nice, thoughtful post, Peter. I enjoyed reading it.

While I agree with you that climbing history has arguably ended, to use that Fukuyama definition, I disagree with you on what meaning can be drawn from it.

The world is definitely smaller now than it was 20 or 50 years ago, just as 50 years ago it was smaller than it was 2000 years ago. Hudon and Jones trying to free climb the Salathe was "exploratory, historical and foundational" as you aptly described, but it hardly compares to the people who studied the stars and earth and realized that we revolved around the sun, or that the earth isn't flat. It also pales compared to sailing across a giant ocean with a head full of fear that you might just go off the edge of the world! Imagine that!

In each era, there are explorers who make the most of what they are given. You say that the existence of 5.15b represents only an incremental advance in difficulty. I feel as if Sharma's Jumbo Love was a rather ground-breaking ascent that was portrayed the wrong way in the media. The real ground-breaking nature of the route is that V10+ boulder problems are now being introduced to routes that are over 200 feet long that have no real rests to speak of. Up until this point, all of the truly difficult routes were much shorter or not nearly as sustained. I think the story wasn't that "515b now exists" but that "it actually is possible to combine multiple V-double-digit problems with the endurance needed to climb over 200 feet." I see this as opening a huge door in sport climbing, eventually changing everything: how long ropes are, how light draws get, and basic perceptions of what a "pitch" is.

I think it's easy to look back on history with reverential wonderstruck, and also to look at the present with a more critical, less engaged view. I don't know why that is. I think that history can be made ... it's just a matter of placing it in the proper context.

Peter Beal said...

Thanks for the comment Andrew. I agree that the Sharma route was significant for the reasons you described. But whether it represents mere quantitative change or historical qualitative change is hard to tell right now. The skeptical part of me says not so much but I see your point.

Whowantstoclimb said...

Nice article and thank you for these insightful comments.

I wouldn't take the risk of writing something too long and naive on such a deep subject (Not a native English speaker + From a European perspective, any claim involving "the end of history" has turned out to be a bit disappointing, to say the least, leaving me a bit skeptical...), but will add a few comments to this debate:
1) Where do you put Deep Water Soloing? Looks like a category in its own right, and seems fairly recent. Of course, you can find people doing that in Mallorca centuries ago. This seems pretty new to me as a mass sportive activity
2)Campus boards were popularized (If not invented), in the very early 90s, and have revolutionized the way top-climbers are training. I recently read an interview of Tribout (French magazine, sorry for the lack of ref) stating that their training was all about pull-ups (About 200 an day), which definitely does not make any sense in the context of high-end bouldering nowadays (What can you possibly pull-up from on a V10+... ;) ).
3) What are your thoughts on Rouhling's "Akira" (Proposed 5.15b, unrepeated) ? I'm not a huge fan of the character, but this route was certainly one of the hardest at the time (95) and the first of a new "fusion-style" (Bouldering with rope), recently furthered by Andrada's "Ali Hulk".
This "climbing as a fun physical activity, not a serious, life-threatening mountaineering stuff" philosophy seems, if not new, at least emerging to me.

Peter Beal said...

Great follow-up comment and incentive to start writing the blog again. DWS is not enough of a departure in my opinion to rewrite the history of climbing. This is in part because much above 40', DWS becomes regular soloing owing to the risks of impact from that long a fall. It is a cool sub-discipline however.

The campus board is a significant invention, not least because it was more sport-specific than many other training devices. It showed how raw strength could be developed to the degree necessary for really hard moves. It is remarkable that Bachar's Chasin the Trane of 1981 was followed only 10 years later by Action Directe. 12d to 14d in that short time is incredible. According to Wikipedia, Gullich invented the device in 1988, barely outside my time-frame of 1975-1985. I don't know what that says about the Bachar Ladder as a training tool.

The last point about "climbing as a fun physical activity, not serious, life-threatening mountaineering stuff" is exactly right in my view. That approach marks the end of history in climbing and in my view is a good thing. I am writing a piece for the Alpinist magazine about the effect of the so-called Golden Age of climbing in the 60s and 70s and this is a theme that I want to develop, that the search for significance and meaning in climbing, while it initially spurred achievement in the 60s, ultimately bogged the sport down. The USA especially has been caught in this tension between "pure" ethics and advancement in difficulty, a tension spurred in large part due to the mythologies of past eras, transmitted to the present.