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.