|Red Bull can found in Upper Chaos Canyon, July 2010|
One of the most interesting debates raging in the climbing community right now is the issue of Austrian climber David Lama's attempt to free climb Cerro Torre in Patagonia. Lama's sponsor agreed to underwrite the trip but wanted a high-production value film out of it. The quick summary is that in the effort to make a film of the climb, a team of guides added extra bolts to safeguard the film crew and ultimately abandoned a fair amount of gear on the mountain. The initial story is best read in this article from Alpinist.com.
Recently Lama, no doubt after prompting from Red Bull, issued a statement which if anything only aggravated the situation more. Primarily, as far as I can tell, Lama was unrepentant about one central point. "Bolts or no bolts, for many the controversy lies in whether or not someone should even attempt a production like ours on such a mountain. That question is what divides climbers. Film projects and photo shootings will always be a part of professional climbing and with that also a part of my life." This naturally leads to a question which is what is the point of climbing media of this type? Today climbing video and photography are increasingly available for free to a degree that I would never have believed possible when I was a teenager. And for the most part, I think it's OK. But I am wondering why there isn't more emphasis on environmental preservation, especially when a great deal of the media being produced is repetitious depictions of climbs that are neither new nor intrinsically interesting. I have reviewed a number of videos on this blog and increasingly find myself bored by those that focus on physcial action, such as sport climbing or bouldering. That was interesting for its own sake in the 80s and 90s when climbing was changing radically. Now that type of climbing is commonplace. Nobody cares about, say, video of Hueco Tanks, unless it tells an interesting story or in some way brings an important new angle to the place.
My feeling is that so-called "adventure climbing" is in much the same spot, that in the end nobody will care if Lama free climbs Cerro Torre, just as at this point another free ascent of El Cap is ho-hum. Climbing media as a platform for sponsor promotion is going down a similar road. Adrenalin rushes and spectacular scenery are a short-term fix and as the media becomes more disposable, the environment can only suffer collateral damage in the process. As the priority shifts from the climb to the film, clearly something is being lost. In chasing an image, we are looking at ourselves in the mirror and ignoring the self within and the world outside.