Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Saturation Point

The most recent controversy to emerge is David Lama's return to Cerro Torre. Having already run into a hornet's nest of controversy regarding the placement of bolts and leaving equipment on the mountain, Lama still wants (needs?) to finish his free ascent of the Compressor Route. Having pledged to avoid the excesses of the first trip, he has now announced that if necessary he will get to the summit and rappel down to place any needed gear. This is according to Colin Haley's excellent blog post on the topic.

Naturally, given such a controversial backstory, this latest move has even spawned an online petition, with over 800 signatures at last count, urging Lama's sponsors to "Stop their Support of his Bolting Actions on Cerro Torre."

At some point I am wondering when somebody, besides myself, is going to see that the nub of the controversy is not Lama's alleged intention to "rap-bolt" Cerro Torre. After all suppose he aided up and put in the bolts on lead? This distinction was not enough for some in California in the early 80s who chided John Bachar for using hooks to put in the bolts on the Bachar-Yerian instead of from non-aid drilling stances. No the Lama spectacle is about something else.

It seems to me that there is an instinctual understanding out there that we are truly at the end of the frontier phase of climbing. Not everything has been climbed, but now everything can be climbed. It is not the murder of the impossible as Messner puts it but more like Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols. The belief in the "shining mountain," to borrow Pete Boardman's phrase is no longer sustainable, or at least not in the current context of late-phase alpinism. I think there is a kind of despair out there at the recognition of the truth of this.

Do I think Lama is behaving appropriately? Not particularly. But I think the whole project of a "free ascent" of an immense wind-buffeted rime-encrusted spire seems petty and media-driven in the first place. What is missing is not adventure but purpose. We are at the saturation point, squeezing what we can out of the most spectacular walls and summits while we can. What does a "first ascent" mean when anything can be climbed, even by so-called "fair means?" That is a debate that successive generations will have to deal with in real terms, not merely hypothetical ones. It is the legacy the present is leaving to the future.

15 comments:

splitter choss said...

That's an incredibly astute observation, this idea of the end of the frontier. I wonder where we go from here?

Anonymous said...

"What is missing is not adventure but purpose. We are at the saturation point, squeezing what we can out of the most spectacular walls and summits while we can."

N Ridge Latok 1 unclimbed despite attempts spanning decades, and people like Humar and our own guys Puryear, Copp, Dash losing their lives in the mountains, but the "purpose is missing"? Another patently absurd armchair observation from the zen master himself.

Peter Beal said...

Astute or absurd? Good question. Now, Anonymous, can you explain the purpose of dying in the mountains? I am not so sure the Humar example is going to be very enlightening, to take a good example of super-alpinism at its most extreme.

My guess is that the Latok N Ridge route you rightly mention is quickly going to fade away in memory outside a very small core of the cognoscenti. I could be wrong but that seems to be the way it's going.

Cerro Torre is a beautiful mountain but like so many objects of desire, it is beginning to be overwritten by the climbers who profess to love it.

Thanks for the "zen master" reference. And identify yourself anytime:)

Anonymous said...

"Now, Anonymous, can you explain the purpose of dying in the mountains?"

Can you explain why they went there if, like you said, the purpose is missing, and not pretend I said they went there to die, which I didn't say?

Or is your ridiculous point indefensible without misquoting anyone pointing out it's ridiculousness?

Colin C. said...

Jeez, Peter. I read your blog regularly and enjoy it, but your post just obfuscates the issue: Lama intends to bring sport weenie rap bolting tactics to one of the biggest, baddest, most iconic spires on the planet. It's unequivocally an affront to alpine ethics. To boot, he's essentially told anyone who disagrees with his tactics, including respected alpinists and local climbers, to shove it.

There's a huge difference between rap bolting and bolting on lead from hooks. You have to run it out to locate hook-able features (which may or may not exist) or stances, which obviously takes more commitment and boldness. More importantly, drilling from hooks on lead is still ground-up climbing.

I'm not some frothy mouthed retro-traddie who posts garbage like "sport climbing is neither" on web forums. I enjoy trad, sport and bouldering; I climb in a gym for most of the winter months. But there's a place for rap bolting, and regardless of where we draw the particular line, Cerro Torre is clearly not that place.

Finally, I think your statement that we're at a point where anything can be climbed by fair means is just factually incorrect. Lama couldn't free the compressor route last year, even using unfair means. Anonymous posted about a route that has denied would-be first ascenders for decades, and you seem to dismiss this example because it's obscure (to you).

There are first ascents on boulders, routes, and mountains every year. There is still room for further development and I don't think we're "saturated" quite yet. New areas are discovered, old areas fall out of style and are re-discovered and further developed (Lincoln Lake comes to mind) , and people find new lines in well-established areas all the time (i.e. Pat Goodman climbing Scavenger at the New and Brian Kim climbing Monumantle at the Gunks).

Peter Beal said...

Anonymous, I never claimed that you said they went there to die. I have no idea how you could construct that meaning from what I have written. You seem to be claiming that losing one's life in the mountains implies climbing has a sense of purpose. That's why I asked if you could explain the reason you mentioned Humar, et al. I would say that people going to the mountains implies some purpose is there. The question is whether that sense of purpose will endure. For millenia, most people avoided mountains and certainly didn't visit them for the reasons they do today. I don't think my questions are ridiculous unless you can clearly explain why.

Colin, your question is a substantial one. My point was that the phrase "on lead" is ultimately a meaningless distinction. The Cerro Torre bolt ladder was put up on lead. There is no requirement that a ground-up route be put up on hooks and runout. Lots of sport routes are put up ground up with a combination of aid, bolts and hooks. The bigger point is that Cerro Torre is sounding like a local crag with hair-splitting ethical debates emerging over bolting styles.

This kind of dispute is like the Dawn Wall episode. It means the heroic age is done. Sure there are first ascents available but they aren't going to be paradigm changing ones or so I argue and have argued elsewhere.

I am well aware of the Latok route as a last great problem but the era of last great problems being widely known and recognized across the climbing community is probably over. It's just the way climbing has been heading. New routes are interesting in their own right for sure but the possibility of achievements like Action Direct, The Thimble, or the Nose free in a day is very limited. Unless you can come up with counter-examples?

Peter Beal said...

http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/01/23/peaked_performance/?page=full

christopher said...

"New routes are interesting in their own right for sure but the possibility of achievements like Action Direct, The Thimble, or the Nose free in a day is very limited."

this, and your post in general are simply short sighted. paradigms shift. it is inherent in the definition of the word. all they require is the imagination of a new generation to change values and re-orient goals. climbing will never not have a sense of purpose as long as human's care about climbing for its own sake, and there will always be people who do. I have to agree with anonymous, at least a little, with his "absurd armchair observation" comment. It seems beyond arrogant to basically say that the climbing world is tapped out of novel and inherently interesting meaning. climbing is about meaning (like every other human activity), and in that way it will never loose its import for those who care enough to recognize it. If the climbing community does, for a time, lose its sense of purpose (if such a ridiculous generalization can even be made), it is only a temporary lapse in imagination and we will surely get over it. the meaning we create from the act of climbing rock (in whatever style) is limitless, and to claim anything else is oppressive to those of us who still find intrinsic value in our pursuit.

Peter Beal said...

"It seems beyond arrogant to basically say that the climbing world is tapped out of novel and inherently interesting meaning. climbing is about meaning (like every other human activity), and in that way it will never loose its import for those who care enough to recognize it."

This is a declaration of faith rather than an argument. I did not say that climbing was void of purpose altogether. I am arguing that a certain kind of purpose is running out of steam.

To repeatedly claim that there is meaning in climbing is not to define or explain what it is. To categorize my remarks as oppressive is not really refuting them. Imagining that new paradigms will emerge is pretty easy but can you propose anything new that could be done with climbing? What has happened in climbing so far points in my view to a very limited future for the old ways, the same way that the actual European colonization and expansion in North America had implications for that world-view. They ran out of space, for starters.

In my view, arguments about rap-bolting on Cerro Torre point to an exhaustion of the current progressivist paradigm summarized as the first, the free, or the harder ascent. Something else will have to emerge to take its place.

Duncan Idaho said...

Happened across this and felt compelled to respond. The other responses on your (Peter's) post only serve to reinforce the integrity of your main point. The statement in Christopher's comment that climbing has intrinsic value, for instance, is an attempt to substantiate climbing as having 'purpose', but how can that even be possible? It can only have subjective purpose and I fully agree with Peter that even that is at its delta for many of us.


Collectively speaking, this idea has other echoes in our daily lives: as information floods our societal consciousness at rates that increase by the hour, we change almost inextricably.

To coin another Nietzsche-ism: climbing is "beyond Good and Evil"; despite our individual beliefs about ethics (from the simplistic 'good and bad' to more nuanced but similar dialectics) there is no consensus now just as there never was before as to how to deal with the issues.

Bravo to those who feel a strong sense of fealty to one moral high ground or another, but it also signifies ignorance (willful or not) of the bigger picture.

This is a timely statement about a key issue (not rap-bolting on Cerro Torre but rather about the current state of the climbing 'world').

christopher said...

"In my view, arguments about rap-bolting on Cerro Torre point to an exhaustion of the current progressivist paradigm summarized as the first, the free, or the harder ascent. Something else will have to emerge to take its place."

I guess we agree then. Something will have to, and something certainly will emerge to take its place. It is hard for us, as people living in a certain paradigm, to predict what the next will be. to say that something will come next might have some element of faith; the earth could implode before a new generation of climbers get the chance to reinterpret climbing. But aside from the end of the word as we know it, it is pretty much a certainty that new paradigms will emerge. I cannot predict what they will be though. That is sort of like asking a quantum physicist to predict what theory will eventually supplant hers...

gg said...

The only "last frontier" beyond a few last "great routes" in the alpine realm that I can think of that would be really paradigm shifting for "climbing" is: all 8,000m peaks, solo, without oxygen, in one season/year. That would blow my mind about what is possible. That would have "purpose."

Peter Beal said...

"In the end I could see that, for a great free climb, the mountain as well as the line would be perfect, but the climb itself not at all. Free climbing there would be much more for name and fame than for fun."

Alexander Huber on the Cerro Torre project

http://colinhaley.blogspot.com/2011/01/david-lama-and-cerro-torre-good-news.html

Brian said...

To say that, "Not everything has been climbed, but now everything can be climbed," is true, but it's only true of the quote-unquote climbing community. It's certainly not true for me, a lowly gym boulderer turned sport climber. I still dream of turning trad, climbing Lotus Flower and Eternal Flame. The later is particularly ridiculous having never placed a cam in my life, but it does illustrate the fact that for me and a good amount of people on the lower rungs of the climbing totem everything cannot, in fact, be climbed.

Of course I'm hugely inspired by the vanguard, past and present, but for my friends and I that certainly doesn't constitute the purpose of climbing, just as summits or redpoints don't. I read in an article somewhere about Mugs Stump that he felt he had gone furthest personally/spiritually while soloing for months in the Antarctic. Yet the 'climbing community' knows him for the Moonflower, Dance of the Woo-Li Masters, etc. Emerson said great men rarely use all of their capability, but that it sits in quiet reserve; when Stump met his dragons, that latent ability was put on display. To me, that says not to seek dragons, but to seek inside myself.

But we all have our own purposes and approaches to climbing. Knowing little of alpine ethics, Lama's bolts seem extraneous to me; that being said, I'm planning on making my first multipitch climb Unimpeachable Groping, a 7 pitch sport bolted climb in Red Rocks. I'll leave the balance of where to put hardware up to the experts for now, mostly just wanted to add my 2 cents about the purpose of climbing.

Brian said...

Okay after having read Colin Haley's brief history of the Compressor Route and Lama's attempt, I have to say he seems to be seriously out of line. Cerro Torre's not a sport crag, and it's ridiculous to rap-bolt a supposedly "free" first ascent that you can't even complete without the existing and copious bolting.

Also, I did mean to qualify my first statement a bit in my previous reply: not everything can be climbed, but quite a lot of things can, particularly from the perspective of someone who doesn't know every route on a peak, wall, spire, etc. That doesn't mean there aren't things like the North Ridge of Latok whatever number it is or other much sought after and still denied ascents.

Peace!