Monday, January 16, 2012

Back to the Future: Evaluating the Breakthroughs of Climbing

A fascinating interview showed up at Planet Mountain recently which created some buzz in the climbing Interwebs. It consisted of Adam Ondra's thoughts about routes he hadn't done yet. It is a comment on the voracious manner with which Ondra has dispatched many of the marquee testpieces of European sportclimbing (not to mention bouldering) that a story on the climbs he has NOT done would garner so much interest. But a sub-theme was his inability to complete the 1990 Ben Moon route Hubble, located at Raven Tor in the heart of England's Peak District. Ondra put it like this: "The world's first 8c+, which could be easily even 9a in my opinion. It is not the most inspiring line, it seems more like a boulder problem with a rope and easier topout, but one must admit that it is of revolutionary difficulty for its time and I believe that it isn't by any means easier than Action Directe, the world's first 9a established a year later." This generated some reaction at sites like UKClimbing.
Ben Moon on Hubble

To me what was interesting was not the merit of the specific case of Hubble, which is probably valid, but the tendency for these kinds of ascents to emerge over time as breakthrough grades. There has been a fair amount of this recently. I begin by citing the case of Dan Goodwin, whose 1984 route Maniac was just recently repeated after over two decades and confirmed at 5.13c/d. This would have made it the hardest route in the country by far at the time and one of the hardest in the world.
Story from Climbing last year

Then there was the likely first 9a+ (5.15a) of Alexander Huber in 1996 with Open Air, a real beast of a pitch with a likely V11 finishing crux. The ClimbingNarc discussed this one pretty thoroughly but read also the interview with Alexander Huber where he sets his own routes in perspective against the "9as" of the present. It is worth mentioning that Huber's 1992 route Om was repeated only in 2009, also by Ondra. For even deeper perspective, check out this image from Climbing 47, from the spring of 1978 showing Ray Jardine on the iconic Valley route, The Phoenix. The caption describes it as one of the current 5.12's in Yosemite."

Does this look like "5.12" to you?
Now what do these routes have in common? I suggest there a few factors that lead to this, the primary one being the people involved. With the exception of Ben Moon, the climbers of these routes were relatively unknown or outside the circle of elite climbers for their time. Ray Jardine for example was regarded as a renegade in Yosemite for his method of working routes and even the use of Friends was seen by some as "cheating." Both Dan Goodwin's reputation and the location of his route ensured it would not be taken seriously at the time. It is hard to believe it now but in an article in On The Edge a now defunct British magazine, the author had to introduce his readers to Huber by pointing out that the British stars had done very few routes 8c and up compared to Huber. He was certainly unknown in the States prior to his free ascent of the Salathe Wall.

The issue with Hubble, in my view, was that the route was completely out of step with the vision of sport climbing that dominated the continent of Europe at the time. Long, stamina-oriented pitches were typical, occasionally with chipped holds to even out the difficulty. The likelihood of someone from abroad investing the time and energy in building up the power to do V13/14 on a rope and then finding the right conditions for a tiny route on a notoriously finicky crag was slim. Nevertheless Hubble was given an 8c+ grade, still regarded as a breakthrough but only by a letter grade. Only now is the record being rethought as hard bouldering has been maturing and a climber like Ondra has proven to be the equal of someone like Moon and Moffatt in bouldering hard and climbing on a rope hard.

Are we dealing here with the blinding effects of whatever is/was the current paradigm, a mode of seeing the world that hinders the understanding and inhibits knowledge? I think the question takes on importance with the rise of "professional" climbing. In other words, does professionalism imply subscribing to the dominant present paradigm and by implication, stifling innovation and creativity? A deeper exploration of that specific question belongs to another post but as I notice the recent crop of reevaluations of the historical record of sport climbing and bouldering, I am struck by the inconsistency of that record and the ways in which it has denied or delayed recognition of the real pioneers


Unknown said...

Botton line, Jerry Moffatt could have climbed Hubble if he wasn't busy projecting Liquid Ambar. He would have crushed this thing in Maine, on-sight, just like he did every other 7b,7b+,8a, etc. He was the beast of the 80's.

Anonymous said...

Great post. You seem to be on to something. Not sure what though....If I had to guess it is this maturing "hard bouldering" that you seem to want to project on to everything. You are right on the cusp of figuring out that all roads point to "hard bouldering". The only problem is they don't.

My hope is that you don't take this as a slam. I do love your thoughts on these subjects.


Peter Beal said...

JR, I am not exactly sure what you saying. Though hard bouldering is important in pushing free-climbing grades, the point of the post was to emphasize how groupthink and misconceptions about climbing blind climbers to real progress in the sport.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response.

I guess I'm just not understanding how the grades being over, under or "exactly" right changes the trajectory of climbing.