Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Value of Dissent

The winter has been a strange one. In some ways it has been incredible productive with all kinds of projects realized and others underway. In other ways, a sense of frustration has set in, especially with an often brutal and erratic weather pattern that has been fundamentally incompatible with work and other demands. Part of the sense of frustration stems from figuring out where to go in my writing. Surrounded by an infinity of updates from Spain (or Catalunya) or Font or Hueco, I am frustrated by the lack of substance in any of this. Thank heaven for Stevie Haston for at least some sense of reality.

 Recently I have been looking at the viewer numbers for this blog in the hope of figuring out what people want to see based on what they actually read. The results are interesting to say the least. Head and shoulders above the rest was the "About that Citibank Ad...." post with views closer to what I would see with a climbing star interview. But the trend continues with #2 and #3 being the Matt Samet interview and "Can You Afford to be Sponsored?" All of these pieces have one thing in common; they question aspects of the climbing world that many take for granted as desirable or at least as acceptable. This aspect of writing seems to me a diminishing component of climbing media at this point. Serious questioning of destructive or ethically dubious ideas or practices seem to be limited primarily to competitive and symbolic ethics such as the bolts on Cerro Torre or other climbing-specific issues such as permadraws. Deeper questions, ones that go to the heart of the sport tend to be evaded or passed over altogether.

 This was the essence of the Citibank post. I was concerned about the way in which capital was framing the sport and even more concerned with the adulation and praise that the advertisement received from the climbing community. If there was any substantial critique of the ad, I somehow failed to see it, a situation I found disturbing, especially considering the heritage of the sport, a heritage that that has always had a complex and ambivalent relationship to financial and political power. So why did no-one else engage these questions? A quick survey of the literature of the 70s and 80s shows a wide range of responses to questions that remain vitally important, in fact that are even more important than ever. What has happened to the writers who are/were willing to seriously tackle these issues? Carping about babies at the crag or fretting about whether hold X was manufactured is not what I am talking about here. Minor local controversies are distractions from the bigger picture and the trends that threaten important aspects of the sport.

 In coming months I will be focusing more in-depth on issues that I think are at the center of the future of the sport. Primary among these are environmental issues but I also want to dig deeper into the questions raised by the mainstreaming and professionalization of the sport at the highest levels. I would not call this direction so much "muck-raking" but instead reflective and critical writing in the best senses of those terms. Climbing needs more independent voices, not fewer. From where I stand, there are very few indeed.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Back next week

I have been taking a hiatus from writing for a few weeks. Back on Monday.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Cerro Torre and the Mountain as a Work of Art

There has been a lot of debate swirling around Patagonia since the recent "fair means" and free ascents of Cerro Torre, the first by Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk, the second by David Lama. The ascent of the Southeast Ridge, commonly known as The Compressor Route, sparked the most controversy not so much because of what happened on the ascent but because the team removed hundreds of bolts on the way back down, causing considerable local uproar and even a visit with the local constabulary. Even more remarkable was the emerging consensus, seen most obviously in a 2007 Patagonian climbers' vote, against removing the bolts.

Outside Magazine does a decent summary here with lots of links.

Maestri's Compressor from http://www.climbmagazine.com/news/2012/01/rolando-garibotti-interview

The justification most often cited was that of preserving history, that is, the complex and even tragic history of Cesare Maestri's encounters with the mountain, first in 1959 and then in 1970, when the bolts were put in on the Southeast Ridge. For many, the bolt ladders and the compressor itself formed a kind of archive, I suppose, a tangible reminder of the Maestri controversy, a controversy marked by the classic essay, "Murder of the Impossible" written by Reinhold Messner and published in Mountain in, 1971.

Reinhold Messner at Outdoor Retailer learning from Michael Kennedy what Hayden did on Cerro Torre
I have been thinking of the relationship between the mountain, its history and the traces left by its climbers. These observations are strictly from the sidelines in terms of climbing Cerro Torre but I have some experience in thinking about culture and history and this situation presents a couple of fascinating problems.

The first of these is the paradoxical nature of adventure in climbing. I have already written about the demise of the impossible and I stand by the argument. While it is obtuse and destructive to install bolt ladders on just about anything these days, it is also getting harder and hard to envision any ascent as carrying genuine historical significance beyond a kind of closing of the frontier. That is to say that any piece of rock or ice that is climbable will be climbed sooner or later. It is inevitable. The murder of the impossible has been superseded by the obsolescence of the impossible. Conceptually speaking, everything is merely a project.

It is incredible to me to read of the debates about bolts on a jagged ice-encrusted spire at the other end of the world. Is it possible, even likely, that wherever debates like this rage, the bluebird of adventure (or to quote Hegel, the owl of Athena) has long since flown away? Not to say that people can't have a really hard or scary time in Patagonia, or anywhere else, but isn't the adventure now merely personal, not historically significant.

So were/are the Maestri bolts historically significant? I think they were as they clearly sounded the deathknell of heroic siege-style alpinism. This was echoed in two other contemporary ascents, that of Warren Harding on the Dawn Wall and the Annapurna South Face British expedition. All were more or less successful (Maestri never gained the true "summit, the Annapurna expedition missed the 2nd ascent, and the Harding route earned the wrath of Royal Robbins) but they all seemed to point to a dead end. This dead end was not merely the application of massive amounts of time and material but that of the mega-climb in general. Ensuing decades have confirmed this with light fast ascents of the most remote and difficult routes all over the world. I think they mark the dead-end of an attitude toward climbing rooted in conquest and an old vision of history.

So if the bolts are historically significant should they remain in situ? I think this debate is perhaps a sign of the senescence (or to be more fair, the maturity) of the sport, that there is any discussion of the historical significance of fixed gear on any route beyond a strictly utilitarian purpose. Those in favor of the bolt removal regard the bolts as an act of vandalism, a kind of desecration that should never have happened in the first place. Those against argue that the bolts are as much part of the route as the geological feature that, for now, we call the Southeast Ridge of Cerro Torre. I have to admit that the vandalism argument has some merit but not all vandalism is created equal. The bolt ladders, fixed pitons and fixed cables, even huts, that adorn a significant number of important mountains and faces point to an impulse to leave substantial signs of human presence in otherwise remote and wild places. Yet no one is calling for the removal of huts and cables from say the Matterhorn, which is strikingly like Cerro Torre in its form and tragic events surrounding the first ascent.

So there is something different about the Cerro Torre bolts, something that creates a special case. I would suggest that their lack of utility, the seemingly random profusion of them, phenomena that many have commented on already, that arouses a particular ire. They have no utility, no clear sense of purpose. The purpose of alpinism seems to have been lost somewhere up there, the meaning of climbing warped or rendered null and void. Something very strange happened up there, something that has haunted the life of Cesare Maestri and the minds of anyone who has either climbed or thought about the mountain since.

The second problem is the idea of the climb as the work of art, a notion that many have appealed to over time. There are many ways to respond to the Cerro Torre situation using this analogy, that the mountain was a blank canvas, or a beautiful painting, that was defaced by an incompetent climber. I am not so sure this analogy holds up under investigation. I don't believe that Cerro Torre can be considered a work of art but if we did, we would want to remember the complex and flawed aspects of even world-renowned masterpieces, works which are often, unbeknownst to the average viewer, composed of re-assemblies and  restorations with complex and difficult histories of their own. There is no such thing as the pure work of art and holding up this ideal does a disservice to the reality of being human, our flaws and our irrational natures.

I don't have an easy answer to these questions. The ideals of pure alpinism and adventure climbing are, as I have argued above, are falling victim to their own success. The frontier is closed. The rules and objectives are understood. Though I ultimately think Maestri's hardware should not remain on the mountain, I do not consider the mountain somehow reconsecrated or purified. That is in the minds of true believers and I am an agnostic on the point of whether mountains or nature or climbing can ever be considered pure. What interests me is the story of how we sometimes succeed and all too often fail in our desires to make more of ourselves than what we are. Maestri's bolts and compressor are mute testimony to how far that irrational desire can take us until, halfway between heaven and earth, climbing on an idea as much as anything else,  reality and the ideal collide and we see that in the end, we are not gods but merely human.