It's always a bit satisfying to have moved the needle a bit in any discussion. Rock and Ice has been roused a little from its dogmatic slumbers to respond to my blog in not one but two E-blasts in roughly two weeks, the most recent one entitled "The End is Near. Repent!" And even more satisfying is that Duane Raleigh, editor-in-chief, is the author, reflecting a steady climb up the masthead in my discussants. Plus as a bonus, comments have been activated, something rarely seen in these pieces. So things are simmering a bit more actively than before. Great.
Even better though is that there is plenty to debate in Raleigh's essay. So let's take a look inside. I should add it's also good to discuss thing with someone who has actually been around a while and has experience and perspective. Raleigh wants to emphasize therefore that this sort of thing has been said before, so he cites the example of Yvon Chouinard's polemic "Coonyard Mouths Off" first published in Ascent in 1972 and very quickly anthologized in Games Climbers Play, describing it as "Chouinard ...celebrating how pure climbing used to be, but
lamenting how the “way of life” had become so popular that it had been
corrupted into a simple “recreational pastime.” Raleigh then goes on to compare such arguments to prophets claiming the world will end on such-and-such a date and that such dates are always pushed back and nothing ever happens and never will to justify the alarmist rhetoric. So it's going to be alright.
I'm kind of nodding my head and then, OMG, this: "Because we have giant telescopes all over the world that track
meteorites, and if any come within a million miles of Earth we will
launch a nuclear attack and blow them all to gravel. And because
climbing doesn’t have a soul, people do." OK I will accept the second premise about souls, though I have my doubts about some public figures out there. Let's check that again. Giant telescopes? Nuclear attacks on meteorites? Seriously? Just guessing here, but imminent doom from meteorites is not the most pressing issue here on planet Terra. In fact most of the pressing issues have to do with factors linked either with capitalism or militarism, eminently human-caused factors.
OK, getting back to it. Raleigh admits that there are more climbers than 40 years. I think we can all admit that. Then another baffling analogy pokes its nose in the tent. "...Simply having larger numbers won’t tear the heart out of climbing any
more than having more Christians or more Muslims is going to corrupt
either group’s religious beliefs." Even a cursory reading of world religious history reveals that precisely this issue has been at the core of many important debates and arguments about purpose and meaning within a faith. The issue is never just how many believers but what kind of believers they are or what they will actually practice. And to make the analogy with climbing a bit closer, how many Christians can we fit in a given physical church? Because like it or not, climbing is not all in the mind or soul; it is a practice that happens in a finite physical world, that draws upon resources that are fragile and not easily restored. We can't keep building new cathedrals or Cathedral Ledges ad infinitum. So yes, more climbers have an impact and not just on the "experience" but on living things, ecosystems, and a natural order that we haven't much of a clue about and may well not be around by the time we figure this simple truth out.
Wrapping up and pressing the history point further, Raleigh argues, "The concept that sponsored climbers or sponsored climbs have sold out
could have merit, but I have never seen any proof, and most if not all
true steps forward have been taken by sponsored climbers." The first example of a "true step forward" cited, unhappily enough, is the first ascent of Everest "a
trip partly sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society and Rolex." I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the Everest ascent was not a true step forward but more of a dead-end, say, compared to Fritz Wiessner's near-miss on K2 in 1939, an expedition that did not have Rolex on board. In fact I would argue that virtually every real step forward in climbing has already been made by amateurs and that today's professionals are fated forever to follow in their footsteps. John Gill is a classic example but the list is much longer than that. All the important big walls of the late 50s, 60s and 70s in Yosemite were done by amateurs. Hard free climbing? Ray Jardine, et al. were all basically self-funded. Everest by fair means is pretty cool but I think most climbers look for inspiration, including Messner himself, to the early days of alpinism and figures such as Paul Preuss, Willo Welzenbach, and Hermann Buhl.
Now I want to finish up, 'cause I don't get paid to write this stuff, let's get back to Yvon Chouinard and a bit of logic. Either he was just wrong (unlikely), he was right and things are better now (very unlikely) or he was right and things have only gotten worse (likely). When he wrote "Coonyard," he was making a point that I want to develop in another essay, that climbers are simply not climbing the same things anymore. At a distance everything looks kind of the same and yes the climbers who are "dirtbagging out of vans and bathing in a river and finger-brushing their teeth are still doing that." But something real has changed and been lost and any serious student of the past eras of climbing should acknowledge this. The danger is not from a spectacular assault from without (meteorites!)but a steady hollowing out from within, an emptiness papered over by groupthink, marketing and media spectacles. A serious critique of the present direction is not an "easy, empty cliche" as one writer puts it but a recognition of the real impacts of ideas appetites, and emotions on the social and natural environment. Mindless cheerleading ("psyched!") and an emphasis on "extreme fun" changes or diminishes none of these impacts in the least. We may get the chance to mature enough as a species to recognize it. Or we may not.