"We're lost, but we're making good time." attributed to Yogi Berra
While I was walking up to Chaos Canyon last Sunday at a fairly brisk pace, or at least as fast as three pads would allow me, a different kind of ascent was going on in Yosemite Valley. Alex Honnold and Hans Florine were trying to break the previous speed record for the Nose on El Cap. Which they did, very handily breaking the old record by about 13 minutes. Looking over the useful chronology provided by Planet Mountain, you can see that the record time for climbing the Nose went from about 3:24 in 2000 to 2:23 in 2012 so about it was lowered about an hour in 12 years More interestingly, if you jump to 2002 for a benchmark, you see that the record has been lowered about 25 minutes in 10 years. So by 2002 it is obvious that the kinks have been worked out and now it is down to details and not much else beyond really fast and very dangerous climbing.
OK so where is this going? I am asking because there was a fair amount of celebration of this achievement on the Internet and elsewhere as though some kind of breakthrough has happened. I wonder whether this kind of climbing is pointing to a dead end, that it might undermine both the natural setting of the sport and a more meaningful vision of its purpose. It also points to a reductio ad absurdum in terms of the act of climbing as opposed to an actual race, such as in running.
Let me begin with the last point first. While climbing a difficult route quickly has a certain appeal, there is little doubt that speed has never been an intrinsic quality at the heart of the sport. Solving problems, however long that might take, using the minimum of acceptable means, on the other hand has always been an intrinsic value in the sport. To contrast it with running, for example, racing on a track or a road is the simple pursuit of speed. You can run for fun or fitness but in a race, the goal is clear. Climbing is never initially about speed but about learning particular movements across rock. Speed is secondary, except as it helps to solve a specific problem such as sprinting through the crux of a sport route or getting off a dangerous section of a climb as in alpinism. At what point in the search for speed does climbing simply become running?
Speed ascents seem to mark the final stage of a route's life cycle, an admission that the problems are ironed out once and for all. The difference in contemporary climbing is that now speed ascents are considered to be meaningful problems and achievements in their own right. There certainly are problems to be solved. Logistics, division of pitches, pacing, etc., all play a role but at the heart of the action is something different. It is not just an ascent of the Nose that matters, it is a fast ascent of the Nose. That the Nose can be climbed, even in a day, is a given, just as we assume the Boston Marathon can be successfully run by a physically fit individual. But the route feels secondary to the climbing of it. This seems to me to be a serious problem.
Now let me get back to the first point as to why. First, it promotes a vision of the natural world as mostly a theater for human athletic achievement, asserting that ultimately great places are subordinate to human action and goals. This presses upon the environment fundamentally inimical goals and associated phenomena including film crews, support people, media attention and of course more aspirants and wider audiences all believing that the outdoors is something to be "conquered" in every more perfect displays of mastery.
This leads to the second issue of whether it offers a meaningful vision of climbing. Some might argue that climbing lacks meaning so the question doesn't matter, a nihilistic view I do not comprehend or share. Others might argue that meaning is individual to each climber, a position that has merit but also has problems. Are all possible meanings equal in substance? Can the climbing environment tolerate all the possible visions of meaning out there? Are some kinds of climbing practice ultimately destructive to fundamental aspects of the sport?
Now speed climbing is a complex topic because theoretically it does not damage the rock, as does chipping or other more clearly destructive practices. So does it do any harm? IDoes promoting a style of climbing and a type of competition that is reductive and appeals to the lowest common denominator, by doing something quicker or doing more of something in a given time add anything new or relevant? It is of course superb for media and marketing. There is the rivalry going back over at least a decade between Dean Potter and Hans Florine. There is the sheer danger of what is essentially a paired free-solo. And there is the superb position of the route. It's the "Race for the Nose!" Sender Films caught the action from 2011:
I wonder when the rules are going to be "officially" laid down. Although fixed lines are regarded as bad form, what is to prevent someone rigging the route with fixed gear for grabbing every four feet? At what point does climbing the Nose become a more complicated version of jugging or rappelling the Nose? Is there is a point at which it really doesn't matter? A comparison with the world record in the marathon is apt. It's close to 2 hours but will that ever be broken? Only with some pretty stringent rules in place. Are they going to exist for climbing in the same way?
There is no doubt that speed climbing has a venerable history, both in the Valley and everywhere else that has big features and mostly moderate climbing. But I wonder about the statement that "The only thing better than climbing is more climbing." How about the only thing better than climbing is better climbing, more aware climbing, more thoughtful climbing? Maybe even slower quieter climbing where the achievement is not measurable by a stopwatch and can't be captured on camera?
(An art-historical afternote: There is a famous anecdote about the 16th century painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari who in 1546 showed Michelangelo an extensive fresco in Rome that was painted by Vasari and his assistants in just 100 days. Michelangelo's only comment was "Si vede" or "It shows." Vasari knew of course that Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling took four years of solitary labor and thought to create something of true originality and power.)
Update! please read this excellent post on the same topic: http://zoomloco.wordpress.com/2012/06/17/dear-media-mountains-are-not-stadiums-even-for-speed-climbers-50/