Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"The Ethics of Development" or Is the FA dead?

Recently there was a post on B3 Bouldering titled The Ethics of Development which discussed the recent (re)discovery of a bouldering area near the summit of Mount Evans. Jon Glassberg and others have been climbing there and in a manner similar to what happened at, well just about every Colorado alpine bouldering area (re)discovered in the past 10 years, found some new problems, gave the place a new name, made some video, etc. and gave bored climbers in the Boulder area something "new" to discuss. A tweak on this iteration is that Jon Glassberg and Jordan Shipman are making a little film about this area and included a series of interviews with local climbers (myself included) about the issue of secret areas and whether they should be shared with a larger community.

Now in case my segment winds up on the cutting room floor, I would summarize my remarks as follows; that primarily "developers" should respect the natural (especially biological) community above everything else, that they should respect the rules in place on any public land, and that they should stay away from private land unless they can negotiate with a landowner for access. The rest of the petty drama, discussed at excruciating length in Jamie's post, was in my view mostly meaningless chatter. And recently another episode that happened recently underlines this even more.

Monique Forestier, an Australian climber was working on what looks like an excellent crack climb (she writes about it on her blog) when she was beaten to the first ascent by another climber Zac Vertrees, something she was upset enough to complain about on her blog. Apparently because she had invested time in cleaning the crack and there was even a piton at the base with a tag (!) to mark, well what, exactly? Apparently it's regarded in Australia as customary to tag a natural crack line because I have never heard of such a thing in the US or anywhere else. While it may be courteous to respect another climber's efforts on a route, especially if she found the line herself and bolted it, that doesn't appear to be the case here, and I am not sure that cleaning a crack is quite the same.

I am sure there is more back story to this and whether that will emerge in due course is neither here nor there. What is interesting to me is the possibility that really, we need to have a discussion about first ascents and whether they matter anymore. I am more and more convinced they do not. At the highest levels of the sport, it seems clear that it is actually a safer bet for publicity purposes to do a fast repeat of a known quantity than a drawn-out siege of a new problem or route since the former is seen as measurable and the latter could be anything. Then there is the problematic notion of the first ascent with the arrival of sport climbing where installing a route for sure took a lot of work and money but in the end did it really matter who redpointed it first?

I think it is abundantly obvious that for most rock formations out there, some way exists to climb them, especially if you install bolts. If it's a crack it is going to go free, if there are holds of any kind, they will be connected. We really have reached that point in climbing where, if an FA is going to mean anything, there will have to be rules attached to sort out who "deserves" to do it, rules such as ground-up free, no bolts, etc, that we jettisoned back in the late 1980s and for good reason.

Maybe it is time to abandon not just the rules but the entire idea of the first ascent as an obsolete holdover when climbing emerged from mountaineering's own imperialist origins. Instead can we focus on making climbing areas sustainable and respectful of the natural environment and surrounding ecosystem? That was a remarkably absent topic in the B3 post, making it seem as though all that mattered in "developing" an area was that all the names got spelled right. Climbing is not about possession anymore. We need to liberate ourselves from this notion and figure out new ways of giving credit where credit is due. The two recent debates I mentioned above indicate that time may be far off in the future.


Anonymous said...

I agree, no one cares who did the FA except the guy that did the FA.

Jordan Shipman said...

I just wanted to say that while the majority of your interview will be cut down for time the points you make in this post and your interview will not be lost on the cutting room floor.

Enjoyed the post, Peter! :)

Derek said...

Nice thoughts Peter. What does being first mean if you are the only one running around the track?
I am not sure of what it is like in the states, but in OZ they are particularly mad about who owns projects, holding on to them for years and passing them from one person to another. I have long thought that the notion of owning projects has a negative impact on the development and progression of the climbing community. Are there any communities in the states that have an 'open project' attitude? In bouldering or in sport climbing?
I have never had closed projects and have gone to considerable effort to get others psyched to try my projects and bolts/clean more. This has always been a positive experience for me.
Oh and burning off Zac to a first ascent is actually and achievement worth remembering. I suggest Monique should go and start working one of his many projects.

Lee Cujes said...

It takes WAY more effort to clean a 60m crack in the Blue Mountains than it does to bolt a 60m sport route in the Blue Mountains. Days more effort. "But you can't have a trad project!" Come on. At the end of the day, it's about respect. The route was being actively worked on. There's miles more untouched cliffline in the area. Go and climb something else and have a bit of respect for another member of your community.

Peter Beal said...

My experience has been that doing an FA on a natural line is a matter of getting it done ASAP or watch it get taken. As I said, maybe in Australia or other local communities, there is a consensus that a particular climber working on a particular route "deserves" it. More typical, especially if a certain unspoken number of tries/days have gone by, is that the "FA" goes to the strongest climber in the vicinity. If it's a crack climb, regardless of cleaning time, I would either do it quick or talk to other contenders and set a deadline. Personally I would like to get rid of the mindset that FAs are really that special unless they truly contribute something important to the climbing world. I'm not saying people shouldn't try new routes but that they should really think whether it's worth it, especially in terms of environmental destruction and degradation.

Eman said...

I've done a lot of FA, also bolted plenty of lines that are or were open project from day one. I prefer to just have routes to climb.

Like someone already stated, cleaning a crack route takes a lot more effort than cleaning a bolted face climb in most areas. I've been lucky in the fact that other climbers seem to ask before jumping on routes I've cleaned or bolted, they always get a yes, but I appreciate being asked.

In this case, I have to wonder, were these guys just out to grab a first ascent without putting in the work. The route was cleaned by someone else and marked using a local system as not finished. They could easily have climbed the route and kept the ascent to themselves, noone would have ever known, instead, they did the FA and told the world.

Like most thing in climbing, FAs are not black and white, they are many shades of grey in between.

Anonymous said...

Seeing all the arguing going on amongst professional and semi-professionals in the climbing industry has made me more and more happy that when I make a first ascent (or second or thousandth ascent), my reward is not augmented by telling anyone else about it.

It seems that there is a growing gap between the culture of the hard-core folks and all of the people I ever climb with (i.e. folks with day jobs). All this stuff about naming and prestige just isn't important to the vast majority of climbers out there. Perhaps the pros will take note of this sometime?

Thanks for the article.

charleslpayne.com said...

I agree! The concept of an FA is outdated. Preparing a route/ boulder properly to be enjoyed by the masses is more responsible than tagging it or tearing through it for the next.

Playing devil's advocate, maybe someone should start a website FA.nu to keep track of the glamour associated with FAs as the sport gets more and more crowded.

Eman said...


Let's say I spend my three day weekend cleaning, prepping, and bolting a route, but on day three I have to leave to go back to work. (I tag the route knowing I will be back my next day off)

The following weekend, on Saturday my next day off, I show up and several people have already climbed the route.

Isn't it rude of those climbers to have ignored my simple request to wait. Especially if they are other routes around.

Again, I don't see this as a black and white issue. In most cases, I could care less if someone climbs the route before me, but I also like knowing that climbers can respect each other enough to wait if the person who did the cleaning and bolting ask for it.

Wish I could post a photo of what cleaning looks like around here. With that said, on several occasions, I cleaned, bolted, and prep a route only to hand over the QD before I even try it.


Anonymous said...

One thing to bear in mind is that the FA experience is rather different in different realms of the sport. In bouldering and in sport climbing, the FA is really about imagination and realizing that something is doable. When climbing a problem or route for a second or subsequent time there is never that sense that it might not be doable. As such, the FA to me does seem significantly different. For more adventurous, committing forms of climbing, the difference is substantially greater. There is an increase in the level of risk, adventure and commitment in part due to the fact that you don't know how things are going to work out in terms of difficulty, protection, rock quality or where exactly you are going. I think the difference in the experience makes FAing such routes noteworthy in the same way that solo ascents are somewhat noteworthy.
Further, I would argue that there is a societal benefit to promoting the first ascentionist- we all benefit from the hard work that people do when placing bolts where necessary and cleaning routes.
Lastly, I think many people's climbing experience is greatly enhanced by a sense of history, even in Bouldering. Would the Mandala be as classic as it is without its FA history? Are Fred Nicole's problems as noteworthy when seperated from his legacy? Are the Naked Edge and Jules Verne really that good, or does the history of the first ascent play a part in the experience we have climbing these routes?

Macciza said...

I need to set a few things straight here.
First, the line in question was an Open Project widely advertised by a pre-emininent new-router who originally cleaned the crack and declared the line 'climbable after a brush'. It was offered up as a competition. Australia has a rich history of competitive climbing for FA's.
Also Zac and I have climbed on 'dirty' rock on FA's quite often, how clean is clean? How dirty is 'climbable after a brush'? There is no 'standard' for cleaning Blueies cracks - some are quite climbable straight-up, some you only need to clear out enough for some gear etc Sometimes it is a bastard, I have done it many times myself often groundup.
Or general approach is to go groundup which is what we did here, and would have done anyway.
There are many other factors involved in this ascent being made that have not been mentioned and do not need to be gone into. Zac has given a hell of lot to climbing in new routes, both trad, sport and bouldering; development of areas etc and continues to do so.
What we did WAS an ethically OK thing to do . . .

Peter Beal said...

Thanks for the last comment. I started climbing in New Hampshire where competitive races for new routes were memorialized in names such as "The British are Coming"! I was very surprised to see the original post and wondered what the back story was.

Anonymous said...

Sorry... the notion that a climb is off limits because it is being worked by a professional climber who doesn't have time to do it today because she's off on a climbing trip to another part of the world for several months...

just doesn't fly.

I have the opposite problem. Twice in the last couple years I've gone ground up on some non sprayworthy dirty cracks looking for an FA only to get a pitch up and find rusty pins. Those bastards from the 70s were the real snakes!!