Tuesday, January 22, 2013

About That UIAA Policy Position Paper

Just as I was casting about for something interesting to write about, Rock and Ice came up with the goods in the form of an editorial denouncing a "bizzare (sic) indictment of sport climbing." Duane Raleigh inveighed against this newly released document (available here in PDF) as reading like "a room of sweaty men drafting legislation for women's reproduction rights." I was struck by the vehemence of the commentary (as well as some feedback I got on Facebook) so I thought I would read the document more closely and see if it justified the attack. I think that in the end, close readers of the paper will be reassured that this is not an indictment of sport climbing but instead a reasoned and thoughtful call to consider the consequences of that approach and a useful prompt to reconsider the reasons that we climb.

In essence the UIAA is revisiting the issue that it had addressed in 2000 in a paper entitled "To Bolt or Not To Be." This document looked in large part at the emerging phenomenon of "plaisir" routes, essentially long multi-pitch sport routes with reliable fixed protection on alpine limestone faces as well as rebolting old classics with improved protection. The objections raised about this style of climbing have never been fully resolved, particularly as climbing has increased in popularity and a more democratic attitude about access to routes has emerged. As Jürg von Känel noted, climbers seem to vote with their feet in this regard, creating an apparent justification for this style of route. This of course comes up against other climbing values such as self-reliance and leaving the cliff as you found it and not altering rock to suit climbers. This conflict undermines one of the later points in the R&I piece, that "You shouldn't apply sport climbing tactics to an alpine climb, and you shouldn't apply alpine standards to sport climbs." Yet this is exactly what has happened in a number of areas in Europe to a degree rarely seen in this country.

Anyway, the UIAA committee preparing this document is concerned that the balance is tipping in favor of pre-protected climbs, stating (but sadly without documentation) that in Hungary, for example, "all available rock for climbing has been drilled and bolted to make sport climbs." Now I agree that this is unlikely but there is little question that Europe has embraced a bolting ethic so widespread as to make traditionally protected rock-climbing something of a curiosity, found in relatively few areas, again something that is not so much the case in the US. So in essence the UIAA is asking local federations to seriously consider the ways in which they can maintain and promote the values of ground-up traditional climbing.

This statement by Duane Raleigh made me wonder a bit what the angle was.

 "I was quickly taken aback, however, by the UIAA's opening statement which included, 'Despite earlier attempts by the UIAA to offer guidance on fixed equipment and the conservation of natural rock, bolts continue to be placed in areas where many climbers wish they were not.' Once again, sport climbers had been singled out as vandals."

My first question was, who else would place the bolts? The second was, where did the UIAA call anyone vandals? A simple statement of fact was made about disagreement regarding bolt placement. Nowhere is it implicit or explicit that climbers have a God-given right to place bolts wherever they like and it makes sense that some climbers might disagree. I did find it curious that in claiming the UIAA was ignoring the voices of younger climbers, Raleigh cited only climbers known as sport climbers. Names such as Tommy Caldwell, David Lama, Hayden Kennedy or Sonnie Trotter come to mind as perhaps more representative of all-around climbers whose published comments on these issues seem to mirror the UIAA position.

One tactic to discredit an argument is to dispute definitions, in this case that of traditional climbing which the UIAA doc describes as climbing in which "the leader places all the equipment necessary to prevent a dangerous fall. This equipment is then removed by subsequent members of the party."

Now it's true that bolts are commonplace in Dresden or that the Bachar-Yerian is mostly "protected" by bolts. Does this invalidate the point? Hardly. In both instances, the placing of the bolts is/was tightly regulated and would hardly compare with the average sport route here in the US where spacing of 4-6 feet is typical. It is worth pointing out that the "tradition" in many parts of the Alps was to leave pitons in place, a tradition that only began to change with American and English influence and the adoption of clean climbing technology. But the fact that Dresden has a tradition of bolts hardly justifies bolting everything else. Is the argument that traditional climbing is not definable? I think it's not that hard to put some parameters on the practice and work from there.

The next paragraph contains quotes that seem to be taken out of context. Here's the full text from the UIAA:

"Climbing thrives on diversity. It is crucial that a whole range of climbing styles are allowed to flourish and co-exist, so more than just one option is available. Climbers can choose between different styles depending on their tastes, moods, and life circumstances. Parents of young children or the elderly may have good reason to prefer sport climbing. Circumstances change, and having a variety of climbing styles to choose between makes climbing stronger. There are those who slot in a few hours climbing at the local indoor climbing wall or easily accessible crag between work and home, or at weekends between other sporting and leisure activities. Such climbers may have little knowledge of the traditions of climbing and its development nor of the debate taking place between sport and ‘trad’.
At the other end of the spectrum there are those who organise their whole life around climbing -- domestically, socially and in their choice of job. These climbers care passionately about the activity’s ethical direction since they eat, sleep and drink climbing."

There is nothing in here to suggest that only the elderly or parents of young children sport climb though the truth is, it works a lot better for many in this situation than traditional climbing. Nor does it say that only traditional climbers organize their lives around climbing. Instead, it argues that the UIAA paper represents the values of all climbers "who value the preservation of rock for adventure climbing– and whose voices are often not heard or articulated." I tend to agree and like to think that there are very, very few climbers who would argue that all rock should be bolted regardless of opportunities for natural protection.

I have certainly placed a few bolts. I have also had a few chopped by ethical purists. I have also done scary trad FAs. So I think I know all the sides of the argument pretty well. In short, I think the UIAA is doing a responsible thing by giving an official voice to a serious concern, that of whether the climbing experience is being homogenized by the widespread use of fixed protection, especially in alpine locales, something that is actually happening right now in Europe.

Here are some links to give an idea of the debate and the nature of the terrain.




To conclude, far from being an indictment of sport climbing, the UIAA statement encourages a more self-reflective awareness of the impacts of fixed anchors and their uneasy relationship with a climbing ethic of individual responsibility and heightened environmental awareness. While traditional climbing is hardly immune to charges of serious environmental impact, the UIAA is right to be concerned about the encroachment of fixed anchors across all climbing sectors. I very much respect Duane's work at R&I and think a good debate over these issues is always fruitful, especially given the rapid rate of change in the climbing world today.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Security Risk: What Does Safety Really Mean?

I have been reading more and more reports recently of experienced climbers winding up seriously hurt or killed because of basic mistakes they made while sport or gym climbing. First up was the Scottish tradmaster extraordinaire Dave MacLeod who was lowered off the end of his rope on a 5.11 slab that he had bolted earlier. His injuries were serious enough to warrant surgery and a lengthy rehab process. Then there was climbing legend John Long who decked from 30 feet up at a local gym on account of an unfinished knot. Both are not only serious experienced climbers, but they are authors of classic instructional texts on the sport. Saddest of the most recent reports was the death of a Swiss climber whose rope was cut due to an abraded/sharpened carabiner edge. Again the victim was a experienced and safe climber and also an author, that of the guide to the Ratikon, a place known for its heads-up serious climbing.

Now what all three of this incidents had in common was a failure of the one item in climbing that cannot fail, namely the rope. MacLeod's accident was caused by a short and under-attended rope on a long lower-off. A similar serious accident occurred a while back in Boulder Canyon to a friend of mine. Long's knot should have been completed but apparently wasn't. I have actually witnessed someone's knot come undone about 50 feet at Shelf Road (he clipped into a bolt, but it was close) and the aftermath of an accident on Primeval when a climber fell at the crux around 20 feet up and the knot didn't hold. In the case of the Swiss climber, it would have been better had the bolt or carabiner failed and broken.

What lessons can be drawn from this recent collection of incidents? First, we should remember that sport climbing is a lot closer to rappelling in that climbers must rely on their gear to work correctly at all times. Trad climbing is much less gear dependent in that falling is not seen as inevitable and lowering off is not necessarily part of the climb. One can trad climb all day and never test anything while even the easiest of sport climbs involves trusting the belayer and protection chain implicitly.

In other words, sport climbing exhibits what I might describe as binary safety. It's either all the way on or it's all the way off. Typically, if you have done something wrong, you will not get a chance to correct it, especially if the system is tested by a fall or lower-off. Trad climbing is more fuzzy and indeterminate with a reasonably protected route offering multiple redundancies and a constant feedback loop regarding exposure to danger. That feedback loop is getting more and more attenuated in sport and gym climbing, especially with auto-belays in rock gyms, which a remarkable number of climbers apparently forget to clip into and wind up stranded on top of a route. Fixed draws also enhance this sense of disengagement with climbing reality as climbers outsource personal responsibility onto someone else they probably don't even know.

What can be done to prevent these kinds of situations? While I tend to agree that a bowline as a tie-in is not the best practice, using figure-8s will not fix the problem alone. Technology cannot be relied on here. There is barely any technology involved in sport climbing to begin with. The solution instead begins with reactivating the feedback loop mentioned above in trad climbing, especially in physically verifiable ways. So every time you tie in, you pull hard on your knot in all directions while inspecting it. Eye contact with the belayer, maybe even a tug on the Gri-gri to confirm it's loaded correctly. Discussion about clipping strategies reawakens a sense of mutual responsibility. Clear communication about taking and lowering is a must. On longer pitches, tie a big knot in the end of the rope. Basically climbers should do things that interrupt the convenience-oriented cruise control "sport" mentality that too easily leads to disaster. A visceral awareness of the risk of the sport needs to be maintained if we want to remain safe climbers.

Andrew Bisharat wrote an excellent analysis of the safety issues linked with fixed draws in the most recent issue of Rock and Ice, making points that I entirely agree with. Laissez-faire crag maintenance is a relic of the past when climbers were few and perhaps more aware of the risks involved in trusting fixed gear. If the decision is made to fully equip a crag, then that comes with real responsibility for the lives of those who follow. Personally I am against fixed draws precisely because they distance climbers from looking after themselves. Bolts are relatively redundant but, as the Swiss incident makes plain, clipping-in points have lethal potential if they fail the wrong way, the way that we don't expect them to.

One of the things that I find so interesting and compelling about climbing is this relationship between mind and technology. There is no question that gear can enable incredible athletic achievements on the rock. And very few enjoy entirely relying on their mental strength in potentially lethal situations. There is, or should be, a balance between the two extremes. When we let technology drive our actions too much, the chances are good that we will soon wind up in the ditch, or worse.

PS: I saw this note about a sport climbing crag in Japan.
"Rules and regulations: Climbers are not allowed to leave quick-draws hanging from the routes overnight. According to the priests in charge of the many shrines on Mount Horai, this would greatly upset the numerous spirits that visits the forest; therefore, all QDs have to be taken down before nightfall. For the same reason, stashing of ropes is frowned upon."

I think the forest spirits have the right idea

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

January First 2013

I really have been putting off writing more than I should, though not because I am not climbing. Of course most of my climbing has been on obscure local rocks, the rusty grains of the "Staff" being convenient to anyone tethered by work and family. That said, I had a great session back in mid-December on a freezing afternoon, finally doing a Pat Ament highball (dating from 1967)north of First Overhang that I have wanted to do for years. After a little bit of recon from the side and installing my Organic Big Pad underneath the problem, I found myself perched on the final crimps at about 20 feet up with no worries, no fear, just a moment of pure climbing. I felt like continuing in the same mode on the other formations and filmed them in the video below. I couldn't be bothered to add a soundtrack so pick your own or just watch in silence, which is what it was like that afternoon.

I find that the best conditions for climbing are often between 35 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit on a cloudy winter day. These are days where few others are out on the mountain and more often than not the session is stopped by a vigorous shower of snow coming down from Green Mountain. Though some may chuckle in disbelief, I have numerous uncontrived or minimally contrived double-digit projects up here and am looking for a break in the weather and an uptick in strength going forward in to spring. After a few weeks of lower intensity climbing, training in earnest begins tomorrow.