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.

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