Friday, January 9, 2015

What is Really Not Being Said about the Dawn Wall Free Ascent

The long dreary winter here in Colorado is teasing climbers with occasional glimpses of sun that give hope to dreams of finishing projects before plunging them back into the grim reality of iced over roads and snowed in crags and boulders. It's so bad out there that America's rockclimbing sweetheart,Sasha DiGiulian, is going to the Ouray Ice Festival!

It's hardly surprising therefore that the goings on of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on El Capitan have garnered so much attention in the climbing press. Besides Ashima doing the Swarm (the most famously slash-graded problem in the country) literally nothing is going on (except sends of Lethal Design, photos of which are now banned on Instagram, along with those of Scare Tactics). Basically if you are not on a huge overhanging south-facing granite wall, you aren't rock climbing in North America.

But it's not only breathless up-to-the-minute updates from Andrew Bisharat at Evening Sends on Facebook. In the past two weeks (and we are at something like day 14--I've lost track) virtually every major major news outlet has weighed in on this climb. Naturally the lack of familiarity with the practices of big-wall free climbing has led to some amusing (to climbers anyway) journalistic faux pas, the choicest of which have been compiled by the good folks over at DPM. And then then there are the comments from the readers of the New York Times, who are by far the most polite of the major news outlets. A surprising number of these readers find the Dawn Wall attempt ludicrous, incomprehensible or contemptible, reactions which should give pause to those dedicated to expanding the sport. Brendan Leonard over at Adventure Journal has collected some of these to save time for any of you who want to understand how the American public looks at cutting edge (literally--the climb depends on sawtoothed granite edges for its existence) free climbing. For proof of the problem with skin, one need only consult Tommy's Instagram page where we learn, "I have resorted to setting my alarm to wake myself up every four hours to reapply @climbonproducts." This is what we call media saturation, I believe.

Besides the numerous chronicles of the duo's progress including Tom Evans's awesome El Cap Report, there have been the "what does it all mean" pieces, including this one, perhaps most prominently a piece over at a blog called Fringe's Folly written by Chris Kalman. This essay diplomatically brings up the possibility that somewhere, somehow, that perennially cited and honored (mostly in the breach) quality known as "adventure" may have gone missing. For daring to mention this, Kalman was savaged in various online fora including mountain project. I thought Kalman was being too polite in his arguments and told him so but lo and behold, Freddie Wilkinson referenced his post in the New York Times op-ed section. Why the Gray Lady opts to probe the world of climbing so frequently is a mystery that someone must tackle at some point but I digress...

Anyway the most popular response was framed in roughly this fashion, "It's really hard and what do you know anyway. And Tommy and Kevin are really cool." Which is true. But that's not really an answer and it's especially not an answer because the Dawn Wall has long been the locus of discussion, brutal at times, as to what the point of climbing is. It's really interesting to see how the history behind this climb has melted away because in 1970, Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell's 27-day epic first ascent gripped both the general public and the climbing world alike. The aftermath of the ascent and the afterlife of the route forms one of the most interesting chapters in the overall story of climbing in Yosemite and indeed world climbing.

Climbers today are unused to the idea that someone would be watching over your shoulder to make sure you climbed something correctly, that in essence you had to "deserve" to get the first ascent of a route. Climbing was seen in very moral terms in the Yosemite of the 1960s, an ethic that ultimately borrowed much of its ideas from British practices, summarized by the statement, "The sort of man who would drive a piton into English rock would shoot a fox." The object of scorn and derision was not the piton, which was pretty much essential to protect the Valley's many cracks, but the bolt. Ironically the insistence on removing pitons left countless scars in the rock, most famously on Serenity Crack's first pitch. Bolts were a symbol of weakness, of not having "the right stuff" and the high point of this attitude was the Salathe Wall, a circuitous route left of Harding's sieged  100+ bolt masterpiece, The Nose. The Salathe was climbed with only 13 bolts and had a number of serious free climbing sections, making it emblematic of the approach favored by Royal Robbins, the leader of the first ascent team.

Over the course of the 60s, there was a rivalry of sorts between Robbins and Harding. Robbins' advocacy of so-called "purist" methods caused Harding to call him and his followers the "Valley Christians." This difference of opinion reached its climax when Robbins decided that Harding's route to the right of the Nose, now called the Dawn Wall, had too many bolts and needed to be erased. As it turned out Robbins found himself acknowledging the difficulty and quality of the line and stopped chopping bolts very early in  the route. The initial action however was enough to raise a firestorm of controversy, a controversy that saw its final gasp of breath in the rappel-bolting wars of the 1980s. Incidentally both Robbins and Harding no longer climbed seriously in the Valley after that. For many, the Dawn Wall episode was the closing of the so-called Golden Age of Yosemite climbing.

Now we are in a very different place, style-wise, where aid climbing is seen as no longer cutting-edge, indeed not even as actual climbing by many climbers. The flanks of El Cap are criss-crossed by multiple lines, some free, many still requiring aid. The blank on the map no longer exists as far as El Cap is concerned and if the blank on the map is gone for El Cap then basically it's over for climbing in North America. And this, in my view, is the reason for the media frenzy, that we are watching the extinction of an old frontier in climbing in real time. This is the first thing nobody is really saying about the Dawn Wall free ascent. People said this about the first Dawn Wall ascent and they were right.

There will be other free climbs on El Cap, especially once the obsolete insistence on not adding bolts to old aid routes passes away, as it will. Perhaps there will be harder free climbs on El Cap, especially on the right side where the steepest and most featured rock exists. But there will never be another blank canvas like the Dawn Wall, nor another meeting of climber and climb quite like this matchup. So our celebration of this extraordinary achievement is tempered by the knowledge that for better or worse it's the end of an era of exploration that began in earnest with the post-war achievements of climbs such as the Lost Arrow Chimney.

That is the important adventure in the end, not knowing what is next in the bigger picture. What happens when we are done scouring cliffs for difficulty? It will take some serious thought to get past the current mindset that climbers are athletes, that difficulty is an objective reality that can be measured and compared and that exploration and first ascents and the heroic mode of climbing achievement actually matter, as all these ideas are becoming obsolete and washing away beneath our feet like sand on the edge of the shoreline.

The confusion of the average American news reader is forgivable because honestly, and this is the other thing nobody is really saying, climbers don't really know what they are doing right now or why. As climbers we are pushing ourselves into an unknown future where the complexities and uncertainties faced by Tommy Caldwell in 2015 will seem as quaint and out of touch as using actual stove legs for pitons on the Nose or the idea of chopping a bolt ladder because there were "too many" bolts. Ashima's effortless dispatching of a reachy and powerful V13 (or V14, depends on who you ask!) points to the dubious validity of what a really hard climb actually consists of these days. Adam Ondra's 100+ 9a or harder ascents, most done in a matter of tries, undermines any notion that we really understand what hard free climbing consists of.

On the Dawn Wall, as on most of El Cap, we are climbing over ghosts and relics of a bygone age, tiptoeing past the presence of those who came before, a striking number of whom are dead or no longer climbing at all. We share the rock with this past but it's time we also recognize that the present has a claim on this place. The old definitions of adventure may yet apply but in ways that we have yet to recognize. As I have written elsewhere, the temptation to mythologize and idolize the past is especially strong in climbing. The Dawn Wall reminds us that a new era is always just around the corner.


Phil Powers said...

I like this piece Peter. With regard to your New York Times question, I think this is all so thoroughly reported there simply because it is interesting. But there could be a little to the fact that its publisher is an avid climber himself.

Chris Kalman said...

Awesome article, Peter. A very interesting read. Thanks for extending the debate, and taking it to the next level.

Neal said...

Thanks for writing a great piece. Fantastic and I'll be linking on my own site. Too many good ideas/thoughts to choose from. One to ponder for a while....

Rob Dillon said...

"The blank on the map no longer exists as far as El Cap is concerned and if the blank on the map is gone for El Cap then basically it's over for climbing in North America."

Thank you Mr. Turner. What do we have after the towering colossus of the heroic model is gone? A bunch of genetically gifted and scientifically trained monkeys pulling harder than anyone thought possible. Fewer bolt wars perhaps. The further segmenting of our pastime into 'athletic' and 'adventure' models, with continued overlap out there in the greater ranges with hard free climbing going on in places like Cerro Torre and the Trangos. Less rugged individualism, more Euro-sophistication, a shrugging acceptance of different strokes. Great consternation over at the Taco.

As these mutants pull ever farther away from the mean in their ability, aspirations and achievements, it's worth considering whether their exploits will continue to hold meaning for the rest of us. I think they will. Enough of our aspiring essence is shared, even as our abilities grow ever apart.

Man vs. nature, man vs. self. Are these ever going to go away? I don't really see it.

If climbing no longer holds anything of the heroic in it- if it's basically tennis- then we don't get to think of ourselves as heroes. Perhaps this is fair, perhaps accurate, but a teensy bit sad as well. The Walter Mitty in all of us needs these illusions just to keep chugging sometimes.

And as far as the NYT interest goes? They've been up there a long time. People can wrap their heads around that fact, more easily than the subtle distinctions between freehanding and rope-aided climbing.

Micah Bryan Humphrey said...

"The confusion of the average American news reader is forgivable because honestly, and this is the other thing nobody is really saying, climbers don't really know what they are doing right now or why."

Which leaves a door wide open for those who do.

I know Chris and I enjoyed his post and admire him for not only his climbing style and ethic but also because he was able to question his role models during the pinnacle of one of the most difficult and defning moments for them. That takes a lot of sincerity and love.
It did catalyze some thought about the subject as well. Nothing stays the same and all of the pieces written about the dawn wall or any other ‘breakthrough’ serve to highlight our credulity surrounding this point.
Adventure is a process like evolution, it does not vet its participants, it simply happens to them mostly without their permission. This could explain a lot of the frustration surrounding this particular instance, where it seems as if there is a lack of this process being allowed to just ‘happen’. But quantifying effort and disseminating it through a worldwide hub is nothing new to us; especially in this day and age where our mental neuroses struggle to maintain control over every situation by quantifying the subjective, the ubiquitous, the slippery unyielding undefinable spirit of…’us’(or climbing, or cycling, or art, or whatever it hungers for next).
My point (if I have one) is a bit muddled, but I would like to ask this:

Do we know enough about ourselves as a climbing community to value judge what is going on right now in terms of the dawn wall and the mechanisms behind its publicity?

Eric Aldrich said...

Rumors on the Death of Climbing are exaggerated.
Us climbers all get to be prigs whenever the hoi polloi reveal their lack of knowledge regarding our arcane activity, or debate endlessly the End of Climbing whenever a Last Great Problem is checked off (never mind when often that Problem was not even known to exist until someone like Warren Harding or Tommy Caldwell created it). Further, we act disgusted at the mysterious media attention occasionally given over to any climbing activity.
First, get over yourselves - most of you would love to be in Tommy and Kevin's Sportivas right now, be honest. You just did not have the dream, the vision, the tenacity, dedication, blind fanatical obsessive focus, or even the raw skill set, to do what they just did so admit you're envious and skulk back into the obscure shadows where climbers usually dwell.
In seriousness for a moment, here, I'd like to mention the rare opportunity in this event which will certainly be overlooked in coverage. The takeaway I'd like to see most emphasized is this:
The honor system is still paramount - there are few witnesses, and in the dark, by headlamp, 2,000 feet off the ground, when day after day the blood and pain make it all
a preposterous folly, you're only one fudged move away from media glory and a quick way out of this self-imposed torture. These two mere humans have clearly decided, that whatever else occurs, they will do it fairly, by the means they chose for themselves, not by any external set of arbitrary measures, but only their own. Personal accountability. They call their own penalties, with no line chains, instant replay or referees to appease. All the messy particulars about extra ropes, cameras, support teams, etc. recede into the background noise against this constant.
There is a humble magnificence in this, which transcends the Elway politics of popular focus. "I don't care what you think of me, or my inconsequential project, but this was my choice and I will subsume my life to it, without compromise". No strategic balancing acts, no debating poll results or short and long-term paybacks. No posturing or prevaricating or trash talking or self-aggrandizing. Zen mind. The rituals of a tea ceremony, carried out on a vertical stone wall.
Maybe this should be the larger lesson for the general non-climbing public as well - whatever you do, at the end of each day your actions have only honored, or dishonored, yourself.

Peter Beal said...

I'm not arguing for the death of climbing but it seems very clear that big wall aid climbing's day is done. The future is highly rehearsed free climbing at a very high standard. As I mentioned in the post, the traditional prohibition on adding bolts to aid pitches is going to fade away sooner or later. It's inevitable.

relentlessclimbing said...

very well written. nice job. I appreciate your view and the verity it offers in our climbing community.