Semi-Rad: The Joy of Sloproping

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Brendan Leonard
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Earl Wiggins leads the first ascent of Luxury Liner, later known as Supercrack, Utah, 1976. Photo courtesy of Mike Gardiner/Ed Webster collection

I was lucky enough to see the premiere of Chris Alstrin’s 2008 film Luxury Liner: The First Ascent of Supercrackat Neptune Mountaineering, where three of the four members of the first ascent party were present: Ed Webster, Stewart Green, and Bryan Becker. Only missing was the late Earl Wiggins, who led (on all passive gear, mind you) the visionary climb that opened Indian Creek as a world-class destination.

After the film, when Webster, Green, Becker, and filmmaker Alstrin took questions, Becker mentioned that he hardly ever led anything at Indian Creek anymore. I remember him saying something like, “I just walk around asking, ‘Can I get a toprope?’” to much laughter from the audience.

Bryan Becker is no slouch—although he didn’t lead the first ascent of Supercrack (5.10), he put up tons of ballsy routes in his career: the FA of The Hallucinogen Wall (5.10 A3+ R) in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the FA of the Denali Diamond (M7) on North America’s highest peak, and the first solo of The Dragon  (VI 5.9 A4) in the Black Canyon, to name a few. Basically he’s done more hard, scary climbing than most of us will ever have nightmares of. But nowadays, he likes a good toprope at the Creek and was more than happy to announce it to a room full of climbers. Which I thought was great, because I have a bit of a complex about toproping.

I sometimes tell myself that if I didn’t lead a pitch, I didn’t really climb it. Where this idea comes from, I’m not sure. I rarely toprope sport climbs, preferring to pull the rope and at least lead the route with hung draws (which is still psychologically easier than hanging the draws myself, I think). I have returned to multi-pitch routes that I’ve previously done, in order to lead pitches two and four, which I followed the first time around. Because in the back of my mind is a little voice saying, “Come on. Do you really think you could have led that pitch?” And I give in to that voice.

Should you feel guilty about toproping, about working the moves of a route until you have it dialed and are confident to lead it—or just pushing yourself on a climb a couple grades above your current leading limit? Of course not. Perhaps some of us feel bad about toproping because some of us know we toprope badly.

I will be the first to admit that I climb sloppily when I have a toprope guaranteeing my safety from above. Do you? I will try that desperate heel hook, or huck out of control for a hold above what would be a nasty ledge fall on lead, or just flat-out make dumb moves that would have bad consequences were I on the sharp end. Why not? It takes the edge off, right? Might as well try some shit. Usually I will announce in the first 20 feet of a climb, to myself or my belayer: “Man, toproping is awesome.”

Then I give in to all my bad habits. Perhaps this technique should be called “sloproping.” Hell, we have redpointing, pinkpointing, brownpointing, why not sloproping? Let me send an email to the folks at 8a.nu.

If you take it seriously, it’s toproping. If you don’t, it’s sloproping. If you feel guilty while you’re doing it, you’re probably sloproping, and you might ask yourself: Is this really doing me any good? Of course, you also might not ask yourself that, and then try an all-points-off dyno to that jug way up there.

Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor for ClimbingHis first book, The New American Road Trip Mixtape, is available at semi-rad.com.