Semi-Rad: There's No Cheating in Climbing, Only Lying

I was two-thirds up the first pitch of The 37th Cog in Melvin's Wheel (5.8) at Lumpy Ridge, Colorado, trying to jam or find hold for my right hand below, above, or next to a small tree growing in the crack. Here... No. Here... Oops. Here? What if I do this? No? Ok, how about this... Nah. Aw, you know what? The hell with it. I grabbed the tree with both hands and pulled myself up and around.

I often pull on trees if they're on a route. Sometimes I yell down to my partner, "Good tree jug right here!" as I pass it. Sometimes I think about it, like I did with the one on Melvin's Wheel. I wonder if using the tree is cheating—it's not part of the rock, and I'm a rock climber. Then I remember the wise words of Tom Hanson, the "mayor" of Castlewood Canyon, a crag less than an hour south of Denver: "There's no cheating in climbing—only lying."

Tom, who put up hundreds of routes in the area, has said at least as many wise and witty things, but that one is my favorite. (He also told me once that he sold Castlewood Canyon guidebooks for $10, or $5 with his signature on them.)

Maybe you don't grab trees on routes you want to free climb—I don't pull on gear or draws—but I didn't choose to climb this route for the inconsequential six feet of climbing next to the tree, which no one talks about. I wanted to see how I would perform on the flared, insecure hand crack on the second pitch, preferably before it started raining. Did I cheat?

Most climbers participate in the sport non-competitively. There is no "winning"; just sending, being safe, and having fun. No real rules, just styles. Pull on gear? You've just switched from free climbing to aid climbing (or alpine rules, or French-freeing). When I'm trying to teach a friend to climb cracks and she asks, "Do I have to hand jam?" I reply, "You don't have to do anything—there are no rules! But I recommend hand jams."

Most of us are climbing for an audience of one: yourself. If you want to pull on draws and fall your way up a sport route, and then tell yourself you redpointed it, the world is going to keep on spinning. You’re only kidding yourself, unless you record it on or put it on your Mountain Project ticklist, which is not illegal— just kind of lame.

It's not cheating; in other words, it's lying. And that's something that sets climbing apart from other sports. Look at cycling and Major League Baseball: I don't ever think about steroids or EPO or blood doping in climbing, and I'd wager that most of the biggest names in climbing don't, either. I read American Alpine Journal reports and think about how big that climber's cojones must be, not whether he used performance-enhancing drugs or pulled on gear to get to the summit. Perhaps there is more honor in sports that use the honor system.

A few years ago, my friend Lee and I were climbing The Owl in Boulder Canyon, an awkward, three-pitch 5.7+ trad climb put up by Layton Kor in 1959. I hadn't led too many trad pitches at that point, and I ended up bailing, lowering off a cam I placed in the first pitch's fist crack. Lee led the first pitch, and I followed it, still struggling with the weird jamming and body position. When I got to the belay, I asked Lee, "How the hell did you get up into that fist crack?"

"Oh, I aided it," he said. I laughed. No cheating, and no lying.


Previous Comments

Sure, I aide and use trees, etc., but for my personal tastes I want to complete it as thought that particular time having a rope made no difference- it was a clean ascend. Give me a little slack so I'm not weighting the rope. I actually climbed it. Now getting to the point I can do that is another matter, so flashes don't occur too often for me.

Noel Francis - 08/14/2013 6:19:55

It's called Fraid climbing when you pull on gear/trees/a buddys leg. I usually make note to my partner when I get into Fraid mode...

Steve - 08/10/2013 2:58:57

Nice! I can finally directly relate to an article in climbing! Man, I'm always on the trees, or um I mean, the trees are on, especially when I'm on the trees.

AB - 08/10/2013 2:55:59

I see someone else thinks that as well :0

micag - 08/10/2013 10:56:19

the way i see it , is if you gan hit it on the way down, you can pull on ot on the way up.

micag - 08/10/2013 10:53:57

Taku - Are you speaking of the west face chimney pitch on NEWS. There's a bit of schwaking on that one. I pull on the beast every time and then take it to sendtown!

Davarius - 08/10/2013 7:29:49

I always get people that comment negatively that if God wanted us to climb he'd of given us hands like Gekkos. I just answer if he didn't want me to climb he wouldn't of put that "Thank God hold" right when I'm about to fall. . . . Or tree, I guess.

Jorge Gonzalez - 08/09/2013 8:25:26

If you can hit it on the way down you can use it on the way up!

timmy d - 08/09/2013 7:24:27

If the tree in question is growing within the crack that I am climbing, it's on.

Arod - 08/09/2013 4:27:22

SO rad to see Tom Hanson's name called out on Climbing! Tom is the man; I remember bouldering with him when I had just started climbing, and thought it was so cool that the guy who wrote the guidebook would climb with some random newbie. It's good, in the 'Wood.

Scott Robertson - 08/09/2013 4:05:28

Your Venn diagram is missing the possibility that you could have all three: Lying, Cheating, and Fun. What about that?

George Bell - 08/09/2013 3:30:48

Word. If you grab the draw, you did not send. It's ok to grab the draw, but don't go spraying that you sent when you clearly just french freed it.

Jon - 08/09/2013 2:51:31

There is an old Fred Beckey route in the Cascades where the crux is climbing through a tree - rated 5.8 at the time I believe....

Taku - 08/09/2013 2:02:18

My climbing is very black or white. It's either "We fuckin' made it! High five!" or there are stuck ropes, lost gear, bail 'biners, and/or slung horns during the bail. I hope one day to climb without the occasional c0 thrown in. Like on the bulgey-off-widthy part of Melvin's right after the 2nd pitch belay. You know, where I tugged on that .3 in the overlap to the right? Oh, and I hate The Owl. I still haven't finished it because I won't commit to that chicken head move. Yet another Kor climb on my "one day I'll finish this" list...

Ryan - 08/09/2013 12:51:54