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Bonus Columns

Questions of Style—The (Only) Honest Guide For Burning Off Your “Friends”

Climbing is supposedly about soul, but nothing beats beating everyone at their own game, and that's why we invented style.

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There’s a reason you can’t hammer via ferrata rungs into your local 5.11 sport project then call it a send. And there’s a reason you can’t bolt a stair lift into the wall like your Grandma uses to reach the bathroom when those rungs prove too much of an endurance challenge. It’s all about style. As the axiom goes, climbing isn’t about getting to the top, it’s about how you get to the top. 

But style is nebulous. What makes one ascent better style than another? By my observations, you can determine style by adding a route’s danger, physical difficulties, and overall scariness and subtracting points for damage to the rock. If you eschew a route’s bolts and climb it on gear, that’s better style. Repeating a route in better style is like marking your territory—you own it now, at least until someone pees on it in even better style.

In case you are curious/confused, I offer the following (mostly) tongue-in-cheek guide as well as tips for how you can up your own style without actually getting better.

Aid Climbing

Style rating: 3/10

Aid climbing can get high style points for being scary and dangerous, as seen here on an early ascent of Excalibur on El Cap, but it is tough to find anyone who will agree because no one wants to go aid climbing. (Photo: Duane Raleigh)

By the style equation, aid climbing should get a lot more respect. Aid climbing can be very scary and very dangerous, just ask anyone that’s led through a pitch of body-weight only placements or stood on a shallow RURP over a ledge. The problem here is that most climbers don’t aid climb and don’t understand it. They assume it’s easy, so the common perception is that it’s poor style. Unfortunately, it’s easier to get a partner for free climbing than it is to partner up for aid so you can change their perception. And to be fair, free climbing is always an improvement over aid, so aid has to be at the bottom of the scale. Maybe just stick to free climbing if you want people to think you’re cool.

Better aid climbing style:

  • Use worse gear. You can turn a casual C1 lead into a death defying C5 pitch if you use talon hooks and hand placed peckers where others would place cams
  • Hauling can add considerable challenge to wall climbing, so fill your haul bag with heavy rocks to ensure it does
  • No one cares about three to five day wall ascents, but everyone loves to talk about Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell’s 27-day ascent of the Wall of Early Morning Light. You could improve on their style by climbing it even slower
  • Aid solo to add the additional challenge of being alone with your thoughts (and having to do all of the hauling)

Free Soloing

Style rating: 5/10

Free soloing occupies an interesting place in climbing style. Many say that it’s the epitome of style. Mentally, sure, free soloing is the pinnacle of difficulty. But free soloists don’t have to deal with rope drag. They don’t have to clip. They don’t have to place gear. They don’t have the weight of quickdraws or a double rack. Physically, free soloing is the easiest form of climbing. As I’ve written before, it brings the mountain down to the soloists level because it lacks the contrived difficulties that make other disciplines so proud, like locking off while you decide which direction your quickdraw should face or cleaning a ball nut on the follow.

Better free solo style:

  • Free soloing is all about managing fear, so the more scared you are, the better your style. Looking down a lot, breathing erratically, and sobbing all add style points to your ascent
  • Likewise, rehearsing on a rope mitigates fear during the actual ropeless ascent—don’t do this
  • Climbing alongside a documentary camera crew, who can toss you a rope at any time, is considered poor style, Alex. Instead, climb alone so you may only beg God for help when facing certain death
  • Falling is considered bad style because it violates Leave No Trace principles

Sport Climbing

Style rating: 5/10

Sport climbing flips the attributes of free soloing; it’s all physical. The only thing sport climbers have to worry about is pulling sick moves. Bolts do mar the rock. You lose style points for that. But the weight on your harness and the rope drag cancel it out because bolts aren’t that intrusive anyway. Unfortunately, good bolts will always be bad style because they remove the constant fear of your own mortality, so an easy way to improve upon the style is to instead place gear like a big tough guy.

Better sport climbing style:

  • Difficulty is relative, so being weaker is better style. Think of it this way, is it more impressive to send 5.12a when you’re a 5.13 climber or a 5.11 climber? Exactly. Stop climbing at the gym, stop hangboarding, stop eating fruits and vegetables, and then send
  • Skip bolts, then tell everyone around you and on the Internet that the route is over-bolted
  • Good belayers are bad style. It’s harder and scarier to climb with someone that’s constantly short-roping you and might not catch a fall, so enlist the help of a newbie or tell your experienced partner you slept with their spouse just before starting up a route
  • Being a luddite is good style. Skip the knee pads and refuse to knee bar for no good reason other than arbitrarily making things harder on yourself
  • Onsighting is considered the best sport climbing style, so we can extrapolate that having prior experience rock climbing—or even knowing what the sport is at all—is poor style. Those are unfair advantages that murder the impossible, as Reinhold Messner would say. The most pure ascent would be to arrive at a cliff having never before done physical activity, and climb a route first-go, blindfolded.

Trad Climbing

Style rating: 8/10

When climbers talk about doing routes in the style of the first ascensionist, they usually mean via trad climbing. This is because all first ascents took place in this style in the past, and historically, there has been more trad climbing than sport climbing because bolting is a more-recent invention. Trad climbing is hard, it’s scary, it’s sometimes dangerous, and it doesn’t leave a trace. Great style! It only loses a couple of points because trad gear will usually catch a fal, unfortunately.

Better trad climbing style:

  • Place bad gear. Climbing hard moves above a bomber .75 cam? Boring. Sending the crux above a tipped-out 00 cam? Great style! Why didn’t you place a .1 if the 00 was tipped out? Shut up, that’s why
  • Or just don’t place gear. Even a laser-cut splitter can be a runout if you don’t protect it. Big runouts equal big style
  • Make things harder, slower, and less safe while inflating your sense of superiority by placing passive protection only
  • Living comfortably with a good work-life balance and strong family relationships is poor style. To truly climb like the first ascensionist, you need to live alone in the woods and climb on psychedelic mushrooms like a lot of those guys back in the ’70s.
    You can really up your trad style by eschewing family and material possessions and living in the woods with other misguided dudes, like these guys BITD in Snell’s Field, Chamonix, France. (Photo: Duane Raleigh)

Bouldering

Style rating: 10/10

The most embarrassing thing for a route developer is having a boulderer throw down a pad and send the line as a highball. There’s no way to improve from there. In this case, the route developer should fall on their stick clip in an act of seppuku or be banished to a lifetime of belaying children’s birthday parties. Weirdly, highball bouldering is considered better style than free soloing because it appears less reckless while often being just as reckless. I don’t make the rules.

Regular bouldering exists outside of the standard style spectrum because (almost) no one is going to climb a 10-foot boulder on a rope, so what is there to talk about?

Better bouldering style:

Tick marks are bad style unless they look like lightning bolts, then, inexplicably, they are good style, but only if they were drawn decades ago. (Photo: Mark Herndon)
  • In theory, climbing without shoes or chalk should improve your style, but no one wants to do it so we all pretend it’s not better style. Sorry Charles Albert
  • Bluetooth speakers detract from style by disturbing the natural surroundings of the boulder field, but improve style by forcing climbers to overcome the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers at maximum treble. Overall, it’s a wash
  • While physically easier, finding new beta to a problem is considered good style because it embarrasses the first ascensionist
  • Leaving tick marks is bad style because it violates Leave No Trace principles, but if you leave a tick mark that looks like a lightning bolt people think it’s good style and maintain it for decades. I can’t explain this

Ice Climbing

Style rating: ?/10

Ice climbing is like aid climbing while free soloing and can’t be quantified on a rational scale.

Better ice climbing style:

  • Leave the ice tools and crampons at home. Throw on a pair of rock shoes and bare-hand that shit. It’s such good style that no one has even tried it yet

    Ice climbing gets high style points for blending free soloing with aid climbing. (Photo: Getty Images)