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 8a.nu 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.