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American Sport Climbing’s Contentious Beginnings

A visiting Brit arrived in this country just as sport climbing did, and witnessed the war between trad and sport.


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It was early in the year 1987. Todd Skinner and I were in Tucson, Arizona, at a pow wow of local climbers come together to discuss the “situation” at Mount Lemmon, a nearby granite area.

The meeting was held in an outdoor shop, a central hub of the Tucson scene. Around 50 people attended, verging from bearded dirtbag to well-appointed outdoor enthusiast. The owners had cleared the floor of clothing racks to accommodate the attendees, who sat on the floor or stood around the periphery of the gathering. It smelled like your typical outdoor shop—new clothes, leather and rubber. 

On the New Wave side was Ray Ringle—a reserved guy who didn’t say much during the meeting. I think Michael Jimmerson was there. The photographer Bill Hatcher was there. Bill spent time with Todd and me in Tucson. Todd and I were an odd couple: him a cowboy from Wyoming, and me a plumber’s son from Pudsey, England. Todd was on board with sport tactics, and had arrived at his mindset through hard-won experience, having climbed most of the hardest cracks in the world including The Gunfighter (5.13b) and City Park (5.13d). 

Todd understood that the “blank” walls between the cracks were where the future of climbing lay, and that placing bolts on rappel­—what would become known as sport climbing—was the answer. But numerous influential climbers such as John Bachar, who believed  that climbs should only be done as they’d always been done, starting only from the ground and if bolts had to be placed, they were drilled on lead. At least half of the climbing community was with Bachar, vehemently opposed to the new style, and to Todd’s professional approach to climbing. Some detractors even attacked him personally, accusing him of cheating—chipping holds, lying about sends and taking steroids.

When I came to the States I was a confirmed trad climber—ground up, no rappel-placed bolts, no working out the moves on the rope (hangdogging). If you fell you lowered and pulled the rope before trying again. But over the course of 1987 my ethics flexed. By the time I got to Mount Lemmon I was starting to see the value in sport climbing. 

A few days before the meeting, I’d made the first ascent of a route Ringle had bolted on rappel on the Beaver Wall at Mount Lemmon. I called my new creation Rage to Live (5.13a). 

Things became heated at the gear shop when the Beaver Wall came up. A bearded dirtbag stood up. He exclaimed that there was no place for rap bolting on Mount Lemmon. “I intend to sort things out,” he said.

Of course, we questioned his motivation and asked him not to damage the routes. He wasn’t having any of it. I suggested that there was the possibility for the happy coexistence of sport (rap bolted) and trad. The suggestion only seemed to aggravate him more, and at that point I backed off feeling like he was some crazy ethics evangelist. 

The meeting dispersed, and Todd and I felt this wouldn’t be the end of things, and sure enough it wasn’t because within a day or so Rage to Live was chopped and defaced. 

Smith takes a reading break on The Gunfighter. (Photo: CRAIG SMITH COLLECTION)

The mid-1980s were a breakwater for climbing in both my home, the U.K., and the United States. In Britain, the traditional style was beginning to yield. Some climbers favored rappel inspection and prepping routes with fixed gear—pitons not bolts—and the odd hold was being chipped. In contrast, most climbers in the United States were holding onto a strong ground-up ethic, but condoned bolts to protect free routes, such as face climbs in Tuolumne, provided they were placed on lead. 

This was midway through Margaret Thatcher’s two terms as Prime Minister, and 3 million Brits were unemployed, roughly seven percent of the workforce. Unemployment played straight into the hands of a hard-core faction of the climbing community. We didn’t want to work; we wanted to climb, and claiming unemployment was the way forward: Sign on every two weeks as unemployed, get a paycheck for about $70, about $170 in today’s money, from the government and go climbing! 

All was well in my world until August 1986, when a bombshell dropped: Alan Rouse, whose house I was living in at the time, died on K2, one of five climbers to succumb to a severe storm. The property where we lived was to be sold, and I was forced to relocate. Al had been like a much-loved older brother to me. I was heartbroken, but being kicked out of the house was the nudge I needed to cast off the Sheffield comfort blanket and visit my good friend and fellow Brit Jonny Woodward (JW) in sunny California.

Jonny carried no extra weight. He wore hand-me-downs and metal-rimmed glasses that gave him a nerdy look—he wasn’t bothered about his appearance. Exceptionally bright and ingenious, he taught me how to stack hexes for protection, since cams hadn’t yet been invented. His reason for being in the United States was Maria Cranor, a Southern California crusher who Lynn Hill would later write was, “the first person I ever saw climbing really hard.” Jonny and Maria had met on a U.K./U.S.A. climbing exchange in 1982. Until then I doubt JW had had a girlfriend. He was 110 percent into climbing and very good at it—a leading light in the British climbing scene, a maverick and never boastful, not part of any clique. 

Jonny was in Ventura, doing a bit of work for Chouinard and Gramicci. For a while I stayed with JW at Maria’s place along with a mysterious character who occupied the sofa. I was told the couch surfer was developing a new type of climbing rubber. I thought nothing of it, but the guest was Charles Cole, the founder of Five Ten.

After a few days sunning myself on the beach, fraternizing with the girls in the then-fledgling Patagonia office and bouldering with JW on the Gramicci building, Jonny, Maria and I, along with Yosemite Stonemaster and confirmed traditionalist Darrell Hensel, headed for Hueco. 

Hueco Tanks, Texas

From the outset I realized that Hueco was special: a unique igneous rock (syenite porphyry) complex near El Paso, Texas, with pockets (called huecos in Spanish), extensive bouldering, traditional climbing, and bolted routes, and next to no climbers. Few climbers meant less politics and, in contrast to most established areas in the States, the somewhat harmonious coexistence of traditionally bolted climbs and ones bolted on rappel. 

At Hueco my trad background sat well with Jonny and Darrell’s monastic ethical stance. Their adherence to a strict code was a source of great pride, and that included no frigging around. 

During our days at Hueco, which included being ticketed by a ranger for playing cards in the restroom during a storm, we enjoyed excellent traditionally protected routes such as Wild Wild West (5.12), many the fruits of labor by Dave and Mike Head—unrelated. As if by an act of heresy, given my companions, I was attracted to a rappel-bolted 5.12d, The Tarts of Horsham, a new breed of Hueco route, drilled on rappel at night. 

In Hueco, the act of bolting was illegal, but, oddly, bolts themselves were legal. If bolts somehow sprouted, then a route was born and could be climbed. 

I mentioned my desire to try Tarts, and Darrell offered to belay. Onsight, two or three bolts up, I parted company with the rock. I asked Darrell to hold me so I could find the holds. 

“You don’t need to do that,” Darrell said. 

“Er, well, I could do with finding the holds.”

Darrell looked disapprovingly at me. “You don’t need to do that.”

I felt uneasy and, not wanting to create a rift, I motioned to Darrell to lower me, pulled my rope and began to coil it.

“What’s the matter? Don’t you want another go?” Darrell asked.

“Nah, I’ll leave it for another time.” 

I returned a few days later and, first try, redpointed the route. I figured that Darrell had been right. 

Next day, I tried to onsight The Gunfighter (5.13b), a recent addition by Todd Skinner. Gunfighter’s crux is at the top, and I got to there, but was stopped cold. I hung and sussed the holds I could reach, lowered, pulled the rope, and set off again. No luck. 

Over the next couple of weeks, I gave Gunfighter several more goes, but was unable to work out the crux. I needed a toprope to find the next holds, but toproping felt like stealing something from the rock. I stuck to my trad ethics, failed on The Gunfighter, and began to wonder whether I needed to revise my approach to climbing.

Enter Todd Skinner. Todd resided at Pete Zavala’s Quonset hut (now the Hueco Mountain Hut) on the road into Hueco. 

Todd was a natural showman, always smiling, laughing and telling stories about his exploits and the larger-than-life people he knew. His VW van was full of artifacts including a human skull he’d picked up along the way. He was razor keen to excel at climbing and push boundaries. Besides making the first ascent of The Gunfighter, he’d put up When Legends Die (5.13b) just right of it, bolting at night with a muffled drill while lookouts kept watch for rangers.

Although Jonny and Todd had diametrically opposed assessments of sport climbing, they coexisted, which wasn’t always the case between the factions back then. Jonny had met Todd two years earlier when he and Maria had stayed for two weeks at Todd’s tipi, set up on a rancher’s land near Devil’s Tower in exchange for some ranching help. 

“These were the days before Todd’s fame and publicity machine had kicked into full gear, and he was just a climber like the rest of us at the time, with dirtbag status well intact,” says Jonny. “I witnessed the sharing of things of his which were not in abundance, and it left quite an impression on me. This is a side of him that I will never forget.”

Jonny, Darrell and Maria left for home, while I joined the Quonset rabble. A strong friendship developed between Todd and me, and we began to rope up. He was about to embark on a slideshow tour of the States and invited me to hit the road with him as co-pilot. 

Todd had bolted When Legends Die (5.13b) just right of it, bolting at night with a muffled drill while lookouts kept watch for rangers.

Mount Lemmon, Arizona

We arrived at the wonderful Mount Lemmon, where the Catalina Highway winds its way along myriad granite formations.

Chaperoned by local futurist Ray Ringle, we set upon the Lemmon’s Beaver Wall, repeating routes including Golden Beaver Left (5.13b), first ascended by Hidetaka Suzuki the year before. It was on this trip that I did Rage to Live, a line Ray had cleaned and bolted and offered to me. I tried it ground up, not wishing to accept a toprope. After some familiarization with the moves, I went for the redpoint only to fall from the crux and sprain my ankle. There was still snow at the base of the route, and after packing snow around my swelling joint and downing painkillers, I went back on the sharp end and succeeded on the redpoint.  

Even though Todd and I had yet to drill any bolts on rappel, our presence inflamed some of the locals, who had dug their heels into the traditional ways. 

Given my traditional background, I understood the opposing points, some of which were well-formed, while others were knee-jerk reactions to anything new. Bolting on rappel certainly opened the floodgates for wholesale development of otherwise unprotectable rock, but the argument that rappel bolting was cheating just didn’t hold up. 

“Grow bigger balls,” said Scott, the most vocal anti-bolting local at the subsequent meeting in the outdoor shop. 

“If it was only that easy,” I said. He knew nothing of the many 5.13 trad leads I’d done, or anything about where I was coming from.  

Smith attempts Skinner’s The Gunfighter (5.13b) at Hueco Tanks. At this point, Smith hadn’t converted to sport-climbing tactics, and refused to work the crux moves on toprope. He failed on the route, causing him to rethink the limitations of trad climbing. (Photo: CRAIG SMITH COLLECTION)

To the packed room, I explained the situation in Europe, and how in Britain we were trying to preserve our tradition, while embracing the inevitable. For once I had more to say than Todd.

My contribution only further divided people, and the tension escalated to a point where violence almost broke out. 

A day later we visited Beaver Wall again and were dumbstruck to see the bolts on Rage to Live chopped, and a prominent hold chipped from the route (luckily it still goes at 5.13a/b). 

In protest, we drilled a bolt on the famous Zschiesche (5.12d) toprope problem, redpointed it and headed for Yosemite, stopping off at Sugarloaf near Lake Tahoe to tick Grand Illusion, at the time one of the hardest routes in the world at 5.13b, done by Tony Yaniro in 1979. 

Yosemite, California 

After the Tucson encounter, I expected conflict in Yosemite. Todd had previously upset the locals when he freed the first pitch of The Stigma, an A3 seam at the Cookie Cliff. For this 5.13b/c, Todd had rappelled in and placed a few pins, then, after sending, he renamed the route The Renegade. This got the Valley cognoscenti’s noses so out of joint they refused to give Todd credit for his free ascent, and the guidebook would later credit Alan Watts. [Editor’s note: According to Jeff Smoot (Watts’ belayer) in a post on supertopo.com, Watts climbed above Skinner’s high point and claimed the “true” F.A.]

Part of me reveled in our outlaw status and the prospect of realizing our two goals: Repeat John Bachar’s new test piece The Phantom, and free the Salathé on El Cap. Todd and I laughed at the thought of snagging these big prizes. 

The Phantom was a new crack on the back side of Reed’s Pinnacle in Yosemite. It weighed in at 5.12+, but we knew that Bachar had probably underrated. Indeed, today, most climbers grade it 5.13a. Back then, the route’s lower tips section was hard to protect owing to the limited availability of gear for thin parallel cracks. I fiddled in a couple of Rollers, a sort of Stopper with a spring-loaded rolling pin that gave it some active expanding action, and took a couple of falls before deciding to hangdog the lower section up to a heel-hook rest. 

An advocate of training, Todd Skinner famously bolted fingerboards to his VW van—there was no mistaking when he pulled up. (Photo: CRAIG SMITH COLLECTION)

My first goal was always to try to climb in the best possible style. Todd adhered to this, too, but he was more relaxed about “working” things and then redpointing the route. Before meeting Todd, I hadn’t made that leap in my mind, but climbing with him I recognized the potential this practice held for climbing harder routes and climbing them in less time. I concluded that I could stay ethically devout, but probably not have the time to get up some of the climbs, or compromise a little and court success. 

With the Rollers in place, clipping them as I climbed, I made it through the crux and onto the finishing match. A couple of attempts later, Todd made the third ascent.

Our ascents hadn’t gone undetected: We were being watched from a distance by people hiding in the scrubs. They never approached us, just stayed there half concealed by the bushes. 

We rested for a few days, then set sights on the Salathé. Even if you aren’t a climber it’s worth standing at the base of El Cap comparing its enormity to your smallness. By this cosmic measure, what Todd and I were trying to achieve was of no significance, but in our climbing-centric bubble it was our raison d’être. Armed with minimal big-wall gear and scant supplies, but awash with bravado, we ventured up the hulking granite monolith. About halfway up the route, we encountered a blank corner (the Teflon Corner, 5.12d), and despite ample protection we struggled, resorting to pulling on gear as needed. We bivied and contemplated dropping back down to redpoint the pitches we hadn’t done clean, but after a comfortable night we forged on, eager to suss the rest of the wall. If it looked like it would go free, we’d return to try again. 

The Headwall pitches were the highlight of the upper section, and I was grateful that those were Todd’s leads. The climbing was in the most outrageous position I’d ever been in, with 2,000 feet of air below me. 

Todd made quick progress, free climbing and resting on gear as necessary. On a toprope seconding, I didn’t find the climbing as hard as it was sustained. We summitted later that day having freed about 80 percent of the route, not including the pitches we had worked out free, but hadn’t redpointed. By the top there was little doubt, in fact no doubt, it would all go free. Armed with that knowledge, and intent on returning, we left Yosemite for Smith Rock.

Smith Rock, Oregon

I’d heard much about Smith Rock, a rare crag where the rappel-bolting ethic had gained the upper hand, and it made sense: The compact welded tuff had cracks, and these had all been climbed in a traditional manner. Between the cracks were pocketed walls begging to be climbed, but to do so by the traditional approach would have required a special type of climber, one willing to hang on dodgy skyhooks to drill bolts, and that type of climber was in thin supply. Still, a few routes had been established this way, Heinous Cling, a runout 5.12c, done by Alan Watts, being a prime example. 

On the whole, the locals, like Watts, Chris Grover and Brooke Sandahl, were pleasant and had decided that rap bolting and the Euro approach were acceptable, and they set out to create some of the world’s best routes.

Smith was becoming the place to be, and, accordingly, it was starting to become a circus, with queues forming on iconic routes such as Chain Reaction (5.12c) and Watts Tots (5.12b).

While Todd and I were at Smith, a delegation from Yosemite arrived and included the Valley icons Mike Graham and Ron Kauk. I was curious to see how they would come to terms with the Smith style. 

No one ever said sport climbing was stylish. Wearing the get-up of the day, 1987, on Darkness at Noon (5.13a), first done by Smith Rock pioneer Alan Watts. The author witnessed Yosemite climber Ron Kauk float the route. Kauk had grown up trad climbing, but adopted sport climbing. (Photo: CRAIG SMITH COLLECTION)

The Valley boys adapted well. Kauk was particularly impressive, a world-class climber and a nice guy, understated and always joking. I watched him float up some of the harder routes including Darkness at Noon (5.13a). He climbed measured and controlled, reading the rock as if it were a familiar book.

Toward the end of our time at Smith and after discussing my intention with Smith activists, I bolted and climbed an extension to Churning in the Wake, which is known today as Churning in the Sky (5.13a). But, back then sport crags were as cliquish as were the traditional areas, and a new route established by a non-local wasn’t especially welcome—you could only contribute if you were in the club. Some of the locals were torqued by my addition, saying my extension had disrespected the first ascent. I told them I was going to remove the Churning anchor, forcing everyone to climb my extension. I didn’t intend to do that, and only said it to piss them off. 

The Needles, California

It got too hot to climb at Smith, and I decamped for the Needles of Sequoia National Forest in the southern Sierra Nevada, catching a lift with Tim “Skinhead” Wagner, who was heading back to Orange County. I’d heard rumors of a king line at the Needles, Pyromaniac, another Yaniro route that hadn’t had a second ascent. Having done several of Tony’s routes I figured that Pyromaniac (5.13b) also had to be fantastic. 

Skinner returned to his home in Wyoming bent on finding limestone, which he would indeed do—Wild Iris would soon be on the map—and developing his next project, “Cowboys on Everest,” a venture that involved him, his father and uncle attempting Everest.

I was sad to part company with Todd. We’d had an amazing few months, yet I needed a break from the attention he cultivated. Todd always attracted fans, and I found this tiresome. He also had a contingent of critics. Earlier in the year, at Index Rock in Washington State, locals, incensed that Todd would dare to hang on the rope and work out moves, poured grease down a crack to thwart him. Todd used a blowtorch to burn off the grease and put up City Park, a 5.13d that may well have been the most difficult crack in the States at the time.

I craved anonymity, and escaping to the Needles seemed a good option. 

Over the last 35 years I’ve visited amazing places and at the top of my list is the Needles. Not only is the rock beautiful granite tinged with phosphorescent lichen, the routes are fantastic, and there’s nobody else there. 

Tim dropped Russell Erickson and me at the Needles trailhead with enough provisions for a good week. I’d gotten to know Russell at Smith, where we got along well and shared the same taste in music. 

On our first day we met Mike Lechlinski and Mari Gingery, local activists and friendly folk lacking any contempt for offcomedons. They offered us a toprope on the Yaniro classic Spontaneous Combustion (5.12c) on the Fire Wall. 

The crack was superb and I flashed it, but felt that on lead the outcome might have been different since at one point I got wrong footed. Grabbing the belay, I gazed right to take in the line of Pyromaniac—a thin tips flake arching leftward across a luminous granite face.

 Next day I set off up it and thought I was going to onsight it, but toward the end the footholds all but disappeared, and I came off. I hung on the last piece and worked out the moves. This required a few falls onto small TCUs, the odd one popping out now and then. I tried to imagine what the first ascent must have been like for Yaniro without the luxury of the newly introduced three-cam units. 

While I worked the crux, I noticed I was being watched by a blonde Bachar look-a-like.

“What you doing up there?” asked the stranger. 

“I’m trying to work out how to do this route,” I replied.

“But if you have to do that, should you be up there?”

Well, there was the elephant in the room. 

“What should I do?” I asked.

“Wait until you are good enough to do the route,” he said.

“O.K., thanks for that, I’ll give it some thought,” I said. 

I sensed that my reply didn’t sit well but, in contrast to my feelings when Darrell had called me out months ago on Tarts of Horsham at Hueco, I felt no reason to stop. 

Next day, I led Pyromaniac without falls, making the second ascent. That evening the Bachar look-a-like, Ron Carson, joined us at our campfire. 

Carson was one of the Yosemitians, and he was climbing alone, soloing routes in the mode that was common practice with the Californian clique. I mentioned I’d led Pyromaniac clean that day. On hearing this, he warmed to me, and told me about a hard multi-pitch route he wanted to do, and for which he needed a partner. 

The Sea of Tranquility (5.12b), another Yaniro route, is almost ineffable: Its strength of line and movement, and the clean sweet air that whips around the Warlock, add up to a heavenly experience, albeit one protected with sparse bolts and fixed copperheads that were a tad worrying, but no more so than much of the in-situ protection back then. 

From our initial meeting, where contempt had been expressed, Ron and I had shared an almost religious experience on The Sea of Tranquility, and, despite our ethical differences, by the time we topped out we were good friends. 

Smith returned to the U.K. after his tour to land on the cover of several magazines and on a Chouinard Equipment (now Black Diamond) poster. (Photo: CRAIG SMITH COLLECTION)

Looking back with the soft focus of 33 years, I’m grateful to have climbed in the States at a time when seismic changes were afoot. I learned much about the world and myself. Meeting Todd was a privilege, and I miss him. I regret not returning to free the Salathé with him the next summer, but that’s just my ego mixed with a bit of greed. 

My dear friend Alan Rouse, now dead, gave me some sage advice when I was learning about the wonderful world that is climbing. He said, the formula for becoming a famous climber is simple: Visit other areas, repeat the hardest routes, put up a harder one, and then leave. 

That formula worked for me. I went back to Europe and made the cover of magazines all around the world, and the door was open for a future as a professional, but while part of me liked the attention and the perks, most of me didn’t. I wanted to be anonymous and just go climbing with my friends. 

My aim was to gain a Ph.D. and become an academic, which I did. I started my graduate program in 1988 and that was the end of me as a professional climber, although back then being a pro was quite different from today—I was only paid in gear, which I often sold to raise cash, and trip expenses.

I am troubled, though, that Todd Skinner, who died on Leaning Tower in 2006 trying to free yet another Yosemite big wall, has largely become a historical footnote, an example being the film “Valley Uprising,” in which his contributions including making the first-ever free ascent of El Cap, should have been trumpeted. But, Todd’s achievements were barely mentioned in the film. 

I suppose, as the saying goes, that the survivors write history, and Todd didn’t make it. 

But perhaps history isn’t what’s really important. Over time all history loses context. What we do with our life and the influence we leave behind has longevity: Isn’t this what being a human is about? To that extent Todd changed climbing. We no longer fight over rappel bolting. El Cap is routinely free climbed. Wild Iris remains popular. Todd belonged to no clique, he plowed his own furrow, and had vision, imagination and drive. He had a major, positive influence on climbing in the United States, and that is the difference that will endure.

Craig Smith is an Associate Professor of molecular physiology at the University of Manchester, England. He began climbing in 1980 and was one of the U.K.’s first sponsored climbers.