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Climbing Should be Dangerous

Opinion: Climbers through the ages have found value intentionally courting risk. There's a reason for that. 


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After a recent accident on Yosemite’s Snake Dike (5.7 R), in which a young woman got severely hurt, it was proposed—in various forums and threads—that the route should be retrobolted to make it safer. Snake Dike was first climbed in the summer of 1965 by the trio of Jim Bridwell, Eric Beck and Chris Fredericks. It is a classic, and very runout. After the accident, debate ensued. It wasn’t always pretty. Some yelling, name calling, baiting, etc. “Hard men” and their “egos” were to blame for the existence of dangerous routes. The conversations quickly moved into claims concerning the accessibility for all, elitism of a few, ruining the adventure of climbing, and so on. 

The debate, in my opinion, was about the essence of climbing. 

Climbing’s fraught relationship to the safety-danger couplet, as framed by historical “essence of climbing” conversations, is by no means a new phenomenon. In the 1910s, Austrian climber Paul Pruess was adamant that his style—largely onsight free soloing—was the best and that all others should adhere to it. Royal Robbins scoffed at Warren Harding for poor style on the FA of the Nose. In the 1970s and 1980s, Yosemite soloist John Bachar was called an elitist. Messner believed his anti-siege tactics were the true method for the Greater Ranges. Fair-means alpinists claim their style is the natural evolution of the sport. 

Just to be clear, it’s not hard to make climbing safer. Just sink a bolt, or four, in that run-out section, such as on Snake Dike. Replace the rusty piton that Royal Robbins pounded in five decades ago. Add a two-bolt belay on that chossy ledge. Dynamite the widow-making serac on K2. Yes, someone has actually suggested that, but it’s not as if the idea, or the desire, has no precedent in mountaineering. Decisions to make climbing safer are made all the time in climbing. But they are just as often not made, and that’s interesting.

“Should climbing be dangerous?” When I heard people asking this question after the Snake Dike incident, my knee-jerk reaction was, ‘Of course climbing should be dangerous. It’s climbing. Case closed.’ But that’s lazy thinking, and about as good advice as telling someone that if they want to climb harder, “just hold on longer.” 

As I thought about it, I learned the question is also, “Why are so many climbers adamant that climbing remains dangerous?” and “Would the essence of climbing change if it was made safer?” 

Those are interesting questions. 

As the former Editor-in-Chief of Rock and Ice, I wrote the accident report for years. I lost friends. I interviewed grieving mothers and fathers, analyzed gruesome details, and did my best to inhabit the last psychological moments of those who lost their lives, so as to prevent future accidents. In short, the question of climbing’s safety is something I’ve thought a lot about.

On my accounting, the conversation about climbing’s “inherent risk,” has been brought to the fore by four things: (i) a recent spate of injuries and deaths has led to debate about retro-bolting historic routes; (ii) tens of thousands of new climbers have been introduced to the sport via gyms, and those new climbers might not know the deep, historical relationship between climbing and danger; (iii) the very public deaths of a fair amount of our top alpinists; (iv) our pervasive and well documented culture of safety—signs warning people that river rocks are slippery, that you will die if you fall off a cliff—in spite of the general public’s fascination with the risk-porn of The Alpinist and Free Solo. The fact that the public has latched onto climbing as this avant-garde adventure sport pursued by heroes who confront death for breakfast is testament to the idea that this same public experiences and tolerates less and less risk in their daily lives. Also a studied fact.

The question of danger is finally knocking on our collective doorstep, at our crags, mountains and cliffs. And so I’d like to talk about it.

But first, a confession. 

My first impressionable climbing experience occurred on the six-pitch Ruper (5.8) in Eldo, outside of Boulder, Co. I was 14 and had been climbing for about a year, but I hadn’t trad climbed at all. It was summer, real slimy and hot. I had forgotten my harness that day but managed to jerryrig one from webbing. A few pitches up, I got off route, and as I stood on a four-inch ledge, frozen, pondering my mortality, the options, what it all meant, my webbing harness fell to my ankles. 

I survived the experience, obviously, but it was this very phenomenon—of literally holding my life in my hands—that got me hooked on climbing. Climbing showed me life was optional, and this realization was a gift, one that helped me through some rough teenage years.

Though I’ve been climbing for three decades—I climb ice, mixed, clip bolts, trad climb, boulder, whatever—I do find it illustrative to think every soccer coach in the country would immediately remove a hazard (say a small metal stake sticking out of the ground) from the playing field, whereas I can go climbing 15 minutes from my house and clip a rusty piton that has squatted in an eroding crack, at the crux of a hard route, for 30 years, a piton that wouldn’t hold a proper fall. And we are all OK with that fact. Well, more than OK. Many climbers are adamant that the rusty piton remains where it is. I sure am. 

Of course, there’s a big difference between a metal stake in a soccer field and a metal stake on my local M7 WI5. But that difference is somehow bound up in climbing’s raison d’être. The difference illustrates what the climbing game is about. To be clear, what I’m not saying is that we shouldn’t entertain discussions about making climbs safer, or that sport climbing at your local crag should be dangerous. Rather, we should understand at a deep level the entanglement of danger and climbing, so as to help us create better routes. And become better climbers.

The author on Banzai Pipeline WI5M5, Crystal River Valley, Co.

Dilettantes of Suicide

Rock climbing is an outgrowth of mountaineering, the latter germinating in the Alps in the late 1700s. At first it was the brand name Continental peaks that got “conquered”—Mont Blanc got FA’d in 1786, Monte Rosa in 1855, the Matterhorn in 1865, and so on. At its inception, mountain climbing was considered so dangerous that, after four climbers died during the Matterhorn’s first ascent, Queen Victoria considered outlawing the sport. After the tragedy, the London Times referred to climbers as “dilettantes of suicide,” pondering in an editorial: “Is it common sense? Is it allowable?”

In the late 1800s, by which point most of Europe’s biggest peaks had seen ascents, climbers moved onto technical faces, such as the Furgen Ridge of the Matterhorn, which finally witnessed a topout in 1911. In short, as the sport came into its own, routes got specialized. Layering on additional risk and difficulty became an optional part of the climbing experience. Circa the 1940s and 1950s, bouldering took shape. Climbing for difficulty alone—aka “sport climbing” and later, hard bouldering—only really gathered steam in the 1980s, an outgrowth of the “free climbing” ethic, which had sputtered and taken on various forms in the previous century. 

What’s the point of this history lesson? It was during this germinal time for rock climbing—say, from 1850 to 1980—that the sport assumed its modern form. It was also during this time the by-any-means-necessary philosophy of early mountaineering was replaced and climbers started to make intentional choices in their chosen routes, style, and ethic. Rules got codified. Ethical debates entered climbing as a result of intentionality. 

In some instances, those intentional choices made an already dangerous sport even more dangerous. In his classic 1967 essay, “Games Climbers Play,” Lito Tejada-Flores refers to different climbing rules as a “handicap system,” an artificial system meant to level out achievement. This system is now so prevalent we hardly notice it. “Climbing” Just Do It (5.14c) at Smith Rock, for instance, is harder than “climbing” Mount Everest because the climbers in these disciplines define “climbing” with different rules. “Climbing” Just Do It means you free climbed it, without aid, no pulling on bolts, etc. But the ethics on Everest are generally more lax; to say you “climbed it,” you can pick the easiest route, suck O2, pull on fixed lines, wear heated socks, use ladders, have other people cook and set up your tent, and so on. In contrast, if you so much hang on the rope for 1 second on Just Do It, you didn’t climb it, and few have climbed it. In short, what it means to “climb” something changes dramatically. 

The proliferation of “don’ts” in climbing also meant that, as skills and techniques increased, increasing amounts of danger started to become part of the climbing game. These two factors have put us where we are today. Case in point is Connor Herson skipping bolts on Empath (5.14d) and instead fishing in hard gear. Or the in-vogue free ascents of big Himalayan walls, such as the Trango Towers, once topped out by any means possible, but now sent using modern free-climbing standards. Some routes are established to be dangerous, subjectively and objectively, and we need to be very careful in the quest to change a first ascent’s historical conditions; the latter are the bones of our sport. As a community, we tolerate making a historical route more dangerous, but scoff when the opposite measure is taken. This is due to the fact of how we, unconsciously or not, perceive the climbing game.

Though it’s true that participants of disciplines like alpinism, mountaineering, free soloing, highball bouldering, or R-rated trad, have retained the legacy of intentionally courting danger, at a deeper level, all species of climbing share a common relationship to stress.

The essence of our sport is control of the body—calmness, poise, common-sense decision making—amidst situations that make you want to feel the opposite. One of the most common things holding people back from their potential in sport climbing is a fear of falling. When you hold on, you don’t want to fall—this is just a somatic phenomenon of the body. It’s hardwired in our constitution. This goes for being six feet off the ground or 600. The body instinctively grasps; losing grasp is danger. This does not happen on a soccer field or a baseball pitch; fear is there, too, but in different ways. When the body grasps, a climber has to fight that entropy. The presence of subjective danger is, of course, more saturated in some types of climbing—because of the additional objective risk—but it’s always there. 

Tejada-Flores called the “what is climbing?” question “unanswerable.” But I’m not so sure. To me the climbing game, whether you are talking about bouldering or alpine climbing, is about poise in the middle of chaos—inner chaos (the muscles and nerves required to stick a hard move or hold a tense position) or outer chaos (objective hazards like loose rock, long runouts, bad ice). To excel at climbing, or even just one climb, we need to deploy multiple, and often conflicting, mentalities; we need to exercise control in the face of a dynamic “field”; real-time analysis of internal and external conditions; knowledge of when to roll the dice and when not to; and a physiological mastery of our medium—stone

The body’s natural response to danger is fear. While the neurological cocktail that fear creates might be good for fending off some threats, it is horrible for climbers. Because fear shuts down areas of our cerebral cortex—a part of the brain responsible for memory, thought, decision making and intelligence, among other things—the presence of fear in the climber’s mind is incompatible with  what we are trying to do as climbers: poise in the face of chaos. All top climbers, regardless of discipline, have mastered the art of fear. Which isn’t to say they don’t feel it. It just does not consume them.

The Climbing Game

The climbing game is not about managing danger, it is about managing our consciousness in the presence of danger. Those are entirely different things. Danger does not exist out there, objectively. The K2 serac is dangerous only to the person beneath it; when there’s no one there, it’s just a stunning feature on the side of a stunning mountain. Danger is the thing—the K2 serac—but risk is the word we apply to the psychological experience of danger. 

You cannot 100% manage danger, because if danger is 100% managed, it ceases to exist. Blowing up the serac on K2 would eliminate it along with the dangers it poses to climbers below. Risk is exposure to danger. Risk can be mitigated, lessened at times, but to be risk it needs to have a black, abstract core of danger. In most of its variations, climbing assumes a lot of risk—bad bolts, sketchy gear, run outs, ledge falls, uneven landing zones, unroped approaches, etc.—and this is why we say it is “inherently risky.” 

Climbers through the ages have found value in confronting danger, in intentionally courting risk, whether it is strongly felt but practically minimal (such as in the gym) or existentially threatening, such as on Snake Dike

Climbing is essentially a mentality management exercise we embrace which just happens to call its field of play a boulder, crag or the mountains. Hundreds of millions of dollars get spent on counseling and therapy to help the general population rid themselves of fear. At base level, no one likes feeling fear. Phobias are limiting. Feeling that someone is a threat to you is disempowering; equally irritating is being fearful when we shouldn’t be. We want to feel free. Fear traps us. Fear is paralyzing. Climbing is often most satisfying when we are able to continue to swing our tools calmly thirty feet above bad pro, send our sport project without nerves, trepidation or hesitation, or are able to make clear-headed, split-second decisions that save our lives.

Because of the fundamental somatic fact that our bodies want to hold on and falling feels dangerous, climbing has a unique relationship with danger, either when that danger is truly objective, such as groundfall potential, or subjective, such as falling on bolts. Or a mix of the two. It is entirely common for beginner and mid-level climbers to feel more fear than their more experienced counterparts. 

The better you get at climbing, the better you get at understanding and managing fear’s various manifestations. And what a magical feeling it is when fear is replaced by performance. We start to move with facility, without needless anxiety. Our heartbeat calms. We start to climb.

That’s the climbing game. That’s why climbing is dangerous. That’s why so many climbers—I’m one of them—are adamant it stays that way.

 

Francis Sanzaro, (Ph.D). is the former editor of Rock and Ice and current strategic Advisor at Gear Lab. He’s the author of multiple books, including The Boulder: A Philosophy for Bouldering, and Society Elsewhere: Why the Gravest Threat to Humanity Will Come From Within.