Crusty Corner: The Red-Tag Dilemma

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Crusty Corner is a column written by Climbing editor Matt Samet, a climber of 32 years. When he's not at the gym or the rocks trying to stave off the inevitable performance decline of middle age, you can find him in his basement playing Xbox.

The author on the “outro” boulder problem on Big Poppa (5.13d), Staunton State Park, Colorado, gunning for the jug rest atop the crux sequence.

The author on the “outro” boulder problem on Big Poppa (5.13d), Staunton State Park, Colorado, gunning for the jug rest atop the crux sequence.

I’d been training specifically for this one climb for four months—cold, snowy, miserable, pre-dawn starts to get to the rock gym at 6 a.m., right when they opened, to put in three-hour sessions before work. Double-duty weekend days during which I cragged or climbed routes at the gym in the morning, then hit the MoonBoard, hangboard, and weight room in the p.m. Push-ups, sit-ups, weighted pull-ups, core, yoga, fast walks for cardio. And, all along, friends and I had been working on a home install of a Grasshopper Industries climbing wall with a MoonBoard hold setup in my garage, to make training that much quicker and easier, as well as to avoid having to time our training sessions around crowds at the gym.

This was all at age 47, with two small kids, an elderly dog (since passed) who needed special care in his waning months, and a full-time job. I was maxed out and stressed, but also proud of myself for having stayed the course with training for the first time in my life. I’d never really trained before, ever, just kind of punted along doing gym sessions and getting to the rock when I could—a good-enough system in your twenties and thirties, but far from effective in your late forties if you want to see progress.

Heading out to Staunton State Park, at 9,000 feet in the South Platte region of Colorado, I was fired up to see if I’d made any gains. My goal was a project called Big Poppa on the steep, north-facing, and very popular (read: total shitshow on weekends) Dungeon crag that my friend Dave Montgomery had bolted, tried for a spell, then moved on from. I’d attempted the route with him in summer 2018, then, as I figured out the moves and got more invested, taken it over. Dave had left the red tag—signifying it was a closed project—on the first bolt hanger while I was trying it, and he’d also opened the route to other friends, some of whom had given it a look as well. Soon word spread outside the circle that Big Poppa was an “open project,” which it essentially was since I didn’t really feel like being a “red-tag sheriff.” When Dave told me he planned to pull the tag by the end of autumn to open the route to the community, I began to feel a little pressure to get it done.

In September 2018, I was getting closer with each burn—the route is a power-endurance nightmare, a breaking swell of vertically jointed granite with nowhere to hide in the 22-move crux midsection. In fact, throughout the business, you can only ever take one hand off once—your right hand—to clip and grab a two-second shake. Otherwise it’s a flurry of sidepulls, gastons, heel hooks, drop knees, and micro-crimps that ends, finally, with a deadpoint to an incut slot 10 feet above your bolt. The resistance required is brutal, and every time I fell my arms felt like they were made of lead. I was optimistic about my progress. Then I started to regress, failing on moves I’d had on lockdown. In early October, it got cold and started snowing—and it didn’t let up until late May. And so Dave, buried in grad school, left the tag on over the winter, as the wall ran with high-country meltwater and ice. When he reached out to me in the spring to see if I was headed back, I said I was, and he graciously said he’d keep the tag on while I was still trying.

This June 2019 Saturday, my first day back on Big Poppa, I sat at the base on a flat rock with my rope stick-clipped through the first draw (I’d run through an hour earlier to hang the draws), tightening my shoes and strapping on a kneepad. This was going to be my first real burn of the season.

Then, “What’s up with that red tag?” asked a climber who’d seen me at the base of the route. “Is this an open project?”

Shit!

I didn’t know the climber in question, but it was far from the first time Dave or I had fielded the query. This was despite the obvious presence of a large red tag that read “Remove before flight.” A friend of Dave’s had given him the label, telling him that it’s used on airplane wings. On a wall stacked with chain-drawed, clean-and-ready-to-send 5.12s and 5.13s, this one climb seemed to pique the most interest—perhaps because it’s the steepest, cleanest, most visually appealing route. But primarily, I suspect, because of that tag. There’s something about the notion of the red tag—that closed project, so close yet so tantalizingly out of reach—that seems to galvanize climbers in a way that already-sent routes cannot. But why should this be?

I have no idea when the first red tag appeared, but it had to have been in the late 1980s, when the idea of redpointing became cemented in the community. Redpoint→red tag, or so the logic plays out, going with the theme of “red.” The idea behind the tag has been that the route’s installer ties a short length of red webbing or cord (or ribbon or a twist-tie or yarn or whatever jank is on hand) through the hanger on the first bolt, to signify its status as a closed project. There are two main reasons he or she might do so:

  1. The equipper is not finished bolting and/or cleaning the route, and so it’s a safety hazard to unwitting or overly “curious” climbers who might get on it.
  2. The equipper and/or her friends are actively trying to redpoint the climb, and having invested time, money, and effort in installing the hardware and getting the route clean, want to be the first—or at least to have the opportunity—to do so. The tag is in place to ensure that other climbers understand and respect the equipper’s intentions.

In the early 1990s, red-tagging was epidemic—and not in a good way. We would find some virgin wall, slam bolts into the best-looking lines, and then “project squat.” Having staked our claim, we’d take our sweet time working a route, if we even returned at all. Out at Rifle, Colorado, in these gold rush days, we—myself included—might even drill two or three bolts ground-up on some monster line and tag the first hanger, just to establish primacy. Yes, this was ridiculous, and I even recall a few cases where someone drilled a single bolt and tagged it. This was a different era, when sport climbing was still in its infancy and king lines were abundant for the taking.

At a certain point, however, all this red-tagging started to hold the sport back. There were projects everywhere, bolt lines simply ended at single biners instead of going up to logical anchor points, many of the routes were semi- or even fully abandoned, and at a time when free-climbing standards were rapidly advancing, strong climbers were finding themselves “rock-blocked.” And so, sometimes with permission, and sometimes without, climbers began getting on the tagged routes and finishing them off—and the notion that “red tags are bullshit” was born. The pendulum, having begun too far to one extreme, had swung all the way to the other.

* * *

These days, the prevailing attitude seems to be puzzlement over red tags, like they’re some atavistic holdover that refuses to die. “Nobody owns the rock,” the thinking goes, “so why should I have to wait to climb this line?” There have been plenty of instances of “project poaching,” in which climbers make a conscious decision to suss out or even send a line a first ascentionist is actively working, and “project pressuring” in which a first ascentionist is coerced to pull the tag. These things aren’t new, of course—the debate over “ownership” is as old as the red tag itself.

One semi-recent example of red-tag controversy is the 5.14 Girl Talk, in Rifle, a direct start that Andy Raether bolted to his previously established Benign Intervention on the Bauhaus Wall. According to the now defunct Climbing Narc, Raether was actively trying the line in 2007, while Joe Kinder and Dave Graham, having at the time sent all the other 5.14s in the canyon, were nipping at his heels to get it done. The following year, according to Climbing Narc, Kinder and Graham began trying the project while it was still tagged, meanwhile negotiating with Raether about opening the climb—which he eventually untagged, and which Graham went on to make the first ascent of.

In the Flatirons in 2012 and 2013, my friend Ted and I put up two routes on the south face of Seal Rock as a team, splitting the cost of hardware, sharing the bolting and cleaning work, and going up there as partners to belay and support each other. The climbs were steep, long, and proud, on dark and vibrant lichen-speckled rock, with flutings, huecos, crimps, and crystals. Back then, local climbers caught word that we were working them and began circling like mosquitoes. This is in Boulder, mind you, where there is something like 5,000 routes within an hour’s drive. But for some reason, people had to get on these two routes—ASAP. And so one of us would send first, leaving the other to fend off the “project vultures” who’d caught wind that the route had gone down. Ted even came up one day and found a Denver climber in flagrante delicto on the second route, clearly above an obvious red tag where the routes split from a shared start, saying, “I thought I was on the established one.” (Yeah, sure, buddy.) The same thing happened to two friends of ours on the Maiden formation in the Flatirons, who came up to their red-tagged project one day to find another party on their route “just out to take a look”—that classic line.

These were climbers who knew better; they simply chose to ignore their own better selves and the ethical code that dictates how we share the communes of the rock. And in all of these cases, they created friction, conflict, and hard feelings—the kind of stuff we’re all looking to leave behind when we visit the cliffs.

* * *

But it’s never so simple, I’ve begun to realize, as I’ve stepped back to examine my own motivations in tagging routes while putting up first ascents—the ego finds a way to insert itself into the discussion. The red-tag dilemma requires some nuanced thought.

When I returned home from Staunton after almost—almost—sending Big Poppa my first day back on it, I decided to reach out via a Facebook post to see what friends, many of whom also establish new sport climbs, thought about tagging. The general consensus was that the community should respect a red tag if a climber is actively working a line, in recognition of the time (sometimes days spent hanging in a harness to clean a chossy climb), money (a 35-meter pitch with all-stainless, ½” hardware can cost up to $200), and effort (lots and lots of failed redpoint burns) the equipper puts in. However, there was one caveat repeated over and over: this grace period should not be eternal. If the climber is still failing after a year or two, the route should be opened to the community. I’d done this with climbs at Rifle that felt too hard or that I lost interest in. And it was what Dave was doing with Big Poppa.

Then, one friend’s response caught my eye: The red tag, he wrote, was valid “Only to indicate a route that has incomplete bolting, or loose rock still to clean... Tagging a route because the equipper wants to get the FA is poor form IMO. The bolter should be stoked to see people on the route, otherwise they shouldn’t be bolting.” While his response raised a few Facebook hackles as evidenced by the replies that followed, it also got me to thinking about my own assumptions and actions around red tags. He kind of had a point.

I’d always assumed, “It’s my route, my hardware, and I’m working it, so everyone else should keep off till I’m done”—because that’s what a red tag “means.” But with Big Poppa, since it wasn’t technically “my” route and the only work I’d done was brushing some holds and sorting out beta, the only “ownership” I had was by proxy, via Dave. And, when I took a good, long look in the mirror, the real reason I wanted the tag to stay on was purely and simply my ego. Big Poppa is a rad route and I wanted to climb it first: me, Me, ME! I wanted the first ascent of this king line and the cachet that conferred, which had been part of my motivation on previous projects as well, when I stopped to consider it. (Secondarily, the tag was also a way to ensure that I could get on Big Poppa without waiting in line—again, a selfish motivation, though perhaps valid on a wall that can see rope bags stacked six deep on a busy Saturday.)

And so, I rewound and thought back to my initial response to the climber, Tom, who’d asked about the tag. I’d been kind of a territorial dick, saying, “Well, the route is red-tagged,” and that he should ask Dave if he wanted permission to jump on it. After training all winter, I’d figured Big Poppa was all mine to try because, well, I’d been training for it; I was like a dog hovering over its bone, growling at anyone who came near. But now, having seen me on the climb, and with my draws hanging, Tom was naturally curious. Then another climber asked about Big Poppa. Matt, a fellow ex-pat New Mexican who I’d met in the Flatirons, wanted to have a look too—and he had the green light from Dave.

What could I say?

I explained to Matt that I was hoping to do the route and that I was potentially close, but that since it wasn’t my red tag, he should proceed as he saw fit if he had the green light from Dave. I was disappointed that I didn’t have an empty lane in which to drive at my own speed any more, but I also understood that the tag—whether Dave was trying the climb or I was—had been on long enough. One way or the other, someone needed to take Big Poppa down, because steep, difficult routes at this grade, in the shade, at altitude, in the Front Range are hard to come by in summer. There were plenty of strong climbers around who could easily do the route and should have that opportunity. It wasn’t some cutting-edge 5.15, and I was only 10 days in—not some crazy, Adam-Ondra-on–Silence multi-year-journey—so who was I to hold up the show to feed my ego?

That Saturday, Matt and Tom worked the climb as I rotated in to give a few burns. Tom was very encouraging as I came close on my fourth attempt. “Tension! Keep the tension!” he shouted as I melted off two sidepulls just past the hardest sequence, having in a moment of panic forgotten to move my feet. And when Tom and I bumped into each other later in the parking lot, he introduced himself, while I apologized for having been a possessive asshole. We made small talk and traded beta—all good. Just two climbers talking shop.

The following Saturday, I came back to Staunton with my buddy Ryan, who’d more than anyone supported me on my efforts to send the route. It was a gray, cold, wet day, miserable and freezing, with vast skirts of rain forming around the high peaks up-valley and then raking across the ponderosa forests below, thunder booming in the distance then lightning sparking overhead to zap the spires and ridges out of eyesight on the skyline above. Yet on the plus side, the cliff was empty, and when Ryan and I rolled up around 8:30 a.m. we found Tom and Matt warming up, the only other climbers there. Just the four of us, trying to make this shitty day work.

Matt, Tom, and I traded burns and beta on Big Poppa, brushing the holds for each other, shouting encouragement, climbing the upper slab after each dousing of the wall to slather chalk on the key holds so that, if one of us made it through the bottom, we’d have a fighting chance of getting to the chains. Layered up in thick pants, puffies, and hats as we belayed, we’d strip down, strap on a kneepad (right knee, in case you’re wondering), and give it an effort, our breath barely visible on the freezing air. As the storms lost steam and the wind dwindled to nothing, the day grew warmer and rock climbing started to make more sense. We put in three or four burns each, taking our time, enjoying these rare hours of silence at the Dungeon.

Then, in mid-afternoon, one of us fought to the chains without falling, battling through wet holds on the upper 5.12- face. As the climber lowered, he trammed into the rope to get down to the first bolt and pull off the red tag. With one quick twist of the fingers, the orange cord holding the big red “Remove before flight” tag was off. As simple as that: No more tag, no more drama. Big Poppa  an offering as all new climbs ultimately are to the larger community, had finally flown home.

The red tag removed, Big Poppa opens for the climbing masses.

The red tag removed, Big Poppa opens for the climbing masses.

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