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Do Jumar Ascents Count as “Climbing”?

Climbing, no matter how you define it, is hard, and however anyone chooses to go up a wall is valid. But when it comes to reporting on ascents, details are everything.

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Last October, 8-year-old Sam Adventure Baker ascended El Cap with the help of his father, Joe, and two friends who guided the duo. What ensued was a slew of interviews and national coverage via major news outlets, including Good Morning America and CNN. Sam had stars in his eyes; he was cited as the youngest person to ever climb the historic wall.

Except, Sam didn’t “climb” it. 

Or maybe he did.

Or maybe it depends on who you ask. 

Does it count if you use ascenders to scale the entirety of the route? Sam did not lead or follow a single pitch. 

“I hadn’t heard in my life that you couldn’t use the word ‘climb’ for a [jumar] ascent,” Joe said in an interview with The Union Democrat. With fame came questions that he just wasn’t prepared for. “I feel like we’re just talking semantics, but I’ve tried to change my voice on it. I’ll do that, if that’s what the problem is.”

The coverage of the incident raised questions everyone assumed they knew the answer to: What does climb mean, and does it matter? Because the fact is, the word’s meaning has changed—or at least grown in nuance—over the past several centuries.

During the Victorian era, for instance, to “climb” something was fairly simple. You made it to the top, or you did not. The means didn’t matter. This was the definition back when Englishman Edward Whymper successfully made the first ascent of the Matterhorn. The seven-man team climbed the majority of the peak unroped until reaching the final stretch. They remained roped together for the descent when one of the most famous accidents in mountaineering history occurred. One member of his party slipped and pulled down three more; the four men fell to their death, however, Whymper and two guides were saved after the rope snapped. 

In Dresden, Germany, in the early 1900s, intrepid climber Rudolf Fehrmann famously “realized that by using artificial aids any tower could be overcome,” wrote Steve Roper in the 2017 edition of Ascent. Fehrmann, via lectures and articles, thus established Dresden climbing ethics: thou shall not aid climb; thou shall not add additional rings (the local bolted pro) after a first ascent party. The pitches were led ground-up, usually barefoot, and with hemp ropes. J. M. Thorington, author of The Glittering Mountains of Canada: A Record of Exploration and Pioneer Ascents in the Canadian Rockies, commented, “The death rate has always been high, mainly due to rope breakage and because the climber was not equal to the task” (American Alpine Journal, 1964).

Climbing anything in Dresden meant you lived to tell the tale, or you did not, and you did so without aid.

[Related: Steve Roper Meets His Match On The Fearsome Walls Of Dresden]

In 1911, Paul Preuss initiated a widely-cited style debate with his op-ed, published in the German Alpine Times. He had six lofty—if not unrealistic—tenants that mirrored ethics cemented in Dresden, including “You must not only be good enough for your chosen line. You must be better,” and “Pitons are not to be used for upward progress, either for direct support or psychological aid.” The subsequent publication of counterpoint op-eds, and then an in-person panel discussion the following year, was dubbed by writer and mountain guide Jim Erikson as The Great Piton Debate of 1911. It certainly helped to progress the idea that to climb something was to free it without pulling on gear.

[Read: Mauerhaken Streit: The Great Piton Debate of 1911]

The ethic of clean climbing, as it was later called, was in part an environmental initiative to leave fewer piton scars, and it spread from Dresden to the UK. British climbers began “sporting” new routes by the 1930s, climbing without pitons for aid. Many began looping natural chockstones or wedging small rounded pebbles into cracks. Royal Robbins brought nuts to the American climbing market in 1967 after a trip to the UK. These nuts lessened reliance on pitons and hand-drilled bolts for protection and ushering the clean climbing revolution into the United States. 

Climbers who adhered to stricter ethics accused those who didn’t of cheating and, thus, invalidated their ascents. Duane Raleigh, a climber of 50 years and a former editorial director of Climbing, commented: “When I started climbing in the early 70s, it kind of meant the same thing—if you didn’t go to the top, you didn’t climb it,” he says. “But you know, if you climbed something, it really meant that you free climbed it.”

At the same time, in France, sport climbing ethics were being solidified. Climbers began pre-placing gear, bolting routes from the top-down, and even hangdogging. Upset Americans coined the derogatory term “French free” to reference ascents done with the aid of the occasional piece of gear. Sport climbing ethics would later become a heated debate in Yosemite, leading to bolt-chopping wars and rock defacement. In any case, the definition of climbing was further solidified—a French free did not count. 

Matt Samet, also a longtime climber and former editor of Climbing, echoed Raleigh: “Back in the 1980s and 1990s, in my early days in the sport and when sport climbing was new, if you said you’d ‘climbed’ something it was assumed you had freed it, no falls.” 

Raleigh added that when you were 50 feet runout on sketchy gear, you weren’t particularly keen to weight it. But gear has since come a long way, and so too the methodology for getting up rock. In fact, by the time gear improved, climbing had long been about so much more than simply summiting. There were many styles: first free ascents, aid ascents, redpoints, onsights, pink-points, headpoints, team free ascents, individual free ascents, winter ascents, free solo ascents, even naked accents. The list goes on. 

Perhaps we needed to simplify how we defined climbing. No one I spoke with knew when it happened, but the term climb slowly began to stand in for “got up the thing”—it’s original definiton. 

Even this magazine used the word climb to report on jumar ascents or those which required further explanation. For example, paraclimbing jumar ascents have also historically been labeled as climbing. Mark Wellman, paralyzed at the waist down, famously became the first adaptive athlete to climb El Cap in 1989—and he did so by doing exactly what Sam Adventure Baker did: jugging ropes put up by others. 

[Read: A Brief History of Adaptive Climbing]

A somewhat controversial concept emerged in Yosemite in the ‘70s and continues to be a common style to this day. “Team free” was employed to indicate all pitches were freed by someone in the party, however not by all climbers. One team member would lead a pitch and the others would jug behind, cleaning and hauling gear. It saved energy, but raised the question: had the route really been freed if no individual had climbed it in its entirety? Gray areas began to emerge. 

Though splitting hairs, these ethics and style are not unimportant, since climbers, taking advantage of the word’s ambiguity, can misrepresent their ascents in order to gain more attention and sponsor dollars.

“Most examples I can think of were in the late 80s, when sport clothing was still pretty new,” says Raleigh. “And certain climbers—I can think of a few, especially well-known climbers in the Boulder area—they didn’t really free climb the routes they said they did cleanly. You know, probably rested on a piece here or there, had some rope tension here or there, or maybe didn’t even do all the moves free. … I imagine that still goes on today. Actually I guarantee it does.”

Samet pointed largely to the internet. “It seems like that line has become increasingly blurred, mainly by social media and Mountain Project, where I see people logging ‘ticks’ that are actually just hangdogging sessions or they only got partway up a pitch that had a higher anchor,” he says. “You ‘worked’ the route, but didn’t ‘climb’ it.”

What am I getting at with all this? Well, I think we need to clarify the asterisks; we need to stop using the word “climb” as a catch-all. In my own years reporting and editing reports on ascents, I’ve seen people (who will go unnamed) actively take advantage of this gray area, and only after back and forth were we able to get these climbers to admit the style that they climbed in. Climbers with something to prove can, at times, leave too much to the imagination. 

“This kid got hauled up El Cap and it’s presented as though it’s the same as Emily Harrington going up and free climbing Golden Gate,” says longtime climber and Stonemaster John Long. “It’s not the same thing. And unless you understand the nuance, then you don’t understand anything about it. That’s where it’s aggravating.” Climbing, no matter how you define it, is hard, and however anyone chooses to go up a wall is valid. But when it comes to reporting on ascents, details are everything.

In many ways, our sport has never been logical. It is because it’s contrived that it is challenging, because it is hard that it is fun, because it is complex that it is pure. Joe Baker says he didn’t know he needed to clarify. He called it semantics. I call it ethics, the foundation upon which our sport was laid. 

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