False Idols: The Problem With Putting First Ascentionists On A Pedestal
Establishing new routes is tons of work and takes a vision and drive (and lots of free time), but it's also a selfish pursuit, done to make the FAer happy.
When I first started climbing, I wanted nothing more than to be famous. I was just a dumb kid, bobbling about at the boulders and cliffs pimply-faced with a flat-top haircut, ugly maroon sweatpants, and Chuck Taylor high-tops as “climbing shoes.” But I knew What Was Up: The famous climbers—the ones who put up routes, the ones who mattered—had their names in guidebooks. And they had their names (and sometimes photos!) in the Basecamp section of Climbing Magazine, which compiled new-route and notable-repeat information from all across America.
I needed to be in Basecamp too.
One day, friends and I were cragging at Cochiti Mesa, a welded-tuff area in the Jemez Mountains in central New Mexico that, sadly, is no longer viable for climbing after the massive Las Conchas forest fire in 2011. Tucked behind the main cliff was a little corridor, and we wandered in there, probably to smoke Mexican brick-weed, and found two splitter cracks deep in the gloom. They were a piddly 20 feet tall, but I hadn’t seen them in Basecamp and so they were ripe for the plucking.
By claiming these cutting-edge first ascents, I would now become famous.
My rack consisted of Hexentrics, one No. 2 Camalot, and one No. 3 Friend I’d bought with money from my after-school job washing dishes at Lucky Star, a greasy-spoon Chinese restaurant near my home. It was more than enough pro to see me up both cracks, though given how soft the rock is inside most Cochiti fissures, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t fall. I remember silty hand jams amid the pain of my feet twisting into the cracks in my yellow-and-black Asolo high-top rock boots. Back home that evening, I called Lee Sheftel, a climber in Santa Fe (and now longtime friend) whom I knew was the New Mexico Basecamp correspondent—and who would certainly be thrilled by the Big News out of Cochiti Mesa.
“Oh, those little cracks?” Lee said. “My buddy Doug and I already climbed them. I think we soloed them. And plus, they’re too short to report to Climbing. Like, I probably wouldn’t bother.”
I never did make it into Basecamp—by the time I was putting up actual routes, the department had been replaced by Hot Flashes, which compiled first-ascent information mixed with spray, the kind of ephemeral infotainment we now Hoover up on Instagram. (Hint: Look for the green check box.) But that’s never stopped me, and I’ve been putting up boulders, the occasional trad climbs, and sport routes for the past 32 years. In fact, it was Lee himself who loaned me his Hilti cordless hammer drill and showed me how to use it at the Enchanted Tower, New Mexico, back in 1990. I put up routes because I love it; I love the spirit of exploration and I love not standing in line—if you get to a route first and red-tag it, you don’t have to queue up with the plebes.
The vast majority of climbers do not put up climbs; these days, with all the climbing options and guidebooks and online beta, we don’t have to. But in the 1980s, things were different. Cams and sport climbing were new, bouldering was still “practice,” and there were only a few rock gyms. Thus things we take for granted today—like hard El Cap free routes protected by modern thin-crack protection, stacked sport areas like the Red River Gorge, the latest V17 bangers on Mellow, and the 700 gyms in North America with an infinitely rotating roster of new climbs—didn’t exist. Or at least not in their current form. If you wanted to climb on routes beyond the few options available, you had to establish them. There was more of a culture of first ascentionism, and I’m sure more climbers percentage-wise put up routes than they do today, though it was still a vanishingly small number.
Until I learned how to put up routes, I’d assumed you had to be some sort of chosen one or wizard or demigod of climbing, the trusted inheritor of esoteric knowledge passed down only to the elite few. I didn’t realize that all you needed was either the courage to explore unclimbed rock ground-up, hoping you found adequate protection; or, to put up sport climbs, a drill, a hammer, a wrench, some bolts, some brushes, a rappel device—and a penchant for suffering. (Try hanging in your harness for hours swinging heavy tools, all while trying to stay into the wall and not drop your shit—it sucks.) It literally took Lee 15 minutes to instruct me how to rap-bolt with a power drill, and I have taught other climbers in that same amount of time. There’s not much to it. The process is dull and laborious and anticlimactic, and certainly less complex than putting together an Ikea bookcase.
Which is why I suppose I’m still baffled when climbers who don’t put up routes—which is to say, the vast majority of us—put first ascentionists on a pedestal, as if we had some special insight into what the sport should be or some sacred communion with the rock.
One day a few years ago, I finally got my wish: Someone called me “famous” because I’d bolted a route, though I think they were being facetious. Friends and I were up at Dude’s Throne, a small granite crag west of Boulder, Colorado, climbing next to a friendly group of climbers from Denver. It emerged that they were going the next day to a climb called Milk Bone in the Flatirons, and they somehow figured out I’d bolted it.
“Wow, you’re, like, famous,” one of the climbers said, then cracked a grin. (Nobody before or since has called me famous, though I’m sure I’ve been called “infamous” after popping off in climbing columns for the past 25 years, but that’s another discussion.)
“Ha-ha, yeah, ‘famous,’” I replied. “For rapping in and pulling the trigger on a power drill….”
We all laughed.
And that was it. Nobody stuffed a check for a million dollars into my pocket or called for a limousine to pick me up or rolled out a red carpet or awarded me a Nobel Prize. We just went back to climbing and belaying, in recognition (or not) of the fact that putting up climbs doesn’t make you any more or less special, or any more or less of a climber, than the next guy.
Which is how it should be.
I believe this misplaced reverence for first ascentionists comes from two places: 1) The early days of the sport, when there were basically nothing but first ascents for the plucking and so, if you climbed, you ended up with your name in a guidebook by default—it was easy to become “famous.” 2) The fact that, by definition, it’s always been first ascents that push the boundaries of the sport. In other words, in order to pioneer the grade of 5.14, you also have to be the first person to do a first ascent of a 5.14 (the second ascent simply confirms the grade). Thus the hardest climbs are always first ascents. And so we tend to conflate putting up a route with being the very best climber. And then we falsely deify all first ascentionists.
In practical terms, this plays out in the form of hero worship and/or thinking first ascentionists have some ongoing claim, even after they’ve completed a route, to how it should be climbed. “Oh, Davey McGravy didn’t use kneepads and he didn’t start with the second bolt pre-clipped and he didn’t use that jug off to the left before the crux—so if you do those things, you’re cheating!” or “…you’re not respecting Davey’s purist vision.” In a more sclerosed, insidious form, this argument is extended to protection, in particular grandfathering in old, rotten, unreliable pitons and fixed mank that were good 60 years ago when they were placed instead of updating them with a bolt, as common sense might dictate. At one of my home crags, Eldorado Canyon, this debate has been raging for decades with zero resolution and an ever-growing list of climbing accidents, all because to take any sort of progressive action would be “to disrespect the vision of the first ascentionist”—who was probably standing in etriers to pound the damn pin in anyway, with, of course, no thought to future free climbers!
WATCH VIDEO OF MATT’S FIRST ASCENT:
Well, as someone who puts up routes, I’d like to say this: Beyond going back and adding holds to routes I’ve established or tick-marking them aggressively (it’s déclassé) or leaving trash, wee-wee, and doo-doo at the base, I don’t care what you do. Want to add a bolt because I screwed up and built in a runout? Great—go for it. Want to go up on the route, even if you can’t do all the moves, to pose down for the Gram? Please, by all means. Want to hang a static line and run solo-TR laps on it while impatient climbers queue up at the base? It’s all you, buddy!
Perhaps this attitude seems heretical, but it’s not. Because here’s the thing: I, like most first ascentionists, put up routes for the process. (I suppose some do it to feed their egos, though there are certainly less onerous paths to fame.) And once I’m done, I’m done—D-O-N-E, done. I’m on to the next climb because that’s how I’m wired. I don’t care if you give the route four stars or a bomb rating on Mountain Project; I don’t care if you even know who put the bolts in. It makes me happy to hear that people enjoyed a climb I put up, but it’s not the reason I do it. I do it for me, to feed the monster inside that’s always searching, always restless, always looking around the next rockpile for that hidden four-star potential line, to be, as my friend James Lucas texted me, “grinding your teeth over some red-tagged route.”
In fact, just last week, I completed a long-term first-ascent project in the morning, and then my buddy Brandon and I drove up into the mountains to bolt a new line that same afternoon. As we pulled out, the climb I’d just redpointed was literally in my rear-view mirror, the dust from the dirt road to the trailhead mottling my car. I took my car to the carwash yesterday and rinsed it off. I won’t be back on that dirt road again, at least not anytime soon. To get my next project you park on pavement—it’s highway the whole way. It was time to move on.
Matt Samet is a freelance writer and editor in Boulder, Colorado. Find him on Instagram @phorrizzler6514.