Grasping at Draws: Beware the Future!

Four Climbers Learn Their Fate
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Four figures spilled out of a Prius, followed by the chemical aroma of pine-tree air freshener. A Lyft sign lit up the car’s windshield, casting a soft glow through the foggy alleyway. Above a red door, a flickering light revealed peeling script: “Seer.”

Calling the four “friends” would be a stretch. They were barely acquaintances, sharing only swollen forearms, callused fingers, and a penchant for the vertical—they’d found each other through Meetup, or perhaps it was Partner Finder. Nobody could recall. Each arrived with their respective talisman in hand: a freshly sharpened ice screw, a mangled yellow/red offset cam, a boar’s hair brush covered in $300 of fine-grained premium chalk, and a 30-foot extendable stick clip. They joined to find a common truth: what might become of their passions.

The four climbers pushed through the door. Inside, velvet draped the walls, and in the middle of the room was a small, candle-
studded table surrounded by five chairs. As the climbers crossed the threshold, a gust slammed the door shut, extinguishing the flames, plunging the climbers into darkness.

“Sit,” said a sultry voice with a tinge of a French accent. One candle flickered back to life then another as the fortune-teller leaned over to relight them. Covered in what appeared to be old, tattered pof rags, she towered over the climbers.

“Why have you come to me?” she intoned as they all took their seats.

“To find out what will happen to us, to our sport,” the trad climber said. “We want to know what the future holds.” The others nodded their assent.

“Oh, but you already know, don’t you?” she said, pulling a small teapot and five cups from beneath the table. “You’re simply too scared to believe. Let me show you.”

Part 1: The Alpinist

"What, you’re going to read our tea leaves, trace lines in our palms, kill a chicken and look at the guts?” the Alpinist ranted. Pink-faced with anger, the Alpinist slammed the ice screw on the table. “I’m outta here! I’ve got better things to do.”

“That’s right, you do,” the seer responded. “Never forget, Alpinist, your sport is dying as we speak. Pick up a newspaper, turn on the television, check @gretathunberg—the warming climate is killing your sport. In a decade, the Ouray Ice Festival will become a summer festival for kayakers.”

The seer closed her eyes and picked up the ice screw, turning it over in her hands. She continued, “As for your big mountains, the classic summits will benight even the most accomplished alpinist. As the receding glaciers and snows unveil either dangerous death-routes with loose rock and calving ice or only difficult, technical faces far beyond your abilities, suffering as a skill will no longer suffice. Few will find favor in the alpine ….

“Mark my words, Alpinist, your dogged dismissal of other disciplines will be your downfall. The Piolet D’or turns to a Piolet D’rouille—‘rust,’ as you Americans call it—as obscurity and repetition take the baton. You shall be like Sisyphus, cursed to ascend only the few hills that remain in season, eking out every last possible variation before you return to the valley below, only to start again.”

The Alpinist shrank, shaken by the seer’s words as she said, “Now, Trad Climber, pour everyone some tea.”

Part 2: The Trad Climber

Hands shaking as if at the base of a 5.11 X squeeze chimney, the Trad Climber jerkily filled the cups, splashing liquid all over the saucers. The psychic then instructed the Trad Climber to use the mangled cam to stir the tea clockwise five times, drink it until only a teaspoon of liquid remained, and place the cam next to the saucer.

“An uncomplicated future for an uncomplicated people,” she said, peering into the cup. The Trad Climber breathed a sigh of relief. “But not without its own travails.”

Continued the seer, “Once upon a time, beginning in the 1980s, uncivilized villains with Lycra tights and power drills scarred your rock with bolts. They brought heathens to your crags, and made a mockery of the sport’s ethos. A decades-long war abated with a brief renaissance, with the killer elite establishing hard lines using removable protection. But are these routes truly ‘trad’ climbs? The gear placement involves more memory than adventure, and could ultimately be said to be as basic as clipping a bolt.

“Even big walls, once the pinnacle of free climbing, have felt the hammer-blow of modernity. Your crown jewel, El Capitan, has been free-soloed by a semi-homeless, atheist vegetarian. A Czech sport climber repeated the wall’s hardest route 2,500 days faster than its first ascent only to return to sport climbing. You must see the writing on the big wall.

“Trad climbing finds itself at a proverbial fork in the road. To get more difficult, it must either become so dangerous it’s just rehearsed free soloing with a rope or it must be bolted, in which case it’s just sport climbing. Join the Country Club Crack and ease into roadside retirement: The Hand Jammies have come and they don’t care what you once were—only what you might become.”

Part 3: The Boulderer

“Boulderer, give me your talisman,” the seer commanded. The climbers stared into their laps, wondering why they’d come. They were peeling off the topout, falling in slow motion, unable to avoid a groundfall. The Boulderer handed over the boar’s-hair brush. The seer stared at the Boulderer’s callused tips, and then brushed them in slow, clockwise circles.

“Well then, Boulderer,” she said. “It would appear your fate differs, but not how you may hope. Bouldering will gain popularity, more than you can imagine. Its sheer accessibility provides an opening for the masses. It is at once the most affordable and the most social discipline—a veritable boon to the sport.

“But what becomes of your standards? Your bouldering ratings rely on two factors: physical difficulty and commitment. With Shawn Raboutou trying to revert the V scale back into a close-ended, 10-grade B scale, hearkening back to the simpler days of John Gill, any leaps in difficulty will be soon so personal they’ll border on a feeling. Is that problem in Japan, Brazil, or RMNP really V16, or do you just not want to hurt the first ascentionist’s feelings—or it simply ‘has’ to be V16 because you traveled such a long way to repeat it? No one will truly repeat your climbs; instead, they’ll only create their own reality, their own standards. And it will dilute the experience until only one rubric remains: a problem’s goodness, its movement, its consistency, its delight.

“And then what of the emotional commitment—the landing or the height? As Reel Rock pushes the ‘High Road,’ what separates the boulderer from the soloist? A mattress? By the time you’re no longer willing to fall off, you’re no longer a boulderer but a glorified trad climber who doesn’t place pro. At which point you might as well sport climb.”

Hearing this, the Trad Climber whimpered.

“But beware, Boulderer, the venom of comparison, a virulent path that may lead your climbing soul up, up, and away. Your new altitude has no room for attitude.”

Part 4: The Sport Climber

The seer then brought her gaze upon the emaciated sport climber.

“And what should we do with you, Sport Climber? Even your talisman, the stick clip, is imbued with the same combination of ingenuity and laziness that has long infused your discipline—like the kneepad or hand warmer in your chalkbag, or rappel-bolting itself. But even as you push yourself to the limits of human endurance, your sport corrodes by the day. Convenience will be your downfall. Few venture beyond the cliffs of comfort, your Rifles and your Reds. Once radical, sport climbing is now middle-aged, a Boomer in a world of alphabet generations. The youngsters make fast work of your legacy, doing in one hour (‘second go; soft’) that which took you years of training and self-starvation. You are but drill dust to be blown away by the breeze of passing phenoms.

“This is the curse of the Sport Climber: Your crowds grow while your developers thin. The remaining Bosch owners will fade into the periphery—why equip on your own dime only to be the butt-end of 57 bomb ratings on Mountain Project when you could ‘put up’ routes in the gym for a paycheck? The new school will fail to heed your back-in-the-day ramblings and obscure kneescum beta for Living in Fear—their climbing coach has created a perfect replica from a YouTube video to train on all winter so they can flash it come spring. Your days of spray are over.”

Epilogue

The seer scanned the four drawn faces at the table, lingering on each climber as she addressed them.

Intoned the seer, “You’ve all contributed to your own demise. You are the reason the Olympics will feature three separate disciplines rolled into one, each the pinnacle of your specialty. Alpinist and Trad Climber, speed climbing captures the velocity necessary for multi-pitch climbs and alpinism. Boulderer, find yourself in the tactical strength and precision the athletes must manifest on each problem. And, Sport Climber, see yourself every time the competitors rope up, seeking difficulty in endurance.

“This Hydra is the culmination of your hubris, of your disdainful dismissal of the other disciplines. You have all sealed your fate, with ecosystems damaged, crags bolted, boulders overrun, and your cliffs of convenience tapped out. And so it is that the Rock Gods shall smite you, and those things you once held sacred fall into ruination.”

With that, the seer swiped her hand across the table, extinguishing the candles. Through the inky darkness, a blinding flash dazed the climbers. When their eyes readjusted, they found themselves in the alley next to the same Prius that had delivered them there.

“Call for a car?” the driver yelled into the fog.

Sharing a glance, the four climbers piled in, unsure what to make of what they’d just heard. The Prius hurtled down the alleyway, pausing before turning onto a one-way street. It pressed on into the night, toward the only illumination on the edge of town: a flickering neon sign advertising “Rock Gym,” welcoming all souls ready to come in from the darkness.

Andrew Tower lives in the mountain town of Crested Butte on the Western Slope of Colorado—far from people but close to rocks.

Read more Grasping at Draws.