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The Wrong Way to Have Fun Climbing

For "conquistadors of the useless," climbers sure love getting into bitter disputes about how we enjoy ourselves.

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In my seven years of climbing, I have noticed two disparate things about our community. First, climbers like to revel in the pointlessness of our endeavor. We are, per the title of Lionel Terray’s classic book, “conquistadors of the useless.” George Mallory is often quoted (out of context) as saying he climbed Everest “because it was there.” We climb up to come back down. Climbing contributes nothing to the world; it’s a nihilistic, solipsistic pursuit.

This is true, but it could be said for most forms of recreation: Baseball, painting, freestyle motorcross, hot dog eating contests…

Second, despite this, climbers love getting into bitter disputes about the right and wrong way to have fun. It’s like that old quote about academia, “The fighting is so vicious because there’s so little at stake.”

Toproping doesn’t count. You didn’t tick that boulder because your foot nicked the ground. Every 5.15 ascent was technically a pinkpoint. That sport route should be a trad route. That trad route should be a highball. That highball should be a toprope. I’ve heard people say the first nude ascent of El Cap was disrespectful to our entire sport because climbing should only be enjoyed in a stoic, very serious manner (no smiling allowed). I’ve seen long Facebook rants inspired by liberal use of the term “redpoint,” because someone claimed success even though they may have briefly weighted the rope or grazed a quickdraw, even if by accident. Check the comments of any article about a speed ascent and you’ll find people criticizing the climbers for not savoring the experience, comparing the impressive feat to rushed sex with a supermodel. When Climbing shared a video of a barefoot V15 ascent recently, it prompted a sincere response from someone saying it was the first true ascent of a hard boulder because climbing shoes are cheating. The commenter stopped short of giving the climber his full respect, because he used chalk.

For a sport that is meaningless in the grand scheme of the universe, there sure are a lot of ways to do it wrong.

Here’s the thing: Rules are only important in sports where you’re competing against other people. In baseball, all the players have to agree on what “baseball” is to complete a game. If half the players decided that it was OK to use the bat as a weapon, it would be much more entertaining, but also not a fair competition. The same is true for climbers at the cutting edge. If you are pushing the limits of the sport, we need to agree on how we quantify and qualify that. For the Dawn Wall, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson defined success as climbing every pitch in a single, ground-up push. Falls were OK, as long as the pitch was eventually completed clean. We, as a community, accepted their terms—though I’m sure some called “bullshit” every time Jorgeson returned only to the beginning of pitch 15 after each fall, instead of lowering 1,000 feet to the ground. We could compare Adam Ondra’s ascent in 2016 because he followed the same rules. He couldn’t just drill a bolt ladder up the thing and say he “repeated it.”

For everyone else, climbing is an individual endeavor; you only need to cooperate with yourself. Your goal should be to pursue climbing in the way that gives you the most enjoyment. Decide for yourself which rules—about what counts and what doesn’t, what’s good style and what isn’t—you want to follow.

If you get satisfaction from working a route until you can redpoint it, great. If you want to say you climbed a route after you French-freed half the moves on toprope, great. Who cares? If you’re not seeking sponsorships or glory from the greater community, then none of this matters, remember?

I’m not going to jump on the Alex Lowe cliché and say that the best climber is the one who is having the most fun. That’s not true. The best climber is Adam Ondra. But, if you can’t be him, striving to squeeze as much fun as you can from the stone is the next best goal.

Some people find adventure by climbing harder, at higher elevations, or in more dangerous terrain. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’d rather have an adventure by completing the slowest known ascent of a route, climbing a four-pitch bolted 5.9 over four days with a portaledge. Or climb in ridiculous costumes like Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker for their annual birthday challenge. Or have a Hawaiian luau on a big wall like Jacob Cook and Ian Cooper. Or climb naked like Leah Pappajohn and Jonathan Fleury. Climbing hard and climbing naked are both inherently worthless pursuits. Neither is better or worse than the other. Their only value is to the climbers themselves.

In the art world, there are critics who will tell you what is and isn’t art, what should be celebrated and what is trash, what “counts.” Still, they can’t stop anyone from painting. If you’re climbing safely, you’re not altering the rock, you’re not causing access issues, and you’re having fun, then you are climbing correctly, whatever that means to you.