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Chip With Honor: The Art Of Manufacturing Routes With Integrity

Trigger Warning, dear reader: the following is a humor piece on everyone's favorite topic—chipping. 

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I keep hearing that walls are meant for climbing. It may sound a little anthropocentric, but I totally buy into the idea that rocks emerged on this Earth for the sole purpose of being rock climbed by underemployed young adults living in vans. Steep caves were made for hang-dogging and large pebbles were made for beached-whaling. 

But sometimes walls just can’t be climbed by your average van-lifer without a little “improvement.” As they say, if you want something done right, sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands and do it yourself. You can’t always trust the gradual process of geological deposition or the eternally sluggish hardening of molten lava to produce 5-star rock climbs without some human assistance. If you want to put up total bangers at your local crag, you might need to expedite the earth’s natural geologic evolution with a chisel and little elbow grease. 

Of course, humanity is always standing on a slippery, scree-infested slope of integrity, where one wrong step onto some loose talus will leave you tumbling downward to the seas of sin. Get a little too comfortable comfortizing holds, and you’ll be the scum of the r/climbing earth. As a route developer, you need to walk that paper-thin line between making art and making an ass of yourself. I’m here to help you navigate that tricky terrain.

Many climbers have spent an astounding fraction of their Reddit hours maliciously arguing – er, thoughtfully deliberating – the complexities of route development. I get the impression that some of the most passionate individuals with regard to their stance on manufacturing rock climbs have never contributed a single hour of their lives cleaning moss off of a new granite block, let alone spent $200 on hardware and days of their lives dangling from a rock face to put up a new bolted pitch. So, as someone who once tightened a loose bolt on a sport climb and who has climbed (fallen off of) a lot of rock climbs – both of the heavily manufactured and slightly less-manufactured variety – I may as well be a leading authority on the ethics of route development. Plus, I have loads of friends who’ve bolted chossy squeeze jobs at your favorite crags, and I’ve learned a lot from their experiences toeing the line between cleaning and creating. 

Let’s start with some of the totally sensible and morally sound reasons you might need to take a chisel to some stone: Sometimes you start bolting a route top down and realize the gods of rock formation forgot to add a decent clipping hold where you were going to put the third bolt. Sometimes the knobby, fossil-infused half-pad hole in the wall would simply be much more pleasant if crafted into a soft, fossil-free three finger pocket. Sometimes your king-line-of-the-crag vision just needs a teeny bit of chiseling to become reality. Sometimes you just need to manifest your own damn vertical destiny. In those cases, it’s perfectly okay to do a little human improvement to the crag you “discovered” after hours spent studying fine-grained GIS maps, stumbling around the woods, and eventually trespassing onto private property to access.

But as my Reddit-commenting comrades know well, you can’t always take matters into your own hands. There’s a subtle distinction between honorable, machine-assisted route development and drilling away your integrity. The most important reason not to chip a rock climb comes down to a simple question: Is anyone going to find out? If folks are going to notice that this pocket is just a little too good to be true, or that the crux crimp has scars from where you chiseled it out from the stone beneath, or that the featureless section of cliff has one uncharacteristically miraculous hold precisely where it’s needed, it’s best to save your drill for bolting. You can always try to take a Dremel to those rock scars, but you wouldn’t want your reputation tarnished by one astutely observant, ethically superior climber with a rare knack for telling the difference between a naturally occurring geological break and one produced by a small crowbar.

Look: Rock climbing is a lot like eating a hot dog at your buddy Kevin’s barbecue. As soon as you show up, Kevin hands you a Bud heavy and a big, juicy hot dog, delicately topped with a glorious strip of yellow mustard. You – already a little bit tipsy from watching #sports all day with your college roommates – happily inhale the rejected byproducts of six different animal species, all of whom were mercilessly slaughtered after a miserable life in an overcrowded, windowless cage, in record speed. Vegan Linda pejoratively wonders how you’re really unbothered by the fact that you’re consuming the ground-up discards of a diverse cast of could-be pets as you go back for a second helping, but damn, that dog was tasty. 

In a similar spirit, I spent all summer a little bit tipsy, falling off of an exceptional yet ego-destroying rock climb outside of Lander, Wyoming. It flowed just like a flawlessly set gym climb, back before paddle dynos and parkour had ruined route-setting. The holds were angled perfectly for each move; the pockets ergonomic and comfortable for the human hand; the moves dynamic but not too reachy. It was brilliant. I couldn’t get enough. Well, really, I couldn’t stop punting, so I had no choice but to climb it over and over again, but that’s not the point. The point is that, one day before climbing, I scrolled too far down an Internet forum while enjoying my morning croissant (Shoutout Lincoln Street Bakery! All your food is bomb), where I read that some “aggressive cleaning” had led to a downgrade of the climb several years back. I closed my laptop and tried to forget what I’d seen. I finished my croissant, went back to the crag, and tied right back in. And punted. Again. That climb was excellent, drilled pocket and all. 

Manufacturing rock climbs is a lot like manufacturing highly processed junk food. Oblivious consumers love the taste, willfully unaware of the potentially dishonorable activities that led to the final, polished product. Hide your dirty work in enough of your favorite condiment – erase those chisel-induced rock scars with a Dremel – and let the people climb the slightly improved rock walls in blissful ignorance. 

Note: If the confusing and morally complex terrain of when and when-not-to do a little manufacturing are overwhelming, just go to the New River Gorge. The rock climbs are near perfection without any human improvement, and that Nuttall sandstone is too bullet to be chipped anyway.