Climber on ROTC, Midnight Rock, Leavenworth.
  Rock Climbing Ethics: A Historical Perspective  
  Part 2, by Matt Perkins  

Sport Climbing

In the late 1970s, French climbers at such places as the Verdon Gorge and Boux began to tout the advantages of engineering routes by rappelling to pre-place protection. They developed climbing areas protected entirely by bolts. “Sport climbing” challenged traditional notions of “fair means” in a major way. Not only did sport climbers pre-place gear and develop climbs from the top down, but they also seemed to have no shame about hanging on gear and rehearsing moves. To make things worse, they wore tights, climbed in indoor gyms, and held formal competitions with judges and funny rules! Many American climbers proclaimed that they would never fall for such foolishness and that these French climbers were nothing but cowards. The derogatory term “French-free” was used to refer to any ascent that involved pulling on a piece of gear or taking tension from the rope.

Although most American climbers frowned on such practices, as early as 1972 one of the leading Yosemite climbers, Jim Bridwell, acknowledged that aid was being used to establish anchors for free climbs and that rehearsal and pre-inspection were regular practices that would surely grow. Top-down route development and pre-placement of gear was occurring more than generally acknowledged. Yet not until the mid 1980s, after sport climbing became a phenomenon in Europe, did it achieve a sense of legitimacy in the United States. In particular, it exploded at Smith Rocks in Oregon.

In 1986, the cover of Mountain Magazine featured Alan Watts on his Smith Rock sport climb, Chain Reaction. That year, a visiting French climber put up the first 5.14(a) in the United States, To Bolt or Not to Be. With these developments, resistance to sport climbing in the United States was dealt a serious blow. American climbers were stunned by the technical difficulties that could be overcome with “Euro” methods. We even abandoned our painters’ pants in favor of Lycra, and climbers who had previously eschewed such tactics began to hang on bolts as they worked a route.

For many climbers, sport climbing was in and “trad” climbing was old school. The traditional climbing ethics, largely developed in Yosemite, didn’t enable most climbers to develop the same technical proficiency, and sport climbing was seen by many as not only safer but also more enjoyable. As these terms have come to be used, sport climbing is mostly or exclusively bolt-protected face climbing with the bolts placed at close intervals. “Trad” climbing is pretty much everything else except bouldering and, depending on who you ask, aid climbing.

The term “trad” usually connotes the use of removable protection like nuts and camming devices but some bolt-protected climbs with long runouts between the bolts are also viewed as “trad.” Pure “trad” style requires climbs to be established from the ground up, without any rehearsal or use of fixed gear. Sport climbs are usually developed on rappel, with fixed gear (bolts) installed before the first ascent, and hanging on gear is accepted as the climbers rehearse a route to work toward climbing it without taking any assistance from the rope or gear (known as a “redpoint” ascent).

Yet these distinctions become murky when one looks at the complexities of our climbing history. Not only had some Yosemite regulars experimented with rappel-placed bolting and other methods now associated with sport climbing as early as the 1970s, the same muddying of the waters took place at Index, near Seattle, where many climbs were established with a significant amount of top-down development. Many of the Index’s more difficult crack climbs became free climbable only after they were used as practice aid climbs and the cracks developed piton scarring which makes ideal finger pockets. Many of the cracks themselves were only unearthed after extensive hang-time with a garden trowel, employed by a climber who was inspecting the route for its climbing potential.

Another example of how the trad/sport lines are muddied can be found in the Schawangunks of New York. There, pre-placed protection is formally maintained although it consists of fixed pitons and bolts have not been accepted. Rehearsing moves, even if it means hanging on gear, has been largely accepted since the 1970s.

Bolt Wars

Although we tend to think of “bolt wars” today as a “trad versus sport” conflict, American climbers have been policing the use of bolts for about fifty years, starting long before the emergence of sport climbing. In 1957, a climber removed nine bolts from Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite after deciding that they were unnecessary and detracted from the climb since they were added after the first ascent. Steve Roper took up the cause in 1963 when he pulled about thirty bolts from the classic route on Shiprock in New Mexico. The following year, he wrote an article for Summit magazine, explaining his actions and assuring readers that the climb remained safe, just not as convenient as it had been.

Roper’s article stirred up the climbing community, and the follow-up letters to Summit raised questions that are commonly echoed in today’s bolt wars. What climber has the right to appoint himself or herself enforcer of a particular ethical view? Do public debate and private enforcement send the wrong message to land managers? What are the boundaries of acceptable bolting practice? In one of the letters to the editor that followed, Fred Beckey offered the practical advice, “If you are going to place a bolt, make it a good one!”

In 1970, Royal Robbins set out to erase Warren Harding’s route on El Capitan, The Wall of the Early Morning Light. Robbins began the climb proclaiming that Harding’s use of 300 bolts was way over any acceptable limit. However, four pitches up the route, Robbins and his partner stopped removing the bolts and completed the climb leaving the remainder intact. He later conceded that as they removed bolts on the initial pitches, they began to question whether they were erasing a worthy climb. While Robbins never answered the question of how many bolts were too many, this event looms large in American climbing. Everybody was talking about it. Unfortunately, rather than illuminating the ethical questions, the incident was largely seen as a personality conflict between Robbins and Harding.

Perry’s Lieback, at Squamish. Climbers disagree as to whether the bolts are appropriate.
Perry’s Lieback, at Squamish. Climbers disagree as to whether the bolts are appropriate. Using the crack for protection requires placing many large cams from an awkward position. © Matthew Buckle
Since the mid 1980s, the development of heavily bolted climbing areas and the adding of bolts to existing climbs (“retro-bolting”) has been a growing trend. Occasionally, climbers take it upon themselves to police such actions by removing a bolt, a bolted climb, or even all the bolts on a crag. Such bolt wars have flared up at various climbing areas throughout the United States. Crusaders for traditional (minimally-bolted) climbing have in some instances held the line on bolting, while in others, their statements had little impact on bolting practices.

As in earlier disagreements over fixed ropes and the use of aid, climbers in the Northwest have generally taken a low-key approach toward those issues. There was relatively little conflict at Smith Rock when sport climbing exploded there in the 1980s. In Washington, the rise of sport climbing at Index, generally regarded as a traditional climbing area, produced little public acrimony during the late 1980s and early 1990s, although strenuous disagreements about bolting and chipping took place behind the scenes. The climbers involved generally raised their concerns directly with those they disagreed with, rather than drawing attention to themselves or the issues by bringing the matter before other climbers or land managers.

The Northwest has not been immune from open conflict, however. A “bolt war” which was really an argument between just two individuals led to the closure of climbing on the Omak Indian reservation, in north-central Washington, in 1991, after one of the climbers sought tribal involvement in the matter. Hard feelings linger from incidents over the past dozen years in which climbers at Vantage, Leavenworth and Spokane took it upon themselves to remove what they deemed offensive bolts.

In each case, disputants have rehashed arguments largely framed in the 1970s and 1980s. Clear resolution of the issues has been rare, but sometimes progress has been made toward defining where and under what circumstances a particular technique can be accepted. Individual climbing areas seem to be adopting local ethics, with some trending toward more liberal use of bolts and others not. Crack climbs in the Northwest have generally remained free of bolts even at some of the most heavily developed sport climbing areas, such as Vantage in central Washington, and Smith Rock in Oregon.

Unilateral bolt removal can make a strong statement about over-bolting, but the hard feelings and open hostility that result can splinter the climbing community and cause a public relations nightmare. Crags have been closed to climbing when outside parties were drawn into such a conflict or otherwise alarmed by it. In some cases, Northwest climbers have begun to organize local committees to coordinate route development or contribute to formal climbing management plans with an eye toward addressing issues such as bolting conflicts in a less incendiary manner.

Chipping and rappel bolting

Chipping and rappel bolting became big issues in the 1980s. A consensus in the climbing community has long held that chipping holds to create a climb is poor form. But when climbers put a lot of effort into developing a new project, chipping holds into an unforeseen or unwanted blank section is tempting. Some see nothing wrong with it but, because of the longstanding taboo, few climbers have ever been willing to come forth and say, “Yes I did it. And I think it is OK.”

In 1990, Duane Raleigh wrote a piece for Climbing Magazine in which he said that while he did not approve of chipping, we should think about the issue in a rational manner. Raleigh conceded that the removal of small amounts of rock was probably not all that destructive in an objective sense, and that the practice could have some benefit if it opens unclimbable rock. Furthermore, he said, the practice was probably one that would continue in secret even if we tried to stop it, and that bringing it out into the open would be better.

Similar arguments have been made about rappel bolting, with some climbers seeing this practice as highly desirable because, if done with care, it may yield better quality routes. Subsequent parties typically care only whether the bolts are secure and well located; the experience of placing bolts on rappel or on the lead affects only the party who establishes the route. While some climbers decry rappel bolting as unethical, it need not be any more damaging, in an objective sense, than bolting a route from the ground up. However, many climbers view rappel bolting as unethical because the climbers establishing a route by this method do not take the same risk as they would in a traditional ground-up ascent. In addition, they believe that routes tend to be more heavily bolted if the bolts are placed on rappel.

Raleigh was lambasted for defending chipping, and those critical of chipping or rappel bolting have argued that these techniques deprive future generations the opportunity to climb naturally. Others counter that maintaining dogmatic rules about climbing style may preclude sensible and safe route development. They question why those who celebrate the glory days of big wall climbing in Yosemite, with its extensive use of pitons for aid even after the clean climbing revolution of the 1970s, are so upset by the removal of a tiny bit of rock associated with a bolt or a chipped hold. These arguments continue today.

Current trends

Together with sport climbing, an important change in modern rock climbing is the development of indoor climbing gyms. Most new climbers today learn in an artificial environment where everything is labeled and the climbs have been engineered to minimize the chances of getting hurt. These climbers are able to focus on the technical mastery of climbing short and steep rock faces, and traditional aspects of climbing such as route finding and traveling safely in a dangerous environment may be seen as distractions.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, as climbing became more technical, the notion of “fair means” implied a balance between challenge and safety. A more skillful or bold climber might be able to succeed where others had failed. When pioneering new routes, most leading climbers tried to minimize their use of technical aids. Boldness was valued as much as technical skill. Today, the traditional emphasis on bold climbing is losing sway at many crags, just as it has in the climbing gyms. On many modern routes, abundant fixed protection makes risking a dangerous fall unnecessary. Some traditionalists are upset by these changes, but other climbers ask, “Why would we want to scare ourselves?” Most crag development is trending toward a sport climbing approach and relatively few climbs are being established in pure “trad” style.

As the number of climbers grows, their impact on vegetation in and around climbing areas has become a significant issue. Rock climbers have in the past felt free to develop new trails to their climbs and to remove vegetation from cracks and lichen from the surface of the rock. Even large trees have come down in the name of climbing development. Logger’s Ledge at Castle Rock got its name this way in the early days of Northwest rock climbing near Leavenworth. The “chainsaw massacre” at Index in the late 1980s was even more dramatic. Somebody cut a wide swath of trees at the bottom of the cliff and left them where they fell. Nothing quite this heavy-handed has taken place recently, but even the removal of moss and lichen can be controversial. Rangers in Leavenworth, Newhalem and elsewhere have recently expressed concern about the way climbers are removing vegetation when developing new routes. Climbers’ trails are visually obvious, and climbers have at times disturbed sensitive plant communities or caused unnecessary erosion through well-intentioned maintenance projects.

Even without disturbing vegetation, climbing can have a visual impact. For climbers, a cliff is a recreational resource; for others, it may be a scenic resource. Brightly colored rappel slings, streaks of scrubbed rock in the middle of a mossy wall, or even climbers in action can be disturbing to other users and may raise concerns for land managers. The Twin Sisters formation in the City of Rocks in Idaho was closed to climbing after climbers and rappel slings were found incompatible with the preservation of this historic landmark of the wagon train days. As climbers, we need to consider how others view us when we climb near a trail or picnic ground, or anywhere that other user groups or land managers may take a particular interest.

Recreation management is on the rise. Many climbers assume that we will always be free to climb wherever and whenever we wish, but this may not be so. Our climbing areas are becoming increasingly subject to development and recreational pressure. Liability and environmental concerns are driving increasing regulation. Not only will we see more stringent protections for wildlife habitat or water supplies, but we are also likely to see more formal recreational management. The past practice of developing and publicizing climbing areas and attracting hundreds of climbers before thinking about management issues or even notifying the land managers may not serve us well in the future.

Climbers are slowly becoming more organized as a user group. Although we have often waited until a crisis loomed, such as a threatened crag closure, some see the growth of local crag committees or climbing advocacy groups as a positive trend that should be encouraged even where no crisis exists. Other recreational groups such as horse packers, hikers, hunters, and dirt-bike riders are more organized than rock climbers, with well-funded local and national groups actively developing and maintaining facilities and aggressively promoting their interests. In an era of increasing recreational pressure and decreasing available land, ethical and practical considerations may well dictate that we join together and sacrifice some of the freedom that we’ve known in the past. “Doing your own thing” may adversely impact other’s access to the climbing areas.

Ethics in perspective

A review of the last one hundred years of climbing shows that some of the most significant developments in technique and equipment were challenged as unethical when they first appeared. For example, at the turn of the twentieth century some felt that the use of belaying techniques was taking the adventure out of mountain climbing. In the 1950s, others decried the use of even the slightest aid on rock climbs that were thousands of feet high. In the 1970s, still others questioned whether the use of camming protection was cheating and, in the 1980s, many wondered whether sport climbing would be the death of the sport. We should not ignore those who question new climbing developments or who are concerned about ethical and stylistic matters; how we climb does matter. The point is that we need to maintain some humility about today’s issues because at least some of the questions that we are dearly concerned about today may appear quaint or outdated tomorrow. We should not let ethical debates between climbers obscure other looming issues or spoil our relationships with land managers and the community at large.

As long as rock climbing is a sport, climbers will continue to debate what constitutes “fair means,” what is an acceptable margin of safety, which new technical tools are appropriate, and how much alteration of the climbing environment is acceptable. But the bottom line is that climbing areas are a limited resource and most of the places where we climb do not belong to us. We must take care of them, and we will have to abide by some rules or suffer the consequences. We must avoid making too much of a nuisance of ourselves, which means considering not only our impact on the land but on other users as well. We have to consider what we are asking of property owners or land managers wherever we climb. We have enjoyed remarkable freedom to explore America’s wild lands and vertical playgrounds for the last one hundred years. With care, we may continue to enjoy this privilege for another century.
Time Line
1970 - Environmental movement takes off. First Earth Day. EPA is created.

1970 - Royal Robbins starts to remove a Warren Harding route in Yosemite but abandons the effort 4 pitches up the route on El Capitan.

1972 - Tom Frost addresses piton scarring in the American Alpine Journal.

Tom Frost, with a rack full of pitons in Yosemite. Photo courtesy Tom Frost.
Tom Frost

1972 - Chouinard Equipment Company introduces nuts to the American market.

1974 - Ray Jardine introduces “Friends” and some climbers question whether their use may be “cheating.”

Late 1970s - rapelling and preplacing gear grows as a practice in France.

1980s - Sport climbing explodes in Europe and gains legitimacy in the United States.

1986 - Sport Climbing at Smith Rock, Oregon, appears on the cover of Mountain Magazine

Alan Watts climbs Chain Reaction at Smith Rocks:
Alan Watts climbs Chain Reaction at Smith Rocks

1987 - Opening of the first indoor climbing gym in the United States, the Vertical Club in Seattle.

Vertical Club:
Inside Vertical Club Gym. Photo by Larry Kemp
Photo © Larry Kemp

1990 - Controversial article in Climbing Magazine about chipping.

1990s - Land Managers, property owners, and law enforcement agencies are drawn into bolting conflicts.

1991 - rec.climbing created and became a targeted forum on Internet discussion of rock climbing. This led to bulletin boards such as cascadeclimbers.com.

2000 - Fixed anchor rulemaking process conducted by Forest Service stalemates without resolution of underlying issues.
Author’s Note
Where do I stand?
In preparing this article, I had the opportunity to contact many climbers from varying backgrounds, and many of them asked me “Where do you stand? Are you pro-bolt or anti-bolt?” My answer is that I am pro-climbing. Climbers are a diverse group with lots of different ideas about what the sport means to us and, while I may not like everything that goes on in climbing today, I believe we should strive to maintain a diversity of climbing opportunities.

As responsible citizens in the climbing world, all of us need to consider what we are doing and to encourage others to do the same. I believe we will progress further in exchanging ideas or resolving the great questions of the day if we maintain humility and civility in all of this. I hope, too, that a reflection on our history may help us to maintain some perspective.
Other References
The Mechanical Advantage - A history and discussion of mountaineering tools by John Middendorf

Don’t Know Much About History: How Lack of Historical Emphasis Doomed the Fixed Anchor Negotiated Rulemaking - PDF document from the American Alpine Club
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