Sometimes you hear people bemoan the dearth of climbers out there who are willing to roll up their sleeves and put up first ascents. Sometimes the people complaining are the more fanatic first ascentionists themselves—though I believe their grousing is essentially self-serving: a way for them voice how much work they do in a way that’s not boastful but achieves the effect of putting themselves on a pedestal. In other words, they don’t really want people out there putting up routes alongside them; they just want to be recognized for what they’ve done.
As passionate climbers, we can all agree that having more routes is generally a good thing, right? Well, actually, no, we can’t, because there are factions of climbers—basically human hangovers from the 1970s—that believe that if you can’t do a first ascent ground-up, drilling bolts by hand and from stances (and occasionally hooks), then a route shouldn’t be installed at all. (I’ve never met the reverse—a climber who thinks everything should be bolted top down—and the vast majority seems to think there’s enough rock out there for both styles to coexist.)
I would like to believe that the old ways of thinking are fading as the American climbing community slowly detoxes from its internecine attitudes about style and ethics, which for the last 40 years have created our relatively antagonistic, progress-thwarting culture. Yet another part of me thinks that we might actually be perpetuating these attitudes, too afraid and prideful to reach any sympathetic, nuanced understanding of the way things actually work. It’s odd to the point of being tedious and even irksome (to me, at least) that, today, climbing articles continue to refer to a few crucial events that took place in Yosemite in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a way of giving context to everything else that has taken place in this incredibly vast world of climbing. The Bachar-Yerian is widely eulogized as the standard, though in truth it’s such an extreme outlier that it hasn’t affected anything about first ascents in America. Yet this story is one we recite again and again, to the point that it now feels mythological—a lesson of great importance.
I’m on the side that believes that more routes are good—for climbing and climbers alike—but I don’t believe that there should be more first ascentionists. Too many people don’t really understand what first ascents are. I think this because I’ve been reading Letters to the Editor in Rock and Ice for a long time. Articles, photos and videos try to explain and capture the experience of what it takes to put up a new route—but it’s quite honestly too nuanced, too complex, too abstractly imaginative to really capture. The language we’ve come up with to categorize first ascents—top down, ground up, chipped, natural, onsight, alpine-style—falls way, way short in its ability to accurately capture reality. It would be like categorizing all paintings by acrylic, oil, watercolor, etc., and then deciding that one medium is categorically superior to the other.
A lot of climbers go wrong, in my opinion, because they read these rather two-dimensional terms and construct ideas about how climbing works in their heads, doing so in a way that seems rational to them. They “get it.” Then they try to make the chaotic outdoor experience fit their rational understanding of how things ought to work, which it doesn’t because it can’t. This extrapolation appears in other areas of climbing as well—grades in particular. We want to believe that the difference between 5.10a and 5.10b is the same jump from 5.14a to 5.14b, or that because 5.12 is like 5.11 only with slightly smaller holds then 5.14 is therefore like 5.13, but with slightly smaller holds. But it doesn’t work that way. You can’t understand what 5.14 is because you climbed 5.13 any more than you understand what alpine-style is in the Himalaya because you climbed Mount Hood in a single push. And you can’t really understand what a first ascent is, unless you’ve put up first ascents on many types of rock and seen how first ascents differ in different areas all around the world.
I view first ascentionists as artists more than public servants. Well bolted, poorly bolted, overly bolted, brilliantly bold, stupidly run-out, chipped, glued, natural, good routes, bad routes, safe, adventurous. When I encounter these things on routes, I see them as testaments to first ascentionist’s vision, or lack thereof. A bad route doesn’t ruin my day any more than a bad piece of art—I may find what has been done to the rock sad and disgusting, but in a constructive way because even terrible routes inform and heighten my personal sense of aesthetics in climbing, of what’s right and what’s wrong, which I’d never be able to understand if I only sat at home and read about routes through words.