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The History and Future of Climbing Style and Ethics

Submitted by camhead on 2014-11-06

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by Paul Nelson

I’d be willing to bet that many of us got into climbing because it was the “anti-sport”– an athletic pursuit that somehow avoided all the silly rules, judging, and contrivances of more organized sports like football, gymnastics, dressage, or curling.

In a lot of ways, climbing is still the adventurous “Wild West” of sports; we can pursue it individually or in groups, make it as safe or dangerous and easy or hard as we like, and in the end, we really answer to nobody. Freeeeedom!

But is it really this simple? Are there “rules” to climbing? Some would say no, that maybe apart from “don’t die,” climbing is merely what each of us makes of it. But if we dig deeper, it becomes pretty obvious that there is a complex of informal rules and practices that dictate the ways that we play on the rock. Sometimes these are mere guidelines, informal and voluntary. Other times, in the case of climbing on some public lands, they are legally mandated. Almost all of them have changed and evolved over the past hundred years. But regardless, climbing may not be as much a “free-for-all” as you may have initially assumed when you got into it.

In discussions over the years with long-time climbers, I’ve noticed that the moral rules of climbing have always come down to this:

Be honest about what you’ve climbed. Don’t harm the rock.

It’s pretty simple, only a little more in-depth than “Don’t Die.” However, if you think about it, this “be honest, do no harm” bit really comes down to a concept in climbing that differentiates between Style and Ethics, two “rule books” of how we climb that every new climber should be familiar with. A few weeks ago I briefly alluded to the difference between style and ethics in an article on chalk, but I would like to go a bit more in-depth on the topic.

Simply put, “style” is each individual climber’s approach to how he or she approaches the challenge of moving up the rock. “Ethics” are the approach that we climbers as a group take (either informally or sometimes required legally) to preserve the rock resources for all climbers and sometimes other recreationalists. Confused? Keep reading.



Some of us like to climb sport, others trad, others boulder, others that weird frozen ice stuff. Within each of these disciplines, some of us might have individual little twists on how we approach routes. Some of us want beta, others don’t. Some of us want to onsight, others want to project. Some want to toprope, others want to lead. Some use a stickclip, others don’t. Some climb with cams, others with just stoppers. Some avoid using chalk, most of us use it. A select few of us want to solo, most of us say “aww, HELL to the NO!” All of these little variances in how we climb come down to our individual styles.

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John Long said, "Every climb has a beginning and an end. What I do in between is my own business." His own business included knee socks and cigarettes.

The cool thing about style is that each of us can decide what our style is, and answer only to ourselves. Think about it– you can’t really join a community soccer league and then start claiming that every goal you score counts double what your opposing team scores. You can’t start playing Scrabble and suddenly say, “hey, “asdsfjgkwyef” is a word!” If you pulled that, you’d be shown the door. But if you want to go to the cliff, step up to a 5.13 sport route, and then aid your way up it with a stickclip and ascenders, you can totally do that; there is nothing stopping you.

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Get out, or we will cut your rope!

Yes, you might be ridiculed for climbing the sport route this way. Most other climbers would say, “dude, that was terrible style.” If you went back to the campfire that evening and claim that you sent the route, you’d probably be laughed at and eventually labeled “that lame-ass who aids sport climbs.” If you wound up occupying the route for two hours while a line of other climbers gradually forms at the base of the cliff, you would probably get yelled at (and rightly so), but beyond that, there are really no hard-and-fast rules for your style. Really, the only thing that keeps all of our individual styles in check is informal enforcement and risk of ridicule from the rest of the climbing community. But the rest of the world outside our little tribe of climbers really could not care less about whether you aided, French freed, or redpointed a sport route.

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The "How'd you get the rope up there?" Crowd doesn't care that you second-go onsighted that sick 5.7d

It’s been like this for a long time– style has always been just a little sort of internal “rule book” that climbers have self-enforced. Within our climbing tribe, there is definitely a hierarchy of styles: the purest style would without a doubt be a chalkless, shoeless, ground-up, onsight, first ascent. The worst style would probably be something like dropping a rope down an established climb and then jumaring up it while blasting Nickelback on your portable speakers. Most of us have styles

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The late Michael Reardon in a screenshot from the video "Return to Sender," exhibiting only the purest of style
that fall in between these two extremes.

But here’s the thing: even though style has always been an essential part of climbing culture, the sport has often progressed when visionary climbers have questioned established style and said, “You know what? That’s silly, I’m going to do it my way!” For example, The Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite was first climbed by Warren Harding in 1958. He left fixed lines all over the route, and the whole process took over a month and a half. Many other climbers, especially the more stylistically “pure” Royal Robbins, considered this to be very poor style, and it was (it would be even worse style today). But, when Harding summited, thus showing that the route was possible, he basically opened the door for others such as Robbins to do the route in better style, in a single push without fixed lines, then later to Stonemasters who blasted it in a day, and then Lynn Hill who freed the whole thing with no falls.

It’s been a similar story with the “mixing” of the three types of free climbing on rock: sport, trad, and bouldering. In the 1950s, when most climbers saw the best style as simply reaching the summit of a formation, John Gill, a gifted climber

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Feet cutting on a sandstone cliffband in Kentucky? Clearly a dead-end with no future.
with a background in gymnastics, decided that his personal style should focus more on the individual difficulty of moves, and he focused on a weird style of climbing called “bouldering” (you may have heard of it. It was the “journey” of the climb more than the “arrival” of the summit that Gill valued. While most other climbers of the era did not necessarily see Gill’s practice as bad style, they still thought it was just silly; why would he focus on twenty foot tall climbs even in the Tetons, where towering peaks surrounded him just waiting for the glory of the summit? Furthermore, Gill loved “dynamically” climbing, and became a master of lunging or jumping from hold to hold, a practice that safe and prudent climbers thought would just be reckless if taken to routes in the mountains where the “leader must not fall.”

But here’s the thing: eventually the best roped climbers of the generation, including Royal Robbins, realized that Gill was pulling off moves that most “real” climbers on the big stone could not even comprehend (we’re talking v7/5.13 at a time when the roped climbing limit was around 5.10). Even later, by the late 1960s, some younger Colorado and California climbers such as John Bachar, Skip Guerin, and Pat Ament had taken to that silly “bouldering” thing, built their strength, and then applied it to roped climbing, pushing the limits toward 5.12+. In other words, practicing an obscure or denigrated style resulted in the entire sport of climbing progressing.

The same thing has happened more recently (well, in the last 25 years), in the wake of the early 1990s “sport versus trad” wars. Most of us have probably heard older trad climbers complain about how rap-bolting, sport climbing, and worst of all (gasp!) gym and competition climbing have murdered the “soul” of climbing. Ask any of these dyed-in-the-wool trad climbers what they think of Tommy Caldwell’s El Cap resume or Sonnie Trotter’s ascent of Cobra Crack, and they will probably speak enthusiastically and reverently. What they don’t get, however, is that traditional climbing has progressed with climbers like Caldwell and Trotter who built their strength with years of sport climbing. Even in the early 2000s, Japanese Rock God Yuji Hirayama spent several years doing nothing but sport and comp climbing before making his triumphant return to the traditional world by onsighting Colorado’s Sphinx Crack and making short work of several 5.13 free El Cap routes.

Perceived “bad style” eventually can push the overall standards of climbing ahead, and even allow better style to prevail on a route-by-route basis. In my own little backwater of climbing in Appalachia, I recently spent a few weeks working on a gear-protected first ascent. Because I was neither bold nor strong enough to just jump on the face and give it a ground-up lead go, I first rappelled it, checked out the holds, moves, and gear before giving it some lead goes that resulted in a few scary falls. All in all, this was not the best style, since I inspected the route beforehand. However, since the route went up, it has seen several ascents including a few ground-up flashes; better climbers know now that the route is possible, so they can try it in better style than I could ever have done. Win!

The thing about breaking established rules of style, however, is that sometimes they can take us down the wrong road in retrospect. Tony Yaniro was one of California’s most gifted free climbers from the mid-to-late 1970s on; even today, I’ve heard him referred to as “the longest climbing 5.13 climber in the country.”

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Obsessed with training, he completed the first lead of Joshua Tree’s Equinox, a painful 5.12c fingercrack that even badasses such as John Bachar had only toproped. Yaniro also likely sent the United States’ first 5.13 route– Sugarloaf’s Grand Illusion. Interestingly, many climbers believe that Ray Jardine’s ascent of The Phoenix in Yosemite was the first, but Jardine’s personal style was to do a route with a few “takes” on his newfangled cams (which some people also saw as bad style since they were so easy to place), a style that is not really accepted as a true send today. Confused yet?

However, most climbers of the late 1970s and early 1980s did not accept that Yaniro and Jardine’s styles of “hangdogging” (not lowering to the ground after each fall) as valid, despite this style opening up incredibly difficult new routes. For this reason, Yaniro began seeing himself as an outsider, ostracized from the California climbing scene, and he eventually moved to Southern Idaho’s granite paradise of City of Rocks, where he could ply his trade as much as he wanted. He did some amazing routes; hard sport climbs, and even a 5.14 fingercrack. But, he also began chipping holds on some routes, too. It was seen as bad style back then, but so was hangdogging and rap-bolting, so why not?

The worst-case scenario lowpoint of Yaniro’s stylistic breaches happened in 1989, when he decided to hold a competition on a beautiful, overhanging wave of granite at Castle Rocks, one valley over from City of Rocks. There was only one problem with this “comp wall,” however– it had no holds! So, Yaniro chipped, and even bolted on some artificial gym holds (which he was one of the earliest shapers of). Although many climbers came to compete, many more saw it as very poor style. Major climbing magazines refused to cover the comp, and after it was held, the Bureau of Land Management actually closed Castle Rocks for climbing for over a decade because of the mess that this comp made!



Here is where we can make the jump from “style” to “ethics.” Remember, style is how we approach individual climbs, and ethics are how we affect the rock for others. The story of Yaniro and the Comp Wall illustrates perfectly why we need to distinguish between style and ethics. Because of the rigid “rules” of climbing in the 1970s that he was breaking, he likely did not even make a distinction between the two; they were all just rules holding back progress as far as he was concerned.

Some parts of Yaniro’s style resulted in innovative jumps forward for climbing, other ethical breaches resulted in marring the rock and closing off access. Yaniro’s hangdogging, or Jardine’s use of cams were stylistic choices that over 90% of climbers use today. His massive bolting of City of Rocks? Also seen as bad style at the time, but today in many areas, bolting is an ethical matter; accepted in some areas, forbidden by laws or informal climbing tradition in others. His chipping of a blank wall? Almost universally seen as terrible style and bad ethics on public land.

Style and ethics were intertwined well before the 1980s, however. In 1972, future Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, along with free climbing visionary Doug Robinson, issued a manifesto in his gear company’s catalog touting the good style and responsible ethics of “clean climbing.”

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A photo showing newfangled stoppers and hexes from Chouinard's catalog
Noting how use of hard-iron pitons were destroying the clean cracks of Yosemite (and even more in the fragile sandstone of the Southwestern deserts), Chouinard had just invented the stoppers that we all know and love today– wedges of metal that could slot safely into piton scars and natural features, while barely damaging the rock at all. Stoppers quickly became seen as great style, since they took skill and finesse to place, and also ethically responsible, since they preserved the rock for later climbers.

There are similar intersections of style and ethics around the world: chalkless climbing is more challenging, and thus seen as better style, but can also be mandated at areas where land managers have decided that chalk streaks negatively affect the experiences of visitors. In the sandstone towers of Saxony in Eastern Germany, there are prohibitions on using metal protection such as cams and stoppers, since they can scar the rock. Avoiding metal pro is also, obviously, seen as pretty rad style as well.

But even those destructive pitons that Chouinard rightly began steering us away from can play into pushing better style just as much as sport climbing, hangdogging, or plastic pulling can. All of us recognize that free climbing former aid routes is much better style, and the feats of the Huber brothers, Todd Skinner, Lynn Hill, Tommy Caldwell and others in freeing El Cap are truly inspirational. But, many El Cap routes would never have even gone free if they did not have existing piton scars that opened holds just large enough for the honed fingers of 5.14 climbers. Intentional manufacturing of routes is seen as bad ethics, but unintentional pin scars result in better style!

Today, although we universally agree that we should try not to affect the experiences of others and practice good ethics, there is not a broad consensus of what good ethics even are! Lots of national and state parks, forests, and recreational areas have specific laws regarding ethics. Laws on climbing ethics can come down to philosophies like the NPS’s “preserve the experience of others” goal: don’t chip holds, don’t litter, don’t blast music, don’t leave fixed ropes hanging on routes. Other laws veer more toward the philosophy of preserving the wild, natural, non-human ecosystems that many parks seek to protect: don’t chop down trees in the way of routes, don’t kick down bird nests, respect cliff closures due to endangered species, don’t pour bleach down the cliff to kill moss and lichen (yes, people have done this). When we are considering the ethical ramifications of climbing, it is important to think of the experiences of other climbers, other non-climbers, and even other non-human species.

But sometimes “ethical” laws can actually result in even worse ethical breeches! In a holdover from the sport climbing bolt wars of the early 1990s, many traditional climbers assume that bolts are nothing more than litter, should be minimized, and that using natural anchors such as trees at the top of cliffs is much more environmentally and ethically responsible. This is complete nonsense! Take a trip to Paradise Forks, AZ, a place with rigid traditional ethics and no acceptance of anchor bolts, and you will see that clifftop trees are gradually dying because of excessive anchoring off of them. At my home crag of the New River Gorge, a National Wild and Scenic River in West Virginia, the climbing laws take a similar hostility to bolts, and the clifftop trees are also being destroyed. Ask yourself, which is worse ethically and environmentally, two small pieces of metal in the rock, or dying trees? Ethics by no means have been resolved, either within our climbing community or in the broader legal context.

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Webbing damaging a tree. Image taken from a discussion on mountainproject.

In the end, we need to accept that all climbing has some sort of impact on the rock, and on the experiences of others. The best possible style, like I said earlier, would be chalkless, shoeless, naked free soloing, but nobody wants to do that. Likewise, the best possible ethics would be to stay home and never even touch the rock, but hopefully none of us want to do that, either (if you do want to do that, consider signing up for, which is a great alternative to actually climbing). Although we have not, and probably will never resolve many of the stylistic and ethical subtleties of climbing, just the fact that we think about them is important. All of us need to remember that there is a balance to pushing this sport forward while leaving the rock and its environment in better shape than it was before.

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4 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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5 out of 5 stars Nice article.
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5 out of 5 stars Great article! One idea that you only just barely touched on, but is a pretty major consideration in the realm of ethics is the concept of "respecting local ethics". Along with its related idea of "respecting the style of the FA team" - these ethical considerations have had a tremendous impact on climbing, and continue to do so. The reasons for these "rules" is often actually quite practical, and new climbers rarely understand how useful they wind up being to the climbing community as a whole. We could discuss more here, or a whole other article could be written about them!
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Gawdamnit... When will we just get over all this bullshit and put in permanent fixed ropes on all the cliffs of the world. I want belay seats with cup holders (for my beer of course), beer bitches taking my order, and Epic TV with drones recording my SIckest sends. I want Mountaineering turned into a Running Man/Hunger Games/Eco Challenge event. I want live close up coverage of Ueli Steck duking it out with Sherpa Bramhmanavista and Hayden Kennedy shoving sticks of butter into his mouth while jerking off to some South American porn site tentbound for another day. I want the sluttiest, hottest, think Sierra "Daisy Dukes ass in yo face" Blair (what ever the rest of her name is) type girls bouldering in the desert. I want some grit. This sport is lame. Think HOtrod cars meets Monstah Trucking meets WWE Wrestling meets Dirty South pitbull fighting meets Antebellum plantation owner -female house slave relationship meets 1980s hairmetal and Action Jackson/Sly STalone/Arnold/Chuck the Delta Force Norris Action films. THIS SPORT IS LAME!!!!! WE need real sponsors and real money and real exposure for progression. Kill the anti-sport and enter the Olympic German bred athlete machines!!!
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5 out of 5 stars I seriously considered dressage for a time, but I didn't want to have to endure the whole "English vs. Western" debate. That and equestrianism costs tens of thousands of dollars.

Good read

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