Games Climbers Play
sidebar to the tools and techniques stuff
A sidebar note to help interpret the acceptable steep rock climbing tools in North America in the 1920s-1930s period.
“Climbing gives me the opportunity to fulfill my dreams…it is something that is self-fulfilling. People just have to look at my climbs, then they will know who I am.”
—David Lama, when asked, “How would you like people to think of you?”.
Games Climbers Play
In Games Climbers Play (Ascent, 1967), Lito Tejada-Flores interprets climbing as a game activity, precisely because there is no necessity to climb and take risk. Rules of the game are self-imposed to make climbs more meaningful to the climber, which may or may not involve kudos from the climbing community. Tejada-Flores details the precise spectrum of various 1960s climbing games from bouldering to expeditions and writes:
“The rules of all climbing games are changing constantly, becoming ever more restrictive in order to preserve the fundamental challenge that the climber is seeking from the inroads of a fast-changing technology.”
In other words, the tools and techniques are fundamental to how climbers choose to play each game. In the 1920s in America, lassoing a horn then pulling up on the rope, or getting a shoulder stand from a partner were considered acceptable as they did not require any “artificial tools,” except for the ‘natural’ rope. The rock climbing game rules progressed dramatically as pitons, carabiners, and climbing shoes became standard equipment. In the next post, we’ll investigate the technological changes as well as the vanguards during the dawn of North American big wall climbing in the 1930s, but first, a few rambles…
"Perceptions” of climbing—still a varied lens
Like all humans, climbers are influenced by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors, a topic beyond this area of research, and recently explored in Fine Lines, a 2019 film by director Dina Khreino with well-known climbers describing their motivations. Since the days of Whymper, one extrinsic aspect of mountain climbing involves the ever-changing set of public perceptions. At various periods, climbing has cyclically resonated with a broader audience, and as top climbers become household names, laymen’s explanations of the challenges emerge. The precise rules of the game are generally kept close by the cognoscenti, mostly because they are too hard to explain, or overly simplified as the recent “only hands and feet” to explain the significance of the Dawn Wall in the New York Times in 2015 (what, no butt chimneying?—maybe “only arms and legs” better to include the use of elbows and knees in the off-width cracks). Modern free climbing, for example, has a broad and evolved set of rules celebrating practice and pre-placed safety gear. The precise consensus “rules” are not always easy to discern when reading published accounts, especially in the early eras. Climbs outside the normal boundaries have often been ignored and then forgotten by other climbers, though deeper research sometimes reveals keys to understanding the significance of ensuing developments of tools and techniques.
Regarding established “rules”, there is rarely full agreement on any facet in any era. In the extreme case, it will be interesting to see how Olympic climbing evolves, especially considering the odd combined-game scoring in 2020. In layman's explanations of various climbing game challenges, sometimes further particulars are spelled out and made understood, such as the distinction between climbing Everest with O’s or without, or that El Capitan free climbing is possible because of the previous installation and removal of hammered hardware (pitons), creating small fingerholds where there were none before, followed by explanations of climbing “clean”, sometimes glossing over the additional bolted and fixed anchors that enable the placement of only natural gear (footnote) for subsequent ascents. The games have always been gear-dependent: in the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of bringing a power drill into the mountains (e.g. Maestri on Cerro Torre) was abhorrent to most climbers, but today has become common practice, thanks to more efficient technology. Today’s main bigwall game is free-climbing no matter how much aid initially required, resulting in exceptional performances on the vertical.
footnote: Regarding “clean” and “natural” definitions in the modern era, natural gear refers to any of the modern tools that can be placed and removed without significant damage to the rock, no hammer is needed. Hammered tools such as pitons and mashheads are not “clean” but can be natural, i.e. a natural crack (bolts are neither “clean” nor “natural”). Aid techniques will be covered in later chapters.
Each game also incorporates numbers, a secondary game due to the subjective nature of defining challenges; indeed, the grade aspect has been at the root of countless debates. Personally, I try to avoid superlatives such as best, fastest, hardest, biggest, etc., as these terms are always temporary, and as a researcher, you are forced to compare climbs of different eras, rather than consider them in context (and of course, climbs not personally climbed, though in my case I have some experience in many areas included in this research). Likewise, I will leave the numbers and history of grading systems to others, as this is a really complex topic, and without fully understanding each era’s regional and unique set of rules and tools, the numbers are meaningless.
With all that being said for context, we will next consider the rapidly changing rock climbing tools and standards in North America in the 1920s and 1930s, as they become more aligned with those already well-established in the Eastern Alps.
(next part soon)
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Author’s notes on accepted “rules” in 1980s:
In the 1980s, among my fellow ‘game activity’ members pursuing long rock climbs, ground-up was the only acceptable method of climbing, as it was all considered practice for future onsight masterpieces. Minimum impact also became a prime directive with the boom of innovative clean gear (complete racks of cams of all sizes were first more frequently gathered in the 1980s). For a bigwall like El Cap, you collected all the supplies to spend extended time on the wall and limited yourself in a number of ways: the use of a drill (minimally on first ascents, never except for emergency on repeat ascents), the size of the rack, the amount of “fixing” (installing ropes part way up the wall), and perhaps most central to motivation, the amount of perishables you brought, which required efficient systems so as not to run out of food, water, smokes, booze, or whatever critical supply you brought from the base. “In-a-day” push routes had to be done on calendar days, from midnight to midnight (one of the dumbest self-imposed rule ever). In general, the goal was simple: get to the top of a big rock wall. You can go slow in safe places like Yosemite, but in the mountains, you have to go fast. The first ascent game was the elegance of the “line” you were creating—the path that others might follow. Doing the most hairball stuff was also part of the game, though the line between reckless and bold was very fuzzy.