Buy the books here:
Volume 1: (mostly) European Tools and Techniques to the 1930s
Volume 2: (mostly) North American Climbing Tools and Techniques to the 1950s
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)
Thanks for reading Mechanical Advantage: Tools for the Wild Vertical! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
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.
Great piece. Climbing seems to combine elements of “finite” and “infinite” games, a distinction conceived by James Carse, where finite games are played to win while infinite games are played to keep playing. Thinking about climbing through the prism of Carse’s distinction helps to make sense of some of the differences between, say, comp climbing and big wall climbing.
That said, although climbing has rules and victors, I’d argue it’s better understood as an infinite game because most participants cherish its self-transformative effects much more than whatever material or worldly rewards it might offer, now or later. Climbing is closer to writing a story than acting out a script, I think.
Been distracted recently.
Lito put the cat amongst the pigeons!
A bit like "The emperor has no clothes". In the days of a super-complacent society, it was infra dig to question anyones motivation. Climbing was a personal myth everyone was supposed to enjoy without question or comment........except for german climbers using pitons on sacred british stone......and that was a political rather than a climbing-community denouement.
I think Lito kind of made us see that our vaunted "Climbing Ethics" was simply an idiosyncratic, personally indulgent construction...........not a divine anointment from On High.
There was no higher order validity or authentication here.......just a kind of hedonistic indulgence.
That does not detract IN ANY WAY from the magic that climbers have created.
In fact, given the amoral parameters, the self restraint that emerged is all the more dramatic and reassuring.
Climbing seems to have a built-in safeguard against bullshit.......Death.
When we Put It On The Line we are playing for real: the arbitrary rules we create are authenticated, in reality, by the unforgiving consequences we face.
I think this is where Lito was heading.
Of course the simple clarity of life-risk-taking is confused by issues of commerciality, nationality and self-discovery.........and climbers must choose what recipe of risks and rewards they choose to accept when planning to risk their lives.
And then we have the parallel phenomena of educational, recreational and tourist developments to attempt to make climbing less than lethal ...........and more "usefull".
The tools we use reflect these fundamental motivations:
Tools both support our deeper determinations -- when I soloed Polar Circus (1983) I spent considerable time choosing (and adapting) the primitive ice tools available, so that they would not fail in mid climb...........but tools also make some rule interpretations possible -- when my job required a safe area for my outdoor students to lead, I developed an early incarnation of Sport Climbing, which included oversize bolts and fixed-in chockstones.
Humankind has a long and complex history of tool-making and extending our capacities with tools has allowed..........and maybe prompted.........much of our evolutionary development............including, no doubt, climbing.
Faced with the mass (and mess) of tool and "ethical" choices in my own climbing, I eased my existential confusion by finding a simple and reliable guideline: I had to enjoy my climbing.
The challenge then becomes what you find truly enjoying rather than how you should fit into arbitrary restrictions devised by others.
Along the way you get to ponder the nature of Evil..........and the survival of the human species......but this follows more on the reevaluations of Royal Robbins after his bolt chopping on Dawn Wall than Lito's original epiphany.
PS: You do have Chouinard's favorite quotation on the aesthetics of Tools and Intentions...........