Tools and Climbing Styles

Mechanical Advantage series, a ramble, perhaps the introduction

Climbing Styles since 1900.

This “Mechanical Advantage” series is primarily about the evolving tools of climbing: why tools were invented, and how they were used. One tricky aspect is the varied nation-centric viewpoints of the primary sources. It is the recurring “Who invented the light bulb/radio/television/etc?” sort of thing, with simultaneous development in many cases, and sometimes a lack of shared information or the vision to comprehend advantages, such as a three-decade delay in the wider development of hooking pitons, from their initial invention in the 1950s by Jaromir Šádek in Czechoslovakia to when the Birdbeak piton began being produced and used in the USA starting in the late 1980s.

How novel ideas circulate and permeate in society is interesting in itself, but often unraveling the stories lead to right/left political dogma and there are few historians offering a broader middle-path perspective (footnote); the bias becomes readily apparent in the primary journals from different cultures when examined from a global context.

Footnote: such as seen even in the climbing literature during the rise of fascism in Germany in response to its defeat in WWI, a Thucydides' Trap war caused by the Austro-Hungarian empire’s dwindling power and eventual collapse, resulting in great change for the entire region: the end of the age of Kingdoms, replaced with new social controls by new powers.

One of the most interesting periods of climbing tool development occurred on the steep rock of the Eastern and Western Alps during the early decades of the 20th century, when war, pandemics, and economic depressions were all rife. Climbing history, like all histories, often becomes tainted by the larger social issues, so it takes time to understand the context and thus the impact of innovations in climbing.

The more interesting discussion of climbing styles over the past two centuries is a repeating one: “How to recognize and acknowledge the changing methods and means?”

In the early 1900s, we have already considered some of the opposing views in the development and use of the piton—a time when Tita Piaz and others led new levels of hard protected free climbing, a style initially disdained for its ample use of pitons but eventually proving to be the most sensible means of pushing new boundaries of the art of climbing vertical walls. Only later, once the marriage of tools and techniques is more firmly established, are the style and proponents fully recognized, such as the case of Fiechtl and Herzog being widely acknowledged as the innovators of the piton and carabiner.

The same general scenario repeats itself for the next 100 years, sometimes with resistance and sometimes with acceptance: for example, in the 1930s, when extensive aid and bolts came into play, and in the 1970s, when a peaceful transition to clean climbing style swiftly arose, a time when nearly everyone appreciated and embraced the challenges brought on by the new tools.

Among all the controversies in between and since about changing styles, I can relate to the one I witnessed first hand, living in Yosemite Valley in the mid-’80s when the old guard’s one primary rule: “ground-up climbing only” fell to the proponents of yet another new style of climbing, originating in the limestone cliffs of the Verdon, where no other means was possible to advance the sport was possible without recourse to extensive and complex rope work in a canyon deeper than the longest ropes (or, as Patrick Edlinger and Alain Robert have so elegantly demonstrated, with beautiful free-solo performances).

The real argument in climbing styles often revolves not about the number of pitons, bolts, use of the rope, and other aids (the change in means), but more importantly, the change in the potential of new climbs and adventures. In other words, it is the answer to the question of whether a particular style in a particular area has been “played out” or not within the area’s vertical resources. In Yosemite, this was the argument outlined by Jeff Smoot in his “Valley Syndrome” article published in Rock and Ice, now documented in a book. Smoot’s book is the clear view from the “other side”, looking in at a relatively closed ecosystem, and noting how the measured evolution climbing grades in Yosemite had stagnated, topping out at about 5.12c for routes doable “on-sight”, often involving bold climbing with hard-to-place natural protection.

Yosemite never really adopted the R/X risk factors that Jim Erickson invented for Eldorado climbs, but in the 1980s, unrated bold climbing was still considered a high art-form in California, with John “Yabo” Yablonski and Walt Shipley on one end of the spectrum, pushing themselves sometimes beyond their ability (with many close brushes with death), and John Bachar on the other, an athlete who trained hard to perfect skills and strength before attempting an objective. Few climbers at the time questioned the validity of the ground-up ethic, though top-roping was sometimes fair game for routes intended for a future solo, or otherwise would never qualify as a “clean climb” (natural gear or bolts put up on lead, with each bolt scrutinized heavily by the locals). The ego games played were how bold people could climb a section of rock—the initial bolt-chopping controversies and debates focused on extra bolts placed on lead, later devolving into chopping wars strictly based on how they were placed.

The Yosemite style at the time had developed in conjunction with other areas starting in the 1950s and consolidating in the 1960s, predominately in Colorado, with its ultra-varied climbing objectives, and in the New York Shawangunks (the “Gunks”), where pioneers like Jim McCarthy were drawing closer to purer, more difficult free climbing stemming back to the ideals of Preuss on the harder climbs. In the Northwest and Alaska, more efficient lightweight mountaineering techniques were refined further as extra heavy gear jeopardized any success in the mountains (all this will be covered and expanded on later in this series). In short, the quest for lighter, more efficient system of climbing, requiring a high level of skill in protecting oneself on sections of rock with a minimal toolset. As most local climbing was considered practice for the mountains, the training of one’s ground-up skills was paramount.

Doug Robinson’s article which Chouinard featured in his 1972 equipment catalog, “The Whole Natural Art of Protection”, inspired the strongest progression of this ideal, and the transition to clean tools lightened climbing systems even further. Often, ratings were considered a guideline and sometimes an inside joke—it was impossible to differentiate a 5.11 climb with a hard move above a good piece of protection, with a relentless climb with minimal pro and succession of bold hard moves with very uncertain long fall potential. Numbers meant nothing until further information was gathered. The climber I’ve known who used grades most ironically to describe climbs was Mark Moorhead in Australia; he once pointed out to me a climb he rated 26 on the Ewbank grading scale, wryly admitting it was pretty “heads-up”; decades later, I found out the climb Cobwebs was actually the hardest climb in Arapiles at the time, grades harder than Kim Carrigan’s famed “Yesterday” (27), then known as one of the world’s hardest climbs—the one everyone talked about and aspired to. It was a time when the top Australian climbers reported many of the hardest climbs as Grade 23, a “sandbag” rating in direct response to people who focused on numbers. Many of these climbs are now known as the hardest of the era at a time when grades were rapidly rising (on my first trip to Australia in 1981, grade 23 was the hardest I could occasionally “flash”, but it was obvious to me with a glance walking under some of these new ‘grade 23’ routes in the Blue Mountains, on the Sydney sea cliffs, and in Arapiles, were something else entirely). In Yosemite, the same, albeit not as extreme, subdued rating system was also often employed to obfuscate actual difficulty, almost a code, generally in response to the fact that numbers cannot tell the whole story of a more natural climb, where the rock, not the climber, primarily dictated the protection.

A decade and a half after Doug Robinson’s article, around 1987/8, the myriad of commentary and editorials such as the Valley Syndrome article, collectively had a similar impact on Yosemite's accepted style as Doug Robinson’s did a decade and a half before. New Yosemite routes bolted on rappel suddenly became fair game, and many projects which had respectfully lain waiting for the right combination of ability and boldness to come along were trivialized with a line of bolts, often creating a mediocre, mid-grade route (footnote). On the other hand, the standard of gymnastic movement at the top end increased dramatically, and as time went on, fewer resisted the new style, though it took some time for a fair balance to evolve. When Lynn Hill freed the Nose in 1993, any question of appropriate co-existence of both styles was over, as Lynn had effectively gained the extra skills and ability to free the Nose from her embrace of sport and competition climbing, where the abandonment of any qualms of practice before ascent was a primary tenet—the ends justifying the means, in other words, the top-down crafted route trumping the limiting “ground-up” ethic in the quest for challenge.

Footnote: This is not to say there were no great mid-range sport routes created in Yosemite, there were, generally at newer crags primarily developed with sport routes, though many new climbs at classic crags were simply “fill-in” routes made possible with a line of bolts and had little character. Creating routes with a wide range of difficulty at a sport crag is a community art in itself, amazingly exemplified by first ascensionists at the Sand River crags in Tasmania.

John Bachar’s response to the new style was a measured one. He was more concerned about projects he had kept secret for many years, and had on his future hit lists. These routes were often not of the highest technical grade (but sometimes were) but would involve very heady climbing requiring the highest confidence in one’s “on-sight” abilities. He wrote a set of three proposed rules, which he never published, and only shared a few paper copies with his friends.

Bachar gave me this in the Camp 4 parking lot around 1987. But soon the debate was over and discussion was no longer possible as all areas became fair game for new rappel routing.

Eventually, of course, Yosemite once again established its style, firmly established by the Hubers and Houldings by the early 2000s, based on free climbing the biggest walls on Earth, often requiring a much more insightful and daring approach. On the Dawn Wall, Tommy Caldwell methodically over years of scoping and exploring, discovered a probable free climbing line up the boldest section of El Cap, and then set up one of the most audacious ground-up free challenges ever envisioned for himself and Kevin Jorgensen. The vision to “see” such possibilities, rather than a focus on the style of climbing, is the cutting-edge human endeavour.

In this series, covering the engineering aspects of climbing equipment past and present, the focus of this series is on the tools and techniques used primarily on longer climbs, and to avoid, when possible, the nationalistic and tribal bias that often occurs in histories of the ongoing evolution in climbing. Style arguments are boring (unless personal, then the general public takes interest), and impossible to fairly describe, so this research intends to focus on the technological improvements leading to greater human-endeavor challenges, with minimal sidetracks on the persistent debates of climbing style merits or demerits.

The “Mechanical Advantage” series is more about visionary lines made possible with the development of new ideas and tinkering, with a sharp focus on inspiring climbs involving an elegant marriage of tools, techniques, and human ability.

John Middendorf, Hobart Australia 2021

Still true: "Yosemite Valley will, in the near future, be the training ground for a new generation of superalpinists who will venture forth to the high mountains of the world to do the most esthetic and difficult walls on the face of the earth." --Yvon Chouinard, 1963

The next work in this series will be finishing up the Tita Piaz articles, then onto the rope masters like Dülfer and Dibona, and then into the 1920s, when perhaps the biggest change in climbing styles occurred with increasing reliance on ropes and gear (and my favorite period as a student of the development of aid climbing techniques for visionary bigwall climbs). Thanks to all who have helped and contributed to my knowledge; recent discussions with Hermann Huber and Igor Koller have been especially helpful in my early piton research, as have the collectors Mr. Piton (Tim), Ashby Robertson, Marty Karabin, and the Reinhold Messner Museum, providing key historical material. It is so helpful to talk to historians and old friends in various parts of the world to better understand local developments, as there are still so many holes in knowledge readily available on the internet.

When Bachar was our hero:

California heroes of the 1980s: John Bachar, Ron Kauk, and Micheal Jackson, all in the same issue of LIFE! (though John’s favourites music was from artists like Fela Kuti)

LINKS to other parts of this series on the tools of climbing:

  1. In the Beginning: Subtle Means and Engines

  2. Pre-1492 climbing tools

  3. The Modern Era of Mountaineering (1786)

  4. American Trail Builders, 1800's

  5. The rise of iron for ascent

  6. Rope Technology in the 19th century

  7. Mizzi Langer -- first advertised rock climbing pitons (Mauerhaken)

  8. Climbing Pitons Early Evolution--part 1a

  9. Climbing Pitons Early Evolution--part 1b

  10. Climbing Pitons Early Evolution--part 1c

  11. Climbing Pitons Early Evolution--part 1d

  12. Climbing Pitons Early Evolution-part 1e

  13. Tita Piaz-Alpinisto Acrobatico (Piaz PartA)

  14. Campanile Basso di Brenta

  15. Tita Piaz-Speed Climber and Rope Acrobat (Piaz PartB)

  16. Tita Piaz-Guide and Rigging Expert (Piaz PartC)

Random thought: John Wayne’s Teeth

In the independent indigenous film “Smoke Signals” (1998), there is a scene where two young Native American men, Victor and Thomas, leave the Coeur d’Alene Nation in Idaho on a bus journey, their first trip to the world outside of their homelands. At a rest stop, after losing their seats to a pair of bullies, they move to the back of the bus, and begin singing:

John Wayne’s teeth, John Wayne’s teeth.

Are they false? Are they real?

Are they plastic? Are they steel?

Hey-ya, hey-ya, hey.

John Wayne, of course, starred in many Hollywood “cowboy and Indian” themed films, with the cowboys always winning. For Victor and Thomas, the song’s subtle denigration of the bullies’ quintessential hero delivers an appropriate rebuttal with humor. Humor often wins!