Climbing Ethics: Chipped, Hammered, and Bolted

From philosophical discussions to bolt-chopping wars, there are as many opinions about climbing ethics as there are climbers.

While climbing in Yosemite last week, I had a realization that complicated my beliefs about climbing ethics. The old stone masters worked hard to establish one of the most iconic climbing areas in the world, but by today’s standards they would likely be met with criticism for altering routes all over Yosemite Valley. Standing on EL Cap Tower, I felt as far away from the everyday world as if I were standing on the moon. However, without the piton scars, bolts, and fixed equipment we used, I could not imagine how I could have arrived at such an amazing place. I owe tremendous gratitude to Warren Harding, Wayne Merry, and George Whitmore, who spent 47 days nailing their way up The Nose, using “seige tactics” to progress up the wall, setting fixed ropes and camps all the way to the summit. Without their assault on El Cap, it would not be possible for modern day climbers to dispatch the route in such short periods of time (from a few days to a few hours).

Hangin' in the aiders up on the Desert Shield

The luxury of clean aid and free climbing in Zion is largely dependent on the widened cracks from previous nailing ascents. The time, skill, and equipment that has been devoted to making first ascents, especially on big wall climbs, is easy to take for granted.

I feel compelled to write this post to celebrate all the chipping, bolting, and hammering that has been done for the sake of progressing the sport. Those who have altered routes may have had selfish ambitions of getting to the top of the climb, but we all benefit from their work. “Altered routes” make lines climbable for the masses and help us manage unnecessary risk. I am learning the dividing line between proper and improper route alteration is not always clear. It’s so popular to spray about poor ethics and climbers degrading the rock, but people at the extreme end of these debates have all enjoyed routes no longer in their natural state.

So, I may not start hammering my way up new routes, but I am thankful for those who have.

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About Calvin

Calvin Laatsch guides canyoneering, rock climbing, and mountain biking trips at Zion Adventure Company; he also consults staff and clients alike on Norwegian customs, smooth dance moves, and the latest in dirtbag fashion. Bring your binoculars with you on the Zion Scenic Drive, and there’s a good chance you’ll see Calvin WAY up a wall, testing his mettle in form-fitting jeans.
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