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TNB: What's the Problem?

By Andrew Bisharat

Art by Meg Bisharat (AB's mama).If you ask climbers what our favorite part of climbing is, we would say solving problems. Well, we might actually say, “slaying the Gnar,” or “sending the chronicles of Gnarnia with advanced kneebar techgnarlogy,” or even just, “taking a dump on a route,” but we all mean the same thing, and that is we enjoy figuring out solutions to vertical challenges.

According to Wikipedia, “problem-solving is the most complex of all intellectual functions,” which definitely explains why the smarter you are, the harder you climb. Just take a gander through the shining genius displayed in’s top-ranked climbers’ scorecard comments and you’ll see such brilliance as “3 days on this mofo—turded on it!” and “A vue, bitch, WHAT!?” Apparently onsighting 5.13 is as intellectually demanding as writing literature, while redpointing 5.15c (“FA, soft, poor/mainly chipped”) is just one step away from having a library named after you.

Do you know that climbing ethics are only just our own made-up, ever-changing guidelines for how we should properly approach the problem-solving process? Well, they are. The reason that chipping, for instance, is so offensive to most climbers isn’t that some tree-huggin’/daisy-chain-wearin’/gluten-sensitivity-havin’/John-Muir-worshippin’ persona is strictly offended because .5 ounces of rock have been artificially removed. Chipping is bad because it cheats the problem-solving process. And nobody likes a chipper, I mean, cheater (I mean both).

Drill this into your head: just because we use big words like “climbing ethics” to make us sound like philosopher kings, all we’re doing is climbing rocks, which falls somewhere between bowling and poetry in terms of unimportant wastes of time.

Anyway, good thing we like solving problems so much because we sure create a lot of them for ourselves. Man, climbers can’t agree on ANYTHING! Trad vs. sport. Old school vs. new school. El Cap vs. Half Dome. California vs. Colorado. Bowline vs. Figure-8. Chalk ball vs. chalk block. Daniel vs. Paul. Alex vs. Alex (vs. Alex). Duck down vs. goose down. Hot forged vs. cold forged. Training to climb vs. climbing to train. Anorexia vs. bulimia. 5.11d vs. 5.12a (vs. 5.9+ trad).

My way vs. your way.

Recently it occurred to me that we will be arguing about this same dumb shit for the rest of our lives.

Some things we can easily agree on. The new Ascent is the best climbing magazine ever made, Reinhold Messner will always be the greatest climber to ever live (ever, ever), and climbing competitions are way too loud and overly hyped considering how boring they are to watch. But other than that, it’s all up for debate.

It’s a shame, really, because the solutions to all of our biggest problems are as painfully obvious as those to the Middle East conflict. But of course, there’s a difference between knowing what needs to happen, and actually doing it. This is where Fascism starts to make a lot of sense. It would be easiest if we could all just get on board with one ruthlessly shrewd clairvoyant who decides what’s right for everyone else. I nominate myself. OK? Good.

Here, in the first installment of my new 900-part series, I will begin resolving each and every one of the climbing community’s most important disagreements. Just so I don’t sandbag you, I’ve assigned each problem a difficulty rating using the V-scale. Why the V-scale? Because this arbitrary coupling of the letter V with a number makes just as much, if not more, sense here as it does to describe the difficulty of a three-move height-dependent eliminate. Finally, I’ll offer some brilliant Nobel-winning solutions. Read them. I expect the climbing community will start getting along as well as the Brady Bunch. Sharma Sharma Sharma!


The Problem: Gates facing in or out? (V3)

The beta: Whether you rack your quickdraws on your harness gear loops with the gates facing in or out is a preference as personal as boxers or banana hammocks.

However, let me offer this: To remove a gate-facing-out carabiner from your gear loop, you must slightly bend your wrist, which thereby flexes your forearm slightly, which might add some pump.

With a gate-in carabiner, all you have to do is open the gate and lift the draw off your harness. See? No added flex … no added pump.

The solution: Just climb in areas with PermaDraws.


The Problem: Dogs/babies at the crag (V10)

The beta: Hard, classic problem. Your feelings toward these ankle-biters and butt-sniffers are dependent on whether you own one. I’m lumping dogs and babies into the same category because they’re both living objects whose superfluous presence at climbing areas is increasing as a young generation of climbing parents and dog owners believe they can play all roles at once. First it was just the occasional stroller parked at the base of the chossy cliff, or a few lazy dogs lying on your rope bags. Now, crags are looking more like pre-school playrooms, and Dean Potter takes his dog BASE jumping. It’s only a matter of time before you see Russian alpinists hauling their own little spud-niks up a Garhwal north face.

As adults, we choose to accept the risk of being at a climbing area. If rockfall clocks us, it sucks, but at least it was our choice to be there. Dogs or babies don’t get to make that choice, so we make it for them. If you don’t want to get a dog/baby-sitter, give your kids helmets to protect them from rockfall, and earplugs to protect them from hearing wobblers.On the one hand, dogs and babies can be really great to have around because of their unconditional love and general cuteness. On the other hand, people who have no legal or emotional attachment to these frumpy little doo-doo-makers view them as annoying at best, and potential liabilities at worst.

The solution: As adults, we choose to accept the risk of being at a climbing area. If rockfall clocks us, it sucks, but at least it was our choice to be there. Dogs or babies don’t get to make that choice, so we make it for them. If you don’t want to get a dog/baby-sitter, give your kids helmets to protect them from rockfall, and earplugs to protect them from hearing wobblers. Keep dogs on leashes and pick up their poop.

Of course, I don’t own a dog or a baby, but if I ever do, I will cleverly/selfishly revise my opinions as needed in order to mesh with my climbing habit.


The Problem: When do you retire gear? (V0)

The beta: Despite this being an easy, beginner problem, climbers will do anything to save a buck, including climb on the oldest, crappiest, most dangerous gear you can imagine before shelling out money for something new. One of my friends dropped his Grigri off the top of El Cap, and continued to use it for years. I’ve heard of a climber who was so parsimonious that if he’d see a T-shirt or even a sock lying on the side of the highway, he’d pull over to snatch it up and add it to his wardrobe.

What would you do with a single sock?

On the other side of the spectrum, however, are those namby-pamby milksops who are so worried about dying that they’ll replace a new 60-meter cord when it shows the slightest fuzz. This class of climber can also be blamed for such prevalent myths as the dreaded “hairline fracture” in a carabiner or belay plate.

How do you know these people? Look for a piece of cord looped through the harness tie-in points to add “redundancy” to the belay loop. They’re great climbers to know, because from them you can score a lot of perfectly fine gear at a bargain price.

The solution: If you need to ask yourself, “Should I replace this gear?” the answer is always yes. Now put your old gear on eBay and send me a private link.


The Problem: What is something rated? (V4)

The beta: Grade bickering has reached an all-time low (or is it high?), especially among Colorado boulderers, the whiniest bunch of nitpicking tattletale whiners this side of Freud’s anal stage of development.

There will always be the generic “Is this 5.11d or 5.12a?” debates among your average climbers. But really, the root of today’s grade bickering derives from climbing’s top tier.

Many pro (and especially semi-pro) climbers, in their quest to make names for themselves and advance the sport to new levels, turn rock climbs into canvases for their glory and self-promotion. Ratings allow you to garner attention—you can even get as much attention by rating something V16 as you can by repeating it and downgrading it. This scenario reduces climbing to nothing more than an argument between two inflated egos.

Here’s another discouraging trend: A well-established pro puts up a new route and rates it something hard, like 5.14c. But because this pro is so strong and good, he doesn’t necessarily spend a lot of time figuring out the easiest beta. In reality, the route isn’t 5.14c—maybe it’s 5.14a or even 5.13d with good beta. When, over time, other climbers decipher the route perfectly and send it, all of a sudden they assume they’re now climbing 5.14c, too.

Now, because this sub-stratum of strong climbers believe they, too, can climb “5.14c” (or V12, etc.), they assume that 5.14a shouldn’t feel hard for them anymore. Thus they start upgrading everything else, and these soft ratings become the new gospel.

So now, after roughly 10 solid years of this trend, many climbers think they are better and stronger than they really are, which is why everyone’s ego is so sensitive about how hard their recent ascent actually was and why we have this over-inflated mess of new-school grades.

The solution: Pros should find ways outside of the gimmick of ratings to make names for themselves—and the industry should support those who find the most creative and compelling solutions. For everyone else, take your hardest send, subtract 32, multiply by 5, and divide by 9. This is a more accurate appraisal of how well you’re climbing.


The Problem: Who has it worse: tall or short climbers? (V6)

The beta: Because 99.9 percent of all routes are established and graded by men, women—as well as really short male climbers—have this sense that they are getting the short end of the stick, so to speak, when it comes to grades. This is because they have to use different beta than the majority of “average”-sized climbers (already diminutive compared to the average Australian male). Perhaps they’ll have to grab “smaller” intermediates, or dyno where others reached through. Then there are those few routes—like Take That, Katie Brown (5.13b) at the Red—which are truly insurmountable if you are not properly sized, which probably only comprise 1 percent of all available rock climbs in the world but are nevertheless always cited by shorties as proof that they have it the hardest.

Don’t believe me? Just look at every single really good rock climber in the world. Don’t see them? Look down … lower … lower still. Oh, there they are, those skinny little midgies!The thing that small climbers forget is that every single other move will feel easier because 1) they’re hauling less weight (shorter muscles have a much better strength-to-weight ratio—a muscle that is proportionally only twice as large has to haul eight times as much mass), 2) easier to lock-off (shorter muscles have better torque) and 3) every single hold will feel larger (as much as twice as large) due to thinner/smaller fingers.

Don’t believe me? Just look at every single really good rock climber in the world. Don’t see them? Look down … lower … lower still. Oh, there they are, those skinny little midgies!

The solution: It’s harder to be tall, have big muscles and fat fingers, but Samoans have it worse.


The Problem: Redtagging (V10)

The beta: Have you ever rented a room from a homeowner? Your landlord wants your money … but he doesn’t actually want you to live there. It’s a paradox that creates an overall sucky situation for all. This is what redtagging is like.

The first ascentionist doesn’t want to be the guy who redtags his routes, but he also doesn’t want someone else to send the route first. He wants to be “cool” and let other people climb on his project … but he doesn’t actually want that. It creates an uncomfortable situation.

Further, the people who say redtagging is B.S. and that it holds back climbing from progressing are usually the same people who don’t put up routes themselves.

The solution: If you want to do the first ascent, openly and proudly redtag your route. You get one year (365 days) to send it before it opens. Also, you can’t “redtag” a boulder problem—not necessarily because brushing and cleaning a small piece of rock doesn’t entitle ownership, but because you literally can’t place a red tag on a boulder problem. Finally, if you become a climber who people respect—a quality that must be earned, not asked for—then you don’t need to redtag in the first place. And if you’re the type of climber who snakes someone’s project just to get attention and “win” a first ascent—especially if you haven’t climbed any other routes in the area—then you’re just a douche.


The Problem: Perma draws (V16 theoretical)

The beta: See Cliff Notes.

The solution: Beats me. I think this problem is impossible. But once it is successfully “sent,” the sport of climbing will have reached new levels.


After typing this column, Andrew Bisharat thinks that we (and especially he) need to get out climbing more and spend less time on the Internet. He also urges you to take his “solutions” as seriously as he takes himself.

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