Those who remember the days when trad climbing was simply called “climbing” are watching the headlines, immobilized with fear.
Rifle’s Warm-Downs Led On Gear
Sport Climbers “Headpoint” Decade-Old Routes & Claim Trad Revival
Brits Claim Ground-up Ascent of The Promise (E10 7a); Boulderers Call it a “25-foot V7”
It’s not just the old-schoolers who are wondering what to make of the news. We’re all feeling a little hazy from trying to comprehend increasingly muddy terms.
“I get sick of hearing about rehearsed ‘trad’ routes,” John Bachar said in an interview for this article. “Utter garbage in my book. I don’t know why, after all these years of climbers getting better on sport, the same climbers can’t even repeat some of the old trad routes, let alone put up something new that pushes the limits.”
The unpleasant reality is that today’s cutting-edge trad is about as traditional as a marriage between two transgender heterosexuals—it’s technically analogous to the original thing, but clearly conventions have evolved with changes in equipment.
This explains why merely seeing the word “trad” in the headlines these days will, for many old-schoolers, relieve the heartburn caused by those ungrateful little shits who climb 5.14d between episodes of Hannah Montana on their iPods and devalue everyone’s worth as climbers and individuals.
Most of today’s high-end trad ascents are really just sport ascents that incorporate removable gear into the performance. This subterfuge works because so few people nowadays remember that trad doesn’t just mean using nuts and cams, and sport doesn’t just mean clipping bolts.
You see, kids, at their cores the two disciplines are styles of climbing, defined not necessarily by the type of protection used, but rather how it got there in the first place. Traditional style actually refers to climbing by starting on the ground and going up. Along the way you can do anything you want. Hang on gear. Yo-yo in gear. Fall. Even drill a bolt ladder. In fact, many famous and popular routes were established using these very tactics, which, though considered bad style, nevertheless fit within the definition of traditional climbing. Start on the ground and you are trad climbing. Period.
The opposite of this style—anything that involves top-down gear placement or toproping—became known as “sport climbing” and its participants ridiculed. Many of today’s new-wave trad climbers are more frequently choosing to headpoint (rehearse the route on toprope) before a ground-up attempt, or to work routes with pre-placed gear, or even to test the gear by dropping a weighted bag onto the piece that protects the crux move. These are merely observations, not critiques.
Don’t be disappointed. If you read TNB specifically for critiques of climbing’s rotten state, well, here is a good one: Modern trad climbers are running short on ideas, vision, and good projects because in order to push their discipline’s boundaries, they have resorted to leading a sport climb on gear after having already redpointed it by clipping its bolts; then, craving attention like a bunch of high-school goth kids, they idly threaten to chop the bolts. The last step is to summon the audacity to claim that their admittedly impressive, if entirely inconsequential ascents place them at the forefront of some kind of sweeping trad-climbing resurgence. Updates to sponsors follow.
These stunts are nothing new, of course, and neither are the tactics. What is new is the surprisingly quiet and lenient assimilation of sport-climbing style into that which is still called trad climbing. This is especially remarkable considering the fabled brutality of climbing’s past style-and-ethics wars.
It appears that a new hybrid discipline has emerged—as if climbing needed another—and this one is perfectly content pairing the sensible pragmatism of sport-climbing style with the tedious act of placing removable protection. “Sprad” climbing (which, of course, sounds much better than “trort” climbing) has so drastically departed from the shibboleths of Bachar, Royal Robbins and our much-vaunted traditional heritage that one must ask:
Is trad climbing dead?
The short answer is no… and yes. Trad climbing, in its pure and true form, is the nucleus of the American climbing community. The Home of the Free & Brave is also the land of the sunniest and most accessible multi-pitch moderates in the world. America has granite slabs with perfect finger and hand cracks like Kansas has corn, and 95 percent of people who go trad climbing on the 5.6 to 5.11s in Yosemite, Eldo, the Gunks, New Hampshire (and anywhere else) play by the traditional rules.
The most notable difference is that a lower percentage of climbers is establishing new trad routes. There are now more climbers out there, but most spend their weekends repeating classic lines recommended by a guidebook, which at its best will just tell a route’s grade, name and general location.* Due to popular demand, many guidebooks now give complete gear and even free-climbing beta (the half-serious, but fully infamous “Chicken Wing Dyno” in the Supertopo guide to Astroman comes to mind). This information, whether it intends to or not, neuters the experience even if the most important (and only) traditional element of style is there: the party starts on the ground.
The bottom line is that trad climbing lives on only because of, invariably, You—the consummate weekend warrior. Without You, this proud discipline would’ve died a long time ago.
Now, before You get all empowered about saving trad climbing, I have something to admit. It was recently suggested to me, by me, that I know less about trad climbing than grammar. Don’t worry, that’s not true. I simply choose to clip more bolts than cams and write the way I talk because both feel more natural to me.
But being natural doesn’t always make you right. I’m not above horrible and embarrassing mistakes, like wasting an afternoon in Eldorado Canyon on the puny sport route The Web (5.13b), or leaving my participles dangling like gumbies at the end of their ropes.
At least I always try to learn new things. I recently read an article that debunked the common false notion that one should not “split infinitives” such as “to boldly go,” the most famous split-verb construction, by none other than Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise.
As it turns out, the split infinitive rule is an urban legend created centuries ago by half-wits who used Latin as its basis. In Latin, apparently, infinitives are single words and therefore can’t be split, and the logic stems from there. But Latin isn’t God’s language, American, where infinitives like “to go” are two separate, individual words and there’s no good reason not to wedge a big ol’ freedom-lovin’ adverb right in there.
I mention this tangent because it is a particularly apt, quirky and interesting example of how rules, mores, and ethics—even if they’re wrong or baseless or inaccurate—can infect a particular sphere if we’re too lazy to do anything about it. This occurs, it seems, especially when the rules are just complicated or abstract enough to discourage protest.
For example, the ungrammaticality of split infinitives now wrongly appears in the Texas Law Review Manual on Style, which is one of the many reasons legal documents are completely impossible to read, let alone understand. A whole generation of Texas lawyers has been produced who believe that “Mexicans should be detained at the border before going to jail indefinitely,” as opposed to the Mexicans who “should be indefinitely detained at the border before going to jail.”
Listen, I realize what a pedantic prick this article is making me out to be. Even I can’t stand myself right now. But rules matter. Words matter. It’s not, as the latest British climbing film describes it, a Call It What You Want situation if it’s true that we have produced a generation of elite climbers who call ruthlessly wiring gear and moves on toprope before they boldly go “ground up” on lead traditional climbing.
Look at what has happened to the term “onsight.” It’s like Che Guevara T-shirts (which can be bought at the Wal-Mart for pseudo socialists, www.che-mart.com). The original ideals, with each exposure, become increasingly meaningless. Originally, as Bachar pointed out, “‘onsight’ meant doing a route, ground-up and not falling. This was different than ‘onsight flash,’ which was doing a route first try.”
has come to mean onsight flash
, while flash
means doing a route first try with beta. I know, it’s confusing at best, dumb at worst. But there are many top sport climbers who, despite good intentions, claim onsights of routes that they, in fact, have flashed, not understanding (or caring to understand) that there is a massive, massive difference between the two. Thus, you can see how everything about the experience flattens as it becomes increasingly diffuse.
I talked to some
prominent climbers to see just how ingrained sport-climbing tactics have become in trad climbing.
Matt Wilder says, “For sure, there is a new form of climbing going on. It’s not trad in the traditional sense, but it’s definitely a different beast than sport climbing. I’ve always defined trad climbing as anything that involves removable gear … but I wasn’t climbing back when sport climbing was new, so the topic is not as laden with questions of style for me as it probably is for others.”
Alex Honnold offered this: “No one climbs cutting-edge trad ground-up and onsight simply because, one, it’s a waste of time, versus dogging it and just getting it done. Two, you basically can’t onsight 5.14 trad since there are less than 15 of them in the world. The old-school definition of trad is dead. Or rather it has moved into the alpine and on to walls. The single-pitch stuff is basically sport climbing unless you make yourself do it ground up, and then that just begs the question, why bother?”
Dean Potter says, “For sure, the hardest sends usually rely on some sort of ‘working it,’ but lots of ground-up climbing happens everywhere.”
Sonnie Trotter says, “I’ve done heaps of new routes ground up in a traditional manner, so has our local hero Andrew Boyd, but they are not always ‘newsworthy,’ so I don’t spray about them. The fact is, the hardest climbs will always be done via a sport approach.”
What are the consequences of “sprad” climbing? Usually, breaking with a tradition leads to new ideas, creativity and a rebellious spirit. But that’s not exactly what has been going on here.
Interestingly, in my interview with Potter, he very organically arrived at an initially tangential idea that, the more I thought about it, really nailed my beef with this whole issue.
“I think a better angle for a story is how climbers have changed from radical free thinkers living on the fringe to now walking single file, only doing what is politically correct and safe from criticism,” Potter says. “It is my opinion, as well as many others’, that this is killing climbing.”
It seems rather likely that we’ve reached a point in climbing where our counterculture has been stripped of its subversion and originality, and sprad climbing is proof that this is true.
When a group appropriates ideals, the terms inevitably become stripped of meaning. Today’s spradster, at his worst, is a self-obsessed vacuum that defines himself like so: I am vaguely empathetic to trad climbing, but I haven’t read Camp 4
. I am bold enough to place gear on lead, but don’t recognize that doing so after practicing the free-climbing moves on toprope four dozen times makes the exercise completely meretricious. I recognize that my definition of trad climbing is a misnomer, but don’t care because climbing the relatively mundane grade of 5.13d on gear allows me to differentiate myself from all the other far-more-talented sport climbers in the eyes of sponsors.
Ultimately, who cares? Dean Potter said it best. “Climbing can become a symbol for freedom and protecting nature. We just have to help people see this opportunity.”
Andrew Bisharat wants to be clear that climbing style is a matter of choice, but what you choose to call it is not.