To most Americans, the UIAA has always been an organization that certifies rope, which isn’t giving them nearly credit enough because the scope of what they do goes far beyond that. The UIAA is the international driving force to get ice climbing into the Olympics, and influences the sport in other ways such as setting competition standards for anti-doping and commenting globally on the state of the sport and alpinism in particular.
It was with great interest, then, that I read the report, UIAA Policy on the Preservation of Natural Rock for Adventure Climbing, issued late last year.
The premise of the document is to educate climbers on how bolted sport climbing and traditional climbing can peacefully co-exist—sport climbers get to clip bolts. Trad climbers get to plug gear.
I was quickly taken aback, however, by the UIAA's opening statement which included, ”Despite earlier attempts by the UIAA to offer guidance on fixed equipment and the conservation of natural rock, bolts continue to be placed in areas where many climbers wish they were not."
Once again, sport climbers had been singled out as vandals.
The UIAA then veered down a shadowy alley that confused the ethics and history of mountaineering and alpinism, as if those standards are applicable to today’s sport climber. A litany of miss-statements and inaccuracies painted a dim picture:
"In some mountain areas the drill is still used so indiscriminately that climbing with an adventurous spirit is either severely limited or, worst, no longer possible," notes the document. "In some countries, such as Hungary, all available rock for climbing has been drilled and bolted to make sport climbs."
Besides being a gross exaggeration—every single piece of rock in Hungary has been bolted?—the statement couldn’t have noted out a more obscure country. Who knew there was climbing in Hungary? I had to wonder why the UIAA didn’t instead choose an area or region we would all recognize, such as the Verdon or Tuolumne.
I am for preserving history and seeing that traditional, ground-up climbs aren't retrobolted, but having the UIAA interjecting itself on the issue reads like a room of sweaty men drafting legislation for women's reproduction rights. The policy statement was written by Doug Scott with input from sport climbers, but Ondra, Sharma, Graham and the like of relevant sport climbers are never heard. I can't fault Scott, and have great respect for his incredible achievements among the world's hardest mountains, and his opinion is worth considering. Rather the blame falls to the UIAA for not including the voices of younger generations,
Even the definitions that the UIAA offers are patently wrong. Trad climbs are defined as routes with removable protection only. According to the UIAA, the Bachar/Yerian, which has bolts, would be classified as a sport climb. So would the sandstone of the Czech Republic and the Elbsandstein region of Saxony Germany. Both areas are as traditional as they come, yet they have quite a few bolts—spaced very far apart, but they are still bolted. The UIAA should send someone there because they also say that the climbs are protected only with "removable jammed knots." True, some climbs are only protected with knots, but many aren’t. The historic and revered Hollenhundspize, for one, has six routes on its steep south face. The oldest dates to 1922. Every route has bolts.
The UIAA in its effort to distance bolts from tradition, is rewriting history.
It doesn't stop there. If you are a sport climber, you will be interested to know that according to the UIAA you participate in an activity practiced by the elderly, parents and people pressed for time who have "little knowledge of the traditions of climbing." Traditional climbers, meanwhile "eat, sleep and drink climbing," and "care passionately about the activities' ethical direction."
The capper for me was their 11-point list of initiatives. Point 10 says “Many federations have created a bolt fund to ensure that worn out corroded bolts are replaced. It would be helpful if the bolt fund was seen to be working both ways—not only in ensuring good bolt placements but also to remove bolts that in the opinion of the local consensus have been inappropriately put in.”
If I am reading that right, the UIAA wants us to have an anti-bolt fund so ethical traditional climbers can be paid to chop bolts.
You can read the report yourself at the end of this column.
I do think the UIAA is right to take the lead on preserving history, and my hunch is that they have unwittingly confused the standards that would apply on an alpine route with those of a sport climb. These are of course different sports and have different histories and ethics that only nominally overlap. You shouldn't apply sport climbing tactics to an alpine climb, and you shouldn't apply alpine standards to sport climbs. Certainly in Europe, numerous big mountain routes have been bolted, often so guides can quickly and safely lead clients up them, but this is a problem that should be tackled situationally rather than globally. But the UIAA is remiss in not making this distinction and their claims and proposals come across as little more than an indictment of sport climbing.