I am famous on the Internet. Really. I'm sort of like a climbing version of Tila Tequila, only I'm not a My Space phenomenon who pretends to be gay. Plus, my boobs are real and I'm actually attractive but that's not why I'm known. I intentionally incurred the wrath of one of today's most feared groups of online predators: washed-up aid climbers.
About a year ago, my pal Matt Lloyd posted an eight-minute video clip on his website, relentlessclimbing.com, of a drunk and bored version of myself braying about how aid climbing is for dickweeds. My boozy thesis went something like this: Anybody can aid climb; it's never as hard as people claim, and its self-aggrandizing reputation is mostly bullshit.
In the clip, I attack aid-climbing grades, which, unlike the open-ended free-climbing scale, are fixed. In case you don't know, aid climbing begins with A0, which is clipping up a bolt ladder, and tops out at A5, which means the gear is so bad that a falling leader would rip each piece out, and either seriously injure himself or die. This theoretical requirement for A5, however, is just that: theoretical.
Years ago, the big-wall legend Jim Bridwell pointed out that somebody has to die for a pitch to be A5. Yet I've never heard of anyone dying on A5 because he or she ripped the pitch. Bridwell gave us the infamous Hook or Book pitch on Sea of Dreams (VI 5.9 A4) in 1978, only everybody hooks and nobody ever books onto the looming ledge below, which is why it's only A4.
In the video, I also mention the less-than-top physical form needed to aid climb. I may make a few more outrageous claims like I invented the question mark, and that basically aid climbing is like riding a really sweet moped: No matter how tricked out your ride is, dude, it's still a moped.
I propose a world where, to push the supposed A5 grade, people must start dying. Imagine it. Five dudes leave the ground on a heinous A5 testpiece with the knowledge that somebody, for sure, is not coming back. So the first guy heads up the crux pitch and over six hours, carefully chisels 38 copperheads into the formerly pristine stone. Zip, pow, ping, THWACK! He rips every piece of gear and hits a ledge. Now you have your corpse and a confirmed A5! Hooray, it really exists!
Now the team has to draw straws to see who is next in line to go head to head with the Reaper. The loser begs for mercy. "My god! Just give me the drill and we'll call it A3 and go home! Please?" But the other three, dreaming of finally securing that pro deal, soberly untie the rope from the forgotten dead guy and hand it to the new leader. He only makes it 10 feet higher before ripping the pitch and smoking into the ledge. The remaining climbers sweat, but they remind themselves that this is what they signed up for. True A5. The hardest aid route in the world. Riveting, isn't it?
On screen, I keep drinking, disparage aid climbing some more, and vaguely apologize for my prejudices and transgressions. The director's cut has some deleted scenes where I attack the camera, throw up and pass out.
The scandalous Aid Rant video would have probably died on Matt's site had it not been for my ex-roommate B.J. Sbarra, who'd heard me rave about aid climbing before. He threw the video up on You Tube and linked it to his site, splitterchoss.com.
A couple of months later, I started getting e-mails from friends who had seen the video, and from strangers who dug up my address on the web (please don't do this) and either berated me for my pussitude or congratulated my clear vision of the fraud. Soon supertopo.com had the video riding a wave of frothy spray, and a lively forum discussion venerated and denigrated in equal parts. You Tube collected comments ranging from "What a fag" to "A-fuckin'-men, brother." The video was mentioned on most of the usual climbing forums, and some sites that appear to be in Russian or Croatian or some other mumbo-jumbo from a country where aid climbing is probably still cutting edge.
Now the Aid Rant video has been viewed nearly 10,000 times on You Tube. To put this in perspective, David Lee Roth's video for the long-forgotten song "Just Like Paradise," which features Diamond Dave in his '80s glory swinging around on the Nose, has been viewed over 300,000 times. Some clip of Wonder Woman using her magic truth-lasso to climb all sorts of shit has been viewed 20,000 times. However, a video of a 3-year-old Japanese kid named Wren swinging around on some ghetto indoor wall has only been viewed 1,500 times. Take that, Wren (by the way, cross through to blue, and then stab your toe to the jib).
Still, 10,000 views ain't bad. Lately, I have been recognized. This summer I was furiously failing on a route in Rifle that I had done easily many years ago. A guy dogging on a bolt near the one I was hanging from said, Aren't you the Aid Rant guy? And I said, "Maybe." And then we laughed about how silly aid climbers are. We would have high-fived, but there were two routes between us, so we could barely touch. Then we set off again and free climbed to the next bolt.
I was a bit broadsided by the interest in my cocky little rant. Originally, my dad didn't even want to see it. Halfway through it, he asked me if there was a way to get the Cubs scores on this world-wide-Internet thingy. Maybe the fervor is because we all love climbing and hold onto its pretenses of grandeur very tightly. I guess it just fired people up to see some unknown wanker contradicting a very sacred piece of our collective climbing dogma: that aid climbing is badass.
So how did I come to my conclusion that climbing hard aid is about as impressive as hanging sheetrock in a mild breeze? By doing it, of course. Both the aid and the drywall. Look it up. I've climbed hard aid in the dreaded Fisher Towers and on El Cap.
I've hooked miles of edges, placed RURP after RURP, nailed expanding flakes. I've shit in a bag and on myself, and "accidentally" peed on my partners countless times.
I also trenched heads, drilled rivets, lit fireworks off El Cap Spire. I even used a tent pole to do a 20-foot hook move. If that's not the dumbest thing you've ever heard, then maybe you ought to check out Chongo Chuck's aid-climbing book.
Once my partner and I added a bolt to a belay anchor. Apparently this is bad, because people are still ripping on me about it 12 years later.
Why does aid climbing continue to be treated with such reverence in the climbing community? I've seen kids, after backing off a 5.9 at the Cookie Cliff the day before, go up on the Captain and nail A5. I watched a 10-member team of Korean guys in matching outfits do a 12-day ascent of the Nose, creating a traffic jam of speed climbers day after day. I witnessed a perma-horny SAR guy from Camp 4, and the two Venezuelan chicks he'd tricked into climbing with him, attempt to haul a massive load on a 300-foot line for five hours. When it finally left the ground, Bill Russell happened to be there, shaking his head and saying, "Just shows how easy it is."
Drunk people do hard aid all the time. People lead A4 while tripping on hallucinogens. I once listened to a couple break up over several days while they climbed the Muir Wall. The dude led every pitch, and each time, he had to re-teach his neophyte climber girlfriend to clean by yelling instructions down to her. Each day, the edge in his voice grew shriller. Then silence. I'm sure their plans for amazing portaledge sex were moot by day two.
Then I retired. Not from climbing, just from aid climbing. Not that I don't aid climb any more. Sometimes it's necessary when trying to free climb something. I just no longer set out with that as the goal. Why not? Well, primarily because it's too much goddamned work.
But I also stopped because I believe it's a contrivance of mostly manufactured danger and guaranteed success. Look at the rivet (a modern rivet is a 5/16-inch cap screw bashed in a 1/4-inch hole). When nothing else works, out comes Dr. Drill. But instead of drilling a decent bolt, a climber purposely creates a lousy placement, a rivet, to maintain the idea that the pitch is dangerous. This is like purposely placing a cam so that two of its lobes are not secure, just to keep things exciting. Old Dr. Drill does all sorts of other things on a hard aid climb when the going gets blank, like drilling hook placements or, along with his sidekick the head-chisel, trenching out seams for copperheads. Yes, folks, ultra-pure hardmen routinely carry chisels on hard aid.
Many, after watching the video and cooling their rage, asked me why I care what they do? I don't specifically care what each individual aid climber does, but I believe the mythology surrounding wall climbing has become a farce, and therefore denigrates a sport that depends so much on honesty and clear intentions. We should be embarrassed by the fact that aid climbing's rad reputation is not supported by concrete facts. Have you ever heard of pitches on El Cap with 100-plus feet of death-defying hooking or whatever? Stories of these pitches are passed around El Cap meadow like a smoking bong. However, those pitches do not exist. Seriously, they don't.
Free climbing is clearly acknowledged by the community as a better style. We all agree that freeing an aid climb is noteworthy and aiding a free climb is inferior. I am hardly the first to point out the ridiculousness of the grades, either. Like expedition mountaineering, aid climbing for its own sake feels like a mastodon that should have been swallowed up by the ice years ago. The Reticent Wall on El Cap, one of the hardest aid climbs in the world, was done in 35 hours a couple of years ago. The Regular Route on Half Dome, still aided by most, was free soloed this summer. Does anybody else smell rotting mastodon?
Yes, I know we are not all Alex Honnold, or Tommy Caldwell, or Lynn Hill - or even that shirtless gym guy that has the yellow route on lockdown. But in many ways, we are like those great free climbers (not the guy from the gym - he's just a douche bag). We can push our limits not by submitting the rock to a ruthless beating, but by improving our skills, fitness and resolve.
Whether you are for or against bolted protection, the defining limit in free climbing is still the natural shape of the rock and how our bodies interact with it. While the technology used to free climb is helpful (even boulderers use shoes and pads), it is not the defining factor. With aid-climbing, the technology supersedes all other considerations, and allows us to, in the words of Reinhold Messner, "murder the impossible" in a way that is even more absolute than the most over-bolted sport climb.
Truthfully, aid climbing does provide a means to get to some really cool spots. Some folks point out that many routes only go free because aid climbers chipped them first. Yet I wonder if there are some places that could be left alone and not sullied with our brutal hammers and voracious egos - or rewarded to only the very best among us.
Besides, if you want to free climb El Cap, but don't have long hair and leather pants or nine and a half fingers, here's a little secret: If you lead 5.11 trad, you can free climb all but a few feet of the Freerider and the Nose. Seriously, look at the topos. You can just French-free the rest - never getting in those aiders.
Don't worry; you can still bring your $800 portaledge and smoke pot and drink beer all night long. Just don't forget to shoot your own stupid video.
Chris Kalous is a pure and righteous free climber who works for a living on the Western Slope of Colorado.