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Is Mixed Climbing Legitimate?

The "Great Game" of modern mixed climbing is on its deathbed. Will it survive?

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Will Gadd and I laughed at OUR PREDICAMENT. It was winter of 2005, and we were standing at a Wal-Mart check-out, watching our cashier, a woman with poofy bangs straight out of the 1980s, scan a box of chalk. The chalk—not the stuff climbers use to dry their hands, but rather the sidewalk variety for kids—would play a vital role in the climbing that lay ahead.

Will and I had just spent the day on Alcatraz, Rich Purnell’s new mixed-climbing testpiece, situated high among the blocky cliffs of Glenwood Canyon, Colorado. Alcatraz is a masterpiece, embodying all aspects of cutting-edge mixed climbing. It takes 60 feet of streaked-blue overhanging limestone and finishes on a pencil-thin dagger of ice. It was the first route in the world rated M14.

Because less than a handful of routes even approached that difficulty, Will and I were keen to get on it. He was fresh off his spur-less ascent of The Game(M13), at the Cineplex, Canada, while Jared Ogden and I had just completed the first ascent of Jedi Mind Tricks (M13), outside Lake City, Colorado. We wanted to see how Alcatraz stacked up, and, after a day, figured we would have it in the bag if we could just remember the route’s long and sequential crux. Hence, the chalk.

“OK, red chalk will mark the right-tool placements,” I said to Will, “blue for the left tool, and yellow for key footholds.” This ridiculous tactic, akin to taping routes in a gym, would prevent us from wasting energy searching for holds.

The next day, we experienced the standard blasé fare of modern mixed climbing. We sat around like a couple of power loungers, trying to remember intricate sequences. Occasionally, we battled on the sharp end, where our “fairy boots” and leashless tools sent sparks flying as we scraped through the gigantic ceiling. By the end of the day, we had both sent what was supposed to be the world’s hardest mixed route. Though we differed in our styles of ascent—Will adhered to his ethic of not using heel spurs, while I chose to use this latest technology—we agreed that Alcatraz was perhaps one of the five best mixed routes in the world. And as for the thing that brought us to the crag, the M14 grade? Will thought the style he used to climb the route made it around M12 and that my style made it M11. I thought it might be harder than that, but it wasn’t M14. The grade didn’t hold up, but, honestly, it didn’t matter. The climbing was awesome.

With all the sword-swinging fun we had that day, we didn’t realize that Alcatraz was about to become such a hot topic. In fact, in the weeks that followed, the route would become a paradigm for all the problems facing modern mixed climbing, problems many of the small pool of mixed climbers were aware of, but few were willing to admit existed. Modern mixed climbing revealed itself to be a sport troubled by a quagmire of ethics and a rating system that was unable to show the disparities in difficulty made by different tools and techniques.

More than anything, Alcatraz became an argument—over the rules of the game, if there even are any, and whether or not the sport was being illuminated or darkened by current equipment and tactics. The experience changed my perception of modern mixed, a sport I’d dedicated myself to for the past six years. It had become unbelievably specialized, and I wondered if the so-called “cutting-edge” modern mixed techniques were completely irrelevant. Is modern-mixed climbing dead? Or is it just … absurd?

“Modern mixed” climbing unofficially began with Jeff Lowe’s ascent, in 1995, of Octopussy (M8), Vail, Colorado, arguably the first route to blend sport-climbing tactics with traditional ice and mixed climbing. On Octopussy, Lowe rehearsed moves, preplaced gear and, most revolutionary, used ice tools to drytool out a horizontal rock roof, the route’s crux. Lowe’s brand of mixed climbing was bold, fresh and sexy. It gave the slowly evolving mixed scene a much-needed shot of adrenaline. Further, proponents theorized, just as sport climbing helped elevate rock grades, the ability to easily pull hard drytool moves would elevate standards in alpinism by changing people’s perceptions of difficulty, speed and efficiency.

Prior to Octopussy, winter crags were largely viewed as training grounds for grander alpine objectives, and were bound by traditional ground-up ethics. Following Lowe’s vision, however, a small group of modern mixed enthusiasts, including Will Gadd and Stevie Haston, threw out the rulebook and rushed to ice areas that had been considered “climbed out.” They pursued routes of unheard-of difficulty, ones where insane ice features like hanging curtains and stalactites were now reachable through drytooling.

“A free-hanging dagger is far more aesthetic than a pure ice climb,” says Gadd, “and the original routes we did at Vail were all about the aesthetics of climbing unbelievably cool ice features. In fact, the whole point was to reach the features that never touched the ground.”

In 1997, the overhanging limestone grot of Vail became the North American epicenter for the modern mixed movement. Routes like Amphibian (M9) and Fatman and Robin (M9), then the pinnacle of difficulty, went up virtually overnight. Using bolts for pro and tools for hooks, mixed climbers began tapping the athleticism of the new sport, even practicing the routes in the summer.

During the late 1990s, modern mixed routes tackled bigger, steeper roofs requiring more sustained movement. Gadd’s Reptile (M10), done at Vail in 1998, became another groundbreaking line, hooking out a dead-horizontal, 30-foot roof. Haston upped the ante in 2001 with his long and gently overhung Empire Strikes Back (M10+/M11), Val Di Cogne, Italy.

The sport was changing from the original vision of a means to reach the most badass ice features to one defined by climbing the hardest drytool moves. As routes became more difficult, it was clear that the needs of modern mixed climbers were beginning to surpass the equipment of the day, which was designed specifically for ice climbing. Conventional curved axes with leashes were difficult to hang onto, and getting in and out of the leashes to clip gear was awkward. Boots designed for warmth and frontpointing on ice felt like cement blocks on overhanging rock.

The impetus for rethinking gear began with newly formed events such as the Ice Climbing World Cup. These competitions unknowingly accelerated the equipment revolution by installing a safety rule that climbers must climb leashless, to protect them from injury from falling while remaining tethered into their leashes. At first, climbing leashless was not viewed as an advantage, and many climbers were skeptical of the new style. But as techniques for using leashless tools progressed, it became clear that leashless was the most efficient style for climbing difficult terrain, especially once the tools were shaped with ergonomic “jug” handles. A climber could more easily shake out a pump, clip gear and avoid intricate cross-through maneuvers by simply matching on the same tool.

The excitement over the sport was infectious, and the industry ate it up, churning out leashless, radically bent tools for the mass market (not just the elite comp climbers) as well as super-light shoes with integrated crampons. The mixed craze created the most significant changes in climbing equipment since spring-loaded cams, and in less than five years, ice tools and gear evolved more than they had in the previous 15.

During the “new wave” of modern mixed climbing, from 1997 to 2003, technical skills and equipment evolved so much that cutting-edge mixed routes of the past became trade routes. Vail’s Amphibian, once the epitome of hard mixed climbing, became a warm-up for Vail’s more difficult lines. Even in the mountains, routes such as Andromeda Strain (V 5.9 A2 W4; 1983), the Canadian Rockies alpine-mixed testpiece, became a high-end trade route with regular ascents.

Eager to prove that these specialized skills had a place in the larger realm of alpine climbing, mixed climbers looked to establish technically difficult lines on big peaks. One such route was the first ascent, in 2002, of Howse of Cards (VI M7- WI 6 X), on Howse Peak, in the Canadian Rockies, put up by Scott Semple, Will Gadd and Kevin Mahoney.

Semple wrote, “Like most M-climbers, [I found] several seasons of clip-ups had steepened my learning curve and restructured my perceptions of winter terrain. ‘Steep ice’ had become an oxymoron, verglas was a welcome tool stabilizer and burning through eight picks a season had made me comfortable with the funky, the thin and the wobbly.”

Modern mixed would show its presence on other key alpine routes such as Ben Firth and Raphael Slawinski’s alpine-style repeat, and first winter ascent, in 2004, of the Greenwood-Locke Route (M6; 1,200 meters) on Mount Temple, as well as Robert Jasper and Markus Stofer’s 2003 ascent of No Siesta (ED3 WI 6 M8; 1,000 meters) on the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses. These two free and alpine-style ascents relied on drytooling skills that were undoubtedly refined through mileage on modern mixed terrain.

Alpine climbing had obviously taken a step forward, but the advance paled compared to the effect modern mixed was having on ice standards at sport crags where, in just a few years, grades jumped from M8 to M13. For comparison, imagine if rock grades had gone up from 5.8 to 5.13 in less than one decade. … There would be little, if any, grade consolidation, making it difficult to take upper-end ratings seriously.

“You couldn’t dabble in sport climbing for a year or two and head across to Ceüse and do Realization, could you?” says Dave MacLeod, currently a top traditional and modern mixed climber from Scotland. “That’s exactly what has repeatedly happened with the hardest [modern] mixed routes.”

Unlike rock-climbing grades, which progressed because climbers trained and got stronger and better, mixed-climbing grades progressed partly because of innovations in equipment. Modern mixed is truly a hybrid discipline—it embraces a “free” climbing ethic similar to sport climbing with its redpoint tactics and climbing for pure difficulty’s sake, but the sport is fundamentally rooted in aid climbing, with its specialized tools and technical parallels of tinkering with metal and rock.

On The Game (M13), in the Canadian Rockies, in 2003, Mauro “Bubu” Bole found that he was too short for the crux dyno, so he added a 10-centimeter extension to his tools to send the route. Ben Firth, the route’s first ascentionist, responded nonchalantly to tactics some consider cheating.

“It’s all part of the game,” he says, referencing the pun of the route’s name. But if adding 10 centimeters to a tool was OK, why not add 20, 30 or 40 centimeters?  Why not alter gear specifically to tackle (and reduce) the difficulties of any route? While most could agree that going to those extremes isn’t cool, the open-minded attitude held by mixed climbers was summed up by Firth’s quote. It was, indeed, a game.

But is a game with no rules good? While lenience surely benefited the sport by allowing new ideas for equipment and strategy, some speculate that it also has contributed to the sport’s atrophy.

“In the late 1990s and early 2000s,” says Raphael Slawinksi, a top mixed climber and alpinist from Canada, “you could really feel the energy in the sport. New crags were being discovered, new routes were going up. Not only that, but also harder routes were going up—stuff that had seemed impossible just the season before was being sent. That sort of vibe is definitely a thing of the past.”

The success of modern mixed climbing depends on its ability to walk the fine line between free and aid climbing. But as mixed climbers sought to tackle bigger roofs with harder moves, the tools of the trade evolved to assist and increase efficiency—more subtly and slowly than Bubu in deciding to add length to his ice tool, but no differently, either. Switchblade-sized heel spurs became so efficient that climbers could “bat hang”—a technique where one could place heel spurs on virtually any hold, and hang upside-down, enabling a no-hands rest—nearly anywhere on any route.

One of the first climbers to realize that using gear to its full extent was a dead-end game was Will Gadd. On Musashi (M12), the world’s hardest mixed route in 2002, Gadd dropped a tool at the crux. His belayer started to take, but, says Gadd, “I realized I was fine with a sinker heel hook and a handlebar—my ice tool—to hang onto. In fact, I was de-pumping. Daniel Dulac fed me a bunch of slack—I felt as secure as if I were clipped into a bolt directly. He ran down the hill, grabbed my tool, ran back and threw it up to me. I continued climbing and pulled the lip with a mild pump … only because I hadn’t stopped to rest on the last few heel hooks. At that point I realized that difficult mixed climbing for me was over.”

As a result, Gadd chopped off his heel spurs and launched a new era of spurless, or “bareback,” mixed climbing. In a manifesto circulated to the mixed-climbing elite titled, “Spurs are for Horses, and Tools Are For Your Hands,” Gadd wrote, “A route climbed by sitting on your tool, hooking a tool with your knees or spurs or even using spurs is an aid climb.”

Gadd noted in a later e-mail, however, that he didn’t necessarily remove his spurs to make mixed more difficult, but because, “Climbing spur-free is a hell of a lot more fun, way better movement. I was bored when I was climbing with spurs, and I haven’t been since I chopped ‘em off.”

The small pond of modern mixed climbers debated the spur issue, with most, but not everyone, agreeing that climbing bareback was clearly harder, requiring more stamina and more precise footwork.

Slawinski was among those who dissented. “I cannot get too excited about the claims being made about spur-less being a pure form of climbing,” he says. “After all, our ergonomic tools are almost as much of an aid as spurs were, so why not ban them too and go with straight-shafted axes? There is just too much dependence on gear, and therefore too much arbitrariness in what to keep and what to take away for me to take such claims seriously.”

“Modern-mixed is definitely approaching stagnation,” says Dave MacLeod. “Ditching heel spurs will no doubt give it another gasp of life, but it only puts it off a year or two. The reason is, of course, that [climbing] a full ropelength of horizontal roof on tiny hooks is relatively easy.”

While mixed climbing’s elite battled for their territory within the ethical gray scale, the sport couldn’t have been better for the average Joe. The safety of bolt-protected climbing brought out many people that otherwise would have no interest in winter climbing. Much like climbing gyms have raised standards by simply increasing the talent pool, modern mixed climbing may prove to influence traditional mixed and alpinism by introducing more people to the winter arena.

“In terms of the numbers of participants involved,” says Slawinski, “it definitely still has the power to affect what goes on in the mountains. [But] there still are not that many people taking M-skills into the mountains. What needs to happen to a greater extent is for the high-end skills to enter the arsenal of the average Joe. People need to stop perceiving M-climbing as hard. OK, so stuff M11 and up, especially if you take your spurs off, is hard, but below that, [modern mixed] is well within reach of many people. Once the overall level at the crags is raised, more and more people will take those skills first to longer, more adventurous routes, and ultimately into the mountains.”

Impossible was a word that had long been forgotten in the modern mixed scene—the history of its routes reflects huge jumps in numerical grades, which hardly represent absolute human climbing potential.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” says Mark Twight, a staunch traditional alpinist. “There is no going back and the greed has forever changed the course of evolution. That greed led to quick bolting of lines that might have been protected naturally by the more gifted climber. Could any of those early M9 routes have been done with natural gear by the M12 climber of today? The future? Man, dead at the end of a short, dark alley.”

The vision of modern mixed has largely been compromised by its obsession with becoming “free.” Modern mixed climbing’s unique problems—the dearth of continuously overhanging caves with icicles, and a vague set of rules and ratings—point to a more deeply rooted problem. Because M-climbers pursued climbing for pure difficulty’s sake, they abandoned the risk and challenge that is associated with traditional climbing. Imagine what the sport could have produced if it had embraced the mental and technical difficulties of hard aid climbing coupled with the physicality of 5.13 drytooling. Mixed climbing in its purest form would have emerged.

“Climbing without bolts will be the future,” says Ueli Steck, a top mixed climber and alpinist from Switzerland. “There is not much more to be had climbing     on bolted crags.”

Despite the occasional battle cries for a more traditional view for modern mixed, it may be too late. Many of the areas that could have been home to cutting-edge traditional mixed routes have already seen the effect of grid bolting. While the sport approach to modern mixed had grand intentions of forever changing alpinism, many are finding that more modestly graded trad mixed routes are better at improving their alpine bag of tricks. After all, if you approach a huge cave on an alpine route, wouldn’t you just go around it?

James Loveridge, a modern and traditional mixed climber, says, “I really don’t think sport climbing did much for hairy traditional leads. Yes, climbers’ fitness went up, but I think there were less sketchy trad routes put up after the advent of sport climbing than before it. Back then, some sport climbers were making the same ‘sport will raise standards in trad’ argument that the M-climbers made a few years ago. Of course some people took the increased fitness and skills to the alpine arena, but the predicted trad/alpine revolution just didn’t happen.”

Raphael Slawinski attributes the atrophy of modern mixed climbing to a lack of continuously harder terrain. Cutting-edge mixed climbing requires a special,     and as it seems, rare set of conditions. Hard routes usually take place in a cave that can be anywhere from 50 to 100 feet long and capped with ice. Only a limited number of locations with these conditions seem to exist.

“I’m sure you’ve heard real-estate people talking about the three most important things to look for,” says Loveridge. “Location, location, location. Well, it’s the same thing with M-climbing, only a different word: terrain, terrain and terrain! And there ain’t none! If there were tons of varied and fabulous crags with endless and consistently forming smears and daggers then there would be more people doing it. I’d estimate there are only a handful—like 60 to 80—of people playing the mixed game in North America.”

The ever optimistic Will Gadd disagrees. “Norway alone would take 100 climbers climbing full-time every season for the next 100 years to finish off. Just to put that in perspective, there are at least a dozen possible new hard multi-pitch routes less than an hour from the road on the drive into Rjukan, the most popular area in Norway.”

Gadd asserts that the sport of modern mixed is not in “atrophy” whatsoever. “[Last year] was one of the most active winter seasons in history, with more hard and easy routes.  There were five ice climbing World Cups, the best year since 2001 …Where is the ‘atrophy’? For some straight empirical evidence, my ice and mixed book sold more last season than it ever has, and is being translated into Spanish, Polish, German and even Farsi. The game is on!”

Interestingly, areas such as Scotland; most of the American Northeast like the Adirondacks, Lake Willoughby and northern New Hampshire; and Thunder Bay, Ontario, in the upper Midwest have seen an insurgence of high-end, pure trad mixed ice routes.  For example, many Northeastern climbers, especially Will Mayo, Kevin Mahoney, Ben Gilmore and Freddie Wilkinson have not only been responsible for establishing a slew of difficult traditional mixed climbs     in the region, but have taken these skills into the mountains, producing some magnificent first ascents and alpine-style repeats. Currently, the region’s hardest trad mixed route is Chris Thomas’ Fecalator (M10), and while its grade is relatively low, the challenges of climbing hard mixed moves over manky pins is more akin to the challenges encountered on a hard alpine route.

It is likely that these regions will provide mixed climbing with the same shot of adrenaline that Jeff Lowe provided when he first established Octopussy.

In Scotland, the birthplace of mixed climbing, climbers still abide by a strict historical ethic of ground-up, mainly climbing onsight and without bolts. Their style of climbing has kept their grades at a modest level compared to world standards, but, says Dave MacLeod, “In a Scottish winter environment—where everything is buried in snow and hoar that needs to be excavated, gear is often poor, there is extremely bad weather and you mainly onsight—relatively low M-grades become exponentially harder. I can’t imagine [some lines in Scotland] being climbed yet. That is exciting for the future, that things seem impossible right now.”

After the dust settled on Will Gadd’s and my repeat of Alcatraz, I called Rich Purnell, the route’s first ascentionist. He and I had been freezing in caves together for many seasons, and though our friendship had suffered from the Alcatraz debacle, we had reached a new level of understanding—a sort of sad peacefulness over what the sport had become, and that it might never feel the same again.

Alcatraz is so symbolic, it was a full circle for me,” said Rich. “It was a route that I noticed on my first mixed season, and it just happens to be a route that I did on my last serious mixed season.”

“Do you think Alcatraz could have gone on gear?” I asked. We paused, thinking of how mind-blowing an ascent like that would be. We let the glimmer of such a futuristic ascent remain pure for the moment, and then we said goodbye.

Ryan Nelson has abandoned the drill in search of more traditional mixed lines.