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The Choss Pile: The Evolution of Climbing

Tied to the train of progress, climbers are always chasing harder climbs and higher grades. The evolution of climbing is a constant dance between new gear and human potential. But does the latter have an upper limit?

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The future of climbing. If the image that pops into your head when you read that is of an 11-year-old kid built like a wiregate biner celebrating his or her 11th V11 flash, no, that’s not what I’m talking about. (Side note: When I was 11, I was guzzling CapriSuns, building Legos, and sneaking onto the family computer at 1 a.m. to type “naked girl boobies” into Google with Dorito dust-covered fingers… not cranking one-arm pullups and posing for brand photoshoots and sponsored Instagram posts. #LetKidCrushersHaveAChildhood!)

We have come a long way, though. Fifty years ago no one could’ve imagined the revolutionary new gear, training techniques and crazy shoe tech that has come onto the market, much less that folks would be climbing grades up to 5.15 and V17. Mostly, these grade and tech advancements are good. Some (belay glasses?) we could probably do without. But where are we going next?

The evolution of climbing and climbers. Or something like that.

The most basic answer is, “5.16a” and yeah, we probably will get there eventually. Or at least, someone eventually will decide to say, “Yeah, this is a 16.” It’s only natural. As our climbing gear and training techniques advance, so does the difficulty we’re able to climb and the scale of the expeditions we’re able to embark upon.

How hard a human being can climb is, as I see it, a combination of two factors:

1) How strong and skilled they are (also dependent on the training capabilities available to them)

2) How good their gear is (the stickiness of the rubber, the weight of the harness, the ease of placing pro, etc.)

One of those two factors is finite though. The human body can only be so strong. So where’s the upper limit? How sticky can we make the rubber, how light can we make the rope, before we’re just improving our gear and not ourselves? Somewhere on the spectrum between bare feet and suction-cup boots sits the current generation of rock shoes. With each new advance in shoe tech, we inch ever closer to the suction-cup side. Where do we stop?

Like performance gear, connectivity is ever-improving, too. Information on crags around the world is available at our fingertips. We can post Instagram updates from our portaledges in remote Pakistan. We can get helicoptered off 8,000-meter peaks when we’re in trouble. We can listen to the new remix of “W.A.P.” from deep in the Amazon. Anywhere has become everywhere.

I briefly penned a column here on R&I called “Forgotten First Ascents,” where I covered climbs from the pre-social media era. Every climber I interviewed spoke of the days before the spread of smartphones, WiFi, social media and 21st-century gear with a hint of nostalgia in their voice, like Obi-Wan telling Luke about the Clone Wars in “A New Hope.” I can only guess what it was like myself, because I’m 23 now and was still picking boogers and skipping math class in the days before iPhones, but I assume it was different then.

I live alone and do a fair bit of backcountry climbing and hiking, so I finally bit the bullet and ordered a satellite GPS tracking and messaging device.

I ordered it because I thought, “Well, if I break a leg or something out in the backcountry, it’d be kind of stupid to lie there and die when I could just call for help if I had a sat messenger.”

But then I started to think: Maybe there’s some beauty in dying because you broke your leg and couldn’t call for help on a sat messenger. Maybe it’s better that way. At least, maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Are today’s 8,000-meter no-O2 speed ascents any more impressive than the accomplishments of  1950s-era alpinists, with their canvas tents, wood-frame packs and hand-held maps? Is climbing 5.15d with the latest and greatest gear, dieting and training more impressive than climbing 5.11 in hobnail boots on a hemp rope?

Are we improving, or is everything else? Is the evolution of climbing now just the evolution of new gear?

This is all just shouting into the wind, of course. It’s not like we’re going to stop improving our gear.

But I guess what I’m saying is, maybe I don’t want to scour the Internet for the lightest biners or the stickiest rubber or the best sat-nav device when I’m buying gear. Maybe I should just type in “naked girl boobies” and call it a day.

The Choss Pile is published every Thursday.

Owen Clarke, 23, is a climber and writer currently based in a tent. He also writes for The Outdoor Journal and Fiire. He was the first solo hiker on Slovenia’s Juliana Trail, and his coverage was published in this month’s Travel + Leisure. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is also afraid of heights. 

Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.