Some Thoughts on the Use of Force: A Reflection on the Unfulfilled Dream of Clean Climbing
By Steve Grossman
Climbing was just starting to hook me in 1972. Two years into it and I already glimpsed a wondrous world of limitless adventure and spellbinding beauty that I could experience as a dedicated climber. When Chouinard Equipment published the clean climbing catalog and offered an ethical philosophy and approach to climbing that made the inner fantasy world sustainable in the face of the mounting external pressures, the psyche of North American climbing took a quantum leap. Collectively, our consciousness was raised as awareness of our surroundings grew to meet the demands of hammer-less climbing. Each climber was challenged to examine the relationship between adventure and technology to develop a personal style
Much of the concern over route degradation focused on big wall routes on El Cap due to the gear intensive nature of aid climbing. "Pitons have been a great equalizer in American climbing. By liberally using them it was possible to get in over ones head and by more liberally using them to get out again."* Largely because they turned out to be easier to use once mastered, nuts quickly replaced pitons as the preferred means of protection on free climbs. Oddly enough, few people embraced hammer-less aid climbing and big walls became the backwater of the American clean climbing movement. Despite the luxury and security offered by aid slings, climbers could not be bothered to slow down and push the limits of the new gear and themselves, preferring the well-worn path of least resistance.
Three decades later, with our numbers growing yearly and a staggering array of tools at our disposal, the same lackadaisical attitude prevails when it comes to hammered protection. Wall climbing is in the midst of a renaissance but internally we remain in the Dark Ages. Pause and consider the damage to the vertical environment that we would now be enduring had clean climbing not taken hold. The manifest destiny of hammer, drill and chisel is woeful at best and we must face the reality that unless we collectively reduce the impact of each and every placement, each and every ascent, a dismal future awaits us. Hammer-less aid climbing is one of the wildest and most demanding games that climbing has to offer. We must take pride in our heritage as climbers and continue to insist that ingenuity and skill take precedence over expedience and force. Only then can the adventure and trial by fire that has historically made big wall climbing uniquely rich not become lost on us. "Remember the rock and other climbers - climb clean." Right on.
Steve Grossman is committed to climbing clean. Of his four or five new routes on "The Captain" he feels the most significant are: The Turning Point (a solo first ascent for which there is no topo and which remains unrepeated in 20 years) and Jolly Roger. Grossman's hammerless (this means no hammer was brought on the climb) ascent of the Muir Wall was a door opener. Getting one of the placements to stick required three hours. In an era of chiseling and hook-holes climbing, Steve's routes were not manufactured. He remains an inspired advocate for natural climbing.
*Doug Robinson, "The Whole Art of Natural Protection," 1972 GPIW catalog
This article first appeared in the 2002 Black Diamond Equipment catalog.
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