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Original Issue


More people than ever are checking out the special exhilarations of rock climbing, but what is of real significance is that so many established climbers have turned to the purer discipline of climbing clean. Rather than hammer pitons into sheer walls, they rely on nuts and tiny wedges of aluminum, some no larger than a thumbnail, tucked into existing cracks—thus leaving the rock as unscarred as they found it.


There used to be so few climbers that it didn't matter where one drove a piton, there wasn't a worry about demolishing the rock. Now things are different. There are so many of us, and there will be more. A simple equation exists between freedom and numbers: the more people, the less freedom. If we are to retain the beauties of the sport, the fine edge, the challenge, we must consider our style of climbing; and if we are not to mutilate and destroy the routes, we must eliminate the heavy-handed use of pitons and bolts.

This is from the afterword to climber Royal Robbins' book Basic Rockcraft, an afterword he terms an apology, because the book's final chapter involves "do's and don'ts, obligations and responsibilities," and rock climbers, Robbins says, are apt to be rubbed the wrong way by advice.

Not his advice happily. In 1967 Robbins introduced the alternative to pitons when he reported that for safety anchors some early British climbers had used machine nuts, threaded with rope and jammed into cracks in the rock. From these evolved the aluminum wedges, artificial chockstones, now manufactured in a variety of shapes and sizes especially for climbing. Where it fits, a chock-stone, with a wire or nylon rope—the "nut and sling" pictured above—will hold as well as an expansion bolt or piton. And all a climber need do is get it into the crack and set it with a sharp downward tug. No boring and hacking and bashing, no flaking and chipping, altering the cracks and contributing to the irreversible erosion of the rock.

We have been slow to realize that the oceans are ecologically vulnerable, the deserts in fact fragile—and here we go with rock, a substance we are in the way of regarding as pretty sturdy stuff. "Rock-ribbed" and "rockbound" and "rock bottom." Hard as, steady as, a rock. All those photographs of a tiny figure 1,000 feet up some uncompromisingly vertical face, leaning against a rope into the thin air. And now it turns out not to be the climber we should be worrying about, but the rock. Climbers we have too many of. The restoration of rock formations is impossible.

"In the area with which I am most familiar [New York's Shawangunks] we have a growth rate of 15% per year, and a doubling time of five years," writes John Stannard of the American Alpine Club of the increasing number of rock climbers. "...if it continues, many of our areas will be available to us—and to those who have not yet begun to climb—only on a restricted or reserved basis."

Which is to say that climbers may have to take turns, a possibility some enthusiasts find so disturbing that they write to publications asking that they not cover the sport at all. For fear, presumably, that hordes of overexcited climbers are going to rush for the nearest rock bearing bolts and pitons and strewing beer cans in their wake.

A more philosophical view is taken by a mountaineer who resigned the presidency of the American Alpine Club in part because the club was planning to promote rock climbing. Geologist and oceanographer Charles Hollister felt strongly enough to take that action, but he's now wonderfully ambivalent about the principle involved. Rock is irreplaceable, but is man's freedom to nibble it to sand more important?

"The mountains are already a mess," Hollister says. "I've just come back from France, and there's smog halfway up the Alps. The destruction all over the world is incredible. And the American climber is an extremely egotistical kind of individual who feels it is his God-given right to go anywhere on this planet, and thinks that regulations are just trying to clip his wings and not let him be an eagle."

Hollister wonders if we should not give up on the more accessible mountains and classify them as expendable resources, in the hope that they will thus act as buffer zones for less accessible ones. "It's too late to save the Shawangunks," he says, biting on the bullet, "and probably Yosemite. But the technology exists to go into the wilderness and live like a king, without disturbing the environment at all. Pack in your stove and fuel. Don't make fires. Don't pick a thing. Don't cut down a thing. Just sit there and look."

The technology also exists to do your rock climbing clean. Royal Robbins, scrupulous, won't go so far as to say that doing so makes one feel more free. "It just means another sort of gadget," he says, "but there is more satisfaction because it takes more art."

And it is a more natural experience, having to accommodate the rock. You can drill a hole and use a bolt anywhere but that is like chopping stairs into the stone: one hasn't climbed what was there, but what one has made of it. And left what one has made of it for the next climber. Better to go clean and leave the wall unmarred, " if," wrote climber Galen Rowell, "nothing more than another cloud shadow had passed across its ancient face."