I Met Steve Mcclure a few weeks ago and it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to discussing the different aspects of climbing. The usual was covered, nuances between sport climbing and trad climbing, “Nick, it’ll help your climbing no-end if you do some sport climbing.” “That may be so Steve, but it won’t feed my soul!” Then the conversation went on to how bouldering and training will affect and improve my climbing, “You should boulder and train more, and it will help your climbing.” “That may be so Steve, but it will make me too strong and I’ll rip the holds off most of the routes I aspire to climb!”
One, most interesting aspect of the conversation, was a fact both Steve and I agreed, which was climbing needs characters. This led to the question, has climbing become too clean and conservative and lost its characters and character?
Personally I think it has … Well, it’s certainly getting there anyway. And the question I had to ask myself is does it matter and are climbers today bothered?
After deciding it matters to me, I have chosen to write down a few reasons why I think climbing is on a slippery slope to mediocrity and what, in my opinion, is to be done to cure this fungus of bland spreading all over our precious climbing cake.
Too many people now enter into the arena from a climbing wall background, which is a safe, controlled, ruled and regulated environment. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent hours in climbing walls and love them and I think they are a great training facility, but that is what they are, training, not climbing and this should never be forgotten. Venturing outside after the very controlled, inside environment – no weather, no view, no risk, no question of where the next hold is, no question of how to get to the route or how to get off the route – must have an effect on the persons attitude… doesn’t it? Going outside for the first time after learning to climb in a wall must be terrifying, “Oh, must wear a helmet, must follow all of the safety precautions, must look for the blue hold, red hold, green hold… Make decisions … (scary). Move up to what may be a hold, but it may not be a hold … (very scary). Move up without clipping a bolt … (very very scary).” And on and on and on… What ever happened to the let’s get out and have it? What about let’s explore the rock and explore our own imagination; let’s have a scare and a mini adventure? This ‘proper’ climbing experience in my mind should be the first step not the last?
I find myself laughing and on occasion despairing when I read the continuing threads on UKC that are usually entitled something like ‘Helmets’. The thread normally has someone preaching how foolish it is not to wear a helmet, “Oh, how foolish, they could injure themselves and cost the country thousands in medical costs.” Bloody hell, and I though climbers were free spirits and rad-man, and you know, you know… wild! “Oh, that Nick Bullock, what a fool, he doesn’t wear a helmet when rock climbing.” Right I don’t… I wear one for most of the winter – I’ve regularly slept wearing a helmet (I mean on a mountain, not in a bed… now that would be weird!) and I hate the bloody things and if I don’t want to wear a helmet in the summer when I rock climb, I won’t. Radical I know, and yes, I appreciate I could be injured. I don’t make judgement on anyone who wants to wear a helmet and I can see the benefits, but when I last looked, rock climbing was for free thinking and folk who can make their own decisions and it can even be adventurous and dangerous.
I now don’t smoke, I wear a seat belt when I drive, I eat healthy, go running, take vitamins… is it going to be law soon to wear a helmet or have your gear inspected once a year and if you injure yourself while not wearing a helmet will your insurance be invalid? Maybe it should be made illegal to climb loose rock, wet rock, or attempt new routes that have not been tested by a qualified person or to climb to the first bolt without stick clipping it, or heaven forbid, boulder without a pad. Climbers just don’t appear to be questioning or dangerous or anti-authority any more, we conform and are politically correct and join in with the castigation when someone doesn’t toe the line. People like Patey and Whillans and Perrin and Drummond – Brown, Macintyre and Pritchard, would surely be castigated by the crowds today who don’t appear to understand that climbing needs to be avant-garde?
I think Climbing has become too serious. There are too many folk chasing numbers and to do this it is deemed an advantage if you diet, diet, not drink, diet, train, diet, train, train, diet, train, not drink, not drink, not party, not go out and have a crack, not go on big trips, not climb in winter, not go more than a week away from the gym and certainly not go out and shuffle along ledges on adventure trad climbs. And it is in my honest opinion not doing all of the above makes Jonny a very dull boy/girl!
Life in Britain is making climbers and climbing sensible. Britain is a nanny state, a cotton wool country. It’s cheaper for the government if we are all squeaky clean and we all have mortgages to become beholden to the powers that be and live in fear.
Climbing has become mainstream, it’s too popular, and it sucks, because then it becomes regulated and the masses without much appreciation of what climbing should be about make ignorant decisions. I blame Coca cola and Silvester Stallone, and Red Bull and Clint Eastwood and the internet… Definitely the internet… How many times do you read, ‘What are the conditions like on this crag, or that crag, or this hill, or this climb?’… Where has all of the adventure and imagination gone? How about finding out for yourself and taking a chance that the climb may be in. But then again, that could be a waste of valuable time and as everyone works so hard and time is so precious we don’t want to do that. Climbers today need certainty and certainty spells the death of adventure and the death of adventure spells no character and no characters.
How about this, let’s make a law that will force folk to climb outside, WITHOUT an instructor and on gritstone. Let them build their own belays and place their own wobbly gear and shake their way up a climb… And then, before they can be allowed into a climbing wall, they have to do the theory exam and answer questions like, is it compulsory to clip the first bolt on a sport route? And the final part of the theory would be to watch Seb Grieve climbing Parthian Shot in Hard Grit or Ricky Bell in On-Sight lobbing off his route at Fairhead.
Finally to give us all hope, here are a few of my top characters who are still around and if you look carefully, you may see out somewhere, somewhere that may be dangerous and risky and they may be doing something very silly, maybe even without wearing a helmet! But be quick, they are officially on the protected list!