The Climbing Life
In 1975 the best rock climbers in North America were just starting to break into the 5.12 grade. That level of difficulty may not seem like a big deal today, especially at sport crags, but when you strip out the astonishing material and innovative changes to climbing gear, shoes, and training since then, 5.12 had sharper teeth than it may seem.
There were many things that did not exist which today we take for granted. Imagine shoes that did not stick to the rock, very few bolts, no cams, no cell phones, no quickdraws, and a host of other stuff of the “don’t leave home without it” variety. But conversely, much has been eroded or lost along the way, like shared values, a calmer, more relaxed way of life, a more universal camaraderie, a greater willingness to engage with uncertainty, and engage with the rock on its terms not ours. Climbing was a bastion of freedom and liberty that existed beyond the edge of polite society, and government mostly couldn’t care less. Access groups did not need to exist. It was a guy’s world and the sight of a woman leading was unusual. Climbers did not use chalk and cars were big enough to live in. Ropes were 45m.
In that year of 1975 Eric Weinstein free-climbed Sentry Box at Squamish, establishing the first 5.12 in North America, ground-up. He was armed with only the stiff-wire nuts and simple hexes of the day, a swami belt around his waist, no chalk bag, no cams, and 1960s-era rock shoes that were of less use than today’s approach shoes. Weinstein pushed his head out on his first 5.12 lead into a new level of difficulty for everyone. Anyone today can try Sentry Box with the same gear, onsight as a first 5.12, but it would take formidable talent to have much chance of success.
Another example of world-leading skill from the 1970s was Henry Barber. If you’ve never heard of him, type ‘Hot Henry Barber’ into Google, and if you’d like to listen to some really cool old-school philosophy on climbing minimally, listen to Patagonia’s wonderful 20 minute youtube interview with him. A few years ago he visited Squamish and climbed the classic 5.10c fingercrack of Exasperator with Peder Ourom. Thirty years after his heyday and into his 60s, Henry had become a much larger man, most especially around the middle. By then he climbed only occasionally, and had still never owned a cam. Nonetheless, he onsighted Exasperator with an effortless grace: no harness, no chalk, and placing only six nuts for protection in the entire 50m. It takes a considerable degree of self-restraint and personal conviction to climb like that, where the enjoyment comes from how the climbing is done, not simply achieving something.
In June 1975 the Nose of El Cap was climbed in 15 hours by Jim Bridwell, Billy Westbay, and John Long, and the famous photo of them strutting their stuff below El Cap captured the confident attitude of that decade. The Nose has been climbed in a day hundreds of times since, and on many occasions much faster than 15 hours. What is less well-known is that Bridwell, Westbay, and Long reached the top of Boot Flake by early morning, and then, confident of success, relaxed their pace to the top. As Long said, “Had we kept the pressure on to go fast we could have knocked off four or five hours.” A 10-hour ascent of the Nose without cams, without chalk, without harnesses, and without sticky rubber shoes would be a considerable achievement even today.
The point of all this is not to suggest that life as a climber in 1975 was somehow better than it is today, it was just very different, that’s all. If we’re willing to go try, lessons from that era can show us how much can be achieved with ‘less,’ and that there’s nothing inherent about climbing today to prevent us adopting leaner ways and still having a great day on the rock and positive new experiences. There was no choice about it in the 1970s, the available equipment determined how the climbing was done, whereas today - if we want to - we can minimise our material overload in ways that are meaningful to us, even if it’s just leaving the mobile phone or the cams or draws at home one day a month.
‘Old school’ is an accolade we frequently hear, usually as a mark of admiration or respect for grey-haired men who climbed in past eras. For most young climbers, bombarded by the torrent of crazy materialist distractions that define our stressed-out modern world, old school ways are a distant prospect, or even an alarming one. But things are not as they may seem, old school is alive and doing just fine in the best rock tradistas today, who know very well that travelling fast and hard is invariably dependent on travelling lean and light. Enjoyment can depend on taking the least amount of stuff rather than the most, as many have discovered after hauling huge racks of cams into the Bugaboos.
If we’re willing to kick back our highest sending grades a little and gather the best of the attitudes and styles of the 1970s along with the best of today, there’s a chance we could find ourselves enjoying climbing in less worldly, more contented ways. As Henry Barber said at the Banff Mountain Festival a few years ago, “the less I have the more I can do”. We could paint an entire life into those words.