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Big Trad – The Rockies Modern Game

What exactly is the traditional game today depends on who you talk to. Some old-school traditionalists who say the modern game has ruined climbing. The younger generation rush to embrace modern tactics and ethics in search of ever steeper ground and harder grades.

My first ever new route was in the Ghost, 30 years ago this summer of 2013. Like a half-life marker from the standpoint of technical rock climbing around here. Since that first little adventure, a two-pitch 5.9 traditional effort called Ju-Jube, I’ve gone on to establish well over a 1,000 new pitches in these mountains. Over my career I’ve experienced strong shifts in the ethical boundaries defining the trad scene. At times I’ve helped advance these changes in attitude. I see strong parallels in my personal growth and development as a climber to the present state of the traditional climbing today. Only problem is, I can’t crank as hard as the youth generation. Never could really, probably never will.

What exactly is the traditional game today depends on who you talk to. Some old-school traditionalists who say the modern game has ruined climbing. The younger generation rush to embrace modern tactics and ethics in search of ever steeper ground and harder grades. They have embraced such things as rap-bolting and cleaning as a means to “murder the impossible.” But, what’s impossible is hard to pin down, as grades creep ever upward.

Trad Climbing - Modern Mixed Trad Style. Yamnuska.Yamnuska scenic profile

On Mount Yamnuska in 2010, we had a 5.13c route called Blue Jeans. It was redpointed by Derrick Galloway but “constructed” by Nick Rochocewich over two years.  Several modern tactics were employed including the use of fixed static ropes to aid bolt placement and cleaning. The climb is impressive from a technical standpoint. It is possibly the most technically difficult and sustained multi-pitch route in the Rockies to date, with two 5.13 pitches along with four at mid-to-hard 5.12. This adventure follows an improbable path up the wall left of the stoic line of the Yellow Edge. The route firmly put Yam back at the leading edge for multi-pitch technical difficulty locally.  There might be only one small problem. Blue Jeans is a sport route. It’s an issue for some, in that it’s located on what many consider the Crown Jewel of the local traditional climbing scene. This modern statement and others like it in recent years have tended to cause friction between the different generations.

There were four existing routes that intertwined this defining yellow monolith. Three are considered amongst the harder traditional routes on Yam and mainly follow steep corner/crack lines. East End Boys is one of the early 5.12s on the cliff and Yellow Edge is an impressive 70s aid route that was first free climbed at 5.11c in the mid-80s. Both of these climbs employed some bolting but are predominantly protected with clean gear. Also in 2010 a third climb in this old-school vein, Jimmy and The Kid, was free-climbed at 5.12b on clean gear. This scary, bold 80s route has only been climbed twice. The recent on-sight effort by Ross Suchy conquered the aid on the intimidating crux pitch. His feat may have set a new standard on the mountain for old school traditional ethics; on-sight, clean gear, over crumbling overhanging rock, with the balls to fight through the choss. Ross didn’t have the benefit of the lone self-drive bolt which had the hanger stripped by the first ascent party. He climbed this fragile pitch fearlessly. Scary rock, runouts and at times shaky gear – Rockies traditional climbing at its best some would say.

The fourth climb located in this sector is Snert’s Big Adventure 5.11d. It was put up in the late 80s as a modern mixed traditional climb. What this style means is that the route has a healthy diet of bolts protecting the blanker face sections but maintains the clean ethic where gear is available. This climb tackles some very steep terrain having almost a sport-like feel.

Trad Climbing - Modern Mixed Trad Style. Andy Genereux (retro man) carrying all the toys to clean and fix East End Boys prior to the redpoint in 1997Andy Genereux (retro man) carrying all the toys to clean and fix East End Boys prior to the redpoint in 1997

I had a hand in developing two of these climbs. On East End Boys, I partnered with Steve DeMaio. We retrofitted existing fixed hardware and cleaned off loose rock on lead. We maintained a strict ground up ethic to complete the first free ascent of this climb. This climb is considered DeMaio’s pinnacle effort on the mountain from back when he was setting the scene on fire in the mid-80s. We embraced most of the old school values during this effort. With my insistence, we packed a power drill and cleaned loose rock on rappel after overcoming the pitches in traditional fashion. Even Steve ended up adding a couple bolts to previously runout sections to make them more reasonable; a huge ethical dilemma for him at the time.

During the same summer, I established Snert’s Big Adventure over five days rope-soloing. I used a ground up approach and a power drill, and at times I was cringing on the sharp-end as I dealt with sections of horribly rotten rock. Pitch two had a three metre section that took over three hours to negotiate. I cleaned off thousands of pounds of loose crap. At least I didn’t have to worry about a partner being crushed under the constant bombardment.

I was changing the ethical landscape by rope soloing with a drill, placing more abundant fixed gear and purposely cleaning loose rock on rappel to groom the route for future ascents. Some of my contemporaries said that I should have bolted the entire route. For me it was important to maintain a connection to past style and achievements while pushing and embracing ethical change for the future. True, this route had more bolts than similarly-graded routes from the bold 80s, but this new, safer style made both of these climbs very popular. That seemed to justify my deeds. I had taken similar risks to the previous generation but I caused a ripple in the trad scene by employing a new, safer more efficient slant to the game. A few diehards never forgave me.

Yet amongst all that history and testosterone, we now have a fully rappel-bolted sport route gracing the same wall. What gives?

Trad Climbing - Modern Mixed Trad Style. Rochacewich and Brown on Blue Jeans during the building of this projectNick Rochacewich and Katie Brown on Blue Jeans during the building of this project

In defense of Blue Jeans, I think we have to look at the recent history on the mountain and at local traditional circles to find some of the answers. First, folks should know that Nick intended to push this climb ground-up. Unfortunately, he suffered a 15 metre ground fall after a hold broke. Second, if this route had anything like the rock quality found on East End Boys or Snert’s, then there was likely a lot of loose rock. Personally, I wished that we had gone top-down to clean and retrofit the hardware on East End Boys. If we had, it might have been an even better route in the end. Keeping the ground-up approach was important for DeMaio. We both were exposed to horrendous danger from rock fall as we undertook this project. Over three days we cleared a shattered limestone hell to eventually free climb this line.

The rappel approach has been used on several occasions in the recent past to establish climbs on the mountain. It was employed on Verstiegenheit 5.12c, which was free climbed over two days by Scott Milton in 2004. This is one of the more serious hard routes on the mountain. This baby was Shep Steiner’s long term project and nemesis. The top-down approach was used for the top half of the route to try to speed up Shep’s multi-year efforts to establish this climb. The problem was that the bottom half had been pushed ground-up using aid and involved very bold 5.12 free climbing over suspect rock. The upper half, although somewhat better protected due to the rappel bolting, was still technically very challenging – especially after the mental and physical commitment required over the lower pitches. Today, despite modern tactics, the climb remains very serious. The route is somehow tied to the past while looking to the future. For two years it stood as the technical champion on the mountain. It’s still waiting a one-day free ascent or even a second free ascent. Anyone feeling lucky?

Over the past ten years several leading protagonists (including myself) have resorted to rappel bolting on Yamnuska. In my situation, this ethical milestone resulted from surviving two nasty ankle-busting falls due to rock failure while pushing new routes. However, for my latest effort I returned to the tried and true, ground-up approach. I called the climb The Super Direct as a tribute to Yam legend Brian Greenwood who had coined this term. The route is a popular modern-mixed affair with nine pitches of sustained 5.10/11a. We only cleaned off obvious loose rock as we climbed. On a recent repeat this past summer I dislodged a 3 kg block, crushing my left hand. Rappel bolting and cleaning loose rock does reduce the overall risk, but this style also takes away the adventure from the first ascensionist. If modern techniques result in better, safer or maybe harder climbing, they why not use them? One argument that I’ve heard is that, “We are taking something away from the next generation.”

Trad Climbing - Modern Mixed Trad Style. Sonnie Trotter redpointing the crux pitch of The Mistress (5.13), Mt. Yammuska, AlbertaSonnie Trotter redpointing the crux pitch of The Mistress (5.13), Mt. Yammusk

Sonnie Trotter is a leading climber from the “next generation.” A couple of years back he put up probably the hardest pure trad line in the Rockies at Lake Louise called The Path, 5.14a. This was a previously bolted line that had stood abandoned for roughly 10 years. Sonnie worked the route using the bolts, then decided to chop them and do the climb using only clean gear. I’ve watched the redpoint video. It’s impressive – especially the final 10 metre runout sequence protected by a micro cam. Playing devil’s advocate, would this amazing traditional climb exist today had the bolts not been there first?

Another climb from my generation at Lake Louise, Liquid Sky 5.11c, went the other way.

The route was originally done ground up using fixed pitons for aid and a few Hexes and cam placements and then later free climbed. Today, it’s a completely bolted affair, the argument being that the aging pitons weren’t safe. Generally, modern climbers felt carrying and placing only a couple of cams took away from the climbing. In my mind these gear placements were an integral part of the game on this massively overhanging wall. After its bolting, this route was free climbed using only clean gear by a slightly crazed climber to prove a point. However the bolts remain, as does its popularity. For me, because the need to place gear has been eliminated, it’s not the same climb. Many climbers argue that the moves and not the gear make a route. Bolts have definitely added a broader appeal.

Both of these are examples where the changes in protection either take away or add to the experience for climbers that follow. It simply depends on individual perspective.  I’ve been a big proponent of pushing what I call the modern mixed trad style on many of my routes. Here in the Rockies, the majority of our local climbing is on limestone.  Unlike granite, quartzite (Lake Louise) and several other rock types most of our local  stone is not well endowed with natural gear placements (cracks). The second problem is the poor strength of some gear in our fractured rock. One of the local cornerstones for traditional climbing is dealing with the loose stuff, often referred to as “requiring the limestone touch.” Despite this issue, within the modern mixed style I’ve tried to maintain natural protection (if available) along with adequate bolt placements for reasonably protected routes that climbers want to climb.

As a community we employed an early form of this “mixed” ethic back in the 80s. Only back then we were hand-drilling significantly fewer bolts from scary hook placements and running it out 10 or more metres on bad rock. We were getting seriously hurt and even dying for our precious standards. Then, I was part of the “next generation.” Collectively, we gradually gravitated to safer practices after several tragic losses. We knew we had to find better ways. Grades had sort of stalled out at hard 5.11 although many of the routes were extremely bold. The ethical changes that allowed the advance of grades on the big routes around here usually involved more abundant and stronger bolts along with improved rock quality from cleaning. These practices were developed at the sport crags but eventually found their way onto the bigger cliffs.

Trad Climbing - Modern Mixed Trad Style. Derek Galloway leading on the second pitch of YamabushiDerek Galloway leading on the second pitch of Yamabushi

Two significant recent routes that advanced grades on Yamnuska involved these very tactics. The first, Yamabushi 5.13a is an eight-pitch route established by Will Gadd in 2006. The other is Golden Dragon 5.13b which was climbed by Sonnie Trotter and Derek Galloway in 2008, and follows four impressive pitches up the gold and orange streaked headwall above Calgary Route. The recommendation for this difficult climb is to rappel in to the bottom of the hard stuff and climb back out, avoiding the rotting rock on the approach pitches up Calgary Route. On the other hand Yamabushi, for the most part, employed a ground-up approach. Extremely steep and sustained, bolting top-down proved difficult. Significantly, Gadd made an extensive effort to clean the bad rock. On Golden Dragon there was no pretense of maintaining the traditional ground-up ethic. It was a rap bolted sport route from the outset. Their efforts resulted in setting a new bench mark on the mountain indeed the Rockies for technical grade on multi-pitch terrain.

Today, as an old geezer in my mid-fifties, many of my latest climbs in the Ghost and on Yam employ combinations of these newer modern tactics. I often still go at it the old fashioned way, ground up into the unknown with my little red buddy the power drill and my rack slung over my shoulder to get my fix. However, with the next generation nearly all the hardest multi-pitch climbs in the region, like Blue Jeans, are now completely bolted sport routes embracing a top-down attack to help create these leading edge results. These ground-breaking routes challenge the grade envelope and host amazing climbing. The next generation seems to have spoken. Maybe for “Big Trad” here in the Rockies it has changed forever and maybe not. We’ve come a very long way in 60 years.  Back in the day, it was about surviving. Today it seems to be how hard can we make it. Sometimes it’s both.

Andy Genereux lives in Calgary and has established many important new climbs in the Rockies.

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