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Mountaineering’s Real Values

Dick Sale digs deep into the guts of climbing values, does it still apply to today?

This was a published article in Mountain 58, written by Dick Sale. Often climbers can be ahistorical (lacking historical perspective) and they need to remind themselves that the issues and ethics they are faced with today are not new to their generation. The topics might change, but the underlying values remain the same. Web-based media is best served with bright lights, loud sounds and new-age cinematography, but this web-site post is the opposite. Have a careful read of what Sale wrote  and put it into context with the discussions surrounding climbing in 2013.

Mountaineering’s Real Values

Dick Sale
Mountain 58

Recent articles in Mountain have put forward viewpoints on modern rock climbing that are mutually exclusive. On the one hand we have Pete Livesey (Mountain 42), who says that the modern climber derives his aestheticism from the totally consuming difficulty of the routes. On the other hand, Tom Jiggins (Mountains 53) has stated that the style of some recent American rock ascents suggests that the climbers had something more to gain than the route. Equally, Alan Rose (Mountain 43) points out that some pioneers now consider only the status which will be attached to a first ascent, rather than its merit as a new route. These conflicting views represent a potential dilemma for climbing which should be faced.
It is not difficult to discover the root cause of the conflict. It lies in the modern obsession with the competitive urge created by, and in turn creating, the advertising media, coupled with the view that climbing is pure sport and as such devoid of significance and, therefore, of the potential for disruptive influence. The result is a situation where the significant thing about a new route is not that it was conceived in relation to the mountain or cliff, but that it was harder, climbed quicker, and so on. Now in one sense all climbing is about winning – you win if you survive – so the question that next arises is whether this swing to highly competitive rock climbing is worth worrying about. It can be argued that climbing has always suffered from similar problems: for instance, Joe Brown and his contemporaries were condemned for showing a lack of regard for existing sensibilities. It can also be argued that climbing must evolve if it is to survive, and that evolution requires the climbing of harder lines. These arguments are powerful and realistic, but I submit that concentration on such ethical technicalities avoids the major issues.
People climb for almost as many reasons as there are climbers, and few other sports encompass such a diverse field of activity. The climber is everyone from the man walking across British hills (leaving aside the tourist), through the rock climber, to the man on the summit ridge of an 8,000 m Himalayan peak. The one thing they all have in common is a mountain, and indeed nothing else need be involved. The mountain is an inanimate object, yet each mountain is different. And the interaction of the man with his chosen hill breathes life into that hill: it becomes alive in the hopes and aspirations of the climber. It is a universal trait that on any given day the climber may feel the mountain malevolent or kind. It is not a meaningless comparison. For many the mountain is the only thing: life begins with the hill. It provides meaning and, possibly, ultimate truth. It gives quiet, stillness, a vision of infinity coupled with the feeling of mortality. The hill is sameness in a changing world, specific in a world of indifference and hostility, a monument to the strivings of man.
It is in this respect that I feel the modern, overtly competitive climber represents a threat to the basic roots of climbing. With a few notable exceptions, the modern rock climber seeks a line contrived solely with the purpose of providing a difficult passage. And so, in a sense, the mountain becomes irrelevant: it does not matter where the cliff is, or even what it is. A Welsh cliff, a quarried face in Yorkshire, a sweies of paving slabs set at a high angle (or, more completely, a series of irregular blocks in a gym corner) – it doesn’t matter. Of course, this is not wholly true, for in another sense the cliff is highly relevant. In the modern competitive jungle, Cloggy, for example, scores more points that the university gym, and therein lies the greatest danger, for the cliff is thereby laid open to the scourges of competitive exploitation.
These sentiments would seem to be shared by some Mountain contributors, notably Rab Carrington who, in his article ‘Carn Dearg Commentary’ (Mountain 46), wrote that he would hate to see the buttress go the way that Cloggy has gone, with every square foot climbed on. It appears that Carrington fears, as I do, the desecration of the mountain, the submersion of climbing beneath the detritus produced by the modern egotist. And this is something that is forced on us all, for the competitive urge is now so strong that it pervades the whole of climbing. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the climbing literature. Here, we are bombarded with articles and opinions, all of which conform to the basic standard. We are led to believe that only the opinions of the leading climbers are relevant. In the recent chalk debate, the comments made were almost exclusively those of the top climbers. They are, of course, the only ones who can pass judgement on the effectiveness of chalk, but it is also important to me whether the walls of Cenotaph Corner are plastered, even if I cannot climb on them. The hill is not the exclusive property of those capable of climbing the hardest lines. We hear also the anxious self-justification of certain competitors who are not quite in the lead. We hear Livesey commenting that all kinds of silly yobs can bumble their way up Welsh Extremes with certain kinds of protection. Is it not possible that the competitors themselves create the very problems of which they then complain?
The net result is a pervasive impression that hard climbing is all important. Nowadays, articles such as Mike Thompson’s on the Everest climb – ‘Out With the Boys Again’ (Mountain 50) – appear oasis-like in the veritable desert of more normal literary outpourings, whose only claim to fame is their description of a hard route, with the usual prerequisite of self congratulation. But, even if I admire the new climbs (and it is admiration, no adoration), and want to hear about them, I do not want to be told that technical difficulty is all important. It is not. The important thing in climbing is that you do it and, as with Thompson, that you enjoy it. We all climb at a risk level commensurate with the satisfaction we get from doing the climb. Medium level performers could probably climb at a higher level (aside from some obvious problems of technique), if they felt the risks were worth the rewards. Thus, to the average climber, the ascent of the year is invariably one of this own, and not a 6b gritstone wall. And, while it is ludicrous to suggest that his climb should be publicized, it is equally ludicrous to ignore his ideals and aspirations. He is the majority of climbers. He is also important in other ways. The width of the pinnacle of achievement in any sport is proportional to the width of its base. And in his humble way he may discover something of true worth. It is a little sad that Holliwells’s comment in the Carneddau guides, to the effect that too often guidebooks are cluttered with the debris of the undiscerning and the follies of the vain, was aimed at routes of difficult standards (and hence, by association, at their perpetrators). It is all too easy to forget that the same comment could be leveled at routes of Extreme standard, and their perpetrators. But the common assumption is that an Extreme route is worthwhile because it is an Extreme, while a Diff. route is only worthwhile if it is a great line, or a true classic.
Thus the mountain becomes merely an arena in which the top climbers perform to the exclusion of all other climbers. We cannot improve the ethics of the climbing leaders. Man is competitive and, as a result, there will always be a core of pure competitors. But we should recognize the effects. Any basic immorality should be recognized as such. We should also, perhaps, attempt a more reasoned approach in our literature. By playing up the competitive side, are we not imposing yet another pressure on the climber, by saying that the weaker-willed individual attempting to gain kudos by an early repeat must climb under potentially suicidal conditions? Perhaps such individuals do need genuinely competitive climbing, where routes are top roped and points scored for speed and style. The risk level in this case is, after all, below that frequently accepted in competitive gymnastics.
So far I have concentrated on my impression as a British climber, and on the degree to which competition affects my enjoyment of the sport. A much deeper and more serious problem is encountered when world climbing is considered. The pursuit of technical difficulty is, after all, a British rock climbing myth. Its transplantation to the world scene is essentially futile – it cannot be made to fit. You cannot prepare the Eiger by abseil, nor can you talk of sheer technical difficulty when considering a teat such as the soloing of an 8,000m peak by its normal (easiest) route. The argument becomes meaningless.
But, if Everest was soloed by the South Col route, the ascent would be heralded as the greatest single feat of mountaineering, so far in excess of a difficult 30ft. gritstone problem as to make the comparison ridiculous. Why? Is it not that as climbers we seek a freeing of our earth-bound existence for a more spiritual one, and that we see in the climber of such a route an expression of what we all seek? It is a manifestation of the much much-mailgned inner spirit that separates us, as men, from other animals. And the transference of the new rock ethic to greater mountaineering threatens to de base even this.
The exploit of Hermann Buhl on Nanga Parbat was impressive, not because it was an ascent of awesome technical difficulty, but because it required an inner fire that most of us cannot hope to emulate. In the years since Buhl’s climb we have had commentaries on his life, and they have usually touched on the human aspects of his ascents. But, if his death had been more recent, would he have received such a tribute? Or would he have received, as did Dougal Haston, merely a catalogue of climbs, as though that was all that life comprised? Haston was admired, not simply because of his skill, but because of his avowed intent to go to the edge and look over. When I read his obituary, I was left with the vaguely hollow feeling that his life had amounted only to a handful of climbs, with no human significance.
If climbing has been so degraded by competition that a man’s death can elicit no more than a list of climbs, no matter what the quality of those climbs, then I fear its value may be lost.
And when all the hard climbing is gone, will the climbers still have the mountain? And, what is more important, will we?