The Rule of Steel

Every time I don the rack and tie in below a climb at the Index Lower Town Wall these days, I have a faint concern that someday even a route as fine as Japanese Gardens will, for me, be relegated to the realm of the quotidian, at which point nothing can be sacred any longer and I will have to quit rock climbing and become a corporate drone.

Paradoxically, however, each lap on a Lower Wall climb (or any Index climb) merely reaffirms the joy I receive from climbing. Even when the movements are so ruthlessly wired than any changes amount to technique refinements that are just barely perceptible, the love that I have for this style of climbing (vertical granite) shines through ever more brightly.

Once again I find myself using Index as a rehabilitation center for a finger injury and really, what better place is there for that? Since the routes aren't typically overhung (except for some short-lived overlaps and roofs and such), the climbing is much more demanding of technique than it is of sheer holding power. Pulling on holds with 70% of my body weight on my feet seems like a great way to carefully bring back some of the finger strength I've squandered over the past few months of injury. On a related note, I think I finally understand why nearly every authority on climbing training puts so much emphasis on finger strength; I used to think I had steel fingers but even I'm now convinced that a hangboard is the true key to beating all these injuries that keep cropping up.

But Index: Yes! What a place! Though the atrocious number of wet days we've had so far this year have seemed particularly soul-crushing (and this coming from someone born and raised in Seattle), the signs of change are now too obvious to ignore. Soon the rock will make its yearly transformation from being too wet to being too hot; for the Index devotee it is a welcome change but a challenging one, requiring flexibility and fortitude. Routes requiring even a modicum of good friction become feasible only in the early morning during the summer or are saved for the mystical days of fall, when the stars align briefly and both cool air and dry rock coexist, along with the proliferation of deciduous color and the noticeable decrease in the declination of the Sun.

Yesterday was a trifling admixture of warm temperatures and wet rock, both indicators of less-than-optimal ambient friction for rock climbing. Despite this, the climbing was awesome and amongst the familiar routes that we scuffled up (including a rather bumbly but enjoyable trip up the 'full' pitch of Iron Horse), one in particular stood out as it has for years. Natural Log Cabin (the nerd in me chuckles at this every time I think of it) is one of the finest rock climbs anywhere. Slightly runout on the beginning face section, slightly tough in the middle crack section and slightly exposed in the bombay stemming corner at the top, it's got just about everything that 40m of granite rock climbing should have.

This is one of those climbs that I aspired to climb. I looked at it all the time and thought about how amazing it would be to climb it. I never toproped it because I wanted the full experience and I waited for it for at least a couple of years because the beginning is a little scary. Really, it amounts to some 5.10 edging and an awkward clip where you really don't want to fall. It's certainly not 'Eldorado Canyon X-rated (at least from what I've heard about Eldo) but it's still intimidating. By comparison, the crux sections are hard 5.11 so the danger factor is pretty low for someone climbing at that level. In any case, It was pitch 13 of a long day of 5.11 climbing in 2006 when I finally saddled up for Natural Log Cabin and it went without a hitch. Even with a little gear beta, I was immensely thankful that I'd saved it for such an occasion and I can still remember the exhilaration of moving through the dihedral at the top with nothing but 30m of air underneath me.

Subsequently, the route took on a slightly more storied history for me. My custom for leading it was traversing in from Godzilla, placing a cam in some questionable rock behind a loose-looking flake about 30-40 feet up, then running it to the bolt a further 15 feet along. Well, one day as I climbed it, scoffing jovially at the integrity of said cam, a hold broke while I was fully locked off on it and I flew. I pitched about 35 feet, ending up a little above the ground dangling, of course, from that single cam. My belayer lowered himself down to where I was and we just stared in awe up at that little piece of metal behind that fractured block. It wasn't the first time that a questionable red Alien placement had saved my ass: Colorado Custom Hardware, I salute you.

Of course, in the aftermath of this there was some (online) discussion of the rock quality vis-a-vis the runout section. I opined that since some of the holds in the real no-fall zone (above where I fell) were a bit hollow, it might be desirable to add another bolt lower down. Upon leading the climb a few more times, I realized that the thrilling beginning was integral to the aesthetics of the entire climb. I thought about my own path to the climb, how I had felt the need to wait for the right time when I would be 'ready' for the challenge (for clarity, I had climbed much harder than 5.11 by that point so it wasn't simply a question of physical ability). I recanted my bolt-happy stance and embraced the fact that opinions regarding route protection are particularly prone to changes over time. Bolts, however, are at least semi-permanent statements and should be viewed with caution in these situations.

Why do I bring this up? For me it's always interesting to see the wildly different responses to the bolting issue. This route (NLC, for short) is unique in that few routes at Index require an 'entrance exam' where boldness is concerned. My reverence for that uniqueness and for the potential adventures involved easily override my desire for absolute safety. To wit, there was some renewed popular interest in the route a couple of years ago that included a few folks who wanted to add a couple of bolts to the start. Now obviously, I understand their motives: after all, I too at one point campaigned for just such a thing. In the aftermath of a slightly scary fall, I wanted to dumb the route down to my level instead of reaffirming my abilities and returning to it when I was ready to face the challenge.

This is the slippery slope of this discussion: who has the right to define what's safe and what's not? Since very recently I heard the topic of bolting the start of NLC mentioned again, I will attempt an answer. In this case, the answer is: 'not applicable'. In reality, the safety of the route has nothing to do with the discussion aside from how it figures into one's experience on the route. What does, however, is personal responsibility. One rut in which the bolting argument inevitably catches a wheel is that of the 'ego accusation': in essence, those in favor of adding bolts for safety accuse those in opposition of being egoists for holding the opinion that it's OK for certain routes to require a certain level of boldness, thus limiting the number of people who can comfortably lead them. The real egoism, I think, stems from the idea that climbing should be as safe as possible for everyone involved. This is via a failure to accept responsibility for even standing underneath a giant mass of rock, some of which is 100% guaranteed to fall off at some point. The safety of a route is not easily quantifiable: the route is never entirely safe but rather, objective hazards (rockfall) aside, the risk involved in climbing the route is mitigated by personal intent and ability.

I think that almost anyone would agree that tons of things require certain levels of skill, craft, competence or ability. I can think of analogues not only in other pursuits of sport but across the professional world, the artistic world and the trades. What's interesting about climbing is that we can actively reduce the level of commitment and responsibility via engineering. A bolt placement effectively eliminates other possible narratives; it is the agent of 'quantum decoherence' of rock climbing. By nature, a bolt placement is intended to reduce the number of possible consequences at that point in the climb to one. Any protection placement plays a similar role, but the difference between bolts and gear placed by the climber is the creativity involved. I believe the narrative of a climb is incredibly important, especially in the 'traditional' sphere. How did it come to exist? Who climbed it and what are their stories? What are the particular requirements of the route in terms of difficulty and protection availability? All of these facets will affect my own personal narrative when I intend to climb a route. My level of skill and craft measured against what I intend to climb is what shapes my experience. The presence or absence of a guarantee, like a bolt, will greatly affect how I experience a given climb. A bolt placement reduces the demand for responsibility and resourcefulness so that we can concentrate of other aspects of climbing. It's why sport climbing has a completely different aesthetic than that of traditional climbing: the creativity of protection placement and the mental demands are transmuted into the pursuit of pure athletic movement. We climbers love that too, of course.

So why not on Natural Log Cabin? Well, because it's not a sport climb. OK, the top 40 feet are bolted like a sport climb (and there may even be a few too many bolts up there by my reckoning), but the rest of it is decidedly not. So why not add more permanent protection to the relatively easier but less protected start of the climb? Because it destroys (or decoheres?) future possibilities. No-one else will be able to judiciously decide whether they can commit to the challenge presented. No one will spend time mustering resources and resolve to test their mental faculties. It's not enough to say that a bolt can be skipped by those who so desire; the mere presence of the bolt changes everything much like opening the box to check on Schrodinger's Cat. One of the greatest rewards in climbing is that gleaned via adventure. An adventure can be on a small or large scale, of course; it doesn't require a trip to the Himalaya to experience one, although that would certainly suffice. NLC was an adventure for me when I decided to climb it. Piercing the shroud of myth in which it was ensconced from the time I spent wondering about it was a thrill beyond compare. I took a calculated risk and from it gleaned invaluable experience, an adventure, that gave me joy and allowed me to grow as a climber. I think that everyone should have the chance for such adventures and I think it's imperative that adventurous routes remain so for that reason. In all seriousness, for those who don't believe themselves to be so inclined (towards risk and reward, I mean), I implore you to think about why it is that you climb. Think of your experiences in the past, especially those in which fear or doubt were involved. Read Rock Warrior's Way. Really. It's a great book and is incredibly relevant to this topic. Think about how life itself is important to us because of the question marks, the unknowns, the adventures. The idea of calculated risk in the pursuit of knowledge resonates across every single sphere of life and into the essence of our very being.

One other point of interest that I should mention is that of the preservation of the integrity of the 'original' form of a climb with respect to the choices made by the first ascentionist(s). This has always been a sort of unwritten 'rule',  as such so that routes like the Bachar Yerian in Tuolumne and Southern Belle in Yosemite (two iconic, bolted-on-lead routes with serious runouts) will maintain their visionary characteristics. For some, this ethic is troublesome because it implies that some routes will never be accessible to large numbers of climbers. Southern Belle, for example, has had three total ascents in about thirty years; why can't bolts be added (some full 5.11 pitches on the climb have something like a mere three or four bolts on them) so that more climbers can enjoy the route? Why should it be kept as a sort of testament to the skill and boldness of those who climbed it first? Well, historically climbing as a pursuit was never intended to be utilitarian. I would argue that sport climbing is the heaviest influence in this direction because its intent is to allow anyone to try harder moves without having to worry about the fall consequences. A sport developer is more often aware that she is creating routes for the masses, especially at popular areas. I love sport climbing and I'm on board with its ethic just so long as it isn't allowed to cross over into other disciplines of climbing. I'm not saying that Natural Log Cabin is as iconic a route as the Bachar Yerian, but that it too should be viewed through a different lens than a route such as Chronic at Little Si, where the bolting allows one to essentially dog through most of the climb without even linking many of the moves. In a society where risk is often avoided wholesale and responsibility is deferred to other individuals or entities other than oneself, I see a danger that climbing follow suit and that boldness will continue to give way to convenience. Without this element, climbing becomes far more homogenized and all possible narratives are reduced to mere pedestrian pursuits of harder grades and 'safe' forms of entertainment.

Alright, I step down off the soapbox and realize it's late. I will end this by saying that anyone who has had the chance to watch (Super) Dave Morales climb routes like Natural Log Cabin and Iron Horse in his masterful and minimalist fashion will know that safety is relative and intent and ability are imperative. Though most of us place more than four pieces of gear on the full pitch of Iron Horse, though most of us at least make the start of NLC before the first bolt a sporting 5.10R by placing a piece or two, we all get to play the game creatively as long as no one is imposing the 'rule of steel'. Let's save that one for the sport crags.

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