Recently I came across a thread on a local climbing forum about tree removal by climbers at Index, our state's paradisaical granite area. There wasn't much substance to the thread, mostly just the perennial banal and sophomoric internet banter to which we are all well accustomed. I made a comment late in the game that few will read because it's longer than one sentence and contains no image links or personal attacks. Internet forums are terrible places to have any kind of reasoned discussion; I've fleshed out this argument before and need not do so again; this Dilbert comic should explain it succinctly enough.The reality of all forms of impact that climbers create, be it bolting crags, cutting trails or removing vegetation for reasons of convenience, is that modern climbers are taking a more and more utilitarian view of the places we climb. Rather than seeking the outdoors as an essential space for adventure and personal development, it becomes another quantifiable resource; ergo, climbing is more about having a well-controlled and curated experience that it is about casting off into the unknown with the goals of gaining personal knowledge and experience. Guidebooks curate the experience while heavy development of the climbing environment is a method of controlling for as many factors as possible to homogenize the experience. Control is perhaps the central issue here. Climbing at its best is a focused, intentional experience that calls on cues from past experiences to match current expectations, but all the while leaving plenty of room for improvisation in the face of the unexpected. The feeling of losing control provokes fear and doubt but ultimately is the catalyst for innovation and growth. It's possible to experience this feeling in almost any situation in climbing, whether it's a scenario with true objective danger that requires immediate decisions or simply one with an intense feeling of commitment to doing moves above gear or bolts or on a boulder problem that's just high enough to be consequential. In the latter cases, it's also often possible to engineer the problem away: manufacture a landing for the boulder; add an extra bolt. It's much simpler in the short term to rely on technology: bring the route down to one's level rather than raise one's level up to the current standard of the route.
I've decided to revisit a revised version of this post here on my blog. The point here is that the banter on the thread in question obfuscates an important consideration: as climbers to what extent is it acceptable to remove vegetation such as trees as a convenience to our user group? This isn't a black and white, yes or no issue; there is a difference between pruning back some branches that have grown towards the wall and topping a tree simply to facilitate climbing a new route. Similarly, there is a difference between removing a dead or dying snag that poses a threat to those below and removing all trees and bushes within a 30 foot radius at the base of a cliff simply so that one doesn't have to belay with vegetation brushing against him. An analogous issue is to be found on trails, where 'sufficient' maintenance means different things to different people and it's not uncommon to see a pair of loppers wielded willy-nilly against any and all vegetation that even considers infringing on the human right-of-way. The aesthetics of cleaning and preparing routes is highly subjective. The minimalist scrubs a little moss from hand and footholds to climb a boulder problem but leaves as much of the plant life intact as possible; the engineer, however, scrubs every inch of the boulder and uses power tools to build a flat landing area to make the problem safer and more accessible. It's not uncommon to see boulders that have been climbed for years without them suddenly sprout heavily manufactured landings. It's not uncommon to see fasteners used in these built landings. A similar trend can be found in route development, especially where bolts are used. Index has seen a recent proliferation of development in some zones and the modern bolting aesthetic is sometimes, although thankfully still not always, out of proportion to necessity, much like the removal of vegetation. Though bolts can be removed and their erstwhile presence masked fairly effectively, they still create an impact visually while they remain installed. Much more importantly, they set a precedent; routes bolted excessively create the expectation, especially in newer climbers but in everyone nonetheless, that one is only safe if one is never more than five feet above their last bolt or gear placement. Since safety is relative, the concept is rewritten until the question of adequate gear receives a more and more conservative answer. Perceived safety becomes more pertinent than an objective look at, for instance, how many bolts are adequate. Objective simply means looking at the fall potentials, for instance apropos to the distance from the ground or other obstacles and planning bolt placement around these considerations. An evenly spaced ladder of bolts takes account of none of these factors. Bolting that relies on convenience is an arbitration because it ignores any ambient variations. Again, when the question of aesthetics appears, it is awash in subjectivity and any space for discussion is problematized by strong, often polarized opinions.
Making these arguments often provokes accusations of elitism; isn't it elitist to suggest that it's OK if everything isn't accessible to anyone at any given time? I would argue that it's not, that in fact not everything should be accessible to anyone at any given time. In what other sport or activity can someone expect to be able to skip the necessary experience learning period in favor of simply 'getting something done'? In skiing? Mountain biking? Marathon running? Climbing is problematic because it's full of situational expectations; a person can climb an .11a in the gym and expect that all routes of that grade everywhere should feel the same, inherent subjectivity and inaccuracy of grading notwithstanding. Moreover, because indoor climbing and to some extent sport climbing outdoors has created the perception of climbing as inherently 'safe', that expectation clashes with reality when one's skills aren't up to snuff in certain situations, such as placing gear or having to commit to a possible fall. Not one person would make that mistake with a dangerous ski line and come out of it unscathed without a huge pile of luck. No one seems to mistake the danger in other activities or expect it be mitigated for them, nor do they seem to think that it's possible to run a sub-3 hour marathon without adequate training. So why climbing? Well, because as stated above: to some extent we can engineer our way around problems. We may not be able to make everyone climb 5.13 but we can make the routes so easy to work on with tons of bolts that they never have to fall or feel commitment or go through any inconvenience on their path to said grade, should it exist. We can put the emphasis on getting the routes done rather than having a worthwhile experience. This of course is something rock climbers have tangled with for many years, but the modern incarnation of climbing is all the more fraught with pitfalls and distractions in the battle to control the ego.
Also in line with this is a trend in developing routes 'for everyone else' as a sort of democratization of experience and also as a disclaimer for any mistakes made: "I was doing everyone a favor!" Any criticism is often met with ad hominem: "What have you done for Index lately?" or "How many routes have you cleaned/established/bolted/etc lately? (without having done you can't have any opinion about anything!)" Ad hominem attacks are generally a good sign that someone is uncertain about their own position, in this case vis-a-vis their supposed actions 'for the good of everyone'. A friend of mine had a very pithy comment about this mentality and I hope he doesn't mind me using his wisdom for my own devices. Essentially he said that "...in the past, a climber worked to establish a route because he/she was drawn to it aesthetically. He or she had a personal experience on the route and as a byproduct, the rest of us get to enjoy the route after the fact." The advantage of this, to me, is obvious: the route is established without pretext. There is none of this 'public service' shrouding of what is essentially a selfish act. Selfish acts are OK sometimes. Sometimes they even promote positive things. For someone to say that their work at a crag is done out of pure altruism, not out of personal enjoyment or fulfillment, strikes me as utterly disingenuous. Cleaning a new route is never entirely altruistic. Replacing old bolts is much closer but it's still a labor of love that carries a sense of personal fulfillment. This attempt to homogenize the experience, this insistence that everything related to altering the crag must be done not out of a sense of personal adventure but as a favor to everyone else, is a key mantra of the mentality that promotes what I'll call excesses of the engineer, attempts at control that are completely superfluous to the core climbing experience. Of course I'm referring to bolt placement beyond bare necessity and 'convenience cutting' of any and all interfering vegetation, but also to a blunting of the skillset and sense of adventure so integral to climbing regardless of one's chosen discipline therein.
Rather than promoting elitism the idea here is rather to promote excellence in new climbers. Building on the right foundations is important: mythologizing the correct routes, the correct places; emphasizing the right skillset. What's 'right' or 'correct'? Developing skill and maintaining a certain naivete of mind are important: always learning, always adapting. Turning away in the face of fear or doubt encourages artificial solutions. Being afraid is good and natural. Solutions first need to come from within or true innovation is impossible. There is at least one main rift in climbers today. I see it as a generational difference between those who had some sort of mentor to mythologize and deepen respect for the climbing experience and those who expect convenience above all else and don't really care about what came before them. The common ground is that climbing is inspirational, but to teach respect for a particular aesthetic is difficult when someone doesn't share it. To look at the routes of the past is to see a mosaic: of positive and negative application of ethics; of extreme adventure and extreme laziness and lack of commitment; of innovations both groundbreaking and essentially fruitless. What we can take from the bric-a-brac is that careful consideration of our impacts is important. They must be considered on a personal level, not excused as a service 'to everyone'. We've seen the results of selfish acts by climbers for proclaimed 'selfless' reasons (does Joe Kinder's juniper cutting escapade ring a bell?). Even when legal ramifications exist, they shouldn't be the main deterrent; it's up to us to educate our own. Educating means making sure everyone is aware of what impact their actions hold. There are too many people entering our 'sport' nowadays to ignore the potential implications of convenience-thinking on crags like Index. Aesthetics are important.
Finally, I end by answering the question of: what would I say to a newer climber if I were showing them around one of my favorite crags: Index? It might go a little something like this: "What's that? Oh, that route over there? That 5.11 that hardly anyone does? It's called Natural Log Cabin. The beginning of that one is a little scary. Probably need to work up to that one a bit but man, is it worth it! I waited for a long time to try that one. Didn't toprope it at all because I thought it might take away from the experience. One time I just knew I was ready and went for it. It really was everything I'd hoped for and more, but I really had to be patient and work up to it! That tree at the top of Thin Fingers? It's gone now but I always remember finishing the climb standing amongst the branches waving in the breeze. I'm really not sure why someone cut it down; people do the weirdest things when they think they're doing them for 'everyone'." It's totally possible to respect the mythology of climbing and the others that have come before, to adhere generally to a 'traditional' mentality, to minimize impacts and to not practice any 'corner cutting' and yet to still climb well.