Preserving the Cracks!
Compiled by TOM FROST
Whatever liberates our spirit without giving us self control is disastrous — Goethe PITON crack deterioration as a result of repeated placement and removal of hard steel pitons is becoming a serious problem in many climbing areas across the country.
“Granite cracks can hardly be thought of as fragile, and yet on some popular routes it looks like a jackhammer has been employed. Chromemoly pitons are responsible, as is the American habit of removing all pitons. This habit came about by the belief that each party should find the route in its natural state. This is hardly applicable now.”1
“… what shall we do with our Shawangunks? Those who have climbed here for two or three years look at the piton damage everywhere and say, ‘This must not continue’. The ever increasing numbers of new people who do not know how the rock used to be say, ‘I see nothing unusual. I am doing only what everyone has done for years.’ And both of them are right.”2
“Some really scary things are happening here. Parents are showing up to watch high-school trips climb as if it were the little league. We are also beginning to see middle-aged and overweight climbers, all carrying 25-pin selections. If we are not successful in changing the way people climb here, in five years there will be nothing left of the Shawangunks.”3
“In fact, the growth of climbing interest makes it apparent that the Devil’s Lake rock-climbing ethic should be re-examined. It has always been the practice at the Lake to remove pitons whenever possible, and climbers have gone to great length to do so. But the increasing popularity of many climbs has shown that, perhaps as in many of the heavily used climbing areas of Britain, the use of pitons is to be entirely avoided wherever practical. In some cases this is necessary to preserve the rock.”4
“In Eldorado Canyon [near Boulder], an occasional ‘key’ flake falls off because of too much piton placement behind it.”5
“Cracks have become the trade routes of the vertical land. They are like rock rivers which guide human commerce through a hostile terrain. Also like rivers, they are being ruined from overuse. One of the first lessons of ecology is that anything to excess is bad, no matter how intrinsically ‘good’ it may seem in small amounts. Man’s solution to ecological excess is either to limit the amount of the human activity at the source of the problem, or to find a technological answer. Limiting climbing should be a last resort, and obviously fixed pitons in popular climbs are no real solution. They are neither a technological advance nor a limiting factor. What is needed is a new Way. Climbing is raw adventure accomplished with a few classic tools. How can we preserve the essence of the sport — few gadgets and intense activity of mind and body — without destroying it for the future? The answer, if there is an answer, has to be simple or it will undermine exactly what it is trying to save.”6
The answer, if there is an answer, has to be simple or it will undermine exactly what it is trying to save. What are the alternatives?
“Pitons have their place in American climbing; aid would be very improbable without them, and many free routes will continue to need them as well. Leaving aside for now the problem of whether and how, and where, they might be fixed to save the rocks, we might speculate that their use in the future may be reduced to the more difficult routes.”7
“As far as fixed pins go, they will never stay in at the Lake. A person can always hang in rappel and bang away until they are removed.”8
“… fixed pitons in popular climbs are no real solution. Before it is apparent that a climb is popular the damage to the cracks may be well along. The idea of asking first-ascent parties to purchase, carry, and leave in all the anchor points is totally unrealistic.”9
“If the piton drivers climbed much at Wisconsin’s sandstone cliffs (Gibraltar Rock being the most important) we would have just that many more sandhills.”10
“… the future of the Shawangunks depends upon the willingness of all climbers to use nuts and fixed pitons for their protection … the Shawangunks must reject the practice of each climber providing his own protection.”11
“Persistent has been fixed with soft iron using the placements of the first ascent. This should be the beginning of a new custom in the Shawangunks. When a new route is done it should be fixed with soft iron in this way so that later parties will have the opportunity to do it in the style of the first ascent. Persistent was fixed such that further pitoning on the route is not necessary, and later parties will find the rock in its original condition. Additional protection can be obtained quite readily using nuts.”12
“Using climbing nuts solves some of the problems, but perhaps pitons made of soft iron (so that climbers will not be tempted to remove them) should be left in place, as in the Alps. In places where fixed pitons are impractical due to already ruined cracks, bolts will have to be used. The solution, whatever it may be, is sure not to please everyone.” 13
“No one person should decide where fixed pitons should be used, and it is my hope that climbers who have comments or criticism regarding the fixing of Disneyland or the choice of placements, will leave this iron undisturbed and contact me personally. Such discussions will in time lead to a consensus as to the placement of fixed protection, and this consensus will in time fully determine where fixed protection is to be used.”14
The key to success in effectively using fixed pitons for ecological protection is that all climbers become of one mind on the subject. In fixed piton battles, like the ugly bolt controversies in which bolts are “chopped and then replaced and again chopped and again replaced"15 there are no victors.
“Climbing areas will survive under the burden of ever greater numbers of climbers only if all climbers are aware of the problems and are anxious to do all they can to solve them.”16
What further alternatives exist?
“There is a word for it, and the word is clean. Climbing with only nuts and runners for protection is clean climbing. Clean because the rock is left unaltered by the passing climber. Clean because nothing is hammered into the rock and then hammered back out, leaving the rock scarred and the next climber’s experience less natural. Clean because the climber’s protection leaves little track of his ascension. Clean is climbing the rock without changing it; a step closer to organic climbing for the natural man.”17
“Climbing nuts promise to replace chromolly to a significant degree, and they are presently in that process of familiarization and evaluation that every new technique must go through. Although nuts have been in use in this country for several years, there has been no widely published study of their strength when used with various kinds of nylon sling. The absence of such information can only cause climbers either to take nuts less seriously than they otherwise might, or cause them to be overly concerned with obtaining the ultimate strength in each size of nut.”18
“I was first introduced to jam nuts in Colorado by an English climber, Anthony Greenbank … although I could understand their usefulness in Britain, I then judged that pitons were far more efficient for use in the U.S., and that in Yosemite, in particular, the cracks were not good for holding nuts. I was wrong. I have since realized how I had underestimated these cleverly-conceived gadgets.”19
“The use of nuts which begins by trying to solve some pressing environmental problems really ends in the realm of aesthetics and style.”20
“A convincing case can be made that the use of nuts instead of pitons would be the new game even if piton damage were not a consideration. This case rests upon the history of climbing here and how it is related to the way climbing areas mature.”21
“At the same time that we are facing the end of all games here due to piton damage, the free climbing ethic has reached a state where the harder climbs require several attempts and considerable effort. Persistent, the only 5.11 in the area, was done only after two years of effort. While the second ascent of this route will take less time than this, it does seem that the free-climbing ethic is beginning to give diminishing returns. The time is ripe for a new ethic such as the All-Nut ascent. This game has already become popular in other climbing areas, and promises to be a natural and challenging ethic here also. Considering the large numbers of routes here that have not yet been done without pitons, it also promises to be a rewarding pursuit for climbers at all levels.”22
Not only rewarding, it is practical as well.
“To summarize, these tests show that Clogs with slings of either 9mm perlon or 1" Chouinard tubular are stronger than aluminum oval carabiners. Mounting Clogs on either 7mm perlon or 9/16" tubular gives a strength that ranges between 2600 lbs and 1600 lbs. Even the smallest nuts which fail at 1600 lbs should be able to hold most of the falls that climbers encounter.”23
“… it has been demonstrated that in many instances jam nuts afford better protection than pitons. A number of leader falls, including at least one long one, have been successfully held by nuts in vertical cracks where pitons would have rotated out.”24
“Jam-nuts and artificial chock-stones usually afford better protection than pitons at Devil’s Lake. They can be placed often, and unlike pitons it is (with a modicum of experience) easy to determine if the nut is ‘seated’ properly. The beginning leader, possessing little knowledge of piton placement and holding power, is much safer with nuts.”25
Is the answer more than equipment deep?
“Pitons have been a great equalizer in American climbing. By liberally using them it was possible to get in over one’s head, and by more liberally using them, to get out again. But every climb is not for every climber; the ultimate climbs are not democratic. The fortunate climbs protect themselves by being unprotectable and remain a challenge that can be solved only by boldness and commitment backed solidly by technique. Climbs that are forced clean by the application of boldness should be similarly respected, lest a climber be guilty of destroying a line for the future’s capable climbers to satisfy his impatient ego in the present — by waiting he might become one of the future capables. Waiting is also necessary; every climb has its time, which need not be today. Besides leaving alone what one cannot climb in good style, there are some practical corollaries of boldness in free climbing. Learning to climb down is valuable for retreating from a clean and bold place that gets too airy. And having the humility to back off rather than continue in bad style — a thing well begun is not lost. The experience cannot be taken away. By such a system there can never again be ‘last great problems’ but only ‘next great problem’. Carried out, these practices would tend to lead from quantitative to qualitative standards of climbing, an assertion that the climbing experience cannot be measured by an expression of pitches per hour, that a climb cannot be reduced to maps and decimals. That the motions of climbing, the sharpness of the environment, the climber’s reactions are still only themselves, and their dividends of joy personal and private.”26
“Of all the challenges presented over the years by Welsh rock, only Cenotaph Corner approached this wall in its compelling demand to be climbed. Brown had tried his utmost to climb it with the minimum of aid, but had retreated rather than use more pegs than his exacting standards allowed.”27
“One outstanding unclimbed section of the cliff appeared so hard that bolts seemed the only solution: the right-hand side of the Great Wall. But it was widely felt at the time (and indeed still is) that bolting this wall would be a terrible desecration of the crag, and represent a threat to the whole delicate basis of British free climbing.”28
“Those who turn to mountaineering want to know how. Either the experienced climbers will teach them or self-appointed ‘experts’ will fill the gap.”29
Guidebook writers have a great influence. Their primary responsibility is not describing the routes but preserving them. They can do this by outlining the ethical rules of the area and by indicating what equipment is or is not required on a given climb.
“Future guidebooks to the Shawangunks will recognize persons who make the first all-nut ascents of routes. There are presently 350 routes in the area and most of them have not been done without using pitons. Climbers now have a greater opportunity for creative climbing at all levels of difficulty than they have had since 1935. The only restriction is that the climbing party may not use either fixed pitons or place pitons for protection, as belay anchors, or for aid.”30
The style of climbing employed has an important bearing on crack life.
“The aiding of free climbs is to be discouraged. Manv climbs are losing their standard because of repeated use of pitons.”31
“The big Yosemite walls have fallen. New lines remain, here and there, but it’s mostly over the shoulder stuff. A steady flow of skilled and ambitious cragsmen have come from all over the country and from our Northern Friend and with pitons and copperheads have crucified the notion that big walls are awesome, and so have turned their eyes to realms which offer more scope for their energies, namely the infinitely expandable horizons of free climbing. Few are willing to quit the arena ... so the alternative — total concentration on extending the limits of free climbing — is chosen and, in the confines of the Valley is now by many considered the ultimate expression of the climber’s art. Hence we have what amounts to a free-climbing renaissance in the Valley.”32
Yosemite is heavily used but because of its size and its nature, in part, as a nailing, big-wall area need be the last to reform. Small, heavily used areas must reform immediately — or die.
“I return here to my own fear that the shift of emphasis from preoccupation with the setting to preoccupation with the performance and the technique could be so great as to be an important loss to us and to our successors as mountaineers.”33
I suggest that in order to solve these environmental problems technical climbers must address themselves to the whole challenge; which, in addition to getting up a climb, is to preserve it in good condition for others. Meeting this whole challenge means not a limitation of our freedoms but a requirement to exercise our responsibilities. For us, concern for others, to a large measure, means preserving the mountains, the rock, and the cracks for them.
“To be faithful to ourselves, we must keep our ancestors and posterity within reach and grasp of our thoughts and affections, living in the memory and retrospect of the past, and hoping with affection and care for those who are to come after us. We are true to ourselves only when we act with becoming pride for the blood we inherit, and which we are to transmit to those who shall fill our places.”34
And how can this program be implemented? In lieu of force and regulation, which all climbers abhor, it need come through a growing spirit of unanimity among all climbers and through the exercise of our self discipline.
1Roper, S., Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley, p. 16
2Stannard, J., The Eastern Trade, v. 0, no. 0, p. 1
3Stannard, J., personal communication
4Smith, D., and R. Zimmerman, Climbers and Hikers Guide to Devils Lake, p. 6
5Ament, P., personal communication
6Rowell, G., personal communication
7Robinson, D., personal communication
8Smith, D., personal communication
9Rowell, op. cit.
10Smith, op. cit.
11Stannard, op. cit.. p. 1
12Ibid, p. 3
13Roper, op. cit.
14Stannard, op. cit., p. 3
15Ament, op. cit.
16Robinson, op. cit.
18Stannard, J., Clogs, p. 1
19Robbins, R., Nuts to You!, Summit, May 1967, p.4
20Robinson, op. cit.
21Stannard, J., The Eastern Trade, p. 1.
22Stannard, op. cit.. p. 3
23Stannard, J., Clogs, p. 4
24Smith and Zimmerman, op. cit., p. 3
25Ibid., p. 8
26Robinson, op. cit.
27Soper, J., K. Wilson, and P. Crew, The Black Cliff; the History of Rock Climbing on Clogwvn du’rArddu, p. 118
28Ibid., p. 142
29Allin, P., letter to editor. Summit. Jan-Feb 1972, p. 42
30Stannard, The Eastern Trade, p. 2
31Smith and Zimmerman, op. cit., p. 9
32Robbins, R., Yosemite Renaissance, Summit, Nov-Dee 1971, p. 31
33Evans, C„ Valedictory Address, The Alpine Journal 1971, p. 15
34Webster, D., in Our Ancestors: History of Orange County, N.Y., p. 147-8