Rock Climbing as an Art

“The terrible thing about free soloing difficult routes that are within one’s capacity, is the chance that faced with ultimate danger and need for ultimate self-control, one’s nerve might fail and cause an error. That’s the irony of it-that fear could short-circuit skill, that one would die as a direct result of being afraid to die.”-Royal Robbins

During the “Gold Age” of rock climbing in the 1960s and 1970s, the renowned American rock climber, Royal Robbins, was one of the leading climbers who mastered several of the world’s most complicated climbs while respecting the environment through his doctrine of “clean climbing”. Clean climbing involves navigating a rock face with removable protection gear such as cams, slings, and nuts that are placed by the lead climber and then removed by the following climber. This low-environmental impact style of rock climbing requires more skill to select the route and to safely place equipment on the rock.

Photo: Royal Robbins, a pioneer in the art of rock climbing

In 1967, Royal and his wife Liz Robbins climbed the previously unclimbed Nutcracker Suite in the Yosemite Valley without the usual protection rock climbing equipment such as pitons and bolts. Instead, Robbins used removable nuts for protection which established him as a pioneer in the art of clean rock climbing. Prior to 1967, rock climbers hammered pitons into cracks in the rock face or drill bolts into the rock which would damage the rock face. Consequently, large boulders and flakes of rock would fall off heavily climbed routes in the Yosemite Valley. In many featured interviews with Royal Robbins in outdoor recreation publications, he emphasized his belief that pitons and bolts not only damaged the natural environment but also the integrity or artistry of the climb.

Photo: Royal Robbins clean climbing up El Cap

Robbins’ idea of rock climbing as an art rather than as a sport can have a significant impact on how climbing affects the environment. I believe that merely the word association between “art” and “sport” is sufficient to provoke an ethic of care for the environment in twenty-first century rock climbers. The concept of a sport is more associated with only accomplishment and competitiveness; while, art is associated with the authentic enjoyment for the process of rock climbing.

Photo: One of Robbins’ first publications discussing the impact of bolts on the rock

In his essay on George Mallory’s 1914 “The Mountaineer as Artist”, Doug Robinson disagrees with Mallory’s overly “broad” use of the term “artist” to “include an aesthetic response as well as an aesthetic creation” (Robinson, 1). While Robinson disagrees with Mallory’s use of the term artist in relation to climbing, I believe that this concept of artistry in relation to rock climbing can be beneficial in furthering environmental awareness education for rock climbers who may not have access to this type of material. Mallory writes “a day well spent in the Alps is like some great symphony” (Robinson, 1). While Mallory’s statement is an excellent analogy, this relationship of rock climbing to a symphony can be unpacked more thoroughly.

How does a climbing route relate to a classical symphony? Following the standard of clean rock climbing taught by Royal Robbins, the rock climber must study the rock face and discover his own path to reach the peak while considering the environmental impact on the rock. A rock climber’s unique method and path to reaching the peak is his own artistic statement since future climbers will learn from his example. Similar to the rock climber as an artist, the nineteenth century composer, Johannes Brahms, was painfully aware of his influence on future composers when he wrote in First Symphony in C minor. Consequently, Brahms took about twenty-one years to finish his first symphony. It is with this ethic of care and responsibility exhibited by Johannes Brahms that climbers must select their route up the rock face for rock climbing to be considered an art rather than a sport.

Mallory’s comparison of rock climbing to writing a symphony can also be analyzed regarding what rock climbing teaches the climber. In an ancient history class I took earlier in my college career, I was introduced to the philosophy of Aristotle which surprisingly relates to the art of rock climbing. According to the philosopher Artistotle, the main question in life is who are you rather than what do you do for a living. I believe that how a rock climber takes into consideration his impact on the environment says a lot about what kind of person that climber is. Aristotle also emphasized the need for training and education to be able to perform a task well. Consequently, more resources discussing the relationship of rock climbing to art rather than to sports is needed to continue Royal Robbins’ tradition of clean, sustainable rock climbing.

Ethical Justification for Rock Climbing

While since the 1970s there has been literature on the impact of rock climbing on the environment (such as the 1972 article by Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost in the Chouinard Equipment magazine), there is still some debate amongst rock climbers whether the damage the sport does to the natural environment is ethically justified. How do climbers compromise with being drawn to the natural wonder of the mountains, yet knowingly participating in a sport that is proven to damage the natural rock face and surrounding environment? Is rock climbing an ethically justifiable sport to be pursued in the natural environment or should climbing be segregated to indoor, man-made rock walls? Rock climbing that is environmentally justifiable can be referred to as sustainable rock climbing. To support my concept of sustainable rock climbing, I will refer to two philosophical theories: the free rider problem and utilitarianism.

Photo: “The Ledges” in North Conway, NH

In a philosophy class I took earlier in my college career, I was introduced to the free rider problem. The free rider problem is defined as a failure that happens when individuals take advantage of a universal resource. In this example, the individual is the rock climber and the resource represents the rock face. While some environmentalists could make the argument that all rock climbing falls under the philosophy of free riding, I argue that only careless climbers apply to this issue. For example, rock climbers who not only blaze several trails to reach the base of the rock face but also use excess equipment that needlessly damages the rock definitely fall under the category of free riders; however, climbers who are knowledgeable about their sport and are respectful of the environment do not apply to the free rider philosophy. Although such responsible rock climbers do leave an impact on the natural environment, the environment will change anyway through the natural processes of erosion and decay. Consequently, it is ethical for rock climbers who have an awareness of the environment to enjoy the freedom of the outdoors. If mankind forgets the freedom and beauty of the natural environment, how can individuals be convinced that other efforts for environmental preservation are worthwhile?

First thought of by nineteenth century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism is a philosophy that emphasizes the best, most ethical action is the one that maximizes the utility or use of something. By this definition, rock climbing could be considered to be a very utilitarian sport. Since nature does already use rock faces and mountains for natural purposes, rock climbers are enhancing that utility. In his seminal text on the philosophy and ethics of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill writes “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure” (Mill, 83). According to Mill’s definition of utilitarianism, rock climbing does apply to the ethics of the philosophy. Due to the potentially dangerous nature of rock climbing, individuals generally pursue the sport out of pure enjoyment. Consequently, rock climbing is a utilitarian sport that is ethically justifiable.

Photo: John Stuart Mill, one of the founders of Utilitarianism

This rock climbing ethic of enjoyment or the “Greatest Happiness Principle”, as described by John Stuart Mill, is also depicted in Doug Robinson’s essay, “The Climber as Visionary”. Robinson writes “With the more receptive senses we now appreciated everything around us. Each individual crystal in the granite stood out in bold relief. The varied shapes of the clouds never ceased to attract our attention. For the first time we noticed tiny bugs that were all over the walls, so tiny they were barely noticeable. While belaying, I stared at one for fifteen minutes, watching him move and admiring his brilliant red color” (Robinson, 2). Robinson’s obvious joy of rock climbing can function as an ethic in of itself. He pursues the sport of rock climbing with the intention of getting closer to nature rather than to compete with the records of other climbers. While rock climbing does undoubtedly leave an environmental footprint, this more Thoreauvian attitude of Doug Robinson shows that rock climbing is ethically justifiable to environment since it celebrates the beauty of the natural world. This celebration will hopefully inspire others to preserve the environment for future rock climbers.

Veteran climber, guide and writer Doug Robinson (age 70) boulders in his beloved Buttermilks. -Image Credit MovingOverStone.com

Introduction to the Ethics and Morality of Rock Climbing

Since I grew up in Conway, New Hampshire which is surrounded by the White Mountains, I have always had a certain affection for the majesty of the mountain ranges that surround my childhood home. As a member of the Boy Scouts of America organization when I was a teenager, I was introduced to the sport of rock climbing.

Photo: View of the White Mountains in North Conway, NH

After high school I moved to Hartford, Connecticut to attend college, I especially noticed how the quality and smell of the city air was in stark contrast to the clean mountain air that I grew up breathing. When I transferred from the university in Connecticut to Keene State College in New Hampshire, I fondly recognized that same purifying breeze that rolls over the mountain peaks in my hometown. As a senior in college, I enrolled in a environmental literature course entitled “Writing in an Endangered World” taught by Dr. Mark Long. Throughout the various readings in the course such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, I began to wonder how the environmental movement could be applied to rock climbing ethics and morality.

When one opens a current rock climbing magazine such as The Alpinist or Rock & Ice, there are always advertisements for new, more advanced gear and equipment to facilitate the modern climber in his ascent up more challenging rock faces. While it is important to have safe and functional equipment available, more complicated and intricate equipment does not necessarily mean that it performs to a higher standard.

For example, this advertisement for the “newly redesigned”  Petzl helmet found in Rock & Ice is basically a subtly updated version to their earlier lines of rock climbing helmets. In my experiences with rock climbing, I have found that simple yet quality gear is sufficient to enjoy the outdoors.

Photo: Rock & Ice Magazine

In addition to the gear advertisements, there are often debates about the ethical nature of blazing a new trail to a rock face. One of my first encounters with climbing literature that is primarily concerned with the “ethics” of rock climbing was Sam Davidson’s “The Ten Commandments of Sustainable Climbing” written in 1990 in conjunction with the American Alpine Club and Mountain Tools, Inc. Davidson opens the article with an overview of the steadily rising popularity of rock climbing as a sport: “Climbing in the United States is now a popular recreational activity. There are perhaps 250,000 climbers nationwide,  with visits from foreign climbers increasing. Until recently, no one looked closely at the impact of climbing on the natural environment. Now, we see that our increasing numbers may have an adverse impact on the lands…” (Davison, 1). This passage in Davidson’s essay suggests that there is a certain environmental morality to the sport of rock climbing.

Regardless of whether an individual prefers sport rock climbing, traditional rock climbing, or bouldering, environmental morality applies to all three climbing style. In my experience, rock climbing is often perceived as the anti-sport that carries a certain element of danger to it that is appealing to some individuals. In contrast to other sports such as football, soccer, or hockey, rock climbing does not adhere to a specific rule book. During my first actual rock climbing lesson at the local Eastern Mountain Sports, the instructor taught us how to belay and correctly tie the required knots before telling “Don’t die!”. Due to this common carefree attitude toward rock climbing the ethic of the sport can be overlooked; however, this freedom of choice associated with rock climbing allows the climber to fully immerse himself in the sport and in the natural environment.

Other than the steadfast rule of “don’t die”, there is a debate whether there are any actual rules to rock climbing. The well-known American climber, John Long, once remarked: “Every climb has a beginning and an end. What I do in between is my own business”.  One of the first ethics that I think of in regards to rock climbing is to be honest about what you climbed and do not harm the rock or the surrounding environment. By not being accurate about the grades of faces one has climbed, the overall integrity of the sport is slighted for other passionate climbers. Consequently, rock climbing ethics affects individuals not only the natural environment.

A functional example of how rock climbing ethics pertain to the environment is Tony Yaniro’s ascent of the Comp Wall. While many of Yaniro’s stylistic choices for ascent were technical advancements for the overall sport, Yaniro’s use of substantial bolts severely damages the natural rock face which can cause hazards for future climbers and leaves a human footprint on public land.

Photo: Damage to rock face from large anchor bolt

Overall, all rock climbing does have an impact on the landscape of the rock and on the experiences of future climbers. While the argument to remain home and stay off the rock could be suggested, rock climbing is an exciting way to experience different vantage points of nature.