“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.