In the brief about the event I was invited to, the festival told me they would “concrete me when I arrived” about the subject for the stage discussion (aren’t auto translators great?). I was concreted over dinner that we would be discussing the progression of rock climbing over the last 25 years. To a packed theatre minutes after finishing our tea, Adolfo, Silvo, Josune and I were all asked about our personal philosophies of climbing and what we thought were the best things going on in climbing right now.
Despite our disparate backgrounds and specialities, it was interesting that we all seemed to be singing from the same hymn sheet. All of us spoke of the importance of minimal impact on the mountains, style of ascent and adventure in climbing. Josune, best known for her sport climbing achievements, cited onsight trad climbing as her favourite branch of climbing and told the audience that her next aspiration in climbing was a route on the Grande Jorasses. That’s not to say any of us were down on sport climbing, far from it. That very morning I was throwing myself at yet more redpoints on the bolted walls of Siurana. Instead, we agreed that sport climbing has a place in the whole sport that should grow alongside, rather than at the expense of the other climbing disciplines.
The next day was one of my best of my 24 day trip in Spain. While the rest of my friends went climbing, I took time out and didn’t think about climbing for most of a whole day. My normal climbing back in Scotland has so much variety, and the climbing activities are punctuated by the very different skills to be learned and practised in working for yourself. Nearly three weeks of just climbing in the same place, on the same rock type and the same routine was a little tiring.
But by evening I was refreshed and we all trooped round to the cinema to introduce the E11 film to the Spanish audience. Their reaction to the film was, once again, most gratifying.
The final day was my main work appointment, to take part in another round table discussion with the same team as before, this time dealing with the sustainability of climbing, ethics in the mountains, and how the whole game of climbing fits together. Some of the stage time was lost to technical problems with the translation equipment, but we all got our messages across. One of the most difficult questions was regarding the overcrowding of popular climbing areas. At what point is it necessary to limit access to these areas or climbs where the volume of traffic is causing damage to climbing destinations or routes? We agreed that this type of regulation was an anathema to climbers and must be a last resort.
The problem as I see it is with the climbing experience becoming a product for many people, rather than an adventure. When you only have 4 weeks holiday a year, you go for the place where you know for sure the routes will be good, the area will be geared up for you to stay, and you won’t waste your precious holiday time on bad routes. It’s natural to have this approach. Perhaps it’s inevitable that ‘good’ climbing areas will be increasingly overused until they are no longer good or are restricted before people are willing to spread out from them. But does it really need to come to that?
For me it’s a question of independent thinking. I remember before I did my first new route. At this time, climbing opportunities existed completely in guidebooks. If it wasn’t in the guidebook, it’s highly unlikely I’d think about climbing it. Today, most of my climbing aspirations lie outside guidebooks and often have never been written about or attempted before. A complete reversal of approach! And I can tell you that it’s much more satisfying.
Sure, if you go for the routes on the ‘top ten’ lists or with the most stars, they are likely to be predictably satisfying. A bit like eating at your favourite chain restaurant. And so the conversation with your climbing friends goes…
“Did you climb [insert lauded classic]?” “Yeah we had to pass three parties on it but we did it” “was it as good as they say?” “Yeah, it was really nice”
There often isn’t much more to say! In other words, classic ticking is predictably pleasant, but often not really memorable.
If I could give one recommendation for places to go in the world and climb, based on my 14 years experience in the sport it would be this: If there is a ‘must do classic’, don’t do that route. Never, ever wait in a queue for a route – you can never fondly remember the adventure you had passing three parties on the second pitch. If there is no guidebook, go there. It will be much more fun. For every bad route you do or turbulent trip, you will have many more absolutely brilliant one. And in hindsight, even the apparently bad ones will seem much better than the pleasant (but dull and forgettable) ones you had in the popular areas.