Cheating’s Not The Point.Just to be clear, when Blake Herrington wrote Mark Twight is Wrong. it was one of the foremost young climbers of the Pacific Northwest engaging with a man who is perhaps the most important spokesman of late 20th century American alpinism. It’s an important debate and he had a right to weigh in. I, on the other hand, am some random guy on the internet spouting off about things I’ve only read about.
That said, I am going to disagree strongly with Herrington and argue that he has missed the point about “cheating” entirely. Mark Twight climbed and wrote about climbing with a religious fervor that made him to climbing in the 80s and 90s what Walter Bonatti was to climbing in the 50s and 60s. Conventional mountaineering history will probably remember Bonatti as the more important figure, but in intellectual terms, in the way they thought about climbing, they are peers. Herrington recognized this ideology with his original one line preface: “Forgive me Mark, for I have sinned,” the term “religious fervor” is Twight’s and he referred to his own climbing as jihad. Given this understanding of the man’s work, it is disappointing that Herrington didn’t give Twight’s logic a little more benefit of the doubt, and instead made a snarky, sarcastic commentary on another man’s purism. This is not to say that I have anything against snarky, sarcastic commentary in general, I’m just beginning to notice that it is only actually convincing, or even very funny, if you already agree with the point being made. What I am therefore going to do is not defend Twight’s logic per say, which is, as Herrington pointed out, flawed, but rather show how both of them are addressing the wrong issue, the question is not of what is allowed, but rather of what is the goal.
First there is the question of just what “cheating” means in this context. If climbing is a sport it stands to reason that there are rules and that violations of those rules would be cheating, and to some extent this is true. Climbing can be considered a game where one tries to climb mountains and other geographic features, therefore anything that avoids the game entirely, by say, taking a helicopter to a summit, would be cheating. Climbers like Lito Tejada-Flores have expanded this metaphor to treat climbing as a series of hierarchically arranged games with increasingly stringent sets of rules. Personally, I find this entire systematic flawed – I don’t see climbing as a sport, when I’m out there, scared shitless, coated in ice, with only a dim idea of what I’m doing and where I’m trying to go, it doesn’t feel like a game I’m playing. My full refutation of Games Climbers Play remains incomplete, but I am going to suggest a different way of looking at climbing that explains why we object to what Twight called “cheating” that avoids the slippery slope to barefoot glacier travel and empty stomach summit pushes.
Herrington’s final point related to a ten-year-old he saw top-roping in tennis-shoes, making no attempt whatsoever to free climb; the idea was that because this kid was having fun his idea of climbing was just as valid as anyone else’s and thus could not be cheating. This is where we get into trouble with terminology; using the word “climbing” makes it sound like anything involving point A to point B in a roughly vertical fashion is part of what we are doing. I prefer to use terms like “alpinism” and “mountaineering” because they remove this ambiguity, but I have found this to be problematic because they exclude such obviously linked practices as waterfall and bigwall climbing. As of yet, I have no good solution. What that ten-year-old was doing may have been a perfectly legitimate expression of “climbing,” but that is because “climbing” is too broad a term. The end goal of my, to plagiarize Buhl until I can come up with something more original, Alpine-Style Climbing is the first ascent of a technical route by a small, self-sufficient team. This is what is wrong with everything from bottled oxygen and bolting to swinging around on a tensioned rope – they won’t get us to that goal. These rules are not “self-imposed contrivances,” rather they are the realistic demands of our actual practice.