Blake Herrington is Wrong.

Blake Herrington is Wrong.

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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.

Mark Twight

Twight’s essential argument is that certain technologies, such as bolting and supplemental oxygen, are cheating in the same way that using performance enhancing drugs is cheating, in that they make the “game” easier for you, when many, or most, get by without them. Herrington’s counter-argument was that this logic could be applied to any technology that enhances performance, caffeine, vitamins, and sunglasses being his examples. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with drinking coffee before a climb, but many, myself included, object strongly to bottled oxygen and feel that the two cannot be equated. Herrington’s logic is solid, so there must be some other problem with the argument.

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.

Special Note

I am under no illusions that this battle is intra-disciplinary; when I speak of “our actual practice” it must be acknowledged that this is one practice of many under the vague and fallacious umbrella of “climbing.” What has been going on from the beginning, with the varying styles of Buhl, Herzog, and Whymper, is not one vision variously interpreted but several, each fighting for dominance in the alpine landscape. These visions cannot truly coexist, both on a large scale – how the Nepalese government does not differentiate between clients and guide services who can afford their fees and independent alpine-style climbers who cannot, and the small – sport climbs bolting next to protectable cracks, and thus are bound to conflict. What we, as alpine climbers, face in the threats posed by these alternate visions, sport climbing and client climbing is particular, is beyond debate. Because of the breadth of the gap between us there can be no reconciliation. We are not going to come to some grand mutual agreement of what climbing is and why we do it and how we should do it, all we can do is try to fight back however we can.


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asmrz - Feb 17, 2013 1:27 pm - Voted 10/10

Might be useless to argue

I grew up in an area that had strict ethics. The rock was very fragile (sandstone), the routes were finite and people always said, how can you measure performance and quality, if you don't have rules.

I grew up that way as a climber.

I would rather put up something that requires courage, endurance and suffering, than something where the end justifies the means.

But our climbing world is becoming devoid of protection of the resource, the outdoor ethics are dying out and (I'm afraid) we, who would speak against indiscriminate bolting, from the top ascents, defacing the rock, power bolt drilling and other issues are dying out with it.

And when I was young, that bolt on the first page would last only a few days. The next party on the route would take it with them, properly placed or not (it isn't).

BTW This is a very good article. Thank you for writing it and caring about the issue.


jacobsmith - Feb 17, 2013 10:57 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Might be useless to argue

And yet,
there may be hope.

i would like to think that my generation will complete the severance of sport climbing from alpinism, creating two, independent and fully differentiated practices that will not interfere with each other. but its likely that i am overly optimistic and the bolt wars will go on.


jacobsmith - Feb 18, 2013 1:21 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Might be useless to argue

they key phrase was "that will not interfere with each other." There is still no consensus about how different from sport climbing alpinism should be - the ethics of bolts, the value of free climbing vs. aid, and the relative importance of gymnastic ability to the general will to suffer in what constitutes a hard route - these are clearly unsettled issues.

the very fact that the same people still often do both, and value doing both, is evidence that the two are not fully differentiated. example: the same athlete may run the 100 and 200 meter sprint, this is because the two are, despite their differences, quite similar, conversely, the same athlete will not complete in both American Football and European Football (Soccer), this is because despite their similar origin, and their use of the same basic skills (running fast, team cooperation), they are considered completely different sports.
Sport climbing and mountaineering are, in my estimation, as different from each other as American and European football, but i suspect the majority of climbers would not agree with me on that.


relic - Feb 17, 2013 3:56 pm - Hasn't voted

I'm with Blake

Kind of a ridiculous debate, really. Mark Twight fired the bombastic first shot, I read Blake’s response as appropriately satirical. I think Blake recognizes climbing can be whatever the climber wants it to be. This ain’t basketball, after all. Personally I’ve always refrained from calling climbing a sport; that perception might be at the root of this entire debate.

An analogy: If Lance Armstrong had pedaled around the world, the goal being to simply enjoy the ride, experience the landscapes, and live outside the normal life, not competing with others in a structured “game”, and in the process he had used performance enhancing drugs, I would still find the accomplishment admirable. On the other hand, using performance enhancing drugs where clearly prohibited in a formal competition is indeed wide open to harsh criticism. So pick which kind of ride your climbing most resembles and maybe that will guide your cheating or not cheating determinations.

Asmrz, you appear to focus on the very specific issue of damage to rock on popular routes, and this is of course a very valid point; I fully agree that just from an ethics standpoint, we should not be chewing up good rock with hardware and garbage. But I think Twight’s original thrust was much broader than that, drawing a line the sand that is a little tougher to defend, and Blake had some fun with that.

Alex Lowe replied when asked who is the best climber, “The one who is having the most fun”. Of course, we can decide we don’t want to climb like someone else, but rather in a way that we find aesthetic and proper, so by all means do that. Just don’t get so arrogant as to think your way is the right way, even if you are world-class. As some other famous climber said, “Shut the hell up and climb”.

And a PS shout-out to Blake: You might remember me, years ago we ran into each other on the Fremont Glacier and scrambled Mount Logan’s summit together. Been watching your meteoric rise to fame, congrats! I am still in awe of your FA Megalodon on Goode, what an accomplishment.


jacobsmith - Feb 17, 2013 11:14 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: I'm with Blake

I agree that Twight was making a broader point about purism (he has said elsewhere that he doesn't really bother justifying his positions rationally and that most of his writing is more manifesto than treatise) and that reducing the issue to bolting is a mistake. the issue is symbolic of wider problems, but there are underlying mindsets that are at work here beyond just leave-no-trace ethics and whether people should have to learn how to place trad gear.
I get the impression that Twight is mostly just upset that his generation's fuck-you punk rock attitude has been replaced in the climbing community by a more mellow, hipster vibe, and that if you are not willing to die you might as well go back to vertical world. I'm still not sure how i feel about that.
I'm also not sure how i feel about Lowe's statement, it seems about as off the cuff as Mallory's infamous "because it's there" and it makes about as much sense. the problem with everyone just climbing however they find to be the most fun is that we have to share the mountains, climbing styles effect the environment we climb in in both tangible and intangible ways and therefore we have to make these decision as a community. if we all just do whatever we want, the person with the loosest leave-no-trace ethic automatically wins.


RobSC - Feb 18, 2013 4:18 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: I'm with Blake

I think the difference between cycling and climbing is that in cycling there is a published set of rules that all competitors are supposed to abide by. To go against these rules is cheating.

There is no international body that defines climbing terms and conditions. As such, the climber basically defines her or his ethics. I think that to cheat in climbing would be to claim to make an ascent in a "cleaner" manner than you did, such as if I claimed to have cleanly free climbed the Diamond when in fact we were about to be blasted by a thunderstorm and I pulled up on a sling, and thus made the ascent into a 5.9 A0 climb instead of a 5.10 climb. By doing this, though, I was able to complete the crux pitch before the rock was covered with an inch of snow and might have prevented having to to do a whole mess of dangerous rappels just to get to a safe location. So did I climb the Diamond? In my mind, yes. Did I cleanly free climb it, no. To claim otherwise would be "cheating" but in pulling up on the sling I was able to safely escape what could have degenerated into a very serious situation, and thus I am okay with it.

As for chemicals in your body, again there are no defined terms as long as the chemicals are legal. Tensing Norgay and Hillary climbed Everest using oxygen, Buhl used sleeping tablets, so should we nullify their accomplishments or just recognize that Peter Habler and Messner accomplished a cleaner ascent 25 years later? To say I have climbed Everest with oxygen and diamox is one thing. Both are legal and do not violate established rules of mountaineering. Yes, I doped my body to make it safer (and more probable) but with a wife and 2 kids, it was more important to come back alive and be a father to my children than to make a more noteworthy and cleaner ascent with fewer chemical aides. I also have some amazing experiences to treasure for the rest of my life. Did Messner use oxygen on the plane getting to Nepal? Are there arguments that SCUBA Divers are all cheaters or has that activity been defined with the oxygen as an aid? Again, the rules are what you define them as, just be clear as to what you did.

Bolting is somewhat different in that I have issues with people bolting a line up beside a perfectly good crack just because bolts are how things are protected in gym climbing but this is really a different can of worms. In this case you are altering the rock and the potential experience for others and it could be viewed differently.


ywardhorner - Feb 18, 2013 5:34 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: I'm with Blake

I agree with you -- none of these so-called "rules" actually apply or matter unless you've turned climbing into some kind of competition or a way to prove something to other people. If you're climbing for yourself, only your own ethics apply. I would rather people not bolt cracks, but once you get away from the roadside outdoor gyms you don't see many people with power drills anymore.


CClaude - Feb 19, 2013 11:13 pm - Hasn't voted


Altho I find Twight fairly puritanical, I still find I often agree with him. The way that climbing has gone in the Himalayas for the vast majority, especially on the big three (Everest, Cho Oyo and Ama Dablam), of fixed lines, pre-stocked camps and often, food, even high on the mountain, leaves me to wonder who actually climbs these mounatins anymore. Ok, if climbs the mountains means physically putting one foot in front of each other, a lot of people do. If it means a degree of sufficiency, then few outside of the Sherpas actually do.

I'm not against it, but few people will actually be honest, Bout how they did something. If we did away with all this support structure, how many people would actually do the climb. For me it left a bad taste in my mouth, but as long as you are not altering the environment, its only you who you have to answer to. For me, don't like to aid climb. i respect hard aid, but for me, if ,i can't do it free, I'd rather do something else.but thats me, and won't judge others

Why not wait until you have the background to actually do it?


hans.schenk - Feb 20, 2013 12:12 am - Hasn't voted


I don't mind you using my bolt image for your article. Just please next time ask first. Thanks!


jacobsmith - Feb 20, 2013 3:02 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Image...

Chief - look, we all know you are a super-badass bigwall climber, we all read your wall-soloing shtick back when it got featured, i imagine you have probably placed more bolts than anyone else on this thread, but taking a photo of a bolt is not the same as placing that bolt in the first place, and besides, i'm pretty sure i've top-roped off mankier looking bolts than that.

Hans - it was my understanding that all photos posted to summitpost were public domain, but sorry about involving you in all this without contacting you first.


jacobsmith - Feb 20, 2013 10:16 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Image...

So i imagined correctly then...



hans.schenk - Feb 22, 2013 2:01 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Image...

Thanks Jacob! I have had others ask about using some of my photos...hence why I brought it up. If they are public domain...then my bad.


hans.schenk - Feb 22, 2013 2:03 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Image...

I am only taking credit for the picture of the bolt...I did not place it. I have never placed a bolt, and I don't want to.


hans.schenk - Feb 23, 2013 12:27 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Image...

I actually prefer trad.


jacobsmith - Feb 25, 2013 12:32 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Image...

Chief - bolts are out there, you know this, we all know this, and because of this we use them and occasionally take photos of them. Its really not a big deal.
Also, please stop picking fights on my, and other people's, articles, all you are communicating is your total lack of respect for anyone less experienced than you.

It has recently come to my attention that your comments were behind at least one of the more thoughtful writers on this site leaving. Is this your intension? - to drive people away, to act so arrogant and callous and condescending that people want to avoid the entire community?
I started posting here because i realized that there was a wider climbing community whose input i could benefit from. Disagree with me all you want, i welcome honest criticism, but if you can't tell the difference between intellectual engagement and being insulting, all you are going to get is a lot of people who don't want to interact with you.
A frequent criticism of yours seems to be that the person with whom you are interacting is too young to know what they are talking about. I'm in a bit of a vindictive mood right now, so two can play at that game: maybe i am too young and too inexperienced to be making the kinds of statements i am making, and maybe you are a washed up has-been who never developed the emotional maturity to not derive pleasure from bullying people you don't know. i don't know your life, i could be wrong. but maybe i'm not.


Andes6000 - Feb 23, 2013 2:12 pm - Hasn't voted

Mis dos centavos

Nice short article Jacob. I wonder what the Sherpas think of most of their clients who are obviously inferior. Who do you suppose relied more on the oxygen, Tenzing or Hillary? I acclimate fairly well, but my Aimara friends are strolling around above 6k meters. I once met a 65 year old italian woman on Sajama who had a little bottle of oxygen. Was Twight going to jump out from behind a rock and accuse her of being a cheat? Well, that would be hilarious, she probably would have smacked some sense into him. Then there are fakes like Christian Stangle who came to Bolivia and set a bunch of speed records. He got caught but by who? He was misleading himself. So are there cheaters in climbing? Was Herman Buhl a cheater? He's mentioned in one of Twight's books as an inspiration. For me climbing is a state of mind, sometimes a spiritual experience. Sucking on oxygen or using the latest tools isn't going to take that away.


jacobsmith - Feb 25, 2013 12:22 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Mis dos centavos

The whole climbing game paradigm that allowed us to even talk about cheating is flawed. i don't think people who hire sherpas or use bottled oxygen are cheating, i just think they are not doing real alpinism, and neither is Christian Stangl.
also, i don't think Twight does much jumping out from behind rocks these days, he's over 50 himself.


Blakester - May 22, 2013 12:09 pm - Hasn't voted


Interesting article! That's not a photo of me in your photo, but instead I think its a guy named Jake who lives in Marblemount.

I give Twight the benefit of the doubt for being smart enough to see the huge holes in his own "logic" and I think he wrote his article based on emotion and wanting to drive controversy rather than construct and sound argument. When I read your response I kept waiting for where I would be proven wrong, but you mentioned I used sound logic, Twight did not, and then suggested that "alpine style" or "alpinism" is and should be it's own sub-set of climbing. Where was I wrong?

I feel like Twight's assertions are so vague that one has a hard time knowing what to think of them, because he doesn't ever define rules, cheating, or the opposition of cheaters (which he encourages by all readers).

My point regarding the kid hang-dog top-roping in tennis shoes is that "climbing" is the umbrella term, and he was 100% accurate and truthful in saying he'd "climbed" the wall. The reason that more specific terms became developed was to accurately describe the various sub-sets of how one may climb. When Twight says that those using bottled oxygen have not even "climbed" a given peak, despite having stood on the summit, he is mis-using our language. Hillary, Norgay, et al have certainly "climbed" Everest, just not under the handicap of a contrived difficulty that Twight implies should be a mandatory self-imposition.


(Relic / Mr. Condie - I definitely remember climbing Mt. Logan with you, and I also remember climbing the wrong peak of Logan that same morning and being relieved to encounter someone else up there. Hope you are doing great! )


jacobsmith - Jun 3, 2013 10:48 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: response

Sorry about the photo, I really need to be more careful about these things, and thanks for your response, i must admit that i am a little embarrassed.
The title was mostly just a reference to the title of your article, which i felt at the time, having just read Extreme Alpinism and re-read Kiss or Kill, was some heinous form of blasphemy.
Where i think you were and are wrong is when you talk about "the handicap of a contrived difficulty that Twight implies should be a mandatory self-imposition." What i tried to show is that objecting to things like bottled oxygen and bolting are not just ways of making climbing harder, but a logical conclusion of the type of climbing Twight did. bolts make no sense for the type of climbing he wanted to do, on his routes in France, the Himalayas and Alaska they would have been a hinderance rather than a help, the same can be said of bottled oxygen. Twight's greatest mistake is to claim that his brand of alpinism is the only legitimate form of climbing, although i have found his elitism to be infectious and despite having a slightly broader view, i still think there is such a thing as illegitimate methods - types of climbing that make sense under no circumstances.
where things get really confusing is when you realize that quite literally every innovation, from carabiners to friends to ice tools, has been dismissed as making climbing too easy, when that is never really what any of the should-we-accept-this-newfangled-gaget debates are about.


jacobsmith - Jun 20, 2013 11:14 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: genetics

That is interesting, but there is precedent for genetic advantages in sports: short basketball players don't get to wear stilts, slow sprinters don't get jet packs.

Which is not to say i think high-altitiude mountaineering is a sport. The biggest problem with bottled oxygen is that it necessitates a large expedition framework, which is probably the underlying reason Twight eschewed it. Those expeditions may have been real mountaineering in the 50s, but now they are nothing but tourism, so it's kind of a moot point, as those people are cheating in more ways than can be counted (climbing porters, camps stocked ahead of them, fixed lines, etc.).

Whether you believe oxygen is moral or immoral, the fact remains that the only people who still use it are the guides, the guided, and the few remaining big national expeditions. None of which i consider particularly legitimate.

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