. 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.
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.
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.