Games Climbers Play
At least outside Yosemite Valley aficionados, Lito Tejada-Flores is not a name many climbers today would recognize. I certainly didn’t when I first came across references to his essay, “Games Climbers Play,” in an anthology on climbing philosophy. Anyone familiar with American climbing history will recall such figures as Warren Harding, Royal Robbins, and Yvon Chouniard as pioneers of the big wall style, the precursors of the more stylish (and sticky-rubbered) Stonemasters - Jim Bridwell, John Long, Lynn Hill, and their ilk. It was into the former of these groups that Tejada-Flores fit, and he was indeed a participant in some of the most ground-breaking “grade six” ascents of his day. In “Games Climbers Play,” published in 1967, he attempted to define climbing in terms of a series of games with differing rules; this was to avoid the ever-looming question of what climbing is and, more divisively, what it is not. Under his system, siege-style expeditions and road-side sport climbing coexist happily, each following their own set of restrictions. The genius of this, and the reason it was cited so heavily in the anthology of climbing philosophy that I was reading, was that it is systematic. It accounted for the full diversity of climbing without jettisoning all points of comparison. To someone who has read a great deal of climbing literature this kind of fully and rationally justified position comes as a breath of fresh air: from John Bachar’s “invisible top-ropes” to the traditional alpinist’s disdain for ‘artificial’ (aid) climbing, willful, bigoted, ignorance has been more the rule than the exception in historical climbing theory.
Without, I believe, anyone realizing it, Tejada-Flores defined how the various disciplines of climbing were going to relate to each other for the next half-century. The bolt wars armistice that prevails over most of Europe and North America owes its basic precept, each in its place, to “Games Climbers Play,” and the same can be said for the conflict between siege and alpine styles in the greater ranges. If brief flare-ups have occurred (the chopping of the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre; the awarding of the Piolet d’Or to the Russian ascent of the north face of Jannu) it has been matters of territory – whose game gets played where, and not legitimacy – the validity of the games themselves.
In 1990 Tejada-Flores published a short follow-up piece that concluded with the remark, “The idea of climbing games has proved a strong one, but not strong enough to block out the larger context or consequences of climbing.” For Tejada-Flores the larger context and consequences seem to be primarily ethical – he came to see interpersonal dramas complicating his gaming hierarchy. I see an even larger and more problematic context, the historical. At its core, the theory of “Games Climbers Play” is profoundly ahistorical. Tejada-Flores orders the games not in terms of how they actually developed but by the degree of restrictions placed upon the climber (i.e. in expedition climbing you can use a helicopter but in bouldering you can’t use a rope). The problem however, is not simply where Tejada-Flores’ argument arrived, but where it started. There are basic problems with his whole justification for viewing climbing as a game that need to be addressed before the larger-scale issues of historical understanding can be properly explicated.
The Meaning of Games
The very idea of looking at climbing as a game always struck me as flawed. I have always taken climbing very seriously and enjoy the severity of the demands it places on us; it seemed to me that any “rules” were simply the demands of the environment. It is clear to me now that this understanding was a result of my background in low altitude, nontechnical mountaineering and once I became familiar with technical ground and larger peaks the ‘rules’ became much more complicated and the gaming metaphor began to make sense. This does not however, mean that it is necessarily appropriate. For Tejada-Flores, the key feature of climbing that designates it as a “game activity” is its lack of “necessity,” meaning that a climber begins a climb much the way a chess player begins a game of chess, for the fun of it. Setting aside the many professional climbers who make their living in the mountains (both guides and sponsored athletes) there is a more basic problem with this formulation: not all ‘unnecessary’ activities are best thought of as games. Both the production and consumption of creative works lack the necessity that Tejada-Flores seems to believe designates an activity as a game, but are not, by and large, considered games in our society. The decision to record or listen to a piece of music, for instance, is also “just as gratuitous and unnecessary as the decision to start a game of chess.” This is not to say that climbing is more like listening to music than it is like playing chess, but rather that the necessity of the act is a poor indicator of its status as a game.
The question then, is of what it means to be a game. Tejada-Flores was right to say that a game is a gratuitous act but, as I have hopefully demonstrated, that is not its defining feature. Some sort of rules or restrictions are surely integral to the concept, but again this is not overly helpful – where I attended classes at Seattle University and where I am employed at the Alside window plant we have rules, but obviously neither school nor work should be regarded as games. In Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian the character Judge Holden claims, in a long discourse on the nature of war that,
"Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill or strength of the opponent and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere the worth of the principles and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all."
To anyone familiar with climbing history, the connection between games and war should come as no surprise, for more than one climber has expressed their activity either as war or as a substitute for it. McCarthy’s explanation rings true on other levels as well; like in war, what the climber risks is life itself and the closer to the cutting edge of climbing the more serious the wager tends to become (sport climbing and bouldering are notable exceptions to this). The climbing-as-conquest notion has actually be disputed for almost as long as it has existed and in recent years there has been an increasing move away from this view of climbing toward what can be considered an artistic understanding, an aesthetic appreciation for the act that sublimates the conqueror/conquered dichotomy. If there are then two types of unnecessary activity, art and games, climbing seems like it can be either.
Climbing then, as it is often, but not always, undertaken, is then very much a game. There is a part of me that still wants to complain that it too serious, or perhaps too unorganized, to qualify, but then I must recall that in my final paper for my history degree I claimed that historical scholarship was a game, and by comparison climbing is the NFL. Yet again, this does not mean that Tejada-Flores’ description of climbing as a game is accurate. In his system, climbing games are ordered from the most restrictive, bouldering, to the least, expeditions, and the rationale is that “a handicap system has evolved to equalize the inherent challenge and maintain the climber's feeling of achievement at a high level in each of these different situations.” In other words, the rules exist so that climbing does not become too easy. While this serves his hierarchy very well, it holds up historically only at the extremes of the spectrum, and even then it is questionable.
To be clear, what I believe is lacking in Tejada-Flores’ theory is historical validity. For the hierarchy to have historical validity the relationships between the seven games would be the natural result of historical processes, rather than simply an arbitrary ordering based on Tejada-Flores’ contemporary observations. If this seems obscure, it is actually very simple. Tejada-Flores claims that the difference between bouldering and crag climbing is that boulders are easier to climb and so in order to preserve the challenge more rules must be implemented (no progressive fall protection, no ropes). For this to have historical validity the pioneers of bouldering must have designed the rules of the game with the preservation of difficulty in mind. This is true only to a small degree. Most boulder problems could be very short traditionally protected or bolted single-pitch routes, what Tejada-Flores calls “Crag Climbing,” but these methods are rejected not so much to preserve difficulty as to conserve effort. No one bolts boulder problems because doing so would be a waste of time and money and only rarely because it would make the boulder problem too easy. In this case it is worth pointing out that when Tejada-Flores was writing bouldering had not entered the advanced state of development it has reached today and he appears to know nothing of crash pads, spotting, or pre-inspection of holds.
Towards the other end of Tejada-Flores’ spectrum, his theory has a larger degree of historical validity, but events even in the 60s were already undermining his tidy distinctions. The fifth, sixth, and seventh games are “The Alpine Climbing Game,” “The Super-Alpine Game,” and “The Expedition Game.” If the middle of these were to be excluded his system would work nicely; for larger, more serious, more objectively difficult propositions, like 8000m peaks, the expedition game is appropriate while for relatively smaller climbs, like those in the Alps or the other lower ranges, it is not, as it would render the climbs too simple. The historical validity of this distinction is at least a little dubious, as full expedition techniques were never really used in the Alps, and in the few cases that they were they did not predate the methods of the “Alpine” game, but the more substantial problem is that middle category, the sixth game. Tejada-Flores disguises the fact with emphasis and semantics but if one reads closely one realizes that there is no actual difference in rules between the fifth and sixth games. In both the climbing team uses the full array of techniques available to them to overcome the objective, baring the security of a full expedition framework. The only difference is that the “Super-Alpine Game” is played in the same environment as the “Expedition Game.”
This is a problem for Tejada-Flores theory because it means that the inherent difficulties of the objective do not determine the appropriate style in which it should be climbed. According to the advocates of alpine style, light-and-fast, climbing in the greater ranges, from Herman Buhl to Steve House, equalizing the difficulties of the peaks by using expedition, siege style, tactics is somewhere between vacuous and sacrilegious; to them, the difficulties are irrelevant in the face of the ethical absolutes – recall Mark Twight’s comment on bolting in his instructional manual, Extreme Alpinism, “Not in my book. Almost any wall can be climbed by unfair means. With a drill, you can ‘climb’ anything.”
In essence, what I am arguing is that the preservation of difficulty is not the underlying distinction between the various climbing games, and therefore Tejada-Flores hierarchy is misguided. It does not reflect the actual historical relationships between the pursuits and therefore is nothing more than an observation of the forms of climbing then popular in California with an eye on the prominent climbs of the greater ranges. This understanding has the possibility of being disastrous. “Games Climbers Play” is, to my knowledge, the only systematic theory of climbing that does not dismiss large sectors of the enterprise either through simple neglect, as is common with most bouldering/sport climbing theories, or outright hostility, as in most traditional and alpine theories. What this means is that climbing games, although incorrect, might be a necessary evil, much like the virtue of democracy or the innate goodness of man – a lie on which we build our lives. Fortunately, I believe there is an alternative. In the past four years I have read over fifty pieces of climbing literature and countless more magazine and internet articles as part of half a dozen research projects. I have written lengthy papers on the proto-alpinism of Conrad Gesner, English romanticism in early alpine climbing, fascist ideology in the first ascent of the Eiger Nordwand, and the climbing culture of the Pacific Northwest. The one unifying principle I have been able to determine is that climbing ideologies follow from climbing environments, in architectural terms, ‘form follows function.’ Canadians climb very differently than Californians, and that difference is rooted in the differences between the granite of Yosemite Valley and the limestone and water ice of the Canadian Rockies.
Implications and Conclusions
I believe that this theory has both explanatory power and systematic potential. In the short term it can explain many of the otherwise inexplicable differences in style and ethics between great climbers, and in the long term, if fully fleshed out, it could be used to construct a comprehensive, philosophically valid, history of climbing.(1) Obviously, the latter goal is beyond the scope of this essay, but I do hope to give some indication of what the theory would look like. For the sake of clarity, my argument is as follows: rather than being consciously designed to preserve difficulty, the rules of climbing games are culturally bound and geographically determined. ‘Culturally bound’ means that there is no universal idea of climbing, rather there are specific climbing cultures found around the world; ‘geographically determined’ means that those climbing cultures are the product of their home geography and that the rules at which each climbing culture arrives are based on the natural constraints of that geography and not on some sort of independent, universal, meaning of climbing.
In order to, quite briefly, give a practical demonstration of this theory, consider three very different styles of climbing: sport, alpine, and big-wall. Each has a long and illustrious history; alpine climbing is the oldest of the three and represents a continuous development from the ‘Golden Age’ ascents of the 1860s; sport climbing originated in the lower elevation crags of western continental Europe and began to differentiate itself in the 1970s with its acceptance of bolting on rappel and its focus on pure, physical, difficulty; big-wall climbing was developed almost completely independently of the European tradition by several generations of American climbers in Yosemite Valley. Each style begins with an environment: high mountain faces of mixed snow, ice and rock; steep limestone crags; shear granite cliffs. These environments make stylistic demands: Alpine faces have great objective hazards and therefore must be climbed quickly, limestone does not reliably form continuous crack systems and therefore must often be protected with bolts, granite domes do not erode but rather exfoliate, producing flakes and cracks in otherwise smooth walls. The ethical codes attached to each style proceed from these stylistic demands: one must not bolt (too slow), one must climb free (to easy), one must not nail (destroys cracks). As we can see, Tejada-Flores is occasionally correct, and the rules of a game are to preserve difficulty, as in single pitch sport climbing, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
From these basic environmental differences have come, quite literally, every debate to preoccupy the world of climbing. The early conflicts between British and German alpinists was rooted in the differences between the nontechnical peaks of the western Alps that the British frequented and the limestone faces of the Dolomites, where the Germans pioneers their “ironmongery” – the carabiners, pitons, and crampons that the British ‘purists’ so disdained. There were, of course, other societal factors in this conflict. Any debate over technology between the British and the Germans in the pre-war period is ultimately going to refer to Germany’s rise as an industrial power and how that was threatening Britain’s economic and political hegemony in Western Europe. Also not to be ignored was Britain’s growing anti-modernism, which took such various forms as aesthetic movements like Romanticism, Arts and Crafts, and the Pre-Rafaelites, and the expanding popularity among the middle classes of vacations to the English countryside and to the Alps. Yet this backdrop should not be overestimated; unlike art and politics, climbing is highly utilitarian – people will use what works regardless of their ethical foundations. If soft iron pitons and 12-point crampons had not suited the environmental conditions of the mountains the Germans were trying to climb, they would not have used them, and they suited them so well that within a generation or two they were being used by all alpinists, even the British.
This basic scenario has been repeated over and over again: wired chocks and spring-loaded caming devices, gymnast’s chalk, bolting, bolting on rappel, bottled oxygen, single-push light-and-fast style, capsule style, chipped holds, indoor climbing gyms, indoor climbing competitions, et cetera; each has its root in the climbing environments people encountered and not in, as Tejada-Flores described, a determination to equalize difficulties between games. If the proponents of a given style or ethical code do not express it this way, it is because of their own limited viewpoint – they see all climbing as essentially identical to their own climbing, the best practices of which they have abstracted into their morality. To see one’s values as a product of one’s environment, and therefore as necessarily relativistic, is a very humbling thing. For me, because of the cultural relativism I picked up from a few of my history professors, it is the default, but as a recovering absolutist I understand exactly how difficult turning away from comforting ahistorical universalisms, like those of Tejada-Flores, can be.
Summitpost seems to have problems transcribing footnotes. I have reproduced the one non-citation note manually and hopefully it is clear who I am quoting when I am quoting them (full quotation marks "..." always mean an exact quotation, while '...' is used for emphasis).
(1) There have been many ‘histories’ of climbing and so I feel I must explain that what I mean when I say history is not necessarily what the layperson would think of. With a single exception, every climbing history I have read, from the most gimmicky (A Most Hostile Mountain) to the most profound (Freedom Climbers), has been an amateur, journalistic, effort – an attempt by someone with limited historical training to tell the stories of people’s lives.
Real, academic history is an altogether different beast. It is marked by theoretical, disciplinary engagement (writing that addresses the issues raised by other writers) and an argumentative framework (writing that seeks to prove a point). In the academy of history it is never enough to simply tell a story, the historian must seek to understand the persons and events and appreciate the delicacy of this act. Writing history without reference to historical theory is like describing a new species of insect without having any knowledge of or training in entomology – what you produce might be interesting to read but it will, in the long run, be irrelevant.
Copies of the two essays by Lito Tejada-Flores that I have cited can be found here
Games Climbers Play
Alpinism As Humanism
As always, for anyone interested in what real, historical scholarship on climbing looks like, I highly recommend Joseph Taylor's Pilgrims of the Vertical