Leave No Trace? - Some Existential Implications of Ice Climbing

Leave No Trace? - Some Existential Implications of Ice Climbing

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The following is a series of ideas I've had running around in my head for quite a while, although it was spurred on in large part by a couple conversations I had yesterday while climbing Gunn Peak.

I would heavily recommend reading Chouinard and Frost's original piece, which can be found here, along with the rest of the 1972 catalog (a fascinating artifact in and of itself - don’t miss Robinson’s article on natural protection and the original Whillans sit harness).

Leave No Trace?

The ethic of clean climbing is the lasting contribution of the Yosemite big-wall climbers to the world of mountaineering. In 1972 an article was published in the Chouinard Equipment catalog (a manufacturer of climbing gear later to become Black Diamond Equipment), written by Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost, that laid out the theory and method of “clean” climbing. Its methodological core was the rejection of pitons in favor of a series of nuts, hexes, and, later, caming devices.

What this means is that instead of hammering a metal peg into the rock to protect against a fall, the climber places an irregularly shaped piece of metal into a crack such that it will hold firm against the intended direction of force. One cannot help but notice that these devices were being sold in that same catalog, but their plea cannot be dismissed as a promotional scam. Pitons had been destroying Yosemite for years. Hoping to prevent the area from becoming like the Dolomites in Europe, where popular routes were marked by strings of rusty pitons from bottom to top, Yvon Chouinard had pioneered new hardened steel pitons that instead of conforming to the shape of the rock, could be hammered in just far enough to hold and then be removed by a second; but despite innovations of this type, popular routes were becoming heavily scarred by the repeated placement of such gear.

Behind all of this rather mechanical, seemingly obscure, controversy, was a growing sense of the vulnerability of the wilderness. The environmental movement, born in the High Sierras of California, was beginning to be recognized around the world and what is now termed “Leave No Trace” principles were becoming standard in all national parks and wilderness areas. While clearly a vital part of the preservation of what little wilderness remains, this ethic is problematic on a number of philosophical, and especially existential, grounds. To leave no trace is an impossible ideal, by our passing we make a mark on the world around us – to not make a mark, to not leave a trace, is to not exist, or rather, for one’s existence to have no possible significance.

This is true practically as well as theoretically. In the crags of Britain, one of several areas with a claim to be the birthplace of rock climbing, where slings were used to protect against falls before German climbers invented pitons and carabiners, the footholds on popular climbs have been worn smooth and chalk-marked handholds can be found on cliffs all over Europe and America. Thus we see that even in its purest form, clean climbing is impossible – to not make a mark on the rock is to not climb the rock (this is to say nothing of permanent bolted anchors). We arrive, therefore, at an impasse: our central ideal in our striving to preserve the wilderness (the goal and duty of every mountaineer), leave no trace, is at odds both with our nature as humans and the various, inescapable, realities of climbing. Yet an answer can be found through another discipline of mountaineering: ice climbing.

To an ice-climber, clean climbing is nonsensical. To climb alpine or waterfall ice the climber uses sharply pointed ice-tools and crampons to gain purchase and ice-screws to protect against a fall. An ice pitch is therefore different for every climber, as each climber’s passage has altered it – often dramatically, as chunks of ice as large as dinner-plates commonly come off. As ice is constantly shrinking or growing this is not considered a problem; the melt-freeze cycle every day heals the route, returning it to something like an unclimbed state. Even more poignantly, no matter the damage done to the ice, by the spring it will be gone and the next winter it will return, with no possible memory of past ascents.

This is, in a micro sense, the way of all wilderness. Every mountain on earth is eroding, slowly erasing the marks of our passage. Nothing we do is permanent. Someday the glaciers will all be gone and the sea levels will rise and someday after that they will return and re-sculpt the earth. The only difference is the time scale involved. Someday all our cities will be rubble and the wilderness will overtake the world again. Therefore, as we consider our actions and our policies, we need to keep in mind that we are not preserving the wilderness for the sake of the wilderness. We do not try to leave no trace so that the earth will be better off. Every mountaineer should know that the wilderness is more powerful than we can imagine – it will kill us and mangle our bodies beyond all recognition and hide us where we will not be found for centuries. We try to leave no trace, to climb clean, for our own benefit, not because we are really trying to not leave a trace, but because we don’t like seeing toilet paper under every rock and beer cans in every campsite. Campfires are not forbidden above five thousand feet for the sake of the trees, but because we like to have shade from the afternoon sun.

This understanding of why we protect the wilderness has more implications that it is possible or profitable to explicate here (read: nasty ramifications for radical environmentalism, but also heavy qualifications regarding the industrial exploitation of the wilderness), largely because such discussions are not really the pertinent point of this essay. Ice climbing gives us an insight into the deeper nature of climbing, and, by extension, existence more generally. Our lives bear far more resemblance to the ice climber, hacking his way upward, altering dramatically, but only for a time, the path behind, than the rock climber, dancing lightly across the wall, striving to leave nothing but some chalk stains.


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jdenyes - Sep 22, 2012 8:42 am - Hasn't voted


really interesting perspective on our impact in the wilderness, thanks for sharing


Marcsoltan - Sep 22, 2012 2:39 pm - Voted 10/10

Brings back memories...

of where we have been, and where we are hoping to be going. Living only one half hour from the old Chouinard factory, I have vivid memories of the efforts that went into promoting clean climbing. Every time another wall in Yosemite was climbed using chocks and stoppers, they would hold a slide show and talk on their modest retail space. That was long before the invention of spring loaded camming devices. I, for one, wish that we didn't have to leave even chalk marks on the rock. But I have seen that all the chalk marks are erased from long routes in Yosemite after a winter season. On the backcountry routes chances of seeing chalk marks are extremely rare. On the subject of rock and ice climbing, it is said that "a rock climber is like a dancer, whereas an ice climber operates like a mechanic." Just thoughts!

Thank you for your new and interesting perspective,


ericvola - Nov 11, 2012 1:24 pm - Voted 10/10


It is good to see such a young man with such an in-depth capability of thinking about climbing and why we climb. I have gone through your two 'essays' and I suggest that you take up the following as your third 'essay' which would complete the first two nicely: 'ethics in climbing'.
You seem to already know the high ethics which was the norm on the UK crags in the 50's and still today. Continental Europe then and up to the end of the 70's was all about 'pegging' in order to do new routes but with some exceptions. I give you one: the Belgian climber Claudio Barbier, famous for his 1rst ascents and solo climbs in the Dolomites (of which the 5 North faces of the Cime di Lavaredo in one day - 13h with the descent - 1750m of grade V and VI) who in 1963 painted in yellow the pegs on his favorite Belgian crag which were not to be used for progression but solely for protection. It was a start towards clean climbing. But even if you base your argument on what went on in your country, you will find all which is required, as ethics in climbing is a subject shared by all climbers worldwide. I am sure that you will do well with this additional subject.


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