Monday, September 26, 2011
Evolution Traverse, Part 3: Style Matters, Matters of Style
I hinted at a couple of stylistic points in the previous post. Historically, the Traverse has been undertaken with a minimum, if any, of rope work. The first ascent was completely free-solo. Subsequent ascents have included a rope for rappelling over the hardest bits. Possibly, no complete ascents have been made while attempting to manage the consequences of a slip on 5th class terrain. For a variety of reasons, Alex and I chose to use a rope and protect the spots where likelihood and consequence of a fall aligned unacceptably. Shall we discuss the more philosophical side of these stylistic variations?
First of all, let us distinguish between climbing style and climbing ethics, as I see it. Climbing ethics include everything that might directly influence someone else or, to be less anthropocentric, the integrity of the rock. Anything that would alter or affect the rock, the mountain, wildlife etc. is a breach of climbing ethics. Bolts, pitons, aggressive "cleaning" of rock, and trash are all well-established issues of climbing ethics. Different areas have different standards and different people have different ideas on these things. Ethics also must be stretched to include trundling, chalk, rappel slings, footprints and the like. We have an impact out there. Some of these impacts are more debatable than others. I won't speak to them here, mainly 'cause I'm too chicken to do so. Style, however, is our topic here. Style includes questions like free-solo or not; self-contained or done with cached gear; one push or camping out; on-sight, or loaded with information. The brunt of this stylistic "debate" (mainly a debate inside my own head, for what its worth...) with the Evolution Traverse focuses on the use of the rope.
Generally speaking, notable repeats of routes are completed in a "better" style than they were first done. Better style is subjective, of course. However, few will argue that Peter Croft heading along that ridge with little more than a water bottle and extra jacket isn't the purest style. The only possible "improvement" on his style would be to do it on the first try with no prior knowledge of the route. (Croft did a few recon trips, covering the entire distance in a couple of prior attempts). He set a very high bar! That bar, the style Croft chose, and most subsequent completions have chosen (or, more skeptically, felt locked into by an ignorance of, or unwillingness to use, safe and efficient rope techniques... more on that later) is stylistically very pure. It is, however, a style that leaves the aspirants vulnerable to the consequences of even a slight mistake.
Now, with the bar up there in the stratosphere, what are we to do? I am generally a strong proponent of the continued advancement of style. I am also strongly in favor of improved, or at least "acceptable", safety margins. In the case of style and safety, with the Evolution Traverse, improvements are mutually exclusive. Sure, very good rock climbers can be very very confident in their ability to avoid falling. Also, not dealing with the rope speeds up the climber and minimizes his or her exposure to other hazards like weather or darkness. I can argue on good authority, however, that good planning is a far more effective way of minimizing exposure to objective hazards, regardless of rope strategy chosen.
As a mountain professional and one aspiring to a life-long relationship with the mountains I am ready to accept some stylistic regression in the interest of significant improvements in safety margin. Bringing camping gear and ropes (etc... all the accoutrement really) made us far less vulnerable to the real, and really possible, screw-ups that cost climbers their lives.
As an admitted "traditionalist", I value stylistic progression. (Ironic terminology, right? A traditionalist valuing progression?) Anyway, I believe we should get better in order to better meet the challenges and uncertainty a route or mountain experience provides, rather than "dumb it down" to our level. How do I reconcile all this then? In one view, taking more time and more gear on the Evolution Traverse is a regression in style. However, we made a progression in safety, with very little ethical compromise. (We used a hand-full of fixed (but not hammered) rappel anchors, cleaned up a couple others, and left one or two of our own.)
In closing, I am willing to suggest that overall we made a progressive move with our style on the Evolution Traverse, protecting ourselves in a fashion that will not adversely affect your experience up there. If other's experiences can serve to demystify a route, let our endeavor up there prove that big traverses like this can be done while maintaining some level of external risk management. The techniques used to accomplish that are a different topic. At the very least, should you choose to tackle one of these big traverses, choose your style knowing that roping up is an option.