WG note--This is the short version of a longer print article I've been working on for way too long, finally decided to just post this.
The Game "Bareback" Style: No spurs, no saddling up on a tool.
“I hope next winter I'll still be enthusiastic enough to play this great game; strike off my last climbs and do them all over again in a more ethical way: maybe by getting rid of spurs and give new credibility to mixed modern.”
-Mauro “Bubu” Bole, spring 2004, http://www.climbubu.com/dry09_en.htm
“Although I've missed the leashless revolution, and have no experience with modern heel spurs, I can make the following observation: Anytime the gear makes climbing too easy and success too certain, the best climbers will voluntarily limit their use of it. When climbing walls with aid became a rote exercise, we started to free climb them. Even at the beginning of waterfall ice climbing it was more satisfying to grab a hold on the ice whenever possible, rather than to place a pick. We never did feel like hanging by a harness from our tools to place ice screws was anything but aid climbing, and when thick frozen waterfalls felt too easy, we had to move onto steep mixed climbs. Now it's leashless and spurless. Right on, brothers and sisters! As the gear and technique evolve, so does the spirit of the climber evolve toward keeping things as simple and challenging as possible. It's this tendency that keeps me excited for the future of the sport. In the end, we can't bullshit ourselves - we know what we need to be satisfied.”
-Jeff Lowe, 2004
“Cc'ing me on this is kinda like sharing the latest techniques on jumping Lippizaner Stallions with a working cowboy.”
-Big Barry “Bubba” Blanchard after receiving an email on the subject of spurs.
"What is accomplished without great effort never has great value."
-Fortune cookie I got last week.
I've hung up my spurs, and I've stopped hooking my ice tools with my feet, legs or ass. I call the resulting style, "Bareback," meaning no spurs and no sitting on your tools for so long you need a saddle. The reasons I switched to a less gear-intensive style are simple: using full technology on steep mixed routes makes climbing those routes about as engaging as dogging them bolt to bolt. I call climbing with full technology "sloth climbing" because that's what it feels like. Move, rest on the spurs or spurs on the tools, move, rest, repeat with excruciating slowness to the top of any steep mixed route in the world--pump optional. Climbing in this style just doesn't interest me, I might as well clip into every other bolt and call it a redpoint. Some people might not understand how easy the new bolted-on three inch heel spurs make resting; let's just say it's about ten times better than the most bomber knee bar you've ever had. If you could get a great knee bar after every hard move it might tend to make most steep rock routes a little less interesting.
Last spring an international group of climbers talked, emailed and generally gossiped about the sorry state of hard mixed climbing. It was very clear that our reliance on increasing gear and trickery had reduced any mixed route in the world to something relatively simple. There was a "credibility gap" beween what was being reported to the magazines and the physical reality. This gap might be analagous to it suddenly being OK to put your leg through a sling or ten and rest while redpointing routes. Evgeny Krivosheytsev decided to climb Musashi without spurs and tool sits but with some toe hook rests, and Bubu climbed it in (as usual, grin!) a Bubu-specific style that he enjoyed. Bubu wrote, "“On my last day I wanted to repeat Musashi in the traditional manner: the one I knew before this last winter: with crampons and ice axes on rock. Now I can confirm that this does change things... boy does it change things! This is a real M12!” I had previously climbed Musashi with heavy boots and leashes, and again with spurs and tool trickery. After these two guys raising the bar I was inspired to climb Musashi bareback. Climbing it bareback was more satisfying than slothing, it actually felt like solid M12 and not a regression to aid climbing. I had to finesse technical footwork and gun it for the anchors, not just stop and rest whenver I got the hint of a pump. The bareback difficulty felt about the same as when I first did it with leashes and heavy boots, but the climbing was worlds better. Yeah!
Last spring I started work on the hardest route in the world, Ben Firth's The Game. But bareback only--spurs would have been a slap in the face of Ben Firth's vision in putting it up given the new style Ben, Raphael, Bubu, Evgeny, Ines Papert, Harry Berger, Simon A. and many others had just discussed. I knew I could climb it in a day or two with full trickery (plus some of the holds were "improved" from when Ben did it...), but to me just climbing a route to reach the top is a waste of a good route. To put it very bluntly, for me climbing any "hard" route with spurs and tool trickery feels roughly the same as hanging etriers off every bolt--it's just not free climbing. I failed miserably on The Game in the spring after two days of effort (alpine climbing does shite for your power endurance) and was happy about it--now there was something I couldn't climb, and that I'd actually have to develop as a climber to get! After four more days of work this fall I finally sent The Game with the best, most blinding pump I've ever had mixed climbing. I was even able to add a longer and more difficult finish to an extremely tenuous icicle because the route wasn't filled in with ice. In keeping with Ben's idea that the whole mixed climbing gig is a GAME I've called my version of Ben's route "The Game Reloaded, M13+." It's the first time I've ever climbed a route and seriously contemplated puking from exertion.
A week later I went back up on The Game and tried it with spurs and full trickery for the first time. Now, I could report that I sent it first try in a marathon hour-long effort, but the reality is that I did about five minutes of climbing and 55 minutes of hanging off my gear in a position any sloth would recognize. The resulting "ascent" was a series of boulder problems seperated by hands-free rests (I've got the photos a friend took, they are serious bat-boy shots). How the hell can it be free climbing if you can dangle from your feet with no hands and no effort in the middle of the hardest route in the world? No focus, no intensity, no pump clock, dead boring. After climbing to to the top my main thought was, "Man, I should slap a set of spurs on my rock shoes, I could finally climb 5.14!" Bullshit. I have no doubt I could run laps on The Game for hours with full gear. Even worse, the climbing was about as interesting as going across the jungle bars at a kid's playground. No footwork, no body tension, just hook a spur/knee. Two years ago I thought mixed climbing was headed this direction and started to lose interest and go alpine climbing. Now I'm eyeing a new line in the Cineplex and more fired up than I ever have been.
In the week since I did The Game a lot of people have asked me what the grade difference is betwen doing it bareback and doing it sloth-style. This misses the point, it's about climbing fast and fluidly instead of resting while hanging off gear. On Musashi the difference feels like about two full grades, but climbing sloth style also dramatically changes the crux of Musashi from an interesting dyno to a move where you sit on your tool and easily reach the next hold. How do you grade a route where you saddle up on your tool? XXX? It's the same situation but even more so on The Game because the The Game is steeper and requires massive power endurance to do in one go instead of slothing. In fact, two of the harder swing moves on the Game aren't either using sloth style
In the end I'm happy with this new style, it feels right to me. There will always be something between the climber and the ice/stone (picks, shoes, chalk), it's a matter of degree and experience, not religious law. I'll let those who climb sloth style evaluate their own ascents, and I'll cheerfully give all the sloth beta I can to those on the routes as I did with a couple of friends yesterday. Never let somebody else's style get in the way of having a good time. If you're learning to mixed climb and want to bring an extension ladder up the routes then right on, and if anybody heckles you hit 'em with the ladder. If you're chasing the hardest routes in the world and want to succeed with full gear for what my friend Scott Semple calls, "a personal accomplishment" then do so. I look at it sort of like climbing a big wall route--hang on the gear, bring a boom box, have a good time. That's how I'd do it. But if you're writing the magazines about a new M12 or M13 then perhaps note whether or not you sat on your tool at the crux. We need some honesty here or this sport will truly turn into the WWF, where what you see on TV is made for that situation and bears little resemblance to an actual sporting event.
Ultimately this is all what Ben Firth calls "The Game," a mixture of gear, rock, ice, climbers, and sponsorship simmering in a pot feeding on the media flames. For me the smell off that pot is now less bovine and more promising. The Game will continue; some of the holds mysteriously grew on the The Game last spring, and some climbers will use increasing trickery to beat this and other routes down to their level or to claim fast ascents. Whatever. There are thousands of fantastic caves with icicles out there, and a thousand opportunities to get pumped, fall off and enjoy the madness of winter climbing. As usual, my friend Ben Firth will have the last words with some translation:
" I haven’t thought much about mixed climbing for a while so the whole horse jabbing implement (wg note--Ben means spurs) discussion I can’t really say much about. Doesn’t seem right hanging around like that, may as well make it more interesting. It's kinda like whether I decide to take my lawn chair to the crag or not (wg note--Ben once hung from a lawn chair tied off to his tool to make a point), it's probably not going to effect me getting a good snooze at the base. Its pretty clear from our antics (Ben and I worked on The Game bareback style last spring) that I’m full force into not jabbin horses. "
WG Note-- I’ve been asked what the exact rules for “bareback” style are. Bareback style means:
Thanks to everyone who helped with this article and drove up to the Cineplex to session. My van door is fixed Mayo...
Dec 27th note: Yesterday I had a go at The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's a fantastic line, with plenty of hard climbing on it. I didn't send it. Perfect.
I coined the term "bareback" because I liked it and David Dornian seemed to think it was good and he's pretty smart. Anyone who has a better term should use it. I like sloths too, they can climb some sick trees super slow.
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