A comment on a recent post about upgrading old routes got me thinking about the somewhat absurd notion that many climbers have, in this country anyway, that somehow the first ascentionist owns the rock. Once the first guy does it, nothing short of a congressional mandate can change or alter the character of that climb.
I was recently having this conversation with a good friend of mine, who is a well respected climber that has established routes all over the world. He thinks this attitude is ridiculous, and he recounted a funny story about climbing at Tahquitz one day and running into John Long, a friend of his. John had just done some sparsely protected 5.10 and commented that somebody should fix that route because “it was dangerous and somebody could get hurt.” My friend replied, John, isn’t that your route? He said, yeah, but we were kids then, we didn’t know what we were doing. I wonder how many other dangerous routes out there are a result of the same kind of thing?
So how does this attitude manifest itself at climbing areas across the country? In most places, the FA is the only person who can “ok” a change to “their” route. How many times have you heard, we got permission from the FA party to add a bolt?
At the other end of the spectrum you have a place like Rifle, Colorado, where the community rules. If a bolt is in a bad spot and should be moved, it gets moved. If there is a dumb runout, it’s eliminated. No one calls up Johny Washed Up Sport Climber to beg for his permission, the work just gets done and the end result is a better rock climb.
Generally, the history of the area dictates the protocol. Rifle is a sport crag, through and through, and as such there is a more progressive attitude when it comes to route maintenance. At a place like Yosemite, it would be a huge deal if a bolt was moved or added to existing routes, and so the FA must be consulted, the community discusses it, and an opinion is formed. Sometimes there is no consensus, and this is usually where the problems begin. The bolt at the start of Double Cross in Joshua Tree is a good example of this. Some feel it’s important, others disagree, so the bolt comes and goes.
How did we get here? For much of the last thirty years, the people putting up routes have been held in high esteem, if not for the quality of their routes at least because they had the vision to go where no others had before. In most areas, the group is small and tends to police itself. But the truth is that people who establish routes are human, just like the rest of us, and they sometimes make mistakes.
In modern climbing, meaning routes that are currently being established, I would argue the end product is much more important than the style of the first ascent. I can think of several major climbing areas out there with “sport” routes that are really lame because they were put up ground up, to adhere to some “climbing ethic,” and the end result is a crappy route with poor bolt placements, bad falls, etc. If those climbs were instead put up with the end product in mind, they could have been much better routes.
And let’s make it clear I’m not talking about going back to well established classics that were put up in a bold style and dumbing them down. We’re talking about developing new climbs that are generally being put up for others to enjoy, not to make a statement about a particular style (although that does still happen from time to time.)
The bottom line in my mind is that when a route is established these days, it should be done in such a manner that it offers the finest experience it can. So if it’s a sport route, that means good clipping stances, safe falls, etc. If it’s a trad route, that MIGHT mean that where you need it the gear is good, with runouts on the easier sections. Or it could be a runout horror show that you have to step up to only when you know you are ready for it. I would also argue that creating a route for others to enjoy is much more important than the one experience the FA had. Or go ahead and have your first ascent adventure, but then leave the route in a state that others will get satisfaction from, not look up and shake their heads at what could have been an otherwise excellent climb.
So does the FA own the rock? I think as a generally courtesy they should be consulted on most matters regarding the status of their routes, but the community should play a large part in dictating the ethics and acceptable style for each area. What do you think?