The Golden Age of Sport Climbing

There is little doubt we are now living in a golden age of sport climbing. Consider that we have: multiple 9b (37) routes scattered through Europe; 8c+ (34) onsights; Dani Andrada, limestone sport route–machine and veteran of more than a thousand 8a (29) or harder ticks, bolting up a storm in Catalunya and leaving a host of hard projects in his wake; former teen-sensation Chris Sharma living in Spain, now matured into a limestone sport route maestro, climbing hard projects and bolting his own; former child prodigy Adam Ondra, matured into a teen-sensation and climbing anything in sight without regard to people’s views of what is possible; climbing gyms spreading through the lands and bringing more and more people into the sport; big time sports apparel company Adidas recognising climbing as a growing market and bringing in real sponsorship dollars and their promise of increased professionalism; an online Australasian climbing magazine of a standard never before imagined; and Jens Larsen.

Not only this, but we’ve got better, more comfortable shoes we can even wear without socks; we’ve got single ropes 9mm thin and lighter than spider’s filament; we’ve got harnesses that allow us to fall and remain fertile; and we’ve got the internet, with its online topos, forums on which to discuss important downgrading events, sites like to tally our points, and climbing videos featuring inspirational people to look up to, like Ivan Greene. At first glance we seem better placed for information, gear and routes than ever before. The sport climbing locomotive is up to full speed – all aboard!

All this suggests we are in A golden age of sport climbing, no doubt, but is it THE golden age of sport climbing? It’s not a foregone conclusion.

Travel back in time with me: it’s the early eighties and the Cold War is on in earnest, the threat of global thermonuclear war lurks in the shadows; the big-haired, shoulder-padded power dressers of the corporate world freak you out with their ostentatious displays of wealth, and their cannibalistic avariciousness drives you to the fringe of society; Keith Moon, John Lennon, John Bonham and Sid Vicious are all only recently dead and Bob Dylan has died and been born-again as a Christian, so you turn to Joy Division, only for Ian Curtis to kill himself. You don’t have a job and you don’t want one, because ALMOST EVERY BIT OF ROCK THAT IS NOT A CRACK REMAINS UNCLIMBED and you’ve got your hands on some carrots and fashioned a bunch of hangers out of cut-off bits of angle iron.

It must have been a great time to be a climber. Sure, you weren’t supposed to put bolts in, but you got into climbing to get away from people telling you what you could and couldn’t do. There were plenty of excuses for turning your back on the world and everywhere unclimbed future-classics beckoned you, the future-legend. Some people think there is too much made of the disaffected-youth-finds-meaning-through-climbing lore, but I think it’s pretty clear there were a few mad keen climbers with the inclination to walk away from the mainstream and adopt climbing as a lifestyle. Better yet, some had seen the new wave of bolts placed on rappel in previously-unprotectable bits of rock across Europe, they recognised the potential of all the heretofore ignored non-featured walls and were prepared to try to climb them.

Sport climbing boomed, while the traditionalists scratched their beards and retreated into the mountains from whence they came, the new wave were making their own chalkbags, discarding their hexes and double ropes, and putting on brightly coloured lycra. More importantly, they were bolting routes and climbing them, starting with blank slabs and faces, then moving into overhanging country. As they did so their well-developed calves, accustomed to smearing and standing on little edges for long periods, wasted away into little sticks, while their forearms and shoulders swelled with muscle. Every now and then, some of them even fell off a route without dying. What a time to be alive.

Nevertheless, it’s true that in our Golden Age right now we have the opportunity to try those classic eighties routes, plus all those that have been done since. To put it another way, we can still listen to Joy Division and mope about the death of Ian Curtis, plus we can listen to the entire New Order back catalogue. We might not like electronic dance music as much as simmering mid-tempo rock, but we have the option to choose. So, if we are curious about what it was like to climb back in THE Golden Age of sport climbing, we just need to go and climb routes from that era. We might never be part of history in the same way, but many of the glorious aspects of that time are still available to us now. You can wear a cheese-cutter harness if you want. You can find a pair of climbing shoes that don’t work too well, put socks on inside them and throw yourself at the cliff with reckless abandon. You can use hexes and double-ropes. Then, when you are on the sharp end of some badly-bolted, run-out slab death route with your life flashing before your eyes, imagining the eighties is effortless. It’s that part of your life that passes just before the nineties.

Download issue three of Vertical Life here for the rest of Tom’s story

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