Editor’s note to issue 27 of Vertical Life. Download the issue here.
Climbing has always been about newness.
We have been obsessed with who climbed the hardest thing and who got to the top first, both of which are just shades of newness. When we look back, it is exploration that’s the main thread running through the lore of climbing, and exploration by definition is about charting newness. You can see that from the early science-driven ascents that sought to map the world all the way to modern climbers’ more individualistic journeys of self-discovery.
Often the early exploration of the mountains carried the spectre of imperialism and the doctrine of terra nullius can still be seen in climbing today – witness the fact that we call putting up routes ‘development’. We see empty spaces that are ripe to be filled.
But space runs out, resources run out. Even if we did live in a world with unfettered access – which we don’t – all the great lines would, on a long enough time scale, get done. And then what?
We live in a time where we are approaching the physical limits of the world in many places, and just as humanity is asking itself how do we manage growth, it’s a question that we climbers must ask ourselves, which also means that we need to ask ourselves what as a community we value if it is not the new?
Motivations to climb are complex and intertwined – the inertia of history, the romance of literature, the fire of ideology, the desire to improve, the magnetism of aesthetics and the values of culture – all of these are at play inside us. Our culture has long valued newness so we, as a product of that, also hold being the first and being the hardest as the highest currency. But we can already see some examples of what happens when the capacity for the new runs out.
Pretty much everything has been done at Arapiles. In the ‘80s it was at the cutting edge of Australian climbing, but today there’s a handful of people filling in the gaps, squeezing (sometimes questionable) lines in here and linking existing lines there. But still climbers come en masse and the vast majority who do come to Arapiles are repeating routes – they love it, returning again and again to both test themselves and also feel the special presence that the place has. Arapiles development has reached a phase where what is happening is not so much about the new as it is about maintaining what we have – mostly improving existing routes, replacing fixed gear, putting in new anchors to protect gullies, building stonework that stabilises paths and means that they will withstand the footsteps of generations of climbers. It’s a stage of development that is happening at many of the long-established areas in the Blue Mountains and other spots around the country. Climbing does endure in areas where newness is no more.
Relative to the total climbing population there are few climbers establishing new routes in Australia. Not many people go to the trouble to hump around looking for new lines, to equip sport routes or set off up unknown trad lines and yet we – including this publication – are still obsessed by newness.
They say the future is what we make it, and perhaps in the future we will need to recalibrate what it is that we value. Maybe the future of hard routes lies not outdoors but indoors, where routes can be specifically calibrated to be harder than what’s come before. It may be that organised competition becomes the driver that propels climbing forwards.
At present economists are struggling with the problem of whether growth can be decoupled from capitalism, equally we need to ask ourselves can – or should – climbing be decoupled from development. The answers may not be immediately appealing, but equally the way we view the world is largely a construct of the prevailing social norms, and like all constructs it can be reshaped.
Perhaps we need to learn to place greater value on other things, not just who was first or climbed hardest. Perhaps we need to place more value on protecting and maintaining what we have. Maybe we need to be less in the mindset of consuming new routes and boulders and more concerned with place and the values that are intrinsic to those places. We need to think more of those who will come after us and in what state the rock and the environment will be in. We need to look with new eyes.