Way back when, which seems like not so long ago, your guidebooks tended to be a few pages of the barest drab info. Stapled, folded, printed in black and white, with a poor font and a quick-to-mellow yellowish cover of a slightly higher poundage of press that, nevertheless, tended to feature a look like they were pirate produced on the sly in the local university library.
Flipping through these aged one-offs now and again is a great walk down memory lane, like a deep breath that goes all the way to the heels and through the years, grounding and rooted, anchored in annotated route descriptions, scribbles, and adds that awaken and out a humbling, jolly reminder of the long road to today. “Fragile. Sandstone experts only,” read the description for Gravity Storm, 5.12, at X-Rock in Durango, Colorado, my first crag.
Words by Chris Schulte from Volume 23 of The Climbing Zine, now available
As I worked and wailed through the long line of short routes that lay to either side of this spooky-lookin’ siren, my eye did wander back and away, to and from this line on the cliff, but mostly to and from the dry page on which those words were printed. I can’t say how much those few words affected me and how much that effect deepened in shade and spectrum over time as I grew more and more experienced in the medium. I strove with heart and love and late-teen angst to be a Sandstone Expert! Suppose I still do…but seriously, what these few words conveyed so powerfully to me was that these arts are often fragile, the means are not rudimentary, the skill set hard won, and earned with heart and care, for art and line.
Fast-forward to not so long ago, I slung a line from a stout juniper tree, heavy with berries and hung with strips of dusty bark, up and over a twenty-ish/thirty-foot arete to scoopy slab of sorts, billowing in the dry breeze, sailing up a backwoods canyon. Near the top of the line, the superfine Wingate deteriorates to small, rounded sandy crimps and then at the lip to something like a croissant, but make it out of brown sugar. I walked past this one for a fair few years; this was even the first time I’d hung a rope to give it a clean and look. This time, however, was the time I’d come to terms with the increasing likelihood that I’ll not climb this line without a rope: the holds up top are far too poor in structure.
Nevertheless, great climb. Pretty line, pretty moves, and the top held together just right. It took all of my sandstone experience, not just to climb the thing but also to let go of the idea that I had to highball the thing.
Former Access Fund chief Brady Robinson and I used to bend our minds around the perceptions of toproping versus climbing, thinking how clean the TR is, how light. No ever-growing dead zone of vegetal impact from crash pads, no heavy rack, no train of posse people tramping across the veldt to support the highball effort. No need for a bolt even, if you have the skills and some extra cordage. Why, we asked ourselves, don’t people TR more often? Why do we collectively relegate it to the gumbonoob status? Why do we attach so much importance to a sport-climbing lead versus a toprope send? Why is an ocean of pads and a circus net better style than a rope that, by way of single system or belay buddy, can give you the big scary whip or the cush push through to the next move, light packs and good times, and everyone goes home tonight?
Well, because it’s bad ass, that’s why. Highballing is absolutely awesome, and it feels outstanding to earn. Risking the whip is awesome, once you break through like a wave striking shore. All the same, some folks will take any opportunity to jab at another climber wherever they can.
“Ah, yeah, well they rehearsed it on TR,” “TR’d it into submission,” while forgetting about the thousands of falls they take on thousands of glue-in bolts fitted with thousands of well-maintained fixed draws, just there, roadside but for the parking crux on a weekend.
Fact is, climber or no, someone is always looking to minimize something. To explain bouldering to a nonclimber often results in quite a letdown for ’em, but perhaps it shows how far we’ve come when the reaction from the uninitiated matches up with that of the salty trad dad of the ’70s: “Oh, so it’s just, like, for practice?”
Most confounding to me is the now-and-again practice that some folks take up like some mantle of public service: the building of huge landings, on established highball problems, in order to “make the line more accessible.”
It’s not supposed to be accessible.
It’s a highball.
Does your fear grow in proportion to the scope of the objective?
Does worth equate to risk?
Reward often can.
Chris Schulte has been on a weird vision quest for over twenty years, one of those where you’re not sure if you’re on the right track, but then suddenly it’s wide and easy and opens up to one hell of a view.