I love being challenged by the nature that has been sculpting the rock faces of our planet for many centuries. Nature is the most superior routesetter, and I believe that even for contemporary routesetters in the climbing gyms, nature is the source of their primary inspiration.
But just like routesetters in the gym, nature doesn’t always do the best possible job—well, better said, the best possible job from a climber’s point of view. Some pieces of rock have no holds at all; some have possibly too many holds. Some rock is too sharp; some rock is too crumbly. But that is the way it is. And human’s will to conquer the summit, to siege an impossible-looking rock face, or in the more recent times, to put up a route of extreme grade, is always prone to change the rules of the game, the way the rock was prepared by nature.
Note: this essay is published in the new Zine, Volume 21, now available
Banner photo of the author on the Dawn Wall, El Capitan, Yosemite by Pavel Blazek
If you have been climbing for a while, you must know that modification of the rock exists. It actually has existed for as long as climbing has existed. Getting to the top of the mountain or tower by any means, even if it meant altering the rock, cannot be that surprising. I would like to focus on chipping, manufacturing, and reinforcing the rock in sport climbing.
Since the boom of sport climbing in the early ’80s, chipping has gone through a lot of different stages. As the early sport climbing areas in Europe were developed on really high-quality rock, like Verdon or Buoux, there wasn’t much need for reinforcement. The rock is mostly bulletproof, requiring very little cleaning. But obviously, from time to time, you happen to find an amazing line where a few holds are missing, at least for a certain level of climbing. There is just a very natural temptation to take a chisel, chip a few holds, and the new line is born! You might do it in a way that will be very difficult to notice in the future. Some of the most famous routes in the world, like La Rose et Vampire 8b in Buoux (with the infamous “rose move”), are logical and mostly natural lines, but a few holds are modified.
The second stage is the development of steep terrain, alongside the boom of climbing in the gym. The competitors wanted to climb in the steep terrain. When they were searching steep faces with good and solid rock, they were often pretty blank, offering no holds at all. The other alternative was going into the more featured steep walls, which are often much more crumbly, and in order to create a good route, it is very difficult to reinforce the holds without glue. Nevertheless, many famous routes from that era of the ’90s—the best example is Bronx 8c+ in Orgon—are completely manufactured. Some holds might be only reinforced, but some holds are completely artificial.
I believe that in the ’90s, before the boom of bouldering, it was a common belief that the future of sport climbing lay in the resistance—just stacking a lot of difficult sections above each other with very poor rests. If you look at the most difficult routes on the vertical walls, it is easy to believe that you cannot really hang on to even smaller holds, and the future is hanging in the overhang for eternity. The way to go is perfectly homogenous and super resistance-oriented climbs. But if those homogenous climbs are very rare to find on the rock, why not chip some routes?
Bouldering back then was not a very big thing, but once it boomed, it opened the door for harder and actually much more natural sport climbs. Doing hard moves was not only about holding tiny holds but rather about being more athletic. With a new perspective on what is possible with a bouldering base, we could see many more hard sport routes that had some hard boulder problems and that would have been considerably easier and more homogenous if a few holds had been chipped.
The situation today? Chipping is often seen as a thing of the past, but unfortunately, it is still present, and it will definitely be an issue even in the future. I have nothing against climbing chipped routes from the past. From a certain point of view, they are part of climbing history and shouldn’t be changed.
Unfortunately, there are still a lot of routes being put up every year with very obvious chipping—even old-school straightforward drilled pockets, creating ladderlike climbs.
I believe that is something that has to stop.
On the other hand, there are lots of cases where I do not have a strong opinion. Today, we often climb on bad, soft rock, and it is often impossible to realize how bad the rock quality is once you see a well-developed crag after everything is cleaned. Santa Linya is a perfect example. Instead of drilling pockets into a blank wall, we use glue because it is often necessary to make nice and safe routes in the “choss” (the term for very bad rock). It is questionable whether it is worth it to make routes in the choss with a lot of glue. Is it possibly better to just let the choss be choss? Having gained some experience, I believe it is usually worth it. Possibly even for environmental reasons—you don’t need to travel across the whole world to have a good climbing day.
I used to be a total purist. I believed in using as little rock modification as possible. But what does it mean? Does it mean no brushing with a soft brush? Does it mean no chiseling of supersharp edges of the holds that would crumble after many years of climbing anyway? When is it ok to reinforce the hold? When is it dangerous? When it is not climbable if it falls down? Is it ok to reinforce a flake that falls down just when you touch it or when it has to hold the weight, but you have a feeling that after a few years it would break?
Over the years, I have changed from a purist to more of a pragmatist. Having climbed in many areas and having seen the evolution of those crags, putting up quite a few routes myself, I care more about leaving nice, safe routes and using more “aggressive” ways of cleaning.
Without this practice, some areas would not exist, or they would simply not be nice to climb. Take for example Margalef, one of the most famous climbing areas. All the pockets are extremely sharp there, and without filing down the edges of the pockets, most routes would be incredibly painful. With the use of glue, it is very difficult to draw the line between reinforcing holds (avoiding existing holds breaking) and creating holds.
My rule is to use as little glue as possible. Rather, we just try to get rid of all possible loose holds and reinforce something only when it is necessary—especially when I do not manage to “hammer down” or “crowbar out” certain loose blocks, yet it still feels loose and dangerous. “Reinforcing” a flake that barely holds its own weight is already creating an artificial hold for me.
Establishing new routes is a lot of work, and we should embrace all the people working hard at the crags, putting up routes that we can all be entertained by!
Adam Ondra is arguably the world’s best rock climber, and we are grateful for him and his team for letting us republish this article, which was originally published on his site: www.adamondra.com