Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The demise of rad Climbing

                                Photo:- The legend Joonas Sailaranta 

As each new generation of climbers passes by, there have been quantum changes in climbing itself; the sport has divided into numerous sub-sports: Alpine, Traditional, Ice, Sport, Bouldering, Mixed, DWS and the list goes on. Each having it’s own code of ethics. So what’s happened to the Trad? Why are there so few people doing it these days. There’s been an explosion in the number of new climbers in the last decades with the growth of indoor climbing walls. In the last 20 years I have been climbing, I have noticed less and less climbers on the Trad cliffs. Some of the classic E grades are now so overgrown with vegetation that’s not possible to climb them anymore. Recently I had to fight my way down the dense jungle after topping out of the classic E1, Hard Rock route, Sirplum. What’s going on?

Today the majority of beginners start off the ground mainly indoors on plastic holds since the growth of indoor Climbing Walls. When a novice climber breaks through their confident barrier from top rope to leading indoors they are still a long way from Traditional Climbing where the sport was born.
   The very first eerie of climbing in Britain, I believe, were young lads chimney sweeping in the early 19th century without ropes; today soloing up these same ‘offwidth’ chimneys could be as hard as E1.
Proper climbing was introduced in the late 19th century way before the first world war and these bold men tied thick ropes round their waist and were leading with practically no gear placements on the Gritstone.
   When I was a little boy, as soon as I could start walking I was already climbing on the southern Sandstone with just a rope around my waist at the age of 4. By 10 years old I was leading VS 4a all over the UK. So, at the same age, skipping a bolt indoors on the lead was never a problem from the way I was brought up in climbing. But for those who grew up on plastic and can’t skip bolts outside, therefore Traditional Climbing can be more than just quite a fright.

Traditional climbing is not the top of the food chain in the rock sport. There is something beyond. It only subsists in the Czech Republic; there culture is another league. Some of you already know from the Sharp End that the locals use only rope knots to protect their falls as cams, nuts and even chalk is completely forbidden. These beasts obeyed their own ethics in East Europe. I thought I was quite bold till I went to the Czech myself in 2009 to experience the horror. I was shitting my pants on every lead finding it very hard to hold the sandy edges with my sweaty palms not allowing the use of chalk. But that wasn’t the problem, it was the protection, I just couldn’t bear imagining the little pieces of rope knots holding my fall if I slipped. Some of the routes left me miles alone above these pathetic gear placements. The locals have the biggest balls of them all.  One dude established an 8b+ route with no chalk and rubbish knots protecting himself. Never wonder why more climbers have died in the Czech then anywhere else in the world climbing.  Recently this year, our very best British Wide Boyz Tom and Pete couldn’t do the hardest Off-Width in the Czech, they found it desperate. The climbing in Czech is almost a myth, a legend of very tough climbers who regular solo in barefeet stuff we can’t imagine doing.

Back in Britain in the late 70’s before bouldering and bolts developed. All the climbers began to worry about the classic traditional crags in the future. Since climbing is expanding fast, everyone assumed the cliffs would be exploded with climbers ruining the rock. 40 years later; there are less people doing Traditional than before in some parts of the UK. On the sunniest day of them all, more than half the climbers are on plastic. Madness.

Traditional climbing requires lots of practice, lots of understanding on placing gear properly and staying safe. It’s very easy to make a small mistake that welcomes death. But once you click, the challenge will still always be the trick. Traditional routes in the UK have a real character, a history, usually a stunning view, a mission, a memory and sometimes a wee little fright.
   Sport climbing seems to out climb Trad these days. You can climb much harder and increase a limit that you’ve never of imagined as it’s totally safe on bolts. Youngsters today are just hungry for the magic numbers to be updated on their 8a.ego scorecard, don’t get me wrong, I am not being hypocrite as I have been influenced by the modern media for hard sport climbing as I love the numbers too. But these points and projects can kill you inside. As strongman Stuart Littlefair says, “An obsession with grades and performance can ruin lives. It can make you neglect your friends and family. It can make you abandon the rest of your life. Sport climbing can make you hate climbing itself.” Stuart has climbed many hard 8c’s in the UK guessing his weapon to keep the joy is mixing the genres, he does traditional and bouldering and keeps mixing up.  That applies a proper climber is an ‘all rounder’ like master Dave Macleod who can climb the top level in every category such as Bouldering, V15, Sport 9a, Traditional E11, Ice and mixed M12, and Scottish winter X1/X11. Wow.

High up, pumped trying to place a nut can be scary; in fact so scary sometimes I have discovered my leg shaking like sewing machine during the longer run outs or above ridiculous protection. But isn’t that the joy? the challenge in Traditional?
   Alexander Megos is a rising German rock star who recently made a historical mark claiming the worlds first 9a On-Sight, yes before Adam Ondra. He once went on a trip to the US where he during 121 days did 135 routes and boulders graded 8a and harder including the 9 grade. What’s interesting is, Alexander tried some Traditional Climbing in the Indian Creek, Utah and said “5.10 (E2) was hard, 5.11 (E4) really hard and 5.12 (E5/6) mostly impossible.” So climbing the odd 9a doesn’t mean you can fire up routes on cams. Its big bottles you need.

This summer, I went on a sport-climbing trip to Ceuse (France) rewarded with some good On Sights and Redpoints. The challenge was high and the lines were superb despite France always has dry quality rock, lots of it, probably more routes than anywhere in the world with sunshine. But now, I barely remember the names of all the hard routes I did, next year I will probably forget. But whilst caming, you can remember them all. During my visit to Millstone earlier this year I managed to On Sight the Traditional route London Wall, which I never thought I was capable of. But somehow, a miracle, I did. And now I will always remember the route, in fact every damn move I suffered on. I fought my way through every finger jam as the On Sight only lays once and it’s very precious to achieve. But I nearly discovered some air miles near the top run out. John Allen did London Wall in 1975, he was ahead of his time back then. This was 2 years before cams were invented, the master used nuts only, what a pair of big balls he had!
  London Wall can still brush off the hot shots. Alex Johnson is a leading American female Boulderer with a few V12’s under her belt and has redpointed up to 8a on bolts too. In Spring 2010, Alex was in the Peak District and managed to flash London Wall on a top rope. But tried to lead it 7 times and just got too scared and dropped the project.  The route is only around the French grade 7a, but have you got enough guts to trust your nuts?

Perhaps it’s a good thing having limited climbers on our precious rock, which avoids the routes turning into glass. Perhaps, we trad climbers should appreciate our precious sport that many climbers today wouldn’t dare consider touching. Perhaps I should stop blogging and go climbing outside now. 

 The Nose, El Capitan
 My homemade rack, Czech Republic
 London Wall, Millstone
 Dangerous protection in Czech and still using an old rope that certainly didn't help much during a fall. (I don't know why I am still alive)
 Dad in the Czech
 Admiring the beauty of the sandstone towers, Czech.
 Florian Rieder on Separate Reality, Yosemite. 
 I did The Rasp (E2) when I was 15, I still remember the day! Higgar Tor
Ted Kingsnorth on Linkline E6, Higgar Tor


  1. Interesting post. Enjoyed reading it!

    I think there's a few more reasons for the "decline" other than the ones you've already mentioned:
    1. Style - generally speaking - its a whole different climbing style. Like you wrote - a 9a sport climber tries to climb a crack - could seem like an impossible mission. Also, its more physical and less "stylish" in some aspects
    2. Its hard/impossible to climb trad on very steep tufa climbing Rodellar/Kalymnos style, and people want to climb this type as well.
    3. Money - double ropes, cams, nuts, slings, etc etc - not everyone can afford the gear.

    Thanks for the post!


  2. nice post.
    Spoke to a the owner of the main campsite in the Red River Gorge a couple of weeks ago, his words: "sport climbing changed everything". Like it not, trad climbing will be more niche (and all the better for it I think!) due to the extra logistics (gear placement, danger, etc.). It's like the Pipeline (surfbreak in Hawaii) of climbing - looks like it's the same as other waves that normal 'sport' surfers ride, but way more serious.s

    Miguel in the Red was looking at it from the perspective of a businessperson - he wouldn't be mega successful as he is now if it hadn't been for arrival of the safe, accessible, bolts. But he hit the nail on the head!

    Nice blog by the way