Disclaimers, contraindications, and warnings: the following is an argument, a loose collection of attempts at reasoning, an expression of my thoughts and, yes, opinions, about mixed climbing. The following is in no way, shape or manner intended to be unequivocal, inflammatory, dogmatic or closed-ended, nor is this intended as a model, archetype or rulebook. The following is not intended to be relevant to anyone but my friends that have asked what we’re doing out there in Newfoundland and what’s going on in my wee mixed climbing mind. These are just my thoughts about mixed climbing and my attempt at explaining our methods for those who might be interested. To construe otherwise is a gross misappropriation of my intentions, and, as we like to say in the North country, “That’s your problem.” This is not a statement of what other people should or should not do. I feel strongly that each individual should do or not do whatever he or she desires, as long as it does not hurt intentionally anyone else. The following are just my opinions and thoughts and explanations of why we have adopted our particular and somewhat unusual style of mixed climbing. Several people have wondered what we’re doing, and this is written for their benefit. Please, if you’re not interested in the aforementioned, you most certainly have my blessing. Just press two fingers to the mousepad, and slide upward (downward for PC users), and, please, have a pleasant day.
I have been ice climbing for 27 years. And over the past nineteen years, I have established dozens of traditional mixed climbs (i.e., mixed climbs completed from the ground up, without the use of bolts) and I also have established more than a few sport mixed climbs (that is, bolted mixed climbs which may or may not be established on rappel). These are not significant accomplishments, and merely are cited to provide a reference of my experience in the ice and mixed climbing games.
Mixed climbing is aid (just follow me here, please). Perhaps it would be described more accurately as sport-aid or free-aid. The use of metal hooks to scale a rock is aid climbing, yet the athleticism required to hang on to the hooks employs elements of free climbing.
Aid climbing bolt ladders is not compelling (warning: this is an opinion). Sure, one can remove every other bolt so one must execute dynamic Vertical Limit style jumps between the bolts. And, yes, one may French-free these bolts, grasping the quick-draws. Even, one may grasp metal hooks with handles on them in between the bolts. But, it’s still French-freeing a bolt ladder, one could argue. This can be fun and exciting for a time. But I have found that it gets old after a while, and this is not my idea of a compelling end-sport (again, an opinion).
Most recently established sport mixed climbs are largely manufactured, with drilled holds. When Cesare Maestri bolted the living bejesus out of Cerro Torre, and when Warren Harding bat-hooked his way up El Cap, these men were heralded for their audacity. Nowadays, such tactics are frowned upon, to say the least. Why is it that sport mixed and sport dry-tooling climbers in the present day feel exempt from what is the basest common sense of the rest of the climbing world (rhetorical)?
When ice and mixed climbers first delved headlong into the development of the sport-mixed game, generally, they were linking compelling features of ice. Often, these climbs involved rock which was not conducive to protection with anything other than with bolts. The ice was wild, compelling. These routes made sense. The rock was climbed in its natural state, the holds were not drilled. Today, “mixed” climbs (often with scant ice) and dry-tooling routes (completely bereft of ice) are largely manufactured. In fact, the French go so far as to physically remove holds, to “make the routes hard.” Moreover, the French have taken to removing the secondary points on their crampons (because rakes are restful and thus make the climbs too easy). The need to artificially make the routes harder, the gradual progression of reducing gear: no leashes, no spurs, no rakes, is clearly leading toward one thing—you wanna make it hard? Lose the hooks and go rock climbing. They are called ice tools for a reason.
Basically, the use of ice tools should make sense, I think. When mixed climbing, generally there needs to be compelling ice. However, in Scotland, for instance, the traditional mixed climbing is world-renowned even though it typically involves mainly rime covered rock with little ice. But it makes sense—the Scots only climb when the conditions are winter-like, when climbing the rock with bare hands would be ridiculous or impossible. Essentially, it’s training for the mountains (perhaps), but, above all, using ice tools makes sense.
The traditional mixed climbs my friends and I have established in Newfoundland have not been completed in light-and-fast alpine-style. Due to our inadequacies of ability and courage, we have established these routes in siege-style: we fix ropes to our high point each day, and ascend the lines when we return and set to work again. We on-sight what we can, but the difficult mixed pitches are first aid climbed and then “free-climbed” with the gear in place. We have found that the difficulty of the climbing on these pitches coupled with the use of only removable protection has demanded this approach in order for us to complete these pitches safely. As with sport mixed climbing, the type of style employed on these routes create a relatively safe environment in which to push our standards. In this case, it’s the environment in which to learn the limitations of removable protection in addition to the skills of hard dry-tooling and hard ice climbing, which are gathered in a manner which is more relevant to the mountains than within the framework of sport climbing. But, most of all, speaking of the enterprises themselves and not simply of the utility of the skills garnered as benefits for other purposes, climbing these routes with only removable protection and without manufacturing holds makes for an exciting, engaging and ultimately, a massively satisfying experience. This is the core motive for me: it’s experiential. And the experience of the Newfoundland method is far richer, to me and my partners, than it would be if we were guaranteeing our success and safety with bolts.
Caveat: Sport-mixed climbing is fun! There is no doubt (in my mind). Sport-mixed climbing is excellent training (I think); it’s a fine way to get strong on one’s tools safely; it’s a fine way to learn how ice tools respond on rock, their limitations, etc. in a controlled environment. Sport-mixed climbing is also a great way to learn how to climb icicles in a relatively safe environment. I love sport-mixed climbing, personally. Again, I simply am expressing my thoughts and predilections about mixed climbing after having played this game for a quarter century, in our current time, and trying to share where my thoughts have arrived, at this point, at this time, and why I feel compelled to focus my mixed climbing efforts along more traditional lines, at present, when possible, and when it makes sense. This is not an indictment of sport-mixed climbing or a celebration of any other type of climbing.