Monday, October 17, 2016

Game of Stones

Game of Stones: First Ascents, Projects, and Crag Etiquette

By Mike Gray

Bolting Gypsy Conditions in Northern Devil's Canyon, Tonto National Forest, AZ. Photo by Cindy Gray

About to create the line Castles Made of Sand 
at the Entrance Walls of Smoke Hole Canyon.

It begins with a dream; to find a piece of stellar rock, and to make your mark.

In some cases, it’s a desire to give back to the community; to expand the number of available climbs to make the journey and the hike worthwhile, to create more moderates for the beginners and weekend warriors or to increase the number of technical pump fests for the hard persons seeking new challenges.

In other instances, it comes from a deep need to find your own space and explore the blank spots on the map, for your own enjoyment, in a place far from the madding crowd.

And, of course, there are those whose quest is for personal glory and fame; very little will stand in the way of someone determined to make a name for themselves, at any and all costs, with a drill and a rope, rather than training and ethical behavior.

In the desire to create a reputation, climbers too often abandon responsibility, respect and common courtesy, the foundations of crag etiquette.

Creating routes is a process, sometimes a quick one, more often a labor of love over the course of weeks; preparing the belay and base, top-roping the line, cleaning away loose stone and searching for gear placements or safe protection bolt locations.

Good stainless steel bolts cost $5 apiece, stainless steel bolt hangers are about $3, and SS top anchors cost $12-15 a pair. Drill bits are good for about 12 holes, and cost from $9 up to $18, for a drill that will cost $400-800.

If time for development is figured at one eight-hour day, minimum wage labor cost (which is a true bargain) is $66, so multiply that times however may days it takes to put in the route.

Investment to bolt two routes with four bolts each and two top anchors: from $600 to well over $1,000, depending on the quality of the gear you choose.

An old Hilti, one of the last drills you could get for a few hundred dollars. This one created routes at Franklin, installed anchors at Hidden Rocks, and put up over 68 routes across the Virginias and in Devils Canyon, in Arizona. Since then, armed with a lighter drill and still hungry for new lines, the author has managed to knock off another 98 first ascents.

If anything goes wrong in the process, add the cost of more bolts, bits, plus wear and tear on your drill, gear and body.

Of course, you also have the $250 investment of a rope, carabiners and rappel device that will all be trashed by rock dust, probably an ascender and daisy chain that will wear out in a season, ditto for the harness and forget about your shoes once well-coated with limestone.

Most route developers do not live near the crags at which they are working, so the end of every trip that does not end in a first ascent requires them to drive away from their creation with the knowledge that, barring ethics, anyone with a rope, a willing partner, and the right gear could come along and take advantage of all their efforts; steal the line and claim the first ascent.

To help identify projects and prevent all their expense and effort from going to waste,  route developers often place red tags on the first bolt, or leave a knotted piece of red webbing in the base of a crack they are cleaning. Some go to greater lengths, removing or placing locks in the first bolt hanger to prevent anyone from clipping in, or taping the hanger closed for the same purpose.

In other words, projects are usually marked in some very obvious way.

Even if your drill is paid for, a four or five bolt route with anchors, created by a skilled route setter, taking three days to clean and bolt, is worth about $250 in basic materials and labor- never mind the love and vision of the person creating the line.

Stealing anything else worth that sum is a felony.

In climbing, it is an accepted practice few seem willing to challenge or even discuss.

Respect for those tags is all that keeps those of us who are invested in the process, those who gave the community most of the lines they enjoy, who maintain the trails and clean up the dog poop and tape ends, rope tags and water bottle lids the rest of you leave behind without a thought.

It is not the Access Fund; the Access Fund does not put up routes, or create climbing areas, or write guidebooks to help you find your way safely. The Access Fund took decades to encourage personal responsibility among climbers, and as long as you send them your money every year, they will never throw you out of the club, certainly not for failing ethically or violating even the most basic rules of courtesy.

After all, they have a reputation to consider, and their continuing existence is chained to the funds they can collect from willing members.

Back at the crags, however, things are a bit different.

For those out there in the climbing community who may feel the occasional overwhelming temptation to ignore a red tag or other indicator of project status, there are several things that even such a narcissistic egomaniac might wish to take into consideration;

1) Bolts in the holes are not always torqued down to specifications… sometimes you run out of daylight, sometimes you forget the wrench, and sometimes, you’re just tired of dealing with the shallow end of the gene pool.  Translation: If you fall during your bogus attempt at stealing a first ascent, you could pull the bolt and seriously hurt yourself, maybe your belayer. Limping around in a cast trying to explain your sins will not be considered cool, no matter how stupid your significant other and/or crew of homeys may be;

2) You will never be able to claim the first ascent, unless you are some sort of serious masochist who enjoys the abuse of the veteran members of the local climbing community, and from experienced climbers in general.  There are climbers, one of them the author, who will call you out on the forums, on social media and blog sites, and at any and every climbing function and/or area where they encounter your sorry carcass.

3) You will never be able to put up a project of your own without finishing it in a rush, worrying (and with good reason) that someone will come along and steal it just like you would and did, or if someone from whom you snaked a route will come along and chop it right down for you, taking your gear, fame, pride, and all your hard work with them as they go whistling down the trail with a song in their heart and a smile on their lips.

4) Coming out during the week does not guarantee your continuing anonymity, because there are some of us who prefer to be at the crag mid-week. If you are caught in mid-theft, you just might get yanked right off the rock, and in an age where every phone is a camera connected to the Internet, you could be infamous before you return to earth.

If you want to put up new lines, go for it; there is plenty of untouched rock scattered across the United States, even in some of the most active climbing areas like Colorado and California.

For those who know respect and discipline, who truly practise crag etiquette, the opportunities for a lifetime of adventure and fantastic new routes, free of guilt or shame, are almost limitless.

The Macdaddy, keeping it real, on the first bolts of Gray Matter, Franklin Gorge, WV
For those who care only about their own tiny egos and self-fulfillment; enjoy your good days and the friends you have now, because none of them will last for long, certainly not for a lifetime.

In the Game of Stones, honor comes from those who blazed the paths and laid the foundations, to those who respect the crag and the people who worked so hard and gave so much to create them.

For those who still want to make this a discussion about ancient history, particularly on the Facebook pages dedicated to the climbers of Seneca Rocks:

Brian, I commend your lack of actual commentary on the topic, as well as a complete absence of any involvement in getting local access freed or supporting trail maintenance at Franklin, (the crag you love so much that you trespassed to get there). Even more impressive is your obsessive ability to maintain this stance despite any troublesome facts that might contradict your assertions, still reserving the right to spew about routes you never put up, which were not in fact chopped, but rather upgraded and improved, with hardware you did not buy or install, by people whose water you could never have carried.

My invitation stands: come here, to the home of the post, and renew the discussion.

Put up, lad, or admit that you never had a dog in this fight in the first place.

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