Friday, November 17, 2006

Climbing on Mars

From: Scottish Mountainner 25

Climbing on Mars
By J S Watson

‘Like morality, mountaineering ethics looks to be a matter of discovery rather than
decision, and to some degree always a matter of conscience.’
Rai Gaita – ‘Sacred Places’

What if we colonised Mars? Think of all the new rock, the new gravities, the new climbs? And what about ethics; what lessons would we bring from Earth-climbing?

It could be argued that we are more ethical climbers these days and ‘ready’ to colonise: we have a well-documented knowledge of the do’s and don’ts around this inanimate, oblivious stuff called rock and ice. We know we are not supposed to take drills to mountain crags, or retro-bolt others’ more vital achievements. Most feel secretly guilty pushing winter climbing onto bare summer rock routes. Or we watch films, instead of relying on the traditional mythic story-telling, to reassure ourselves the ‘purity’ of ascent is guaranteed. We resist hammering and hacking at the stuff because we know we’re just not strong enough. And we repeat routes while respecting their historiography (we revere the term ‘classic’ and carefully delineate ‘extreme’ grades).

We can get away with nothing, it seems, because we know so much. We have a history and ethos behind us now and something by which we can gauge our present ambitions. Some would say we should be behaving ethically because we know better. Or is this not the case and not supposed to be the case? The hills are about freedom, some say: they do not have to bow to history and its ethical tapestry of occupation (in other words, throw your guidebook away). To put it bluntly, are we doing our common knowledge justice, or are the hills and mountains simply, as they would have been originally, our own virgin challenges, where we bring, maybe even create, our own ethics? Whose right is it when we approach the mountain?

Maybe this question is unanswerable: it is like asking you not to imagine the colour red. We can’t plead ignorance either, as any traffic cop will tell you: ‘excuse me officer, what Highway Code?’. In fact we hunger for information, just so that we don’t go wasting our efforts over something someone has already done, or we want to know exactly which RP will fit in that knife-thin crack. Most of us would admit to wanting to know the ‘beta’, even if that simply means ‘has the mountain been climbed?’ ‘What grade is it?’ is now more common than: ‘Has anyone climbed that?’ My point is, how should we react to this wealth of information and how much should we know?

From my own personal experience ethics comes from the things you’re most proud of in yourself, so therefore you must first do something you’re proud of. Your first lead, for example: you’re pumped ragged above some inexperienced gear-placement, but you hang in there, work out the moves and do the route. You ascend. Now imagine someone bolts that and at a future date in a future pub, a climber new to the sport, says: ‘Oh yeah, I’ve done that as well, hard second clip, eh?’ Ethics can turn you to murder.

The big question here is: how do you unlearn such occupation, how do you educate that sense of what the route used to be?

To answer this, it is a matter of forgetting. I have had times when I’ve forgotten the guidebook and my partner and I have on-sighted walls and these have been dangerous and happy and more worthwhile activities than all the ‘head-points’ in the world. I am in mind of a Ben Nevis buttress called Carn Dearg, where, on pitch two of the ‘classic’ route called ‘Torro’, the topo I’ve ripped out of the guidebook goes fluttering from my pocket and past my second like a nostalgic piece of ticker-tape. We both experience pangs of horror at the sudden onslaught of the unknown and retreat is actually discussed. Hunkering under the roof of the belay, it takes a while for us to slough off the cape of fear and actually climb. Needless to say, it is all there and we on-sight the rest of the route, forgetting all the way, and it is easily the best route in the world when we top out.

So, another part of me says we should sometimes ignore the rights of history, or certainly its excess of detail. Then again, maybe humility is intrinsic to climbing: sometimes I feel better when I know a route has had many thousands of ascents and I can maybe revel in its original atmosphere as my ego is drowned in its histories. Those days can be very happy when there is nothing to boast of but plenty to revel in.

I have stood at the bottom of routes and counted winking silver bolts and felt saddened. And it is predominantly a sadness about all this hubris and desire to colonize rock for the self, to name it, to grade it, to attribute it to oneself. We all know mountaineering needs its hubris and appetite and machismo, or some things would not be attempted. We know the history of climbing is predominantly about hubris: maybe it is not the mountain we are trying to conquer but others and their disbelief. That can be admirable but we must always remember the vitality is in the climb and how the climber meets the mountain. The summit is always a lonely place and so it should be. Summit photographs never quite seem to get it. And climbers say notoriously inexact things about the whole affair. ‘Because it’s there…’ is not what is meant at all, I’m sure: we just can’t express the whole complexity of the mountain and the climber. Which is also good, because through our history we see that this thing is quite inexhaustible and can always be approached at a personal level.

History brings us different gravities. Older climbers – The Bell’s, the Murray’s and the Cunningham’s - appear to us as having climbed somewhere else, almost as though on Mars, yet we touch the same rock. It is maybe impossible to truly climb ‘free’ in these days, but it is worth noting that climbing is something only you personally can be proud of: it is all a story of discovery and conscience.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Rock Poker

Dave MacLeod on 'Smokescreen' original method

Alan Cassidy has reported an intriguing new version of Dave MacLeod's Smokescreen, originally a desperate Font 8a+, it has now been reclimbed at a more amenable grade of Font 7b+ . Alan said he discovered a go-again slapping sequence that got him up the crux hanging slopers.

It goes to show that there are often other perspectives to problems, and that it is worth trying all sequences on your projects just in case... it also shows how rich our climbing world is... other people can often produce radically different results and it is worth absorbing as much as you can from watching other climbers. It's where you learn all your technique after all. Well done to Alan for discovering a sequence that will make this tespiece more accessible, I hope Dave is not too disappointed to hear the news... it won't make Pressure any the less impressive, but will mean there is an easier finishing sequence. That said, finishing up Firestarter is the next big challenge in this never-ending game of rock poker!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Spanish Interlude

You would be forgiven for thinking Spain a hot limestone potato balancing on the nose of Africa, too hot and steamy for bouldering, one for the sports climbers maybe. Well, a little research and googling dragged up some interesting counter-points. The mountains are cooler, anything over 1000 metres and the Pinus Negris forests hide boulders and rocks entirely alien to the geological bully that is limestone, and the temperatures are more convivial to holding slopers. What I found hidden up here looked suspiciously like the clean red Torridonian sandstone of the North West of Scotland, nestling in the cool shade of pines. There was one online topo and a few photos that persuaded me to book flights to Valencia. The place? - ‘Albarracin’.

Albarracin is a remarkable medieval town perched precariously on rocky slopes in a deep valley in the Montes Universales. These mountains lie west of Teruel (two hours drive north from Valencia airport) in the province of Aragon. A ten mile straight road along the Teruel plain leads suddenly into a winding limestone valley with deciduous trees and flowing rivers. The road winds up to the trumpet blast of the walled town that is Albarracin.

The town behaves like it was banished to a remote corner of the Spanish classroom, with its pointy dunce cap of a church spire. It crowds in on itself with charming introspection, narrow alleys and leaning houses provide a maze of trendy bars and restaurants, all perched on top of each other in a noisy palimpsest of classic Spanish architecture and culture. It is a fine place to visit in itself, but just outside of town, leading up to a rocky plateau covered in pine trees, is a choked gorge that wouldn't be amiss in a Hollywood western... large red sandstone walls and buttressed boulders leaning every which way.

A curious pink sign leads the way: ‘Pinturas Rupestres’ and a faded pictogram of some sort. We booked in to one of the many auberge-style hostals (there is camping and chalets available nearby as well) and I listened to the clang of church bells as I packed my boulder kit and wolfed down some bread and cheese. The wet weather front had passed and the boulders would be dry soon…

The road below the walled town breaks left over a river by the excellent basement Bar Molina de los Gatos (the local climbing bar with climbing magazines, bouldering photos, chilled locals and plenty flowing beer…) and winds up to the plateau and a large car park, where German camper vans and small huddles of boulder-mats suggest this is a major new European bouldering venue. The plateau is vast and disappears over rolling pine-clad hills with tempting buttresses peaking out on the escarpments. Most people come here to visit the remarkable 'pinturas rupestres', which turned out to translate as ‘cave-paintings’. The caged-off petroglyphs are good way markers for the boulderer and worth a circuit themselves… 'El Arquero' is probably the most evocative: a lunging archer with dangling appendage on the verge of the kill... other pictures depict the hulked backs of bulls, surprised deer, the hunt in full flow, the gentler beginnings of animal husbandry and other ghostly abstractions of a harder life in a place I now see with the leisured eye of the 21st century. I have come looking for a bouldering paradise in a rented Seat Ibiza… and am thankful for such luxury to enjoy parts of the planet such as this.

I wandered aimlessly and eagerly through the forest getting lured along by better and better boulders, chalked-up problems appeared here and there… the whole place reminded me of a Fontainebleau before the gold-rush. The only people I saw were mushroom hunters wandering in circles with baskets, occasionally shouting to colleagues when they found ‘rebollons’ or such-like delicacies. I was hunting for rock mushrooms, perfect shapes, morphic bells of movement as it were... I was not to be disappointed.

The red sandstone varies in quality, but the areas are extensive and good problems can be found round every corner, or in alleyways of boulders and walls. Landings are generally good and sandy, but you do have to watch out of the odd tree-root or embedded boulder. There are slabs, lots of roofs, rounded perched blocs and flying buttresses…the full gamut of the boulderer’s requirements for a classic venue. The weather is generally cool and sunny, though I had picked the wettest week of the year in November. Despite that, it dried off enough to bring the locals out…they were found in noisy encampments round new projects further afield from the obvious areas round the car-parks.

It is a large area that would take many visits to become familiar with, for the problems can be well-hidden and areas meld into one another. That said it is such a magical forest that comparisons with Fontainebleau would not be unjust. The rock is rough and climbing as technical as you could wish for. The best moments for me were bouldering alone, pulling moves to the aviary sounds of bird-song, the rock cool under the chalk, the juniper and pine incensing the air. It is a good place for a posse though, I came across plenty of pods of (mainly Spanish) boulderers surrounding particular test-pieces, arms outstretched spotting to the barked shouts of ‘Venga! Venga!’

Venga! Indeed…


There will no doubt be forthcoming guides to Spanish bouldering (possibly from Stone Country), but there is enough on the web to get you there and find yourself a few grudge-matches! The best topo I have found is at:

while there is also an atmospheric overview at: