If you’ve been following the chipping debacle in Ten Sleep Canyon, you will know that the childish skirmish that saw a group of anonymous rogues removing routes and padlocking bolts on routes they don’t like in the middle of the night yielded a predictable result: the government had to step in and place a total ban on all new routing in the area.
“A complete and total shutdown, until we can figure out what the hell is going on,” to borrow the words of an authoritarian.
I’ve been utterly mystified as to why some climbers are cheering for this result. Our ability to self-police/self-regulate our own community has been historically one of our greatest strengths, a lynchpin that has secured tenuous access to so many cliffs around the country.
What should’ve been a quiet, local issue became a viral, international story that was made worse by the actions of a few self-righteous egos on both sides. Now there will be ramifications for us all: the takeaway is that climbers can’t be trusted to regulate themselves and use public lands responsibly.
Although I’ve never climbed at Ten Sleep, and have no personal connection to the area at all, I find this story important because raises so many difficult—and scary—questions that are relevant to climbing and climbers everywhere. The fact that we don’t have good answers to these questions seems to be the reason behind this debacle. A few questions that come to mind:
Who decides who develops routes—and how they’re developed?
Are route developers artists or public servants?
Who writes the guidebook?
Who gets to be a “local”?
If route development is open to anyone who is willing and able, then must route removal also be open to anyone who is willing and able?
And is climbing growing and getting so big that self-regulation is no longer a viable option? And if so … where do we go from here?
Nobody Likes (Bad) Chipping
The ethical questions about route development are tricky, nuanced, and dependent upon geology and location. I’ve climbed at enough areas and hung out with enough route developers to know that no options are off the table—even among the self-described purists. Publicly, of course, few people would ever admit to their wicked ways if only because so few climbers in the general public actually understand what it means to develop a route.
There are a million little decisions you have to make as a developer, from whether to file down a razor edge to make the climb more comfortable, to whether to knock off a foothold that you think might break anyway; from whether rock should be glued/reinforced or just knocked off with a sledgehammer.
What many people don’t realize about these actions is that, so often, developers aren’t trying to “bring routes down to their level” by utilizing these tactics. They’re often trying to preserve difficulty and keep the routes as hard as possible.
The secret tactics of route developers are nothing new, and they are only surprising to people who are ignorant about climbing. What is more important and crucial is for the route developers themselves to understand when something works—and why.
A developer who has a wide array of tricks and tactics, even the ones that we would consider to be classically unethical, like chipping; who understands the limits and narrow applications of these tactics; and who, above all, has a certain aesthetic vision, is precisely how high-quality routes, especially on rock of suspect integrity like limestone, are created. This is why I’ve argued that route development should be an elitist thing—not everyone should be a route developer!
Some developers clearly don’t have all (or any) of these attributes, and Louie Anderson seems to be a great example of a developer who is simply bad at his craft. That is to say, his ethical transgressions aren’t categorically unique; in fact, they’re on the same spectrum of transgressions employed by many other Ten Sleep developers, suspiciously never named during this big public call-out, and who came before Louie and set precedents of chipping at Ten Sleep.
Given the selective nature of the call-out, the takeaway seems to be not that chipping is bad; but that bad chipping is bad. There’s something to this.
Just to be perfectly clear, the pockets Louie Anderson created—if this photo is indeed a fair and accurate representation of his work (which I do not know if it is)—are completely unacceptable.
These pockets are ugly. They’re obvious. But more to the point, they’re ugly because they’re obvious. Good route development is often far more a matter of aesthetics than ethics, I think. Duping subsequent climbers into having an impression that a route could have appeared just like this in nature is ultimately more important in route development than adhering to any single dogma—especially when those dogmas do not scale across different types of rock and different areas with different local ethics.
Good route development on friable rock can be a well-executed ruse, in this sense, a fact that is proven by the number of chipped, manipulated routes and boulders around the world that climbers laud as five-star classics.
Taking Climbs Down
The instinct to take a rock climb down and erase its existence seems so antithetical to a love and passion for our sport that I have a really hard time understanding why climbers themselves would ever want to do such a thing. But it happens. Over the years I’ve heard Rifle climbers argue that having more rock climbs in our canyon isn’t better because those new routes—typically, the easier “gumby” routes—will ultimately detract from the overall quality of the area as a bastion of higher-end sport climbing.
This is often just elitist, self-righteous bullshit masking as ethics. As much as those gumby routes are a blight on the caliber of elite 5.13d’s in Rifle, I also bristle when I hear people denigrate them. Our ideas of what constitute quality and aesthetics are so subjective to begin with that I have a hard time rationalizing the imposition of one narrow view of it. It’s far better to err on the side of giving climbers the freedom to explore these visions of quality and beauty, I think, than it is to try to control it to your own liking.
Tyranny is in vogue right now, unfortunately, among both fascists on the right and hyper-woke progressives on the left. There is something about route removal that contains elements of a tyrannical instinct to quell unfavorable forms of expression. At Ten Sleep, route removal was rationalized as a way to stop a bad actor from further establishing more poorly chipped routes (although it sounds like Anderson had already stopped chipping, which begs more questions about why this even needed to happen).
So what comes next? Will climbers now be emboldened to remove routes they don’t like for other reasons? Will climbs with names deemed too offensive be removed? What if a route developer is “canceled” because he or she says or did the wrong thing; will that be license to chop his or her routes? This sounds crazy—and it is—but I’m sorry to say that it’s not an unrealistic concern in 2019.
The fact is, the government was more pissed about the route removal and padlocking than they were about the original chipped holds. In my opinion, climbers need to agree that removing routes is almost never a good solution. (This is the position of the Access Fund as well). If we can’t agree as climbers that having more climbs is better than having fewer climbs, then I’m not sure what we can agree on.
Climbing is growing at an exponential pace. It makes sense that the old ways of governing ourselves and regulating our sport may also be outdated. I’m sorry to say that the idea that we can self-regulate our community may not be a viable option going forward.
We need to figure out some of these big questions, however, or else someone else will do it for us. Again, those questions are what is the role and responsibilities of a route developer; how we can regulate those individuals while leaving enough freedom of expression to produce different visions of quality and difficulty.
I’m not sure what the solution is, but I do know that handing over decision-making power to the government is the least desirable option. Yet this is what will happen if we emulate the actions in Ten Sleep elsewhere.