A BMC Presidential Application
During the week, I came across this article by Nick Bullock on the future of winter climbing. Normally I’d skip over such rantings but on this occasion, the writing was so utterly shit it began to awaken in me a hatred that’s been brewing for some time.
The article in summary was “[why I stopped winter climbing], [thoughts on Scottish winter climbing], [trash some young and upcoming climbers (because they tried a climb a few times, couldn’t do the crux, top roped the crux to see if it was possible, then climbed the route in full)], [conclude by bitterly stating not wanting to become a bitter old person]”. Go read it. It’s quite something.
The hatred: Ethics & style.
Before I start, I’m fully aware of the role that ethics have played and continue to play in climbing. To some, the ethics are everything, more important than the climb itself. The following concerns only the complete fallacy of ethics as it relates to style, not the morality of gluing holds, or damaging ecosystems etc.
Over time, I’ve begun to hate the use of the word ethics in climbing. It’s used broadly all over the sport, but has a particular hold over climbing in the UK, particularly Scottish winter climbing. The word ethics (when considering style) is used in climbing to describe the way in which a climber approaches a climb (top roping, bolting etc).
But the discussion of ethics in this way is completely wrong. To speak of ethics when referring to climbing style is pointless because you are applying a moral code to something that isn’t a moral question.
To apply the ethical brand to climbing style is reductive because it lessens the actual ethical questions of climbing as a sport (think environmental, inclusivity, access challenges). The style in which a climb is made is not a moral absolute unlike the disturbance of birds, erosion of pathways and rock faces, or whether a group of people is excluded from partaking.
Nick Bullock (who DMM describe as one of “Britain’s most accomplished climbers” chooses to use some fairly disturbing language when describing why and how so called ethics should be enforced for Scottish winter.
“Fortunately, the consensus has held on to the firm belief, for Scottish winter climbing to remain unique, almost on the world stage, (people really do travel from all over the world to climb in Scotland in winter, because of its truly adventurous nature) it has to keep those strong ethics, and when people challenge this by ignoring the ethics of the day, they should be questioned and confronted.”
I don’t think the language at the latter end of this passage has any place in climbing. Firstly there are many places across the world where one can have an experience of a truly adventurous nature, be that for climbing or more generally in the outdoors. Secondly, maintaining something without adapting, or acting like the only thing that’s important is the style, has nothing to do with ethicality. Clinging on to these ‘ethics’ of a sport for the reason you do it and arguing anyone else partaking in the sport should do it like you (with consequences if they don’t) is wrong because style is entirely subjective. Lastly, if you do still believe that climbing style is an ethical question, don’t be that guy who publicly threatens to confront people on the internet.
People who grew up in the climbing circles of Sheffield or Bristol would most likely tell you climbing is a welcoming sport open to all, but not everyone agrees, and Nick demonstrates why. Climbing as a hobby is about finding joy, whether that’s through connecting with nature, pushing yourself or spending time with friends. The threat of confrontation by washed up, old (let’s be honest, male) climbers is a total turn off to a generation who want the genuine freedom that climbing should offer.
That isn’t to say that climbers should be afraid to speak to their peers on matters which bring genuine danger into climbing. Are these climbers on routes out of season when access has been hard fought and won after years of negotiations? Are they trundling rocks down onto parties below putting other climbers and rescue teams into jeopardy? Are they taking a shortcut to a wall that goes over private property? THESE are ethical questions. These climbers of course need to be politely dissuaded from their course of action.
But what about Tim and Jamie, the team who caused such offence in Nick’s article? Why do they need to be so strongly questioned and confronted?
Because “what they chose to do damages the ethics of Scottish winter climbing by distilling it”,Well when you put it like that, they sound like utter arseholes! Go put them in their place bitter old man.
Which “makes it easier for others to use similar methods”,
Leading to “teams all over the Northern Corries top roping everything”.
The final blow? They “took away the first on-sight, or ground-up winter ascent from others”.
I don’t even know where to start with this. In what ethical, i.e. moral, way could Tim and Jamie have damaged Scottish Winter climbing? Did they use any techniques likely to physically endanger the ecosystem more than anyone else? No. Did they use any techniques that could be assessed as having a low morality? No. If you went to the bottom of Stone Bastion right now, would you have any evidence that it had been climbed in winter? Almost certainly not.
So what about other teams using similar methods? I’ve been climbing in Scotland for many years and have always joked about top roping The Hurting. Have Tim’s actions made this more likely? No. Has Jamie’s use of top roping suddenly put top roping on the climbing map? No. Every climber knows what a top rope is. If people want to do this style in a way that doesn’t cause damage to the environment, then it’s an entirely subjective and valid choice but, despite the article’s bemoaning of climbing’s expansion into social media, one first ascent does not a new culture make.
Nevertheless, what if teams were all over the Northern Corries and top roping everything? Fantastic! The Olympics was probably the best thing to happen to climbing since Alex Honnold did his thing a few years back. Why? Because it brought climbing, a wonderful sport but one with quite high barriers to entry, to the masses. People from cities who have never seen a snowy mountain before were able to see a type of climbing which can directly lead to climbing in Scotland in the winter. Go to Stanage Edge on a good day and the entire 3.5 mile wall will be littered with climbers doing everything from bouldering and soloing through to top roping and lead climbing. There should be no barriers to entry in climbing, and if top roping is your thing you should be able to do it. Of course, there are times when a certain style of climbing just isn’t practical, but we’re not talking about practicality here. We’re talking about a man actively trying to stop people who are just trying to enjoy their sport whilst causing no physical disturbance to anyone else.
Nick’s last charge was that Tim and Jamie “took away the first on-sight, or ground-up winter ascent from others”. What utter crap. This is the type of bullshit that dissuades so many people from getting into the sport which has typically been dominated by the old white man armchair climber syndrome. The syndrome that forces retired climbers to say “you tried but I think you know you didn’t quite succeed”. If a team of young white elite climbers (one of whom is an aspirant guide – we’ll get to that later) can’t please the last generation of old white climbing men, then what hope does the black kid from London who dreams of climbing in the snowy mountains up north have?
Can we just expand on this point of taking away the first on-sight for a minute. Statements like this make it seem like Nick’s living in the Iliad, crying about how the first team to ‘truly’ climb this particular route won’t get their deserved place in history because of the pretenders who came before them. Climbing isn’t some Greek tragedy, and lets be real here, no one will give a shit in 10 or 20 years because at the current rate of warming Scottish winter won’t exist anymore.
This strange reasoning that I’ve heard countless times in climbing parlance just feels perverse. Like Tim and Jamie committed some kind of crime, removing the divine right of another team to do the first ascent properly. But another team will come along sure enough and have a go. The first ground-up ascent is still there for the taking. The fact another team did it before shouldn’t really make all that much difference. Did Messner ever take to his blog to have a moan about not getting the first actual ascent of Everest without oxygen because Hillary and Tenzing managed to cheat their way up beforehand? Probably not.
And who actually cares about first ascents anyway? Let me tell you, it’s certainly not my girlfriend. Why? Because how many times while flicking through the Scottish Winter Climbs guidebook do you ever come across a woman’s name on the first ascent? Climbing is historically not an inclusive activity. Women have had to fight to even get into the sport, let alone have their names recorded alongside their male counterparts, i.e. Anne Lister’s climb of Vignemale.
I don’t suppose Nick is the type of climber who enjoyed the thought of climbing going to the Olympics. Writing about climbing’s inclusion, he said “I feel strongly rooted in climbing, I belong to climbing, and so I worry about how it might grow… or might distort“. But for female climbers, the Olympics was the first time they got to see some of their climbing icons on the main stage. A film called “The Wall – Climb for Gold” showcased the preparation of Janja Garnbret, Shauna Coxsey, Brooke Raboutou, and Miho Nonaka, and gave women an image of what climbing might be like for them. Nick speaks of climbing in the internet and Instagram age negatively, with climbing essentially selling out by joining the Olympics. What actually happened however is that climbing grew out of the shadow of these old men intent on protecting a false ‘ethical’ history, and instead presented itself as an open sport attainable to all.
Why is Shauna so easy to love? She’s a great climber and attained best-in-the-world status. Yet that’s not why she’s a great ambassador for the sport. Nick’s argument reduced Tim and Jamie to their climbing ability, as if that’s the only thing that mattered. Shauna has an incredible ability to climb, but her greatness comes from her ability to encourage others to take up the sport thorough initiatives like the Women’s Climbing Symposium, and her sheer enthusiasm for the sport on her social media feed.
In the same vein, Tim and Jamie’s climb of Stone Bastion was far more than about their abilities. Their grit and determination to try and try again, work as a team and share an experience in nature to inspire others was of equal if not greater importance than their skill with an axe. By taking the privileged position of only caring about style and using that subjectivity as the measure of success as Nick has done, you reduce the human experience of climbing to success rather than trial, determination, recovery, failure and enjoyment.
Climbing, especially outdoors, is a release so many need in this age of 24/7 connectivity. But what happens when climbers stop being allowed to enjoy their experiences and successes? Their sport becomes unhealthy. If climbing is a culture, then it needs to be healthy and successes should be celebrated, even if they come in a way that was different from how others might approach the same problem; we are not all sheep climbing up the same rock after all.
One of many disturbing aspects of the article is its personal nature. Make no mistake, this is a post designed to castrate success away from Tim and Jamie. This personal nature is disturbing to me since I recently found out Tim is an aspirant Mountain Guide. This wasn’t then some random attack on a worker at Tesco who’s livelihood doesn’t depend on recommendations from others.
It doesn’t take a great user of Google to link Tim with Nick’s blog post, and there we run into another issue of applying ethics to a matter of subjectivity. A prospective client of Miller Mountain Guides who is likely to be unaware of the stringent style guide (Times New Roman, size 12, double spaced, anyone?) that is firmly bolted to Scottish Winter climbing. They will see that Tim has clearly broken the code and clearly wasn’t a guide worth trusting your life to.
Imagine the day. You book Tim for an 8 hour excursion up Ben Nevis. You get to the CIC hut and Tim suggests you tackle the classic Ledge Route. You both climb up to the base, after which Tim instructs you to wait for him while he takes a look at the snow conditions.
After a suspiciously long wait, Tim arrives back with you at the first belay having spent the best part of an hour rigging up a top rope along the full 800m length of the route. He suggests this is ‘the Scottish way’. You would consider walking back to the car alone were it not for the £300 you’ve paid him for the day’s outing. You begrudgingly agree to continue, only to top out amongst a party of Ramblers from Glen Nevis. You’re embarrassed, laughed out of climbing never to gear up again. You spend the drive back down the M6 wishing you’d taken more heed from that climbing hero on the internet.
This might sound completely absurd to you, but guiding is more than just taking experienced climbers into the wilderness. It’s about introducing the next generation into a vibrant and exciting sport. One of Tim’s future clients might not even know what top roping is, so could be forgiven for thinking that Tim isn’t a trusted figure in the climbing community, worse still for a Mountain Guide perhaps, even reckless.
I only ever returned to a climb I had failed to on-sight, once.
Nick is clearly proud of this fact. The fact that he has had the panache and ethically cool head for his long climbing career to get all his on-sights done in a day, bar one. Is this something to be truly proud of? In this day of huge global challenges, massive heating, famine, drought, catastrophes advancing at record speed, I don’t know that this is any longer a trait to be admired.
I’ve always considered climbing to be quite reflective of life. You try, you fail, you try some more and fail harder. You get the odd day of wonderful success, but in reality life is formed from gradual building blocks and advancement is slow. What Tim and Jamie showed was that aforementioned grit, the tenacity to surmount their chosen problem in their own way.
I think it’s fair to say that in the world as a whole we need a revolution if we’re going to progress. That revolution needs to be as much social as technological. For the part of climbing, if we’re intent on saying that only an individual who is worthy or good enough can do this specific climb in a specific style, then we go nowhere. When you think about what kind of characters are needed to bring about this social change, they are not the sticklers for traditional ‘ethics’. The person standing at the bottom of the cliff saying ‘I can’t do this’ and just going home never to return is not the person who’s going to fix our problems. It’s the climbers who after failing many times use a bit of logic to work out cruxes and problems before finally achieving, or indeed failing, after all options are exhausted. These are the people we need. If there is the requirement to simply go home after failing, if that’s what it means to be truly ethical, then it’s not for me.
So much of the modern day is showing us that we don’t need to be entrenched in the old ways; progress is good and resistance to change is often fatal.
Nicks final point aims to take a sledgehammer to social media as a possible reason for climbing becoming less ‘ethical’. Again, unsurprisingly I don’t see his point.
The internet is not always good, but it’s great when women, BAME or people living in larger bodies who have previously been dissuaded or excluded from climbing get to join supportive communities, access training or gear which works for them, and create meaningful change to progress the inclusivity and accessibility of climbing (alongside many other sports).
Stating that climbing is becoming too internet-centric, too commercialised is to say “I don’t want people to do this”, “I don’t want it to grow”, “I don’t want people to find out about this secret spot”, “I only want the proper people to do it, the climbers who understand the rules and traditions”, or the classic “I don’t want people just finding it on the internet and coming in with their modern ideas”. Gatekeeping an entire activity, casting yourself as a kind of guardian of the way things have always been done, isn’t only bad for climbing as a sport, it’s actively unethical. So whilst social media might be bad in many ways, it can be a force for good, particularly in making climbing more accessible.
Lets be clear. This article doesn’t limit its focus to a single blog post. It also challenges an idea which is deeply engrained, fundamental to Scottish winter and climbing in general. Many climbers struggle to separate their version of the sport and the reasons they started from the ethical construct that has been built to ensure climbing stays ‘pure’. But is this realistic in 2023, and does the ignorance of ethics threaten to send a free-for-all north of Carlisle?
In any community it’s important for everyone to have their opinion and have space to express it. However those with influence in a community should use that right wisely. Singling out individuals and criticising specific efforts is a dangerous use of power. It’s important to find a balance between the modern and the historic in any community, but to make climbers feel small and question what they have done is not finding that balance. Climbing has to reckon with celebrating it’s history but also recognise that it’s history has not always been inclusive. Nick seems to vehemently detest the cotton wool-clad control of government, but seems very happy to govern the climbing community. If climbing is going to shun an action or uphold a set of values, then it must do so as a community and not as one person writing a polemic. This doesn’t produce a diverse and vibrant sport that welcomes participation. It damages the reputations of young people who have every right to make their mark on this sport. People shouldn’t have to go out and risk their lives into the unknown for successes to happen. To dictate this polices climbers’ motivations and takes away the personal enjoyment and satisfaction that every person joins the sport to feel.
So, that being said, I’m off to bolt some cliffs, finally tick off The Hurting in my own style and get that application in for president of the BMC.