Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Leave No Trace? - Some Existential Implications of Ice Climbing

The ethic of clean climbing is the lasting contribution of the Yosemite big-wall climbers to the world of mountaineering. In 1972 an article was published in the Chouinard Equipment catalog (a manufacturer of climbing gear later to become Black Diamond Equipment), written by Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost, that laid out the theory and method of “clean” climbing. Its methodological core was the rejection of pitons in favor of a series of nuts, hexes, and, later, caming devices. 
What this means is that instead of hammering a metal peg into the rock to protect against a fall, the climber places an irregularly shaped piece of metal into a crack such that it will hold firm against the intended direction of force. One cannot help but notice that these devices were being sold in that same catalog, but their plea cannot be dismissed as a promotional scam. Pitons had been destroying Yosemite for years. Hoping to prevent the area from becoming like the Dolomites in Europe, where popular routes were marked by strings of rusty pitons from bottom to top, Yvon Chouinard had pioneered new hardened steel pitons that instead of conforming to the shape of the rock, could be hammered in just far enough to hold and then be removed by a second; but despite innovations of this type, popular routes were becoming heavily scarred by the repeated placement of such gear. 
Behind all of this rather mechanical, seemingly obscure, controversy, was a growing sense of the vulnerability of the wilderness. The environmental movement, born in the High Sierras of California, was beginning to be recognized around the world and what is now termed “Leave No Trace” principles were becoming standard in all national parks and wilderness areas. While clearly a vital part of the preservation of what little wilderness remains, this ethic is problematic on a number of philosophical, and especially existential, grounds. To leave no trace is an impossible ideal, by our passing we make a mark on the world around us – to not make a mark, to not leave a trace, is to not exist, or rather, for one’s existence to have no possible significance. 
This is true practically as well as theoretically. In the crags of Britain, one of several areas with a claim to be the birthplace of rock climbing, where slings were used to protect against falls before German climbers invented pitons and carabiners, the footholds on popular climbs have been worn smooth and chalk-marked handholds can be found on cliffs all over Europe and America. Thus we see that even in its purest form, clean climbing is impossible – to not make a mark on the rock is to not climb the rock (this is to say nothing of permanent bolted anchors). We arrive, therefore, at an impasse: our central ideal in our striving to preserve the wilderness (the goal and duty of every mountaineer), leave no trace, is at odds both with our nature as humans and the various, inescapable, realities of climbing. Yet can answer can be found through another discipline of mountaineering: ice climbing. 
To an ice-climber, clean climbing is nonsensical. To climb alpine or waterfall ice the climber uses sharply pointed ice-tools and crampons to gain purchase and ice-screws to protect against a fall. An ice pitch is therefore different for every climber, as each climber’s passage has altered it – often dramatically, as chunks of ice as large as dinner-plates commonly come off. As ice is constantly shrinking or growing this is not considered a problem; the melt-freeze cycle every day heals the route, returning it to something like an unclimbed state. Even more poignantly, no matter the damage done to the ice, by the spring it will be gone and the next winter it will return, with no possible memory of past ascents. 
This is, in a micro sense, the way of all wilderness. Every mountain on earth is eroding, slowly erasing the marks of our passage. Nothing we do is permanent. Someday the glaciers will all be gone and the sea levels will rise and someday after that they will return and re-sculpt the earth. The only difference is the time scale involved. Someday all our cities will be rubble and the wilderness will overtake the world again. Therefore, as we consider our actions and our policies, we need to keep in mind that we are not preserving the wilderness for the sake of the wilderness. We do not try to leave no trace so that the earth will be better off. Every mountaineer should know that the wilderness is more powerful than we can imagine – it will kill us and mangle our bodies beyond all recognition and hide us where we will not be found for centuries. We try to leave no trace, to climb clean, for out own benefit, not because we are really trying to not leave a trace, but because we don’t like seeing toilet paper under every rock and beer cans in every campsite. Campfires are not forbidden above five thousand feet for the sake of the trees, but because we like to have shade from the afternoon sun.
This understanding of why we protect the wilderness has more implications that it is possible or profitable to explicate here (read: nasty ramifications for radical environmentalism, but also heavy qualifications regarding the industrial exploitation of the wilderness), largely because such discussions are not really the pertinent point of this essay. Ice climbing gives us an insight into the deeper nature of climbing, and, by extension, existence more generally. Our lives bear far more resemblance to the ice climber, hacking his way upward, altering dramatically, but only for a time, the path behind, than the rock climber, dancing lightly across the wall, striving to leave nothing but some chalk stains.

Chouinard and Frost’s article can be found here, along with the rest of the 1972 catalog (a fascinating artifact in and of itself - don’t miss Robinson’s article on natural protection and the original Whillans sit harness).

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