By Will Gadd, with input from Harry Berger, Bubu Bole, Simon Anthamatten, Ben Firth, Rob Owens, Stefan Husson, Evgeny Kryvosheytsev, Raphael Slawinski and many others.
March 7, 2004
The wall at the 2004 Arc'teryx Canmore Ice Festival was amazing both for its angle and the creative appendages it sprouted, including a child's bicycle dangling near the top. Of course, someone had to do a "Superman" from the handlebars, and Raphael Slawinski was up to the job. The scoring was equally creative; competitors could climb any line up the wall they liked, with points awarded for the difficulty of the line chosen, the general show they put on for the crowd, and the speed with which they attacked the monster. It was a combination of figure skating, the sickest climbing I've ever seen and New Guinea dirt diving, as several competitors who did radical flips while falling 30+ feet off the top of the wall demonstrated. I last attended a major mixed competition in 2002, so the change in attitude from both competitors and organizers was obvious: Yes, there was a competition, but really it was a celebration of athletic ability and showmanship. This is good.
Many of the international friends I had competed with over the years are in Canmore: Stefan Husson, Harry Berger, Bubu, Ines Papert, Simon Anthamatten and Evgeny Kryvosheytsev, all throwing down with style and grins. A sinus infection had me feeling lower than Martha Stewart, but the vibe was good and despite my head pounding like a drum the whole scene got me fired up--the organizers did a fantastic job with a limited budget, but it was the climbing that stoked me up. Mixed climbing is fucking cool, no matter what it is that's getting climbed. As I caught up friends and learned of their exploits over the last year I heard a recurring commentary: Mixed climbing is in trouble. The number of competitions is down, but it's something more than that: the hardest routes simply aren't that hard anymore, and many top climbers are losing interest in the sport. Why?
Bubu, (after recovering his wardrobe from an on-wall strip show) said, "Will, Will, we have to talk. Things are crazy now. The routes aren't hard anymore. I took two years off because of this, what are we going to do?" Harry Berger, two-time world cup champion, said, "It's really getting weird. We were all talking about this at Saas Fee too; we can hang from our feet anywhere, it's not free climbing anymore." I had to agree: the truth is that radical bolt-on heel spurs allow a climber to hang upside down from anything (as Ines, after putting on a stellar climb that put her alone for the women on top of the wall, skillfully did by hooking both spurs onto the finishing jug and hanging upside down like a beautiful bat). An educated mixed climber can cam a tool like a horizontal tree branch and throw a knee over it like a little kid. If that proves difficult in a big roof then just hook one tool with both heel spurs while shaking out on the other tool. This means it's possible to spend an hour and a half in the middle of a massive roof, as one climber recently did while repeating an M12.
As I talked with the competitors it became clear that there was a common sentiment: mixed climbing, always a sport riding a grey line between free and aid climbing, had slid solidly into the domain of aid climbing. Sitting on your tool for a rest is no different than clipping into your belay loop (OK, maybe it's not as comfortable, but the rest is the same). Hanging from heel spurs is the same as sticking your leg through a sling (yet more comfortable). Now, a lot of people won't want to admit this but it's true: with radical heel spurs and generous amount of tool-trickery any hard route in the world ain't that hard anymore. With a savage bolt-on spur you can truly hang by one foot from a door jam until you de-pump--or your head explodes from the pressure.
Two years ago I climbed Musashi with regular crampons on standard boots and leashed Cobras. It was the hardest route I'd ever climbed, and I was pumped silly as I pulled the ice at the top. The route demanded multiple figure fours, and there were no rests on the massive roof. Later that winter I competed on the leashless world cup circuit, then came back and tried Musashi leashless but with serious bolt-on spurs that allowed full rests on both rock edges and my tools. In the middle of the crux I dropped a tool. Daniel started to take the rope in, but I realized I was fine with a sinker heel hook and a handlebar (my ice tool) to hang on. In fact, I was de-pumping. DuLac fed me a bunch of slack (I felt as secure as if I were clipped into a bolt directly), ran down the hill, grabbed my tool, ran back and threw it up to me. I continued climbing and pulled the lip with a mild pump only because I hadn't stopped to rest on the last few heel hooks. At that point I realized that difficult mixed climbing for me was over. I was loath to call what I'd just done aid climbing (hey, I like getting my name in the mags as much as anyone...), but in my mind it was. Calling it free climbing bothered me, but I figured I was just burned out and becoming a cynical old bastard--it happens. The pursuit of fantastic alpine mixed climbs became my quest for the next couple of years (still free, mountains deserve free ascents as much as cliffs).
This year I spent the last week of February in ice-climbing's future Mecca, Norway, where I climbed (on leashless Vipers, I'm now fully leashless--the new technology is incredibly good!) many stunning ice lines and repeated an "M10" route with no ice, onsight. Despite limited fitness I was able to heel-hook my way up it, one foot over my head for the entire crux like a third hand in a sling. Two years ago Ben Firth and I had done the same on many of Europe's hardest routes thanks to spurs. We sent many of the routes first or second try that were headlining in the magazines, and while this was gratifying for the ego it also seemed like cheating. Robert Jasper visited Canmore and we also went on a sending binge, but it felt unsatisfying. I just couldn't believe in it as free climbing, and I believe in the power of climbing free. In Norway I started to understand that spurs were aid for me, and that hooking a tool with a spur is also aid. But the lines were incredible, and I felt the fire for hard mixed lines began to stir again. However I knew something had to change for me to feel honest about calling a mixed line a free ascent.
Evgeny supplied the answer in Canmore. He had been talking with Harry and Sam at Saas Fee about spurs, and simply decided that they were aid. In his typical "actions are loud, words not needed" style he cut his off (the scoring system in Canmore also rewarded climbing without spurs thanks to Sam Beaugey's input). Simon Anthamatten, who recently won at Ouray, commented, "Now that is real climbing!" as Egenvy fought his way up the most difficult line possible on the wall, moving from hard section to hard section without the ubiquitous foot hang. Where others could rest from a hooked heel, he had to keep moving. He threw a double knee-hang on the bike for the show, and then sent the rest of the route with strong dynamic throws where others had simply heel hooked and pulled. His climbing was gymnastic, fast and powerful. For many of us watching, the answer was clear: Chop off our spurs!
After the comp a group of us from the old and new mixed era talked and made a collective decision: Tools are for your hands. Heel spurs are aid. A route climbed by sitting on your tool, hooking a tool with your knees or spurs or even using spurs is an aid climb. If the top competitors in Europe and North America feel this way then I'm in. Of course, if you're under pressure from sponsors to perform then you can't always make the switch immediately, grin.
This morning I cut my spurs off my boots. I'll still climb with leashless tools, light boots and bolt-on crampons, but no spurs. Using aid (spurs or tool sits of various kinds) to claim a fast repeat of a hard route or establish a new one is fine, but there is an alternative style that reflects free climbing, not aid climbing. I look forward to seeing Musashi, Ben Firth's new route The Game, and Europe's hardest routes repeated free and clean. Spurs are for horses, and as Harry said, "tools are for your hands," not your ass. Sam and Harry feel strongly that this will be the style for next year's European competitions. It's time to start training.
There will be those who attack this idea; it's hard to see your "grade level" drop, as I expect mine will, but climbing continually evolves as we become capable of more with less. Hanging off gear to progress upward is a still a great form of climbing, but we make a distinction between free and aid ascents. For example, you can fully aid a 5.11 crack, you can rest on the occasional piece, or you can climb it clean and free--three distinctly different tactics, all enjoyable to the climber, but with a varying degree of effort. Mixed climbing is no different.
Note: There's been a stack of activity in the cineplex, check this report for more info.
The Conditions Pages have lots of current info too.