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Wrong assumptions

So I’ve been catching up on my reading, which is to say, I might have picked up a bit of the breakbone fever down in Taxco. On one of the semi-regular trots to the back of the house, I managed to pluck one of the climbing rags from the stack [1].

The saddest thing is it only takes one trip to read the whole thing anymore.

Anyway, there’s a apparently a semi-regular thing in the mag from a guy living in a van, climbing full-time. He climbs 5.9-ish, which is no problem. Moderate climbers should have a voice in the rags too. It was not always thus. In this column, he’s sketching on WI2+ (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and wondering whether he should go sport-climbing, or bouldering, which he sucks at. Whether he wants to be Hayden Kennedy or Chris Sharma. Conrad Anker or Daniel Woods. Generation Rad or Generation Trad? In the end, he decides that he’d rather be in the mountains.

But here’s the thing. It’s a false dichotomy. Because all those people climb 5.13 sport without blinking. Kennedy and Anker climb well in the mountains because they’re absolutely solid at higher grades. And that’s always been true, whatever 5.topend is, for whatever era. Pick your alpine hero. He or she might have been climbing 5.10 at the top end, but 5.11 was the top end then. And more likely, he or she was climbing 5.11.

Maybe this guy doesn’t want to put in the time at the gym, or the boulders, or the crags, clipping up. But the people he’s using as examples are bad examples.

Modern alpinists might not be amongst the best sport climbers in the world, but they’re not slouches. If they’re firing 5.11 A3 WI4 in Patagonia, it’s because they’ve got 5.13, and A5, and M7 solidly in their skillset. They clip bolts. They hangdog. They project. They train. Then, when they go to the mountains, they send.

Sure, you can find examples of people who don’t, and didn’t, do this. But it’s the exception, not the rule. More so now than ever.

Generation Trad or Generation Rad – there’s no such thing. Generation Trad climbs 5.12 on bolts. Generation Rad frees El Cap. Ueli Steck solos 5.13! You think he got there without clipping a bolt or two — thousand?

Climbing well in alpine means moving fast on moderate territory, whatever “moderate” means to you. The truth is, lots of times in the mountains you’re off-route or close enough and climbing harder than you’d like anyway, and you still have to move fast, because sunset or the storm, is unforgiving. But if you can climb 5.12 with the bolt at your feet, then WI4 is not that difficult. You might get cold, or scared, or make wrong decisions, but you’re not gonna fall because you get pumped. That’s off the menu.

Lots more things open up in the mountains if you’re strong at the grade. And for the most part, you don’t get strong at the grade by practicing that grade in the mountains. You push one limit at a time. Either difficulty or danger. Not both.

Robbins got strong practicing at Tahquitz, not Yosemite. Lynn Hill got strong working the World Cup, not the Nose. Look at the people setting the standards in alpine places. The Hubers. Glowacz. Sharma! He didn’t get invited to join the free attempt of one of the hardest routes on El Cap because he had been practicing on El Cap. El Cap makes you weak. Training at Oliana (or the Stronghold) makes you strong for El Cap.

I thought Piana and Skinner had settled this years, ago, but somehow the rad or trad attitude remains. It’s not a logical OR.

The funny thing is, and I know that authors don’t write the titles, is that the title is “The Sorrows and Joys of Being an All-Rounder”, when the author isn’t an all-rounder at all. He can’t boulder. He can’t sport climb. He’s not good at ice, or trad, or alpine, so far as I can tell. There’s no all-round here. “Jack of all trades” means you’re maybe not the best at everything, but you’re good at everything. It doesn’t mean you’re lousy at everything.

I’m not meaning to pick on this dude. He’s living the dream. Living out of his van. Climbing every day. The beautiful thing about climbing is everyone climbs as hard as they can, all the time, whether that’s 5.6 or 9b. Fucking A. Go for it. Do what you want.

But this Rad or Trad false dichotomy still exists, enough so that it gets published in a major climbing publication in 2013 CE, and that’s what I’m addressing. It’s a distortion of reality, and it’s not based on any observation of what’s happening in climbing. Now, or for the last two decades. If you think this, you aren’t paying attention.

There is no Trad. There is no Rad. There is only climbing, and how much any individual chooses to focus on any aspect at this time.

It’s not a mystery how you get better – you train. It shouldn’t be a mystery that everyone — everyone — you read about in the mags and the alpine journals clips a lot of bolts or pulls on plastic or falls on pads, whether that’s their primary motivation or not. And those ORs are probably ANDs.








[1] I don’t read them very often because it’s basically the same articles about the same places and the same techniques, periodicity very short now. Largely by, and about the same people. If not actually the same people. Jeezus H Keerist, another Stonemaster article. I predict next month a Tobin Sorenson article. All those guys are old, fat or dead. As will I be soon.

[1b] The Stonemasters, by the way, held back climbing in the US for at least a decade. While great climbers, sure, the ethics they passed down, and their disdain for modern techniques, tactics, and training still holds back American climbers.

[1c] There are three reasons why American climbers aren’t in general as good as Europeans. The first is we just don’t have enough limestone. The second is the point above. The third is a consequence of the first two – most of us aren’t around good enough climbers. If you’re around 5.N climbers, you’ll climb at least 5.N-1. A few exceptionally motivated individuals will climb 5.N+1. If you’re around 5.15 climbers, 5.14 seems pretty possible. There are only a few 5.15s in the US, and all the US 5.15 climbers live in Europe. So 5.14 is top end in the US, and most places have a plethora of 5.13 climbers. In Europe, 5.14 is NBD, and until the US has tons of 5.14s everywhere, and 5.15 climbers, the best will still go to EU to climb.

[2] I notice that the mag has a tribute to Layton Kor, a tasteful magazine cover from the 80s (not words often used in that combination). It doesn’t compare well to the current issue which looks like a bad mixup of People and PopSci.

[3] I stopped subscribing after subscribing for decades, then started again when they gave me basically free ($5 for a year plus a free carabiner). Time to stop again I think. They’re not writing for me when it’s Yet Another article about nutcraft, by Jeff Achey. Great guy, by the way. Also climbs pretty reasonably high sport and solos El Cap. An all-rounder if you will.