From the book Voices From the Summit (McDonald/Amatt)
Over the past thirty-six years since I started climbing. I’ve witnessed dramatic changes in the way climbing has developed and transformed. In just three decades, nearly every facet of the mountain realm has been explored, redefined, and become increasingly specialized in the incessant quest toward greater performance. Though I have explored various forms of climbing throughout the years, my primary interests and passions have been focused on free climbing.
Improvements in equipment, along with the expanding vision of climbers over time, has led to advancements on all fronts from the powerful acrobatic maneuvers on a twenty-five-foot high boulder problem, to epic alpine adventures at record speed in the highest, most remote mountain ranges on earth. Yet despite the diversity and changes that have taken place over the years, there remains a common cord among climbers of all types with regard to our love of climbing. The perennial question of Why climb? – is clearly linked to our universal curiosity for adventure, exploration, self-discovery, and the sheer pleasure of playing within the forms and forces of the natural world.
In looking back at the series of events that have shaped the development of climbing over the years, it’s clear that the style, attitudes, and values of climbers were most significantly influenced by certain visionary individuals of each generation. I was a child of the 60’s, born during a time when many people cried out for liberation from traditional social constructs and began to question authority. Instead of conforming to the olds ways, people chose to create their own way of life.
Climbers of this era were also pioneering their own paths. These were the golden years of rock climbing when the possibilities for doing new routes were abundant. Climbers were an eccentric collection of non-conformists that chose to give up the comforts of the material world in favor of pursuing exciting adventures on the rock. The ideals and attitudes of this generation laid the foundation for the climbing culture that I was introduced to in the seventies.
By the time I started to climb, free climbing had already diverged from its origins as practice for the mountains. The style and difficulty of climbing seemed to evolve in large part with respect to the technological improvements in equipment. The introduction of nylon ropes and chromoly pitons during the fifties, removable protection devices during the sixties, mechanical camming devices in the seventies, revolutionized free climbing throughout the world.
By the seventies, most of the major rock formations around the world had been climbing, while the goal of getting to the top of a mountain was no longer the most important measure of success; success was determined by how one got to the top. A “great route” included not only by the technical difficulty, but also the element of boldness and commitment with minimal reliance on equipment. Climbers prided themselves in using only “clean” protection, which meant using stoppers or hexes in cracks, or the occasional piton or bolt when “natural” protection in cracks was not possible. Because bolts and pitons were considered “artificial” and invasive forms of protection that permanently altered the rock, they were only used when absolutely necessary.
Throughout the 70’s, progress in free climbing standards continued to gain momentum in isolated parts of the world, and certain gifted individuals began pushing the standards of difficulty on the rock. As climbers became more efficient at placing removable protection devices, speed, boldness, and the degree of technical difficulty became more important measures of success.
When I first started climbing in 1975, I knew very little about the origins and history of climbing; I just wanted to go climbing. Most of the time, I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into and I didn’t think about the consequences of falling. I was young and open to try just about anything. But after a few death-defying experiences on routes with long run-outs, I learned the first rule of climbing: “Don’t fall”. From this beginning, I learned to trust in myself and to look for solutions no matter how precarious the situation.
As a young climber, I didn’t know very many other women climbers and it appeared that most of the heroes of the climbing world were limited to the fraternity of men. It wasn’t until the age of 16 that I learned about a few notable women rock climbers. I remember reading about the first all-female ascent of The Nose route on El Capitan in 1977. Even though this was not a major exploit or first ascent, I felt reassured knowing that other women were interested in pursuing such adventures on the rock.
One woman who stood out during those early days of my climbing was Bev Johnson. In 1973, Bev and Sybille Hechtel climbed the Triple Direct route on El Capitan. Because this was the first team of women who had climbed a route op El Capitan, they named their ascent “Walls without Balls”. But Bev’s impressive ten-day solo of the Dihedral Wall on El Capitan in 1978 really captured my imagination. It was inspiring to learn about this exceptional woman who showed such courage and confidence to stick it out on her own, in the male-dominated world of Yosemite climbing.
The community of strong women climbers was small back then, but there were a few notable women such as Maria Cranor, beth Bennett, Barbara Devine, Rosie Andrews, Louise Shepard, Gill Kent, and Alison Osius, who were climbing at a respectably high standard during the late seventies. The woman who made the biggest impact on my life, was Mari Gingery. Mari was one of the few women I knew who shared my love for climbing. Between the ages of 18 and 22, I climbed with Mari nearly every weekend. In the summer of 1980, Mari and I climbed the Nose together before embarking on an even more ambitious project: The Shield on El Capitan. Without much experience at nailing pitons, RURP’s or copperheads, Mari and I spent six days doing the first all female ascent of this route (rated A4 at the time).
During the late seventies, I began climbing with John Long and an elite group of Southern Californa climbers known as the “Stonemasters”. John was the person who introduced me to the idea of training for climbing and pushing the current standard of difficulty. Before long, we had done several first ascents of climbs throughout the western U.S. Perhaps the most significant personal breakthrough occurred in 1979, when I did the first free ascent of a route called Ophir Broke (5.12d). Not only was this the hardest route I’d ever done, but I also managed to do it before John! It was at this time that I began to realize that, despite my small physical stature, with the right combination of vision, desire, and effort, just about anything is possible.
During this period, there were also a number of technological advances in rock climbing gear that helped contribute to an increasing standard of difficulty in free climbing. The mechanical spring-loaded camming devices (Friends) and the wired micro-nuts (RP’s) offered a safer, more efficient means of placing protection. Another great innovation was sticky rubber for climbing shoes. I remember the day when John Bachar showed of his new “Firé” climbing shoes by cruising up some desperate boulder problems in Camp IV. The difference in the rubber was amazing, and before long, nearly all of my friends had a pair of Firés.
The eighties marked a period of dramatic change in both the style and direction of free climbing. We saw the transition from traditional-style to sport climbing, the introduction of climbing competitions, artificial climbing walls, and the beginnings of professionalism in climbing. During the early eighties, there was a great deal of controversy among climbers regarding the use of what were called, “hangdogging” techniques. According to the rules of traditional climbing, hang-dogging was strictly unacceptable and considered a form of cheating. All free climbs were to be done in a “ground up” style and all the protection was to be placed on the lead. If climbers fell, they were immediately lowered to the ground, because the protection was only to be used to stop a fall and not as a form of aid or rest. Many of my friends, who were once a part of one large community of climbers, began to separate into groups according to their opposing viewpoints on free climbing style.
Ray Jardine was one of the first climbers who received a great deal of harassment from his peers in Yosemite. Ray, the inventor of “Friends”, used hang- dogging techniques while establishing routes at the cutting-edge of difficulty. Anther California climber named, Tony Yaniro, refined some of these techniques and in 1979, he completed the first ascent of what became the hardest route in the world at the time (Grand Illusion 5.13c). Unfortunately, many of his peers in California belittled his efforts and refused to acknowledge this landmark ascent.
During this period, I remember listening to a crew of Yosemite Valley locals discuss how the visiting German climber Wolfgang Güllich had “dogged” his way up the Crimson Cringe (5.12b). The group consensus was that Güllich had spoiled his chance of ever doing a free ascent of this route. Despite all the controversy that went on behind his back, Wolfgang was satisfied with the progress he had made climbing in America. These experiences laid the groundwork for a new style of climbing that later became known as sport climbing and that quickly accelerated free-climbing grades. By the mid eighties, the European climbing community had entered the sport climbing era, while the controversy over the use of hang-dogging continued in America.
In 1983, I moved to the Shawangunks of New Paltz, NewYork, where I learned about a new climbing culture in the East. I teamed up with some of the leading climbers in the area and began seeking new routes to free climb. At first we opened new routes following the strict definition of free climbing. But as we embarked on increasingly difficult routes, my views about adhering to the strict definition of free climbing began to change.
My experience on a route called Vandals (5.13a or 7c+) in 1984 marked the turning point in my climbing style. On this route, which was more difficult than any other route I had done before, I realized that falling was a part of the learning process. But even more important, I experimented with some hang-dogging techniques and found them to be a much more efficient way of learning and progressing on difficult climbs.
This shift from traditional to sport climbing style was happening simultaneously in different areas across the country. Alan Watts, one of the leading climbers at Smith Rocks, had established some of the hardest routes in the country using hang-dogging techniques. Alan brought wide spread attention to this issued of “style” when he did the first free ascent of “Stigma” (5.13b) in the sacred land of traditional-style climbing in Yosemite.
Later, Todd Skinner added fuel to the fire when he added a new finish to this climb and renamed it, Renegade. Though Todd was criticized for his use of pre-placed pitons for protection in the crack, that didn’t stop him from establishing many amazing and difficult routes throughout the U.S., and later in more exotic places throughout the world.
In 1986, I was invited to take part as a panel speaker in a public debate concerning free-climbing style at the American Alpine Club annual meeting in Denver, Colorado. There were representatives from both sides of the issue; traditionalists and hangdoggers. On the hangdog team, the panelists were Christian Griffith, Todd Skinner, and Alan Watts. Christian was perhaps the most radical in his views about the future of free climbing. Many people were horrified to hear him say that the most difficult routes in the future would be artificially created on the natural cliffs. Although this concept had seemed completely absurd at the time, many of the hardest routes in France already had several chipped holds on them.
The representatives of traditional style were John Bachar, Ron Kauk, Henry Barber, Randy Vogel and Rob Robinson. I was assumed to be a traditionalist because I was part of the generation of traditional climbers. But since I had used hang-dogging techniques on my ascent of Vandals, I felt between sides. When is was my turn to speak, Jim McCarthy, the moderator of the debate, grilled me about my use of hang-dogging techniques on the fist ascent of Vandals. A lawyer by profession, Jim made me feel as if I was being tried in court. I was guilty of hang-dogging, but I didn’t feel guilty of any crime. Ironically, thanks to the American Alpine Club, of which Jim McCarthy was the president, I was invited to explore the world of sport climbing in France later that year.
Observing the nature of the rock (on these famous French crags) and the advantage of “rap-bolted” protection, it was easy to understand why the Europeans had been able to make such rapid progress in sport climbing.
While climbing in the Verdon Gorge in southern France, I happened to meet one of the organizers of the first Italian free climbing competition. He invited me to compete at the second annual Sport Roccia in 1986, and this is how I was introduced to the world of competition in Europe. Although the first competitions were held amid a great deal of controversy and disorganization, it wasn’t long before competition took root in Europe and later throughout the world.
The introduction of competition and artificial climbing walls marked the beginning of a whole new sub-sport within climbing. Within a few years, climbing walls were installed in public schools, local clubs, outdoor parks, and private homes throughout the world. A whole new generation of “plastic climbers” was born and, as the media and sponsors became involved in competitions, politics and professionalism entered the sport. I became a professional climber in 1988 when I received my first sponsorship contract from Chouinard Equipment. Soon I found myself in the role of a spokesperson: I did slide shows across the country, and participated in various photo shoots, gave interviews, and was involved in TV, radio, and film productions.
By the end of the eighties, the first international climbing competition was held in America, and it looked as though climbing was on the road to becoming an Olympic sport. While much media attention was focused on the game of competition, progress on the rock continued to flourish. In 1998, Todd Skinner and Paul Piana did the first “team” free ascent of the Salathé Wall on El Capitan: Peter Croft free soloed Astroman, Wolfgang Güllich became the first person in the world to do a 5.14b (8c) called, Wall Street: and Isabelle Patissier became the first woman to climb a 5.13d (8b) called Sortilege.
By 1990, the first official World Cup competition circuit was sanctioned by the UIAA. While competition climbing evolved toward an indoor artificial environment, many climbers were able to make rock climbing a full time profession. During this period, European climbers took a clear lead in pushing the free climbing standards to a higher level. In the ealy nineties, Wolfgang Güllich did the first (9a) (5.14c) in the world: the young Swiss climber, Elie Chevieux did the first on-sight ascent of an 8b: and several other European climbers such as Beat Kammerlander, began to push the standards of difficulty on bold free climbs on the big limestone formations of the Alps. In America, progress on the rock took a different direction. Using a combination of free climbing and aid climbing techniques, Peter Croft and Hans Florine did an impressive speed ascent of The Nose in 4 hours and 22 minutes (the speed record on the Nose as of June 17th, 2012 is 2:23.46).
I continued the competition game while pursuing a few of my own goals on the rock. In 1990, during a break between competitions in France, I did a climb called Masse Critique and became the first woman to climb a 5.14a (8b+). A few years later while climbing in Germany, I became the first woman to make an on-sight ascent of a 5.13b (8a).
As competition evolved and this way of life became more consuming, I began to feel as if I was losing a sense of freedom and spirit toward climbing. In most highly competitive sports, the price of victory or success means conforming to a rather restricted experience in life. I was a rock climber and I began to feel increasingly out of place in this arena of indoor climbing competitions. Though my early experiences in competition were beneficial to my personal development, after six-years on the competition circuit, I began to feel as though training for competitions defined my entire purpose as a climber, so I decided that 1992 would be the last year of competition on the World Cup circuit.
In the aftermath of my competition career, what I wanted most of all was the freedom to pursue rock climbing again in the beautiful natural environment. One challenge that had long been lingering in the back of my mind came to surface: to free climb the Nose. Numerous climbers had tried to free the route over the previous decade, but none had been successful. The magnificent beauty and historic significance of the line – as well as my own efforts to free it, then laster free it in a day – made this ascent the most meaningful achievement of my entire climbing career.
During the mid-nineties, free climbing big walls in Yosemite became a popular objective. In 1996, the Huber brothers repeated an all-free ascent of the Salathé, followed by a nealy perfect, on-sight ascent of the route by Yuji Hirayma a few years later. In 1998, the Huber brothers freed all but one section of El Niño on El Capitan, but the most impressive ascent of this route was done by the young English climber, Leo Holding, who did a nearly on-sight ascent. Taking this free climbing style to an extreme, Todd Skinner and friends spent more than 60 days free climbing a route on Trango Tower in Pakistan at over 22,000 feet.
In the late nineties, the image of climbing entered mainstream culture through various forms of media. The 1996 Everest tragedy resulted in widespread international press and produced a best seller – Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air . There have been films and numerous TV commercials using climbing in some form or another. Over the past five years, I’ve been involved in numerous climbing and filming trips to places such as Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, Morocco, Thailand, Scotland, Australia, and Madagascar.
The proliferation of Internet technology has had an enormous impact on our rapidly changing world culture. Today we can follow expeditions via live satellite communication to places such as Trango Tower or even to the top of Mount Everest.
Despite the changes in technology and style the imminent issues that we face today, the underlying spirit of climbing continues to prevail. Nealy every time I read about the current climbing scene, I learn about impressive ascents on the rock. Yuji Hirayama recently made the first on-sight ascent of an 8c (5.14b)! Katie Brown just did her first 5.14a and she flashed it on her first try! Spanish climber Josune Bereciartu recently became the first woman to climb an 8c (5.14b). The 22-year-old German Andreas Jörg made rapid ascents of two of the most difficult free climbs in the Alps – Silbergeier (5.14a) and The End of Silence (5.14a).
The new millennium will continue to see increasingly better performances in all aspects of climbing. There will be more specialization and refinement in the realm of competition, free climbing, bouldering, free climbing on big walls, and free climbing on alpine big walls in the mountains. Traditional routes will be repeated faster and in better style: The challenges are infinite.
I would like to continue my journeys on the rock in beautiful places around the world. I enjoy all forms of free climbing, from bouldering to sport routes to traditional routes to long free climbs on big walls in remote places. What I love most about climbing is the beauty and diversity of the environment and the different rock types, climbing styles, and the people with whom I share these experiences. No matter how things evolve in the future, one element that seems to remain constant is my desire to continue climbing, exploring, and seeking new heights.
“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
– T.S. Eliot