What is Wild and Free?

The clamor was unlike anything I had experienced in the park before.  It reverberated off the tall orange walls, echoing and growing to a tumultuous din.  The Crooked River’s calming babble was lost in the sea of shouting.  This was Smith Rock, but not the Smith I knew.  It was Monday on the DC Metro.  3:00pm on I-5 North in Seattle.  Times Square.  At least one hundred and fifty people were lined out from the rising slash of Karate Crack to the infinite queue at 5 Gallon Buckets.  More were marching in, groups of ten or twelve, stick clips raised like advancing pikemen and lancers to lay siege to whatever 5.9 happened to be open at the time.  It was heartbreaking.

I had learned to climb years ago in the cool alpine air of Lake Tahoe and the dry winters near Pyramid Lake.  Seeing another car at Bowman Lake’s B-Wall was unheard of, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen other climbers at Pig Rock (however, I can tell you about the time we were threatened with dynamite, overrun by mole crickets, and witness to an Adidas photo shoot when they were trying to break into the industry).  Smith was a pilgrimage, a visit to the holy temple of sport climbing.  You went knowing you would be scared, for the distances between bolts were…inspiring, to say the least.  And yes, that first bolt is always high (to call out my own hypocrisy, as I have aged, stick clips do help keep the climbing season going by avoiding broken ankles!)

Your author, being a skiing fool on his July birthday in the Sierras.

But, something had changed at the temple.  As our sport grew, so did visitation.  When my climbing partner sold his property right off Smith Rock Road, we could no longer walk to the crag.  Instead, we fought for increasingly decreasing space in the parking lots.  Bend and Redmond grew, and even Terrebonne sprouted climber-chic restaurants (you can pry me from the Sunspot when I’m cold and dead.)  Travel Oregon promoted Smith Rock as one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon, and it is right to do so.  The sweeping walls and the arc of the Crooked River, the piercing cry of hawks and languid swoop of bald eagles, the smell of sagebrush and the frolicking river otters–a small slice of paradise.  So hikers and trail runners began to haunt the trails.  But, for me, what matters is the rock.

And the rock is full.  Those large groups of ten or twelve are often loaded with gumbies–though my evidence is anecdotal.  Maybe one or two can lead, a handful have climbed in the gym, and some are just there to “try it out.”  Here, in the sacred, folks are laying hands on the relics and icons without enlightenment.

But I don’t want this to be just another screed lamenting the change in rock climbing; this has been fought and argued over countless threads in the forums.  Rock climbing is changing, and always has been.  Gyms invite newcomers to our sport, and we must adapt accordingly.  There is no other way.  Yes, we can laugh at the gumby who yells, “Falling!” on top rope, but he is here to stay.

What I really want to discuss is an article that brewed up conversation among my climbing partners.  The new editor of Rock and Ice and Ascent wrote an opinion for the New York Times, found here.  It’s an interesting read to say the least.  In quick rundown, for those outside the paywall, the author posits that America’s mountains are becoming too regulated, too ‘softened,’ denying the very wild nature that draws us to them.  He uses the mayor of Gervais-les-Bains, below the icy Mont Blanc, as his straw man, noting new regulations on the massif that result in fines if not followed.  But this argument is somewhat spurious–it is mainly a reaction to Killian Jornet’s radical ascents, and the copycats who have neither his skills, strength, or experience, leading to accidents, rescues, and tragedy.

The highest year-round village in Switzerland, Juf

But America is not like the Alps, nor like most mountain ranges across the world.  After the cultural and human genocide of the Native Americans, the mountains were regarded as inhospitable; a few mining towns and retreats sprung up, but America never truly embraced the notion of mountain-living as Europeans and Asians had for millennium.  As such, the mountains for years remained wild and free, absent the hut-to-hut system and the little villages nestled below soaring peaks.  Eventually, skiing became popular, and there was a gradual encroachment into the wild, but essentially, many of our great ranges still defined for us the notion of risk, of challenge, of freedom.

But we, as climbers and hikers and hunters and outdoor enthusiasts, found ourselves in a bind.  To protect access, we had to get people to care about what we were doing.  To save our mountains and crags from the scrape of mining, the cut of the axe, the bulldozing of meadows for housing developments, we began to advocate.  We encouraged people to take up our sport, to love the outdoors as much as we did.  It took years, perhaps a golden age when ol’ timers could still walk alone in amid the peaks, basking in their glory, while writing guidebooks and seeking to build up the numbers of devotees to make our votes count.  And eventually, the sea change came.

By 2016, the number of users mountaineering had increased over a three year period by 20.3%, as reported by the Outdoor Industry Association.  Sanzaro himself notes that in 1960, 712 mountaineers attempted Mount Rainier; by 2016, the number reached nearly 11,000.  Climbing gyms have profited from a high growth rate, averaging 7% in 2016.  And this is to say nothing about our attempts to diversify our sport away from white men, and encourage minorities and women to take up the sharp end.  Overall, this is a great development–more climbers should mean more voices, more support, more money to fight corporations (read: Trump’s government) from destroying what is so precious to our collective identity.

Yet, it also means the crowds at Smith.  It means friends waiting for three hours on the

Your author, on the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart. Photo credit to Nick Drake

Gendarme pitches on Mount Stuart’s North Face behind numerous groups.  It means permit systems for the backcountry.  It means the weekend warrior must go further, climb harder, and be more remote to escape the hordes.

Climbing has a long history of keeping things secret.  Developers, putting in sweat equity to turn a mash of lichen and moss and loose rock into something worth climbing, are obviously both proud and wary of their work.  Who wants to head to your special crag to find the parking lot full, the climbs lined with top ropes, the silence broken?    Yet the growth in our sport demands it.

But Sanzaro notes he wants the mountains to stay “free and dangerous.”  I am supportive of this–risk is inherent in what we do.  What’s the point of climbing a big route if you are 100% sure you will make it?  The tingling fear that vibrates in your bones up on some desolate ridgeline is what defines us, makes the beer at the car taste that much better. However, I think he is conflating regulation and bureaucracy with the death of risk.  These wild places are also vulnerable, and to keep them protected, we need systems to ensure they are not “loved to death.”  Unfortunately, regulations are always an imperfect tool–the Enchantments’ lottery, climbing permits, reservation systems–none are perfect.  But they do attempt to strike a balance between access and protection, necessary in a world of increasing outdoor use.

Where Sanzaro hits the mark is his worry over the lawyers.  Suing the National Parks for

Should we deny this view from Eldorado Peak in the North Cascades National Park?

not realizing that wildlife is inherently wild, for not warning visitors that the Grand Canyon is indeed a grand undertaking, for allowing users a front row seat to the glories of nature and those users failure to take in what this actually means–this is a failure.  I noticed on a recent tour of the Southwest that the National Parks are now including in their guides a notice on the leading causes of death: Falling, drowning, heart attacks, dehydration.  Does this preclude people from acting foolish?  No.  There will always be gumbies who think a walk in the North Cascades is just like their park in the city.  Cotton t-shirts, a small plastic water bottle, Converse shoes…alert S&R.

So how do we balance risk and reward, advocacy and the lonely epiphanies of the wild?  Education, for starters. But do we need to enforce education?  Mount Rainier has a detailed permit and climbing registry system, frustrating for sure, but the impossible-to-know counterfactual is how many rescues and fatalities has it prevented?  How many rangers have not had to venture onto the glaciated slopes to wipe snow from a frozen carcass?

I mean, it’s right there! Mt Hood, Oregon

Yet, I waver still.  Rainier’s counterpoint in Oregon, Mount Hood, has minimal regulation–a self-filled permit for the mountain.  And the mountain’s ease of access and proximity to population centers means it is the second-most climbed volcano in the world.  From the parking lot at Timberline, it’s just right there!  I can see some inexperienced hiker thinking, “That’s not too far, I could easily make it,” with little regard to the objective hazards.  And still, I don’t want to see any of this regulation on Mount Hood.  It is the playground for risk and reward.

So what do we do, climbers?  Do we abandon the temples of rock climbing to the hordes?  Do we focus on education?  Do we enforce regulations?  Do we tell bereaved families that their son or daughter should have known better?  Do we limit what is considered grounds for lawsuits?  Do we avoid the Fifty Classics?  Do we stop writing guidebooks?  Do we seek ever further adventures, necessitating going harder?  Do we give over to the guides leading folks from Maryland up Forbidden Peak?  Do we adopt the pernicious attitude of “I was here first, and I can’t share?”

Your author, climbing at Madrone Wall, a recently re-opened crag thanks to hard work from climbers engaging the community. Photo credit to Kevin Evansen

Clearly, I don’t have the answers.  I don’t believe anyone does.  But I do believe this will be our challenge in the years to come, while still needing to tackle climate change, exploitation, and access.  Luckily, as our numbers increase, so too will the capital to take on these challenges.

For myself, I found a little dihedral near the Phoenix Buttress at Smith.  The angle deflected the din from across the valley.  For a few moments, I climbed with only the backdrop of wind and river.  Smith was sacred again.  Untying, a group of ten approached, and asked if we were finished.  As they spread out among the boulders and trees, I replied that yes, yes we were.

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