Ideals and Ethics
High Mountain 262 – September 2004
Frequently, I ask myself how does a young fellow these days, eager to climb mountains properly, channel his dreams? Like everything in life there are facts, icons and idols to be followed. But where are the good examples today? If we accept that the mission of sports in general is to induce generally accepted ethics and values into society, what is Alpinism giving us today? Checking the history of climbing we can see that since the early 70s, new directions began to confront the traditional principles of the sport from the past.

When, in the winter of 1965, Walter Bonatti climbed solo his new route on the North Face of the Matterhom, climbers of the world faced up to the question of what one had to do to surpass or even to match this achievement. Some decided to go into climbing competitions and in doing so they improved physical and technical capabilities to higher levels both on rock and ice. Others preferred the Himalaya or the highest peaks of each continent to profile their adventures.

New techniques and materials were developed as a result of the competitions, but in spite of the great exploits of Profit, Escoffier and others in their Alpine enchainments, most of the best sport climbers focused on the more profitable circuit of competitions, developing the idea that the scale of difficulties starting from our old classical and very much respected limit of 6+ (that included the exposure to risk) could progressively move up to today’s 9+ which I guess is rising — but, without the risk of a fall.

Let us remember that in the past, as a conventional rule and because of a natural sense of reverence for our long-established values, no one rated a difficult route beyond the usual and generally accepted maximum limit of 6+. Actually, I believe that old-time climbers could very well have reached higher difficulties but, respectfully, they never posted them as more than a 6+.

Not long ago, some climbers, probably pressed by the media and by commercial sponsors, built up other ideas such as collecting all the fourteen 8,000m peaks or all the highest summits of each continent. The first group has as a target all the 8,000m peaks and I wonder if, sooner or later, there will be climbers looking to collecting all the summits of 22,000ft or 21,000ft or 20,000ft, as per the scale in feet? More recently, the concept of speed in climbing was introduced by collectors to identify a better climber as one that completes a full set of targeted summits in a shorter course of time. Another modern theory is the marathon completed by those who climb dozens of mountains of the same range, also within a minimum time.

Most sponsors, media, public and followers of such ideas accept as true the fallacious statement that in Alpinism quantity and speed are better than quality. They think like this, probably, because of the better returns they obtain in terms of public visibility and money. In this sense, I remember the sharp words I got some years ago from my late good friend Casimiro Ferrari while enjoying together an easy climb in the Italian Grigna. In his crude opinion collectors in general were making a lot for themselves and very little for Alpinism.

There is no doubt that in the last decades there were legendary conquests such as Mount Everest without artificial oxygen and fantastic solos of new lines on very difficult 8,000m peaks, some other reported successes were merely assaults on the ethical principles that guided traditional Alpinism.

There are obscure or partial reports of first ascents of new routes, unrealistic and exaggerated descriptions giving a fictitious view of reality i.e. exaggerating what should be a technical report with a story about pulling out a tooth at 8,000m with a pocket-knife, or another featuring a report with quasi morbid details of suffering an eight-inch jet of blood from an arm while climbing to justify rating his new route as a 5.10c, A5 and, obviously, concluding that it was ‘the most difficult on the planet. This gives sound reasons for not believing any longer, as we did in the past, the words of the Alpinist when claiming a first ascent or rating an extreme difficulty on a mountain or on a new line, without material proof or double checking.

The monetary values that today are involved in our sport due to the, should I say, quasi necrological and morbid but profitable approach of the mass media, frequently brings up conflicts of interest with traditional climbing ethics and principles.

It should be mentioned that the positive reaction of a new generation of successful speed climbers who, under their ‘light is right’ style, are soloing or simul-climbing important routes and summits with a nonstop, bottom-up, clean free climbing styles, avoiding siege attacks, comfort devices and without fixing bolts or lines. Their scale of difficulties include commitment to isolation and risk of exposure and we should, after due checking, accept their proposed increased ratings.

Looking at some vague, usually epic and sometimes curiously imprecise reports floating around, it is becoming somehow difficult to continue to give the traditional full faith to the words of a climber when he is failing to provide material proof of his ascent. In my opinion, and to protect our traditions, when this happens the climb should be reported as a ‘tentative’ and this term should also be applied to all climbers who don’t reach the top of the mountain, the natural final end of the difficulties.

Also, and because of the continuous improvement of techniques, materials, tools and sophisticated modern mountain comfort equipment, there should be classification of ‘techno-ascents’ being those using hardware, techniques and materials other than those generally accepted for free and clean climbing. This includes radios, cell phones, GPS, Internet devices, drills, bolts, fixed lines, portaledges, siege assaults and all tools and mechanisms for artificial progression. Oxygen should be used only for medical reasons and if a climb is achieved with this it should be reported and the ascent identified as made under the benefits of artificial oxygen.

As for the environmental responsibility of the Alpinists, a key to continuing to enjoy in full the freedom of the mountains as the theatre for our adventures I believe it is time to replace hammers, pitons and fixed lines with removable hardware and in this process we should continue to clear routes. Today, there should be no rights for anyone — as happened in the past such as on Cerro Torre, to rape the face of a mountain in order to reach the summit. Walls, ridges and spurs are the material elements to define a natural, and not a forced, line of ascent to the top in a bottom-up effort opposed to some recently created rap-bolted routes.

As a final call to attention for the mature Alpinist, we should recognize that the useful life of an extreme climber exhausts at some time. Do not use technology at the cost of the free and clean climbing style. Leave for future generations, those more physically, technically and mentally fitter, free space for their future adventures.

Carlos Comesana

Carlos Comesana and Jose Luis Fonrouge climbed the first ascent of the 'Supercouloir' on Fitz Roy in 1965, an outstanding ascent for its time


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