Just Cleaning?

posted by dpm on 02/20/2013

Chipping, manufacturing, cleaning, reinforcing... These are terms we use as climbers to describe any alteration of the rock for the purpose of climbing. These terms encompass a wide array of alteration from the generally accepted, like brushing dirt and chalk off with a toothbrush, to the generally unaccepted, like using a power drill to create a handhold. Where 'acceptable' becomes 'unacceptable' along this spectrum is possibly the most heated and ongoing debate in the history of rock climbing.

Specifically in sport climbing, there are many examples of blatantly manufactured routes that were mostly born in the late 80's and 90's. Some of them are considered classics, especially in limestone areas like Rifle, Colorado or Mt. Charleston, Nevada. As climbers got better, manufactured routes became less acceptable. Now that people are climbing into the 5.15 range, is it really necessary to create a 5.13 route when it could be climbed at a harder grade using the natural features?

For the most part, America's boulders were spared from that unfortunate chapter in sport climbing history, with some notable exceptions. The famous Hueco Tanks problems Mushroom Roof and Hobbit in a Blender reportedly have chipped holds that were gouged out after the first ascents had already been completed. Most will agree that altering a rock that's already been climbed is sacrilege, but just because it hasn't been climbed doesn't mean that it won't be in the future. Dave Graham once stated, "It’s different in bouldering , I think no hold chipping is universally accepted, even if unfortunately there are some sad exceptions. The problem with hard lines is finding them."

Dave suggests that our boulders are a finite resource. There is only so much rock out there and creating new holds to make a problem easier erases the possibility that a more talented or driven climber could come along and climb the problem.   

One such instance happened last year in the 'Gunks, a popular bouldering area in New York State. There was a boulder problem that had been a long-standing project for local climbers and had spit off all suitors since their first attempts as early as 1996. It was no secret, even being listed in the guidebook as a project. Many top-climbers had tried it, and it was estimated to be in the V13 range. One local climber was particularly invested in the project. "I'd been looking at that thing since I was 16," he said. "I tried it on and off for 12 years and much of the time I thought it probably didn't go, but after 15 years of climbing, I finally started to unlock some sequences."

Last spring, he finally did all the moves and had done it in two sections. A send of the problem seemed close until one day, he returned to the problem and found that an unknown person had altered the holds. "It was definitely different and easier. I have no doubt that someone carved out a thumb catch to make a hold better. I lost all motivation for it. It's not even that I'm upset that the problem was stolen from me; I'm more upset that it was taken from the climbing community. It was always a problem that I aspired to climb and it would always have been there for other climbers to aspire to."

Other local climbers began noticing that the project wasn't the only one that got chipped in the area. Another local stated, "We started to see these problems that were completely manufactured- like every hold. It was happening all over. We had suspicions about who it was, but there isn't exactly a police force in the boulders to prevent this stuff from happening."

Recently on a snowy day, the ring of hammer and chisel on stone rang out, and the climbers were able to film a person in the act of altering the rock. What, exactly, they caught on film is debatable. Sometimes, when establishing rock climbs, a dangerous flake is pried loose to prevent injuries to future climbers. Sometimes that loose flake is 'scored' with a chisel so that when it breaks, it leaves a handhold, and sometimes holds are blatantly created with the use of tools.

The local climbers presented the video to DPM with the request that they remain anonymous. "We don't want this to come off as a personal attack," they said. "We've tried speaking with the person and it obviously hasn't had an effect. Our intent isn't malicious, we just want this to stop happening to our boulders."

Most climbers will likely agree that the actions portrayed in the video cross the line. We spoke with the Access Fund to hear their stance on the issue and how it could affect the future of climbing. The Access Fund stated that they, "vehemently oppose intentional alteration of the rock by gluing or chipping for the purpose of creating or enhancing holds. We believe such actions degrade the climbing resource, eliminate challenges for future generations of climbers, and threaten access."

Our intention in posting this video is threefold. Firstly, it clearly demonstrates that the practice of chipping boulders and creating problems is still happening. We hope that this video will aid climbers in forming their own opinion on the subject and spur productive conversations, and finally, we hope that the images are disturbing and impactful enough to prevent any future damage to our precious bouldering resources.


The tools of the trade? Click the image for video of the rock being altered.


Update: Edelrid has requested that we post their official statement regarding one of their former sponsored athletes. From their Facebook Page

"We would like to state unequivocally that EDELRID does not support the practice of chipping. It is our belief that the challenge, and the pleasure of climbing, lies in rock formations, as they occur naturally.

With this in mind we can state that we find the recent behaviour of Ivan Greene to be completely unacceptable, and we would like to take this opportunity to clarify that he is no longer an EDELRID sponsored athlete, and in actuality has not been supported by the brand for over 12 months. 

We will be removing all references to Ivan Greene from the EDELRID website with immediate effect."