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Articles - The Sharp End: Constantly bailing out water

Martin Kocsis, BMC Volunteers' Officer - Posted on 12 May 2010

"The stuff people lower from after doing one of those routes will snap one day soon, and someone will die or be seriously injured. I can see no coherent reason why a safe, bolted lower off should not go in tomorrow."

The horror was etched onto Laurie’s face and I felt total sympathy for him. The only way out of his nightmare was to go down, and that meant abbing off some rotting shite that had been there for 50 years, randomly drilled into sandy rock to an unknown depth. To put things in context a little, about three years ago, Laurie (known, apropos of nothing, as “Youth”) smashed, and nearly lost, his foot in an horrific fall at Stanage. He’s been understandably nervous since then when faced with anything approaching an impact. The danger here was real, not helped by his 100kg of (he tells me) pure muscle hanging off this rubbish. Still, I mused to myself as I lowered him far too quickly, this is what British trad ethics are all about, so what’s the big deal?

I spend as much time climbing in the States as possible. I prefer Yosemite, Zion and the Black Canyon, but I can manage Red Rocks or Bishop just as easily. Apart from the excellent weather and breathtaking landscapes, there are a few other things that are refreshing for someone used to climbing in the UK. The locals are psyched for you on whatever route you’re climbing. There is a supportive, non bitchy atmosphere with a minimum of ego; it always feels like climbing with long lost mates. When I did Mescalito on El Cap some years ago, I climbed it with a guy called Stuart from Fort Austin whose full name I never knew, but who was the second best climbing partner I’ve ever had. After the ascent, we parted with the same handshake in the same bar we’d met in a week previously, and went our separate ways. The other reason I like climbing in the States is that they have a matter of fact attitude to fixed gear. If it seems reasonable to place a bolt so safeguard a belay then that happens. If bolts or pegs are failing they’re replaced. “Pragmatism not idealism” seems to be their mantra and it hasn’t harmed American trad climbing one little bit. From what I see of it, it’s in a better state than it is in the so-called 'Home of Trad'.

The big deal, it seemed to Laurie as he lowered from Millstone’s Keyhole Cave, was the way the refusal to use a sensible approach to fixed gear was unnecessarily putting his life in danger. The stuff people lower from after doing one of those routes will snap one day soon, and someone will die or be seriously injured. I can see no coherent reason why a safe, bolted lower off should not go in tomorrow. When I posted a similar opinion about the abseil station at Castell Helen on UKClimbing many people missed the point entirely. Within a few posts, someone had done the “I can’t believe the BMC pays you, and you come out with stuff like this” routine, which avoids the issue, is meaningless as an argument, and turns a practical problem into a personal one. Those who took the time to consider what I’d written, and who had the intelligence to take my job out of the equation (hint: it was never there in the first place) presented some interesting and conflicting points of view. I hear that one contribution suggested that Castell Helen had been debated years ago and didn’t need to be gone over again. That sort of binary thinking that gets us nowhere...why should a debate in the past prevent one now? What I do see, in my conversations with climbers around the UK, is a shift in attitude from the current view on fixed gear to something rather more progressive.

The sticking point, it seemed to us later in the pub, is the way elite climbers in the UK seem to have an unearned stranglehold over the rest of us when it comes to fixed gear. I heard a famous climber lecturing once, and I came out of the auditorium realizing that just because you climb E8 it doesn’t mean you’re worth listening to. The same is true for fixed gear; I remember a Peak Area meeting where the voices against replacing knackered pegs and letting classic E3s and E4s become unpopular E7s came from the elite, and everyone bowed to them, as if they had the final say. I’m sorry folks, but just because you climb E8, you’re not the boss of me. Why should you have the final say on routes that you can do without the pegs, but the rest of us can’t? That sort of approach helps no one. As my Japanese mate Kasuhiko might say “Kusai!” (It stinks). Decisions about pegs on E2s should be taken by those who climb those routes. There’s nothing good about the rest of us losing a route because a tiny minority can climb it without the peg.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Over the last few years, I’ve been going round replacing rotten pegs with new ones in my own time, out of my own pocket and without telling anyone. I’ve drilled out old placements and even used resin to help cement the new pegs. I’ve installed bolted abseil/belay stations in gritstone quarries and I’ve replaced old pegs with new bolts. In every single one of those cases, the stuff is still there, being used and is appreciated by everyone who uses it. I’ve ensured that a good and accessible route remains so, and does not become a dusty memorial to myopia and the misplaced egos of a few.

Next issue: The Trouble with Peak Limestone (is not Peak Limestone)...

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