THE FIRST ASCENT OF A SPORT CLIMB
By Jon Tierney
When preparing for a recent climb my clients were asking the usual conversational questions which vary from climbing tales and politics to life in Maine or the “best places to get lobstah?” Two particular questions that peaked piqued my interest were “who put all the bolts in the rock?” and “how did the route get it’s name?” Now most climbers simply take for granted a route listed in a guidebook and probably seldom think about the cliff before climbers were present or what went into uncovering the magic lines that nature so often hides. The easy answer was someone put them there. But like most things that seem so simple, there is more there than meets the eye. I began to think about the history of the route, the vision of the first ascensionist, and the labor it takes to create a climbing route.
The first ascensionist is often motivated by a quest for adventure or a desire to push deeper into the unknown. Undoubtedly, the first ascent of a route carries a mystique that no other ascent can have. The biggest question of all is “will it go”? This question is ever present whether the new route is on a big Himalayan peak or a backwoods bluff buried somewhere in the woods. The only answer is “we’ll have to find out”. Knowing that you are doing something for the very first time is a pretty cool feeling regardless of the difficulty level. Throughout Maine and New England, there are dozens of small crags, that have become great little climbing spots. Most of these crags were once heavily vegetated, pretty difficult to reach and covered with lots of loose rock and pretty difficult to reach. What did it take to turn them into popular climbing areas?
Style is a critical element of any first ascent. This goes beyond the desires of the individual. Consideration must first be given to the environment and the landowner – how unique is it, are there rare species present, will the impact be worth it? Should the area even be developed? Turning a pristine, vegetated cliff into a popular climbing spot can be worse than a vertical clear cut. Climbers should seek the services of an expert botanist before doing any clearing to make sure they are not about to destroy a rare lichen or cliff dwelling plant. What is the opinion of the landowner? All of these are important questions that need to be asked, debated and answered before considering new lines. Certainly a first ascent in the North Basin of Katahdin requires a different approach than one on your own property.
A first ascensionist needs to understand and heed the local climbing ethics. There are places in the world where no bolts are allowed, spots where chalk is not favored and even locales where only soft forms of protection such as slings can be used. Imagine taking a fall onto a knotted sling! Should the route be cleaned and bolted from the ground up or is cleaning and bolting on rappel considered okay. In most areas today, it is now generally recognized that better sport routes (those with lots of bolts) are more easily created from the top down on rappel and the traditional ethic of starting from the base of a climb is preserved for gear routes, alpine climbs and those who still adhere to a purist ethic. If a climber makes the wrong choice on an ethics issue, they will become the subject of much scorn. Some purists will go so far as to remove or damage bolts if they don’t like the way the route was done. This can create additional unsightly scarring and potentially effect safety
Climbing explorers don’t usually fit the modern climber stereo type – they are rarely sporting the latest Prana pants and branded tees - rather preferring tattered Carhartts and old tee-shirts. Don’t be surprised to find some duct tape holding the knees together. The first trip to a new area is purely an exploration for possibilities. They are quite content thrashing about in the brush, brambles and poison ivy trying to find a cliff face that they only think might be there. When they do find it, they will spend hours and days peering up and down the cliff face looking for possible lines of ascent. Some would label them a bit eccentric. Each possibility will be carefully considered for it’s esthetics as well as difficulty. By the time they leave for the day, most first ascensionists will be able to draw a pretty detailed map of the cliff’s features in their heads. On the next trip it’s time to get to work!
Laden with a heavy pack, a first ascensionist can be found armed with a host of unusual weaponry not seen in most climber’s packs - scrub brushes, paint scrappers, battery powered impact drills, hammers, wood saws, etc. I have even seen pry bars and chain saws! After the line has been chosen and the ropes hung, lichen is scraped and scrubbed from the cliff. Loose rock and troublesome large vegetation is removed if needed. This requires a lot of sweating, knuckle bashing and the better part of a day or two to clean a single 150’ line. It’s dirty work but someone has to do it. Once the line is relatively clean then the climb is usually attempted on a top rope. This helps insure that safety bolts are placed at good locations where they can be clipped and will offer the best protection.
Modern sport climbing routes are equipped with at least 3/8” x 2.5” stainless steel expansion bolts with hangers designed to hold over 5000 pounds each. Bolts and hardware are expensive and an average route costs $25.00 – 50.00 to equip plus the cost of tools. Bolt holes are drilled with either a hand drill or a battery powered hammer drill. How far apart these are spaced determines the “sportiness” of a route. Less sporty routes have closer bolts and are safer as falls will be shorter. Historically, bolted routes were considered a form of “cheating” and so older routes can be quite sporty. Likewise, bolting from the top down was once frowned upon heavily. Now that sport climbing has become a fully accepted part of the climbing world, it makes the most sense to create safe, well-designed routes with adequate protection from bolts from the top down if needed.
Now it’s time to pull the ropes and see if the route can be lead from the bottom. It may take only a few minutes to climb easier lines while difficult lines may require an Olympic level of fitness and many days of working the moves to finally complete it. Regardless, when you finally reach the top and grab the last anchor there is a feeling unknown to most people of satisfaction and success.
Often the most mentally taxing part of creating a new route is choosing a name – after all, this will be attached to the route forever. Many times the route name carries some hidden significance to the first ascensionists. The name may describe a particular aspect of the climb such as Upside Down Staircase or something that happened on the first ascent like Bloody Knuckles. I have even chosen route names from particular songs playing on the radio that seem related to the climb such Dust in the Wind and Point of No Return. Some names certainly fly in the face of PC.
Regardless of it’s name a new route has been created and others will take pleasure in following the footsteps of the first ascent while the first ascensionist keeps looking for the best line yet!
Jon Tierney Jon Tierney is a certified rock and alpine guide, paramedic and owner of Acadia Mountain Guides. He has been guiding and instructing mountain skills, wilderness medicine and outdoor leadership since the early 1980s. He is a lead instructor for Wilderness Medical Associates.
Email nick [at] noumbrella [dot] com with your questions, comments and concerns.
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