“I’m sorry, sir. But the thickest they come, is 10.5 mm. And we measure the length in meters these days, not feet. Will you want a wet or dry rope?”
Looking a bit confused, the man replied, “Dry, I guess. We’re not going to use it on a glacier.”
“What kind of climbing are you going to be doing?” asked the salesman with a slightly dubious frown.
“Yes, but what kind? Sport or trad.”
Now the paunchy man looked really puzzled. “Sport or trad? What’s the difference?”
* * *
And that is how I got my first inkling of the wonderful branches of climbing that have developed in the 35 years I was away from the sport. The confused man was I and the young woman, my daughter Karen. We were shopping for gear for our planned trip to the Gunks. It would be her first time climbing outdoors and my return to the cliffs after 35 years on the couch. I feared, when we entered the store that, if our inexperience with modern climbing and gear were revealed, we might be deemed “unsafe at any cliff” and not be allowed to buy gear. I was wrong, of course, not having counted on the power of the profit motive. Despite my display of ignorance, the salesman helped us select a rope, biners, nuts, and (expensive) cams, and wished us good luck at the Gunks. He must have thought we were going to need it.
Our trip, about which you can read below in the article entitled “Return to Easy Overhang,” was successful (i.e., we climbed some easy routes, had a great time, and avoided any epics). I have done quite a bit of climbing since, and learned in the process not only that there is now a difference between “trad” and “sport” climbing, but also that there are indoor climbing gyms where some folks spend all their climbing time; “pad people” who never use ropes, but carry mattresses around to cushion their falls off incredibly hard boulder problems; and climbing competitions where male and female world champions are crowned. There is even competitive ice climbing. There are speed records for the quickest ascent of classic routes like the Nose on El Cap. Just today I learned there are two such records for the North Face of the Eiger. One is for ascent by a team, the other for a solo ascent. Solo up the Eiger?!
This eruption of diversity since my first climbing life ended in 1972 means there is a niche for virtually anyone who is at all interested in climbing. But I find myself attracted most strongly to trad. Perhaps that attraction stems simply from the fact that today’s trad climbing is the form most like the rock climbing I did long ago. Or, maybe I take refuge in trad because I can’t climb anything very hard. Bouldering is about nothing but climbing hard rock. In sport climbing the protection is already there, so it too is mostly about how hard one can climb. But trad climbing offers many elements to distract attention from pure climbing ability: route finding, gear placement, anchor building, rappelling, self rescue techniques, etc. Maybe I like trad because all this ancillary stuff distracts from my inability to lead much harder than 5.7.
As I have thought about my affinity for trad climbing, though, I think there is another, deeper explanation. I learned much of my climbing from reading and re-reading the first two editions of Mountaineering, the Freedom of the Hills, the climbing text put out by the Mountaineers of Seattle. Learning the techniques, skills and judgments of mountaineering, that book explained, is essential to gain the freedom to travel safely and reliably in the hills (i.e., mountains):
Freedom of the hills lies largely in the ability of a party, whatever the size,
to handle every problem of travel and living [in the mountains], including
emergencies, with nothing more than the members can carry conveniently on their
backs, using their physical resources and the knowledge and judgment they have
gained through experience.”
That is what I want, what I have wanted since I was 14 years old: the ability to travel and cope in the mountains, and to rely on myself to do it effectively and safely.
It was a summer day in 1971, the first I ever spent in Yosemite Valley. Two friends and I had just arrived and did a very easy 3 pitch climb. The guidebook described a walk-off descent, but somehow we got off-route and wound up stuck on a ledge a couple of hundred feet above the Valley floor. I started to get worried, thinking we wouldn’t be able to get down and might have to be rescued. Oh, the ignominy! Then, a strange thing happened: I thought to myself, “No, we’ll be alright because I’m here, and I’ll be able to figure some way out of this.” I did. I rigged a tension traverse that got us over to another ledge system which we could down-climb.
I can’t recall ever having had that “it’s-alright-because-I’m-here” feeling before that day, but I have had it since and it feels very good. Trad climbing allows me to recapture that feeling of being able to rely on myself and my partners to surmount a natural obstacle, the cliff, and deal efficiently and safely with emergencies that may arise without outside assistance. I want to be the one to find the route, place the protection, build the anchor, watch the weather, decide when to push on or to turn back, and cope with emergencies. In short, I want to keep on earning the freedom of the hills.
I do not mean to suggest that trad climbing is in any way ”better” than bouldering, or sport or gym climbing, or competition. Each has its own fascination. I greatly admire the athletic ability and determination of the sport climbers and boulderers. There is something pure and exciting about climbing the very hardest routes, making the most athletic moves. I could never match the difficulty of the climbs they do. But for me, for reasons tied up with my history and personality, trad is special because it is about the freedom of the hills.