When climbing was a young avocation, conquest was good. The deity had commissioned civilized man to establish a benign dictatorship over nature. To that end the men in charge needed to demonstrate mastery over nature whether through knowledge or main force. So when a man of a certain class came of age, he went out into the world to test his courage and perfect his moral character. Sometimes he hunted dangerous animals or explored the dark fringes of the map. Other times, he climbed mountains. The mountains were the ideal venue for his purpose. With their ice, wind, rockfall and thin air, they embodied berserk nature. By wit and fortitude the upper – crust adventurer could overcome the peak’s barriers and stand on the summit atop his vanquished foe. No better symbol of mastery existed. Sure, he enlisted the aid of knowledgeable locals, but they functioned as servants, not partners. Nor did those early guides tie in with their employers for the love of climbing. They were mountain people simply trying to survive by whatever means available in communities that were the opposite of the posh hill resorts we know today.
For many decades, such was mountaineering. The summit was the thing. Part of the game was seeking out the path of least resistance. However, as the easy peaks fell, mountaineers after an adequate test of their moral fiber had to devote more considerable time to skill development. Claims of a notable achievement required contrivance when a climb forged a new route to an established summit or went to the top of an obscure, lesser peak. As climbing success became relative, the more generic virtues of wit and will became less important. Mountaineers began to judge themselves on the basis of their skills and technical achievements. They began to talk more about the quality of the route than the summit. They had molted into alpinists.
With the advent of alpinism, where the route was the thing, climbing shifted toward sub – cultural status. It was no longer just a practice of the upper class and an expression of a larger cultural value. It was becoming its own little world. By the time the Canadian Pacific Railroad brought Swiss guides to the Rockies, this process was almost complete. These guides were no longer servants who worked in the mountains, they were climbers. Sure they got paid to climb, but no one had to pay them to climb. One could even remark to his clients, as they clawed their way up a loose ridge, “Stand up gentlemen, you won’t bump your heads.”. A teacher and icon made that comment, not a tour conductor. When climbing stood itself up as an independent entity, competition, though present form the start became intense. The sub-culture sought its own order by the means its parent culture provided. Climbing sustained this affectation easily at first. Few climbed the North Face of the Eiger. Those who did clearly proved themselves better than the masses of weekend scramblers. Then the parent culture played a nasty trick on its child. Western people continued to accumulate wealth and leisure time. Everyone had access to the mountains and the time to use it. Technical climbing standards rose. The North Face opened to the proletariat.
So, climbing acquired ethics. Climbing ethics, like the rules in any game, facilitated competition. Conscientious climbers variously turned ethical rules toward the ends of conservation and technical advancement, but the root purpose remained keeping score. With the advent of ethics, the last hanging scrap of larger cultural relevance fell away. Climbing was clearly a thing in itself, a selfish endeavor. In an attempt to cling to that larger relevance, since it had developed some rules like sports, climbing aspired, for a time, to sport status. But that was a lie and no amount of ethical bickering could make it true. Natural forces were necessary players. No rules could make ice thicker, snow firmer or arms longer. Climbing was by nature a personal, ephemeral experience, not easily repeated and judged like the 100-yard dash.
So came the final ethic: just tell the truth, the simplest and best rule of the lot. No more pretending that anyone could keep score, just do as you like, but be honest about it to yourself and others. Enlightenment did not drive this ethical revolution. The facts demanded it. People just kept getting better. When I bought my first set of ice tools, the people who had climbed Nemesis all knew each other. By the time I finally climbed that route, nobody even knew the number of previous ascents. I got the value of the experience, but no points for it. This is the norm. As the Winter Dance guidebook acknowledges in regards to its contents, “you won’t become a hero, or famous by climbing any or all of the routes in this guide.”.
Climbing is personal now. At least, technical climbing is personal. The center of egotism and competition in climbing has shifted back to the summit seekers. In this realm, climbing has found its way back to a place in the larger culture not far from where it began. Summits- Everest, the Seven Summits, 14’ers- are achievements. And now, even the highest are accessible to people with very limited experience and technical ability. Achievers seek these places now. These people have gained, or at least desired, recognition from our culture for their drive and competitiveness. Cultivation of those attributes has become an end in itself. Summitting offers validation of that end. If the climber can apply the principles of success in society to the mountains, those principles must have a universal significance; nature says so. There is nothing wrong with seeking validation. True, it is a selfish pursuit, just as practicing religion, learning, and eating are selfish pursuits. If the validation comes from outside, though, it is worthless. A person founded on that sandy ground will be vulnerable to fear, jealousy and spite. If the validation comes from inside, from personal experience, it is invaluable. A person stood on that stone may resist. It’s been a long route, but the technical climbing world has mostly realized that difference. Let the summiteers keep climbing, they’ll get there too. Nature says so.