Ethics and rock types in traditional climbing

Ethics and rock types in traditional climbing

It could be argued, with considerable historical evidence, that Britain has led the way forward in clean and sound ethical values concerning the sport of rock climbing.

Since the earliest ascents, leading British climbers have strived to encourage an environmentally acceptable approach to climbing, which leaves little or no trace of anyone having been that way. This commendable attitude has been accepted by climbing communities throughout the world. However, there have been several crises - one being the use of chalk and another, which will no doubt continue long into the future, the use of bolt protection. Such debate is a healthy sign that there are people who care greatly about our heritage and will strive to see it continue in perpetuity.


In its purest form, climbing is about arriving at the foot of a chosen route, climbing it and getting back down without leaving any eveidence of your presence behind you

Ethics of trad climbing

In its purest form, climbing is about arriving at the foot of a chosen route, climbing it and getting back down without leaving any eveidence of your presence behind you. Along the way you'll use only features that present themselves naturally on the cliff, and you'll use similarly natural features to arrange safety and protection, removing it once it's been used. Any variation on this theme is less pure.

It is not only in the UK that British climbers show the way in hard and pure ascents. Many travel to other key climbing areas around the world, taking along the pure ethic adopted here. It is a heritage of which we can all be justifiably proud - long may it continue.

How pure is pure?  

There are inevitably blips in the perfection we seek. Usually these are resolved by healthy discussion, letters in the press and abuse down the pub. But how pure is pure? When someone is at the cutting edge of a sport they are not only setting new standards but also the rules of the game might need to be imaginatively manipulated. For example, is it acceptable to pre-inspect your climb by abseil or to practise it on a top rope before you lead it, or even to pre-place protection for the ascent?

It's a tricky question to answer. If you are doing something that pushes the limits of your own (and the world's) climbing standard then maybe it is acceptable. If you are pushing your own standard and you are at a lower level than that which has been achieved by others then from a purist's point of view and the world at large, it is probably not acceptable. But then again, you have the choice to decide how you wish to climb.
 

Usually issues are resolved by healthy discussion, letters in the press and abuse down the pub

Trad Rules

Some things are clear-cut to the traditional ethic.

You do not place bolts on trad climbs. There have been odd occasions in the past where this has happened and without hesitation the practice has been widely condemned. Often these climbs have had the bolts chopped out by angry climbers or someone has gone out and done the climb, ignoring the presence of the bolt and then chopped it out afterwards.

Nor do you retrospectively place any other form of fixed protection on an established climb. Occasionally rusted and dangerous pitons might be replaced but it is more usual to leave them out. Modern protection is far more sophisticated than that available 20 years ago and occasionally pegs are found in otherwise perfect nut placements.

Rock types

Trad climbingSome rock types do not lend themselves well to natural protection. Limestone, sandstone and slate are the three key rock types.

Sandstone is soft and gear will pull through the rock under a heavy load. Much of the sandstone climbing in the south east of England is very soft and a policy of only bottom roping or soloing has been adopted to prevent serious erosion.
Slate is quite soft but it also has few naturally occurring cracks.
Limestone has smooth walls that generally don't yield cracks for gear placement but that do have handholds and footholds.
 
Most other rock types found in the UK have sufficient features to allow natural protection to be used. In no order of favouritism we have: granite, rhyolite, quartzite, gabbro (possibly the roughest of rock types), gritstone (probably the best) and dolerite. Most limestone crags feature climbs that are both naturally protected and bolt protected. Crack lines and other features on such crags do afford possibilities for protection placements and stances.

There is a wealth of climbing to be found in Britain and much of it is in the purest form possible - we must ensure we preserve the values of our predecessors.

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