Faustian Bargains – A response to Hangdog Days

Hangdog DaysReleased earlier this year, Jeff Smoot’s Hangdog Days is a fantastic chronicle of American rock climbing in the tumultuous 1980’s. Both entertaining and enlightening, Smoot’s prose shines light on an era of the sport which others have seemed to neglect. Whilst the legacy of previous generations is firmly cemented in American climbing lore, the 1980’s are arguably forgotten years, and this is odd considering their lasting impacts on the sport as we know it.

Whilst Hangdog Days functions mostly as an ode to Todd Skinner, it also focuses on the ethical dilemmas which characterise the period. Centred on Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Smith Rock and Index, the book recalls the changing zeitgeist regarding the so-called “rules” of climbing. The title itself refers to the then controversial practice of hangdogging, a technique that went against the traditional ground-up approach. The advent of sport climbing is also examined at length, another significant departure from the established ethics of the era.

Personally, I found these examinations fascinating. But I also found myself at odds with the underpinning ideology of the book and against some of the assumptions which Smoot makes. It seems to me that his logic follows along these lines – the traditionalists were reaching plateaus, so the radicals introduced new tactics, and the success of these tactics validates any ethical concessions involved. In other words, the ends justify the means, and might equals right.

But is that necessarily true? Let’s take a deeper look.

First of all, it is worth noting the distinction between style and ethics. In Hangdog Days, Smoot often conflates these two concepts and therefore fails to examine the gulf which separates them. I have written about this issue at length in Bert’s New Bolts, but the short version is this – style is how we climb as individuals, and ethics are how we climb as a community. Or perhaps more to the point, style has no effect on anyone but ourselves, whereas ethics invariably have an impact on the environment and other users.

When Hangdog Days bundles stylistic issues such as hangdogging and pre-placed gear with ethical concerns like retrobolting and rapbolting, it paints with very broad strokes. Nowadays, few would claim that hangdogging embodies bad style, let alone bad ethics. It has become accepted in large part because it has significant benefits and produces no negative effects on other climbers. But if the threads of any number of Mountain Project forums or ACAQ posts are anything to go by, retrobolting is still a hot-button issue. This is because such an act irreversibly changes the nature of the rock, and thereby the experience for all.

Hangdog Days seems to tacitly approve any sacrifice in purity which would create gains in technical difficulty. Indeed, climbers have become stronger by using such tactics, and therefore the justification of such tactics is seen as self-evident. Over time, the popularity of consumer-friendly sport routes has truly cemented this belief.

But just because something works, that doesn’t make it right or just or good. When you break it down, isn’t that kind of rationale a little… insane? If efficacy was the sole metric by which we measured our actions, steroid abuse in sport and chemical weapons in warfare would be A-OK.

Hangdog Days tends to characterise those in the “Traditionalist” camp as misguided fuddy-duddies who lack the vision of the incoming vanguard. Or it sometimes credits them with a surfeit of vision, casting them as mystical ascetics on some sort of inaccessible spiritual quest. Either way, it marginalises the viewpoint that climbing is about far more than pure gymnastic ability.

Just a wee bit of chalk in The Gallery (Source: Chockstone)

This complaint might seem petty, but it’s important. The idolisation of pure difficulty at the expense of other facets of the climbing is a pervasive ethos that was championed in the 1980’s and holds sway to this day. It has created a culture that accepts “necessary evils” as part and parcel of the sport – things like gridbolting, permadraws and excessive and unremoved chalk and tick marks. Although these practices might seem pedestrian to climbers, they have deleterious effects on the experience of other user groups, functioning as lightning rods for the not undeserved outrage of non-climbers.

Hangdog Days seems to draw a line in the sand at chipping, stating that “all sides unanimously agreed that the creation of holds – chipping, chopping, enhancing, whatever you called it – was absolutely unacceptable.” And yet, it is an open secret that just about any route that would be considered “hard” by modern standards has been chipped. I know of quite a few chipped routes that locals will climb with glee, and still more that would be on their bucket list. But such facts are often swept under the rug, which seems to show how thoroughly entrenched the “strength at any cost” mentality has become.

Bolts have done some great things for us. This holds true even within traditional and alpine styles, where sparing use of protection bolts and access to bolted belay anchors has improved the safety, sustainability and overall experience in many cases. My aim is not to denounce bolts, nor is it to indict sport climbing, which I believe to be a legitimate and sustainable pursuit if development is given appropriate consideration. The problem is that such consideration is not always carried out and an “ask for forgiveness, not permission” philosophy has long dominated the practice of route development.

This might not have been a problem but for the exponential increase in the popularity of the sport in recent years. A massive influx of participants at ill-prepared and under-managed crags leads to a host of problems – chronic overuse of wilderness areas, destruction of flora and disruption of fauna, improper disposal of shit, and destruction of cultural and natural heritage. Failure to appreciate the knock-on effects of route development leads to friction with land managers (be they public or private enterprises) which eventually leads to closures.

These issues have contributed in part to recent access problems in Gariwerd/Grampians and Ten Sleep, Wyoming. It is clear that climbing won’t be able to fly under the radar any longer, and that the ability for route developers to operate with impunity is at an end. It is equally clear that we can no longer support practices which detract from the experience of other users by means of visual debasement.

The time has come for modern climbers to examine current ethics and decide what’s really important – route development and grade chasing at any cost, or continued access to the crags we love? This examination should seek to establish a code of conduct which promotes sustainability above all else. Now more than ever, we should minimise our impact as much as possible and give deep consideration to whether new routes are truly valuable additions to the landscape. Either we police ourselves, or someone else will.

All ethical conversations aside, Hangdog Days is great and you should definitely read it. You can get a copy in print or digital at Amazon.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
August 2019


Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?

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