New Zealand: The Land that Trad Forgot

There is a route in the Wanaka hills called “Honey, I bolted the crack”. That should tell you almost everything you need to know about the state of trad climbing in New Zealand.

But perhaps a better explanation is warranted… So allow me, as I do, to digress….

For the last two months, I’ve been facilitating a Mountaineering 402 course, in which the ostensible aim is to climb mountains. As you’re probably aware, mountain weather is often uncooperative and we’ve seen little else but storms and gale force winds in the high country. The locals say it has been the most unsettled spring weather in recent memory, which is really quite an achievement in a climate as potentially volatile as New Zealand’s (think Patagonia with less teeth).

Being indoors is anathema to our motley collection of climbers, so we pursued rock objectives in order to use this time productively. Although not strictly our aim, rock climbing would keep us occupied and in decent shape for those fleeting moments when the weather gods gifted us a window into the alpine.

Pretty quickly we realized that there is a severe dearth of traditionally protected climbing in the entirety of the South Island. Admittedly, we have not climbed in certain hotspots such as Mt Somers or The Darrans, but we’ve been almost everywhere else – from Payne’s Ford to Dunedin and everything in between. The few trad areas which do exist were described to us like mythical creatures from a lost age.

This situation is due in part to the rock itself – Payne’s Ford limestone does not lend itself to traditional protection, whereas Charleston gneiss practically begs for it. But the situation has also been exacerbated by confused and questionable ethical practices.

Wanaka is the embodiment of this ethical dilemma. Following the slow development of climbing using traditional means in the idiosyncratic Wanaka schist, bolting came very much into vogue. The guidebook alludes to this evolution in its introduction to the area:

It became apparent to would-be developers that if the compact schist was going to amount to much, they would need bolts – lots of bolts – and power drills.”

This is undoubtedly true, and Wanaka climbing would be poorer were it not for the addition of bolts on most crags. But at some point, developers seem to have gotten a little carried away and developed a sport-or-nothing approach to route setting. This is ably demonstrated by the now infamous “Honey, I bolted the crack”. However, this route is just one of many examples of over-happy trigger fingers and restless power drills which have added unnecessary hardware to pure crack lines. The result has been a confused set of ethics which have percolated across the island and caused no small amount of discord amongst the climbing community.

In many places across the globe, there has (and continues to be) a hard-and-fast principal which demarks the division between sport and trad – if it can be traditionally protected, it doesn’t get bolted. I wrote an entire piece on the ethics of climbing for Vertical Life, which you can find here All my thoughts on the matter are contained there, so I won’t go too much further into it here.

To summarise – the overarching idea is that by preserving strict ethical boundaries, we preserve the terrain and experience enjoyed by each discipline. When these boundaries become blurred, both tribes (and in this case, I’m speaking about sport and trad) generally suffer…. and this is our concern, dude.

All of this is rather surprising in a country such as New Zealand, one with such a strong and omnipotent mountaineering culture. Wanaka began life as a worthy diversion for mountaineers. They were waiting for the blessing of the fickle mistress that is alpine weather, just as we were. It was a training ground, a means to maintain skills, strength and mental acuity.

New Zealand remains a hotbed of technical alpine climbing, so it makes little sense to diminish the meagre collection of traditionally protected terrain at the expense of what eventually becomes “just another sport climb”. Nobody is about to go up and bolt the Bowie Ridge of Aoraki/Mt Cook (and would probably be deported if they did so), and therefore alpinists require low-altitude practice routes which are traditionally protected. To some extent, this pertains to high level climbers, but it is hugely important in fostering the skills of aspiring climbers. These are the climbers of the future who eventually increase the profile and achievements of the sport.

Let’s address an elephant in the room now – I am Australian, and therefore my opinion is mud in NZ. But where I come from, there is a no-nonsense approach to these matters and a strict trad ethic. We have our occasional voices of dissent, but for the most part, trad routes are guarded by the community with a fervor that borders on religious. And this is in a country with a bounty of trad routes, so it puzzles me that Kiwi climbers would be anything less than rabid about the bolting of pure cracks.

The thing is, it’s not just me saying these things – its Kiwi climbers too. I’ve been lucky enough to read a few back issues of The Climber (The New Zealand Alpine Club’s official magazine) in campgrounds and alpine huts, and many of them feature articles which lament the lack of growth in the sport of climbing in NZ. Many argue that there has been an insidious and seemingly unstoppable decline in the standard of high level alpinism in the country since the glory days of Sir Ed. It’s a remarkably common topic of discussion among Kiwi climbers past and present.

To be fair, there have been many superstars on the international stage who have cut their teeth on NZ mountains and crags – Hall and Ball, Guy Cotter, Wiz Fineron and Mayan Smith-Gobat come to mind. But the feeling is that most of these folks use New Zealand rock as little more than a stepping stone to Australia and beyond.

And perhaps this has always been the case. Sure, the apparent decline in New Zealand alpine standards might be due to a host of reasons, some of which may never be reconciled. Personally, however, I see the willful destruction of native trad routes as being one of the most obvious, tangible, and ultimately preventable of these.

But there is hope…

If you drive just a little further down the Motatapu Valley, you’ll find an aptly named crag called “Roadside Attraction”. Here, a tasty arête is guarded by a trio of bolts. Next door, a beautiful, steep hand crack has had its hardware removed and become the plum trad line it always dreamed of being.

The two exist side by side in perfect harmony. And that, my friends, is exactly as it should be. Mahalo.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
January 2017

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?