Balls to the Wall: The future of climbing

by Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Yosemite Valley National Park, CA – April 2015

“The Dawn Wall?” Stevenson scoffs in response to my inquiry about his feelings toward the recent landmark first free ascent of the iconic Yosemite route. “The Dawn Wall has never seen a true ascent.”

Iconoclast ascensionist, Gabe Stevenson, is being heralded by many in the climbing community as the brainchild behind the sport’s latest revolution and by some as the second coming of Christ. Stevenson has become a prominent mover-and-shaker on the Yosemite scene for some months now with his bold, new style of ethics and ruthless disparagement of the entrenched status quo.

The sport of rock climbing underwent a massive upheaval during the 1970’s. Centered in Yosemite Valley, America’s only rock climbing area, the move towards so-called “clean” climbing was spearheaded by legendary figures such as Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard. Previously, rock climbing had relied almost exclusively on the use of pitons, small spikes of metal which are hammered into the rock and used to catch falls. The use of such destructive forms of protection left scars and fissures in the rock, much to the chagrin of elite climbers who began to see that the practice was unsustainable with the increasing numbers of aficionados trying their hand at the sport. The alternative means of using nuts and eventually SLCD’s (Spring Loaded Camming Devices, or cams for short) shortly came in to vogue, becoming an ethical mainstay of rock climbing and synonymous with the notion of climbing using “fair means”.

Stevenson stops short of dismissing the contributions of those now mythological figures whose legacy remains steadfast in the Yosemite mythos, but asserts that their ideas and methods are as dated and irrelevant as fax machines.

“[Their] revolution was then. Mine is now,” he states. “As climbers, we’ve been far too comfortable with unfair means for far too long. I’m taking climbing back to its purest form, its ultimate form.”

Tanned and lithe, Stevenson perches in unabashed nakedness atop a small boulder as I interview him under the Californian sun. In keeping with his lofty ideals, he lives as he climbs; without the benefit of man-made accoutrements. Ropes, clothes, shoes, event tents and water bottles are all considered unfair in what he considers to be the eternal, titanic struggle of man versus nature. In eschewing these comforts, he has once again placed human endeavour upon a level playing field not seen since Palaeolithic times. His example has sparked the genesis of a rapidly expanding phenomenon within the climbing world, a style dubbed “Ultra Cleaning” by its burgeoning number of acolytes. The rules are simple: climbing is to be an entirely human-powered enterprise, bereft of the benefits of technology, tools and textiles.

Dwayne Bourke, a newly converted Ultra Cleaner, finds it all but impossible to hide the derision in his voice as he gestures toward a party of climbers on a nearby wall.

“I mean, just look at these jabronis,” he comments with a sneer. “All those ropes, all that sticky rubber on their shoes. That’s not climbing, brah. True climbing is just you and the rock. I’m a boulderer, so I know what real climbing is all about. It’s a pretty natural progression to go from bouldering to soloing big walls in the nude.”

Stevenson, however, doesn’t acknowledge the necessity for terms such as soloing (climbing without ropes or protection) or free climbing (climbing without the use of artificial aids for ascent).

“As climbers, we should ban those words from our lexicon,” says Stevenson. “There is only one form of true climbing, and that is Ultra Cleaning. Anything else is a joke.”

In the effort to spread his gospel amongst the community, Stevenson has begun to compile a new Yosemite guidebook to replace the “rags” which currently see widespread use within the Valley. This new, exulted tome is currently in its first edition and contains over 12 routes accorded the abbreviation FTA or First True Ascent. Due to the ease with which we access information in our modern era, the speedy dissemination of Stevenson’s new beta has attracted scores of aspirants hopeful to make a name for themselves in this new Golden Age of climbing. According to the Yosemite National Park Ranger Service, this trend has seen fatalities and near-misses skyrocket by an alarming seven hundred and fifty percent.

“It’s unfortunate,” Stevenson muses, “but not regrettable. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette.”

With Yosemite truly in the grips of Ultra Cleaning fever, it was only a matter of time before it spread to other regions of the world. So far, several climbers in South and Central America, Europe and Asia have made the switch to the climbing ethics espoused by the patron saint of ascension, Gabe Stevenson. Due to the relative novelty of the phenomenon, statistics on ascents and deaths are hard to nail down at this stage, but will likely take shape in the coming years. In light of this inevitable osmosis, I queried Gabe on his thoughts towards the application of Ultra Cleaning in more hostile environments such as the flanks of Denali or K2.

“Training,” he insists. “There is nothing that can’t be achieved by fair means if we train appropriately. The ethics of Ultra Cleaning can be applied just as readily to cave diving or space exploration as they can to climbing.”

Many prominent members of the climbing elite have been quick to publicly denounce Stevenson as a quack, a mere sideshow in the continuing narrative of the sport. However, if the distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success, Stevenson seems prime to take a seat in the pantheon filled with such venerated names as Reinhold Messener, Walter Bonatti and Sierra Blair-Coyle. With new climbers swelling the ranks of Ultra Cleaners with each passing week, it’s clear that Stevenson’s purist ethic has struck a chord amongst the community and is destined for greater status than that of a passing fad.

His current aspirations are to conquer the Dawn Wall, in what he stoically maintains will be its first ascent, a project he believes he will see come into fruition sometime between next season and 2075. With his steely gaze locked upon the hulking behemoth of El Capitan, it seems certain that he will make this dream a reality or die trying.

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?