I don’t normally get dragged into ethical debates these days, but on this occasion, it seems, I can’t avoid it, in light of the fact that even those with whom I’ve climbed and shared adventures with in the past appear to be somehow doubting the ‘validity’ of my ascents. I’m amazed it’s come to this, and that these individuals apparently believe that their position within the climbing community places them above everyone else; including not only the climbing masses, but also those at the forefront of the sport. I wouldn’t be so phased if their ideas made any sense.
The debate, as it were, started around Dave Macleod’s recent activities on Ben Nevis. One route – the provocatively titled White Noise (D10+) – was a pure dry tool route, and as far as I can make out Dave has never suggested otherwise. The other, however – The Snotter (VIII,8) follows iced grooves, rock and ice – and whatever your take on it is most definitely a ‘mixed’ climb. Ironically (in my view) it is the latter route that appears to have had the greater impact in stirring the loins of the winter climbing cogniscenti, despite tackling an obvious mixed climbing problem in what appears to me to be perfectly good style.
A variety of concerns have been raised variously by those who’ve objected to Dave’s ascent of The Snotter, which are summarised briefly as follows:
- As the prominent icicle feature on the line is known to have touched down, or at least nearly touched down, on a number of previous occasions, climbing the route in an only ‘partially-formed’ state has been interpreted as cheating, robbing others of the chance to climb the line in its more fully-formed state;
- The fact that the hardest / crux section of the route was climbed on dry rock and – even worse – in the sunshine, has led some to believe it is not a Scottish winter route and should therefore be given a more appropriate ‘M’ style continental grade;
- The fact that Dave chose to climb the route in partially-formed, dry and sunny conditions has been perceived in some way as a threat to the traditional Scottish winter ethic – i.e. waiting for pure rock climbs, or longer sections of rock on otherwise mixed (rock/ice/turf) routes, to become well plastered in hoar frost making them “white” before attempting an ascent.
In short, my perspective on these concerns is that they are entirely and grossly misplaced. Had they been levelled at White Noise, then fair enough, I’d have largely concured. But in the case of The Snotter I can’t for the life of me see the problem. Look at the picture of the route below. How much of the route is dry rock? Is this an acceptable winter route? And ask yourself, honestly, if you’ve ever made what you felt at the time was a perfectly acceptable ascent of a Scottish winter route that involved climbing ice either from and / or onto sections of dry or largely dry rock? If you haven’t, then I would hand on heart say you’ve missed out on some of the most enjoyable climbing Scotland has to offer.
Now, below are two good examples of my own first ascents of new routes that I believe fall into a very similar bracket to The Snotter. Remember these at least in part follow unclimbed territory, and would be either impossible or at least significantly harder without the presence of the ice. This is the key factor for me here – that the ice DEFINES the routes, and it’s presence makes them easier (that isn’t to say that the ice is necessarily the crux). So there’s both an aesthetic and a certain logic that to me makes these rutes particulrly attractive – more so than, say, a completely snowed-up piece of ice (and turf) free rock.
So tell me then, are these not valid Scottish winter ascents? Was I cheating? Should they be considered as M-style rather than Scottish winter routes? I don’t bloody well think so! They were climbed in Scotland, in winter, in once-in-a-lifetime conditions. Sometimes in Scotland, just occasionally, we don’t need to battle our way through 8 inches of frost to get at the rock, and such conditions certainly aren’t desirable on the hardest winter ground. The style of climbing may not be quite the usual full-on plastered white get-your-sticky-beard-out gnarl we’re more used to, but I tell you what the climbing experience was none the worse for it – far from it in fact.
Unfortunately in Scotland we just don’t often get blessed with these ‘perfect’ conditions of quality ice and dry rock. When it does happen, and you’re lucky enough to catch it, it’s a wonderful thing – please don’t whip out some imaginary rule book and tell us it’s cheating, because it isn’t. It’s simply being in the right place at the right time. I can’t believe any individual climber would be so pious as to imagine they possess some kind of omnipresence that allows them to profess their ethical due diligence over other people’s adventures. What a total bag of shit. At least Dave (unlike some others) is consistently honest enough to show us pictures of his hard ascents, and describe them openly fr what they were on the day.
So what are the “rules” if we feel we should have them? (I personally don’t – I think honestly and transparency is much more important). If it’s a route based largely on ice, then to me the state of the rock is irrelevant – I’m sure any winter climber with half a brain cell would agree. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that ice needs to thaw in order to get fatter, so it’s kind of logical to expect that as the ice on a route grows the rock will often as not dry out. This situation is exacerbted on routes based on very thin ice. The Tough Brown Face is a great example – when the routes there are at there very best (on inch thick ice runels) the rock will typically be black. Would Dave’s ascent of The Snotter have been any more acceptable if the icicle had almost touched down but the “dry, sunny wall” used to gain it been so steep that this didn’t make any difference, and he’d still tooled up dry rock? Same route, potentially with more ice, but exactly the same climbing. This is just completely and utterly ridiculous.
To me, the only place where th requirement for a wintry appearance becomes an issue is on routes DEFINED by long sections or whole pitches without ice. In this case, the whole point of attempting the route is to meet the challenge of winter head on. If routes like this didn’t need to apear “white” there would quite simply be no logic in waitng until winter to climb them – much more sensible and enjoyable to go climb them on a warm summers evening. There is also something aesthetically distasteful about tooling up largely dry rock with no ice in sight (sorry dry toolers!).
So why am I getting so excited you may ask? Maybe it’s because I don’t like rules, and even less when people try to impose them in the mountains. But more importantly I firmly believe that what makes a good winter route is that degree of logic and aesthetic. To me it’s both logical and aesthetically satisfying when sections of rock link sections of ice. As I said earlier – on routes such as this the state of the rock as irrelevant – it’s the ice that defines the route. It might not provide the hardest climbing, but it’s what brings the route into existence in the first place. Do we think Dave would have attempted The Snotter if there was no ice at all?
But what really stirred me was when someone I know well and have climbed with often before extended their objection to The Snotter to a recent new route of my own (see the photo below). In this case the new line in question (Parallel Grooves – VII,9) involved negotiating a 3m section of dry rock to gain more thin ice, within the context of a route that was 250m long and otherwise climbed entirely on snow and thin ice. Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. At least it wasn’t sunny – God forbid!
This kind of misplaced ethical policing is exactly what Scottish winter climbing DOESN’T need. I believe we need vision, logic and aesthetics. There are loads of very exciting new route possibilities across the Highlands at grade IX and above that might involve climbing dry or at least black rock to gain difficult and often thin sections of ice. For me these are some of the most exciting prospects for the future – more so than any piece of snowed-up pure rok. Sure, there are lots of other possibilities that don’t form ice, and in these more ‘common’ cases the state of the rock becomes much more important; a wintry coat is what brings the route into condition; it’s what defines the route. But to suggest there is only one style of route and that’s completely hoarded up and continuously white from bottom to top is not so much narrow-minded as completely ridiculous. This is ethical bloody heresy.
And what of the provocatively-named White Noise? To me this is the real aberration – a pointless distraction, nothing more – misguidedly established in precisely the wrong place. There’s certainly a place for pure dry-tooling – I do a bit of it myself – but it certainly isn’t on Ben Nevis in the middle of winter. I think I can take from Dave’s notes on his blog (?) that he’s kind of seen this now, as reflected in the climbing community’s total disinterest in the route (UKC armchair pundits excepted, of course). Winter climbing without any of the winter – now where’s the logic or aesthetic in that?