Last fall at the Future of Fixed Anchors conference the Access Fund hosted in Las Vegas, a climber from the Black Hills in South Dakota gave me a little feedback on my opening talk. He noted that I used the words “style” and “ethics” synonymously when, in fact, they have different meanings.
Apparently, I’m not alone—in his
experience, when climbers talk about ethics they’re often referring to matters
of style. In the Black Hills, traditional areas like the Needles coexist in
close proximity to the sport crags near Rushmore and Spearfish Canyon. In his
view, the differences between ground-up trad climbing and sport climbing are
stylistic and don’t rise to the ethical plane of right and wrong. By reminding
people that they’re really talking about stylistic differences, he finds he can
facilitate more productive discussions among climbers who might not see eye to
This really got me thinking. In climbing, which issues are stylistic vs. ethical? Ethics deals with concepts of right and wrong, which have a certain timeless quality. Style has more to do with personal preference and the prevailing trends.
Is placing a bolt on rappel wrong? Well, that depends. It’s perfectly fine in some climbing areas, but what about a place like the Needles of South Dakota where bolts have always been placed by hand from natural stances? Of course, many of the rules governing an area may be defined not by climbers but by a third party, such as a land manager, who has clearly defined what is or is not allowed on the property.
Is a stylistic deviation sometimes an ethical violation when there is consensus on what is an acceptable style in a given area? Again, that depends. Style changes over time. Not too many years ago, just hanging on a rope to work out the moves on a climb was a serious faux pas. Nobody cares about that anymore. On the other hand, some alpinists are willing to risk their lives to climb fast and light, and may even reject other styles of ascent as invalid. So where do we draw the line? These are the sorts of questions that keep philosophers in business and make many climbers want to throw their hands up and just go climbing. But we shouldn’t give up so fast.
One way to evaluate a particular action or behavior is to imagine what would happen if every climber followed suit. What if all climbers violated Wilderness regulations, stashed equipment on public land, cut trail switchbacks, treated the outdoors as their personal rock gym, and left big, chalky tick marks on their routes and problems? Well, that would be bad. So these issues are probably ethical issues rather than matters of style.
Think about the questions and perhaps the controversies surrounding your local climbing or bouldering area. What are people talking about? Are they talking about style or matters of right and wrong, and are they sometimes mistaking one for the other?
If we climbers don’t stand up for what is right, we put our climbing areas and access at risk. But standing like a rock on matters of style is sometimes a mistake—it could mean you’re being a jerk.