What Nobody Is Saying About the Dawn Wall

So, the Dawn Wall project is obviously the coolest, most groundbreaking, awe-inspiring, mind-blowing thing in the climbing world right now.  Tommy Caldwell is a freaking animal, and as hard a worker as you can find in the pantheon of professional climbers.  And as far as I can tell, Kevin Jorgeson went straight from top-notch boulderer to world-class runout vertical granite tickytackytechy big wall free climber – as impressive a transformation as I can imagine.  What the guys are accomplishing up on the Captain right now is literally out of this world.  I can’t wait to see them send, to watch the video footage, to click on the various newsreels that display their step by step progress each day on the interweb.

And yet, no matter how hard I try to shut my overly-critical brain of its latent cynicism, I can’t help but feel like something about this whole thing is a little amiss.  Now, this is not to take anything away from Tommy and Kevin – not in the least.  I won’t be that armchair mountaineer.  Like I said, I am so blown away by their feats of strength, courage, and perseverance that the last thing I want to do is criticize.  But I find myself wondering, what does the Dawn Wall project, and the associated fanfare, say about climbing today?

In many ways, the whole thing feels like a grand contrivance.  I know, ‘but isn’t climbing itself the ultimate contrivance’?  Yes, of course.  But some kinds more than others.  Now, I think that freeing all the pitches is certainly worthwhile (and this has been done, as far as I understand).  And climbing the route in a push, while freeing as much of it as possible – that’s certainly worthwhile.  Even spending a few days on it, yes, and pulling the rope when you fall, high-pointing, whatever it takes; going at the thing wall style and trying to free it – indubitably awesome.  But spending two to three weeks on the route, surrounded by camera crews, fixed lines and other media accoutrements; getting goodies brought up to you by friends; ticking holds; rehearsing sequences on toprope; downclimbing huge sections to circumnavigate an impasse, and in doing so climbing the majority of a pitch on toprope… Doesn’t something about all that seem a little out of place on the middle of El Capitan?

Call me old-fashioned, and obviously not cutting edge, but even on El Cap, shouldn’t the whole point of the climb be the adventure surrounding it?  What I can’t help but shake from my head the more I think about this Dawn Wall extravaganza and the media zoo that follows it is Reinhold Messner’s famous article, The Murder of the Impossible.  In this piece, Messner campaigns fervently against the direttisima, and bolting – largely because it removes the sense of uncertainty from the climb itself.  Now, obviously what Tommy and Kevin are doing is by no means equitable to what Harding did on the last pitch of the Nose, or what Maestri did on Cerro Torre.  What these guys are doing is bold, often runout, difficult to protect, state of the art free climbing.

But yet, in their own way, aren’t Tommy and Kevin doing every humanly imaginable thing to remove as much doubt as possible from the success of their ascent?  Certainly, there is the adventure of doing these insanely hard pitches knowing that you could fall at any moment – there’s the adventure of putting in 5 years of hard work not knowing if the thing will ever go in the first place – there is that adventure.  But on this climb itself – on this ground-up push – where is the sense of adventure that the climb itself brings?  Between 4-course meals, pre-planned moisturizer applications in the middle of the night, meticulously filed finger and shoe tips, twittering-face-booking-instagraming and otherwise social mediafying – doesn’t what they are doing sound a lot more like cragging than wall climbing?  I simply get the impression that if the guys just spend long enough on the wall – take enough rest days up there without coming down – the thing is bound to happen one way or another.  And if so, why not just come down each night, and jug up the next day, or the next week, or just call it good already because technically they’ve already freed all the crux pitches.  It’s not exactly as if they are doing it all in a row.  There is (I believe – and I might be wrong on this) a lot of chillaxing going on up there.  Which is great – that’s part of wall climbing in the valley anyway.  But where, I repeat, is the adventure?  

The aura that surrounds Tommy and Kevin’s push simply feels a lot more like a sport-climbing project, than a big wall adventure.  Closer to Sharma pushing and pushing and finally sending Realization than to a bunch of Belgians romping their way up mossy big wall offwidths in the middle of the Arctic with seagulls puking in their faces.  What makes me nervous is watching the pursuit of sheer athleticism push out from bouldering, gym, and sport climbing into trad climbing, wall climbing, even into the alpine (with athletes like Tommy, Alex Honnold, and Ueli Steck doing insane linkups and freesolos in Patagonia and the Himalaya).  Sport pushes outwards, but adventure does not push back.  It simply moves along to more adventure.   If the sport aspect of climbing continues to expand unchecked, do we not run the risk of the adventure aspect not only becoming marginalized, disenfranchised, and relegated to more and more remote (i.e., expensive) ranges – but worse yet, forgotten altogether?

I think it’d be absurd to say that Tommy and Kevin aren’t experiencing some incredibly adventurous feeling moments these days.  Or that Ueli and Alex don’t confront inner demons most of us would rather not even consider on their major solos.  What I am more concerned about than them, is us. The obsession that the climbing media and the rest of us ordinary climbers (aka, mere mortals) have with documenting the constant progress of the physical aspect of climbing, rather than exploring the depth and intricacy of the emotional landscapes that drive us to and away from the mountains time and again, leaves me feeling wary and unsettled.  Climbing is so outstanding because all of us – no matter what level we climb at – can have incredibly emotional experiences through climbing (whether scared shitless or lost in ecstasy).  Climbing literature, photography, and other forms of art are so compelling because they tell us stories all of us can learn from, and relate to.  If climbing were more like basketball, football, or any other ball sport out there, most of us wouldn’t have started “playing” it in the first place.  I would argue that the adventure aspect of climbing is the central aspect of it – not the athletic aspect.  Furthermore, by championing athleticism over adventure, I believe we lay the foundation for turning climbing into something it most certainly is not: a sport.

And I guess that’s what this whole rant hinges on.  I don’t believe climbing is a sport.  Climbing is not a game people play, with winners and losers, and bests and worsts.  Climbing is an adventure, a journey, and an expedition – both inwards and outwards.  It is a pursuit, an exploration, and a way of life.  It is a prayer, a practice, and an art.  Each climber should climb in his or her own way; climbing is about seeking out and actually feeling ultimate freedom, after all – not following a bunch of arbitrary rules some other guy set down before you.  I am not arguing for some sort of rigid moral code to go along with trad climbing, big wall climbing, or any kind of climbing – for that matter.  What I am arguing for is a bit of circumspection from all of us about the direction climbing is heading in. Now, if you’re a trad climber or an alpinist, you likely already raise a skeptical eyebrow or two when you think about bouldering or sport climbing.  But aren’t trad and alpine climbing following suit, slowly but surely?  As climbing itself becomes more and more mainstream, as climbing’s top athletes become more and more like celebrities, don’t we begin losing sight of what makes climbing so wonderful in the first place?  I don’t have the answer; but I think, at the least, it’s worth asking the question.

Postscript: This article is meant to encourage debate, and thought.  It is not meant, in any way, to criticize the Dawn Wall project, or anyone involved in it.  Those guys are off the charts, in my opinion, and I got my fingers crossed that they send.  Good luck Tommy and Kevin…  If you have thoughts on the subject, I’d love to hear them.  Please share!

65 comments

  • One of the best pieces on climbing I’ve read. Excellent and very thought provoking. Were I ever half the climber Caldwell is, I don’t think I’d go for this particular kind of project and it does indeed seem, as you’ve pointed out, rather remote from what the essence of climbing is. That said, it’s completely amazing to see these guys and I’ll be thrilled if they make it.

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  • I got some really excellent notes from a friend about this post; and actually wish I had gotten them before I published this so I could have edited. Instead of going back and changing the text people have already read, though, let me just echo that friend’s thoughts here. What is really important in this piece is not my own feelings about the Dawn Wall, but yours! My goal is really to use the piece to open debate amongst us in the community about what the role of media in climbing is, should be, will be in the future. In short, what stories do we tell, and what lengths do we go to in order to tell them? That is what the article is about- not my own winings about wishing things were one way or another. Hope you guys all enjoy, and bring your own ideas to the table!

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  • JoeMama DeGaetano

    This echoes my thoughts exactly!!! Less sport and more experience!!! Great piece. Rehearsal climbing is (Derogatory term deleted by site admin)!

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  • An excellent piece of writing by cjkalman, I am afraid however that not too many of todays young climbers will agree with him.The gym ,,bouldering and sport climbing have taken over the attitude of most of todays climbers. Yes even on El Cap of all places preplaced pro, ticked holds ,top roping have all become the norm. First ascents on sight ground up are now few and far between .

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  • My adventures were always going to be mine– regardless of what others do. People epic on casual routes on the flat iron all the time and Honnold solos what, well he solos. Climbing for me is first and foremost for me. No one can give or take that to me. I find it interesting that you feel their climbs intersect with you and what you do at all.

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    • Good thoughts from “Wannabe”. It’s clear that I didn’t make my article clear. I don’t think the Dawn Wall intersects with me and what I do, and it’s a wonderful thing about climbing that, as you say, “My adventures were always going to be mine- regardless of what others do”.
      At the same time, the climbing industry continues to grow, and has a tangible effect on what every climber out there can or cannot climb. Places get opened to climbing, places get closed to climbing. Climbers protect mountainous landscapes, and climbers can also ruin mountainous landscapes (or at least make them kind of ugly). What we follow in the climbing media affects what climbing at large becomes, and what new climbers think they are getting into when they get into climbing – which in turn affects the future of climbing. So it is not so much that the Dawn Wall climb has anything to do with me, but all of our (including my own) continued interest in it may have an unforeseen affect that we haven’t yet thought about – and that certainly does have something to do with me, and with all of us.

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  • This is an interesting article that really captures a prevailing and romantic view of what climbing ought to be — but has never been. All hard, cutting-edge climbing has a certain ugly sausage-making process to it. It all gets polished up for REEL rock, etc. All free routes
    on El Cap are spot climbing projects on a grand scale. Leo Houlding came close to establishing a “trad” free climb with the Prophet, but after 10 years of failure, he had to give up, go top down, tick up all the holds–only then did he redpoint the route. The idea that one can’t have a pure/deep experience with sport-climbing tactics, or even with a camera crew documenting the ascent, is completely absurd and based on a romantic view that doesn’t really exist anymore–and maybe never did. More to the point, I think that Tommy wants to just get this thing done in the best style he can.

    The fact that this style is what it takes for even the world’s best El Cap free climber speaks to the sheer difficulty of what is being accomplished. The fact that you offer a worthwhile point of critique on that style speaks to the prevailing ignorant/romantic view of how climbing ought to be practice–a point of view with precedent of a long line of people who always raise a finger in protest of how the sport gets pushed (i.e., Robbins critiquing Harding for the bolt count on the Dawn Wall). Meanwhile, the visionaries actually capable of achieving that progress, that “art,” have to wade through the shit and make the sausages. We’re getting to see that process up close thanks to social media and the ubiquitous presence of cameras in all our lives. I don’t think it’s something to bemoan, but celebrate. Take it from these guys: go out, tick holds, train really hard, work the fuck out a project, get better, progress your own climbing. Expand your view of climbing and open yourself up to all the potential that will unfold. I think that’s a good thing and hardly contrived. IN fact, it’s the way it’s always been done.

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    • Thanks for the thoughts, Andrew. I think you make some really good points, and ones I certainly wrung my hands over and pulled at my neck collar about as I was clicking the publish button. Chok it up to imperfect writing, and probably overzealousness to pull the trigger without thorough editing.

      That said, if we wade through the shit of my article, I think we will find a point you didn’t address. That point is, as climbing continues to progress as a sport, and the media continues to progress in its ability (and persistence) in covering it, do we run the risk of changing what climbing actually is? Now, you said that “In fact, it’s the way it’s always been done”. But I have to disagree. Ticking holds, training really hard, and working projects is not how climbing has always been done, as we both know. Climbing has gone through various stages and evolutions. One of the first publicized examples of climbing in early Europe was Samuel Taylor Coleridge spinning himself around on top of a peak in England (Broad Stand) he had walked to the top to with his eyes closed, and then downclimbing in the direction he was facing when he stopped spinning and opened his eyes. Climbing in its nascence has a lot to do with peakbagging. As it grew into a sport, every technological advance met sharp criticism and opposition – from the use of ropes, to the practice of falling itself. Some (Paul Preuss) even argued for never climbing up something you couldn’t climb down, never using pitons, never introducing the possibility of falling into climbing in the first place at all.
      So climbing really has gone through a remarkable number of sea changes over the couple hundred years that people have been practicing it. Where it is today is definitely not where it was 50 years ago, and definitely not where it will be in another 50. If we were to track climbing’s evolution from the past to the present, we would see (I imagine) a general thrust, and direction to that evolution. The question I mean to bring up is, what is that direction? Seeing it, can we make presumptions about what climbing will be in the future; and if we can, do we like where it’s headed?

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      • The direction climbing is headed is harder routes, better climbers, more open attitudes to trying styles, more routes to try, more inspiration to push ourselves harder at whatever level that may be. I think that’s a great direction. You may not, and that’s fine. If your post is simply a matter of posing a few generic questions and taking no stance yourself, then I guess I’m less interested in continuing a discussion

        Another critique, though, before I peace out: you kinda dismiss the adventure of freeing pitches in this style because they aren’t removing enough doubt from their ascent in your estimation. But you fail to see something: what other adventure is there left on El Cap? Certainly not simply climbing to the top … Even if there were no cameras, no topo, no ticks, no nothing on the Dawn Wall, I can guarantee you that Tommy himself–not to mention any intermediate Yosemite climber–could top out the wall in a day or less. So what? Simply getting to the top of El Cap may be a great adventure for many beginners … But that’s about it.

        The adventure, the unknown, the great doubt, is precisely in being able to free climb the whole route in a push. The idea that one can free climb so many pitches of 5.14 and 5.13, without returning to the ground, is the cutting edge of possibility in free climbing. We know El Cap can be topped out–but can it be topped out like this? No one knows for sure. And for the last 7 years, the answer has been no … That’s why people care about this now. Because there’s a small chance that the answer could be yes.

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      • Again, great points. What i would re-emphasize (and what I apparently glazed over a bit too much in the article) is that I am less concerned with what Tommy and Kevin are doing, and more fascinated by what we as a community find ourselves drawn to. The Dawn Wall is, as you noted, the biggest baddest adventure left on El Cap for hard free climbing, and for the pros who can dream of doing so. But it can’t really be the last great adventure on El Cap, can it? For example, Timmy Oneill’s brother, Sean, who is a paraplegic, climbed El Cap with his brother ( for reference). Here is a great adventure, for sure. And it was publicised, yes. But as heavily? With as much fanfare? I don’t know. And of course, for many people, simply climbing to the top can still be a great adventure. It was for me when I did it even though I shamelessly frenchfreed pitches I certainly could have simply freed. And their stories, I believe are often more inspiring, more relatable, and more central to what climbing means (to me) than the mindbending feats of climbers who do things I can never imagine. This, really, is the whole point of Fringe’s Folly – to try and give a forum for those stories.

        In other words: the question is not of the value of what Tommy and Kevin are doing, but what it says about the climbing community that these kinds of the adventures are the ones we are so eager to focus on. Since you asked me to take a stance: I suppose I will (but not without saying it is a tentative one). I THINK that if the climbing industry, media, and community, continue to be more interested in athleticism than adventure, more interested in the doings of professionals than everyday average climbers, that climbing will continue to transform from its fringe roots into something that is more mainstream – and to average climbers, less inspiring. Now, I may be wrong, it’s just a guess. But that’s the guess I’d make.

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  • “Furthermore, by championing athleticism over adventure, I believe we lay the foundation for turning climbing into something it most certainly is not: a sport.”

    Running is a way for a creature to cover distance more quickly, typically to escape a dangerous situation. Swimming is a means of passage over a body of water that is otherwise impassable, allowing for exploration. Like both running and swimming, climbing can be considered as nothing more than a means to escape danger or find food. Running is not a sport. Swimming is not a sport. Climbing is not a sport. And yet, no one has an issue with the 100 meter dash, the marathon, the triathlon, competitive swimming. Where are the running purists who start blogs and complain about how Usain Bolt is ruining the spirit of running, by training so he can do it faster. “It’s not about speed man, it’s about the journey”. Right? No? No one says that? I wonder if maybe it’s because some people like competition, like challenges, like setting and achieving goals, they like setting an arbitrary distance, putting their feet on starting blocks, and seeing how fast they can travel that arbitrary distance. And I’m sure they enjoy not having to put up with running purists claiming that they are turning running into something it certainly is not: a sport.

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    • Very interesting! I hadn’t really considered this viewpoint. The separation of climbing as a physical activity from climbing as a form of sport. I suppose the main difference I would point out is that running and swimming at the competitive level occur (mostly) in gyms, stadiums, etc – I don’t suppose I feel they encroach that much upon the adventurous natural running and swimming arenas of the planet (ask Cedar Wright, for example, if he ran into anyone while jogging across Death Valley). In contrast, climbing as a sport is growing not only in gyms, but in the mountains, as well. People often talk about where climbing and surfing are different – citing how surfers are super-territorial over their breaks, while climbers are often more inviting. Surf breaks are almost definitely a more limited resource than climbs. But by popularizing the competitive sport aspect of climbing in a natural environment, is it possible we subject the resource of climbing to additional pressures? Is there some point at which we should hold back?

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  • What would the solitary masters of yesterday have to say about this endeavor, do you suppose? I’m thinking of Walter Bonatti’s approach to climbing, Herman Buhl’s approach to climbing..even Alex Huber’s free solo of the Hasse Brandler Direttissima on Cima Grande, Dolomites.

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  • Andrew got it right.. the rest of you just talk. You go up there for weeks at a time and see if you have an adventure. Fall, which they often do and break your ankle and you go home with your big effort lacking success. They said the same thing about Harding climbing the NOSE… and now it is considered one of the greatest climbs in the world. This route has to be climbed in this manner as there is no other way it can be done at this time. Once it is done then someone with more talent will eventually come along and do it in “better style.” This is an expensive endeavor and the only way it can be financed with with camera men and videos. In the future ascents will be done in more “traditional” ways. If we wait 40 more years to do it then it could be done in better style for sure… but we climbers don’t like to wait. I’ve read stuff on this site before and the author is always whining about something that doesn’t fit his vision of what climbers should be doing. Haters gotta hate, whether it be about the people involved (which it is NOT here) or about the style. Like Harding used to say.. should I just not climb anything and wait around until someone can do it in “real style”? “Bugger off baby, bugger off.” I think he was old school enough not to whine about someones style but just respect that they are making the best effort that they can.

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    • With all due respect to Tom Evans, the only thing I would really contend with is the assertion that EVERYTHING I write about on this site is whiney. I do think this piece (and I can think of a couple others) come off as a bit whinier than I would have liked. That said, I try really hard to portray different points of view that don’t often get portrayed in our media (which I think is often a little onesided) and tell stories that our media deems not worth telling because they think the climbing community is not interested. I think, Tom, if you read a few more of the pieces you’ll find at least something in there that’s not whiney.
      I’m not going to really respond to the rest of the critique because I’d just echo previous points I’ve already made about where I went wrong with the article, and what I was hoping more people would get out of it.

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      • I think that we all choose our adventures, whether public or private. In a world that is so noisy with too many opinions already, I do not think there is any need to analyse somebody else’s adventure if we are to retain the true spirit of the word. It is personal, even when streamed live on the web. Time to reflect on our own.

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  • I agree with Bisharat that you don’t seem to have any cohesive points here… even when you specifically tried to make one: ” I THINK that if the climbing industry, media, and community, continue to be more interested in athleticism than adventure, more interested in the doings of professionals than everyday average climbers, that climbing will continue to transform from its fringe roots into something that is more mainstream – and to average climbers, less inspiring.”

    So… you think climbing is becoming more mainstream? Groundbreaking position. Or is it that we’re at risk of becoming uninspired because we’re too focused on the elite athletes of our sport? You must have a funny definition of inspiration.

    Get off the internet and go have an adventure. Or use the internet to get psyched. But my sense is that you really just want hits for your blog.

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  • I’d say that Tommy and Kevin are just setting the bar for future generations of climbers. Harding climbed the Nose over the course of two years, Robbins climbed it in a week. It was originally thought impossible.
    Same with this. Once it’s shown that it can be done, I’m sure we’ll have the next young guns ready to go up and do it in a week, or a day, or whatever.
    I’ll probably never climb a pitch of 5.14 in my life. Much less, multiples in a row. I’d say that given the difficulty of the wall, they’re doing it in the best style they feel they can.
    Maybe they are ‘cragging in the sky’ but I bet they’re having a blast. I know I would sure rather be up there than where I am.

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  • Broad sweeping comment for anyone interested: I did a poor job in this piece of asking the questions I wanted to ask. The point of this article was not to question the style of the Dawn Wall ascent, but to question what our obsession with it means about climbing today. What i really meant to suggest was that there is nothing at all problematic about the dawn wall climb – but something curious about our interest in it (mine included). To expand on that, I think there’s something curious about the general focus of the climbing media, and the climbing community. Out of all the stories there are to tell in climbing, why do the ones that get the most attention get the most attention? And if we think about that question, can we use our conclusions to help us understand what climbing today is all about, whether we support it or not, whether we want the media to have a different role or not, etc. There are all kinds of questions we could ask if we come to understand our obsession with practically superhuman feats and the practically superhumans who achieve them.

    Ironically, out of all the things I have written for FF, this has gotten the most internet traffic. It’s a familiar thing – that the crap we see constantly on mountainproject forums is precisely the crap we claim not to want to read. And yet, by complaining about it, we solidify that it is crap like this that we all seem to read ad nauseam. Out of all the things I’ve written that I would have loved to share with a wide audience, this is pretty low on the list. But because it is controversial, it went viral (well, viral compared to my typical audience). So what does THAT mean?

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    • What does it mean? Someone is being stupid on the internet and got called out by Bisharat and Tom Evens. So we all grabbed our popcorn and came to watch.

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    • It means its crap. Ad nausea is more like it. Why do all the stories that get attention get attention? Really? I hate to even reply to this to add to the fan fare, but there you go, you got me.

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  • The fact that the push is taking place now when a lot of climbers have shifted their focus toward gyms, skiing, and other forms of hibernation certainly doesn’t hurt it’s appeal as a media event — most of us have a bit more time to watch the show this time of year.

    That said, the Dawn Wall project embodies everything I love about the sport. There are so many dimensions to climbing, so many ways we can reach towards our wildest dreams. Watching Tommy and Kevin go after this year after year, I’ve seen them fold as much into this one climb as most pro climbers fold into an entire career. When Tommy put out the call for a strong boulderer to join him five years ago, he was making what I see as one of the greatest moves any of us can make — letting go of his ego and making a conscious decision to grow into a stronger and better climber.

    This is so much more than just a bunch of days climbing hard pitches out of a hammock. This is the kind of Man on Wire (see the movie) project that will shape them forever.

    Few climbers have the patience or focus to dedicate years into a single route — it’s not for everyone and it will change you in ways you might not expect or even like. But anyone who does will tell you it’s amazing — the story that forms as you revisit a sacred and ever more intimate place in all its seasons and beauty is, for some of us at least, as potent a story as there is.

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    • Great point, Eric. Yes, I did discount in my writing the possibility that others would find more inspiration in something than I would. Actually, I think it’s important to consider how important your point is. In the grand scheme, perhaps far more people than I would have expected find inspiration in the whole thing – not because of the numbers involved, but because of the time and effort involved. I did try and point that out in the article – but apparently not fervently enough. Thanks for commenting.

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  • JoeMama DeGaetano

    Obviously one’s definition of climbing isn’t going to necessarily fit into what others define it as. But, I think what Chris is trying to relay here (and what many of you seem to be not getting) is that Chris and I are shocked at the direction that the collective climbing community is moving towards. Of course people will be people, and be obsessed with improvement, goals, and achievement but what surprises me (and the author I think) is that since we are all climbers and come from some of the same fabric, i would think that adventure would trump sport. That is not to say, that the sport side of climbing isn’t important, news-worthy, and badass, but instead we would all be a bit more psyched on the experience aspect of climbing and less on the newest hangboard fad, or V-sick boulder problem on El Cap.

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  • “What does it mean? Someone is being stupid on the internet and got called out by Bisharat and Tom Evens. So we all grabbed our popcorn and came to watch.”

    Oh my god! Called out by some douchey Colorado sport climber who writes poorly and a non-climber that takes pictures of climbers? Have fun wanking it to the Dawn Wall cover of the New York Times, Andrew Traylor.

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  • I keep coming back to this thought in my climbing life:

    “I would argue that the adventure aspect of climbing is the central aspect of it – not the athletic aspect.”

    Seems like a lot of people think differently (fyi–I agree with you). Bisharat’s comments focus on “hard” routes, even saying “The direction climbing is headed is harder routes…”. I think that’s why he can’t agree with you–to some climbers, the only important part is the difficulty. Which, to me, is missing the point. He says that the free climbs on El Cap are basically sport climbing projects–but what about the rest of the routes? The reason you think this Dawn Wall thing is out of place is because the hard, scary aid routes that dominate(d?) El Cap were adventures. They literally did not know if the routes would go to the top.

    I’m with you, man. Your point (that some commenters cant seem to figure out somehow) is that the adventure aspect is disappearing and we need to realize that fact before they gridbolt everything with permadraws and turn climbing into a push up contest.

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  • I keep coming back to this thought in my climbing life:

    “I would argue that the adventure aspect of climbing is the central aspect of it – not the athletic aspect.”

    Seems like a lot of people think differently (fyi–I agree with you). Bisharat’s comments focus on “hard” routes, even saying “The direction climbing is headed is harder routes…”. I think that’s why he can’t agree with you–to some climbers, the only important part is the difficulty. Which, to me, is missing the point. He says that the free climbs on El Cap are basically sport climbing projects–but what about the rest of the routes? The reason you think this Dawn Wall thing is out of place is because the hard, scary aid routes that dominate(d?) El Cap were adventures. They literally did not know if the routes would go to the top.

    I’m with you, man. Your point (that some commenters cant seem to figure out somehow) is that the adventure aspect is disappearing and we need to realize that fact before they gridbolt everything with permadraws and turn climbing into a push up contest.

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  • I love the coverage, and I’m going to love watching the videos when they’re done. The moves that they’re doing are insane! It’s akin to going to the circus except that I actually understand something of what it takes to do what they’re doing. I find it all super inspiring. I bet if I was there in person and looking at all the fixed ropes I would think it was a little over the top, but personally I’m glad the cameramen are there, because the movie is going to be sick. And sick movies have their own value.

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  • So, in spite of a lot of vitriol, comments that missed the point, and a rather poorly written original piece; I enjoyed seeing all the debate that ensued, and actually got a lot out of the comments (even some of the more asinine ones). In order to better explain the origins of the piece that sparked so much debate, frustration, anger, and even (I daresay) thought, I wrote a followup piece. If you are interested, you can find it here:
    https://fringesfolly.com/2015/01/06/the-dawn-wall-rant-expose-and-words-from-a-respectable-source/

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  • there is a shift that has been going on for quite some time it seems. more emphasis on difficulty aka the grade of the climb in the climbing media. pushing the limits of physical difficulty. there is always the discussion of number chasing. for me, in my climbing i am always trying to climb harder, even though it is not anywhere near what top climbers are achieving. getting better is important to me and from what i see, it is important to most climbers (even though they say it is not often) it is natural to want to improve at something we do.
    bisharat said that getting to the top of El Cap is something cool for beginners. weird statement. to me a climber has to be quite a lot more than a beginner to be trying something like that. maybe climbing media is getting out of touch with the average climber. at the same time, I don’t think I would be as interested in the mags if the articles were about two dudes from Wisconsin climbing High Exposure (5.6) in the gunks. while the climbing media scene as a whole comes off elitist, they can’t exactly ignore TC and KJ on the Dawn Wall.

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  • Dude, they are climbing, what, 7 pitches of 13 and 7 pitches of 14? It’s a big project, and if they need 4 meals a day and moisturizer and nail clippers and tape and techy climbing shoes – that’s what it takes to take it to the next level. This is true in any sport. And the media will be there just like they were when Harding and Robbins were going at it. Don’t you think that if the media could hang out on the wall with Robbins or Harding they wouldn’t have?

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  • What bothers me about this isn’t the “sport” aspect…that’s just a word with many meanings. What bothers me is the “circus” aspect, the whole “entourage” and the reduction of the wall, of the sport, the wilderness, to a TV-show, with a huge production team, and all that. It makes me think maybe they aren’t doing this for the climbing at all, but money, fame, and paying the piper (sponsors) that make their life just a little too cushy.

    There is no reason they couldn’t have scrounged and dirtbagged, and done this quietly, taking a few pictures on the way. Two weeks worth of food could be had for 50 bucks. Harding, Robbins, and many many of the truly greats (who I don’t remotely group these two with, not yet) were happy with Kipper Snacks or whatever, and knotted slings, homemade harnesses, etc.

    Money is the root (route?) of all evil, and I feel we are seeing it getting good purchase through this event, through these guys who don’t have to accept all this.

    Black and White pictures of The Stonemasters will always be more in the hearts of climbers then any slick video ever will be. How many times have you watched the one of Sharma finally sending Biographie Extension? Twice? And then, it gathers dust. There is little soul in these kind of videos, and I feel there is little soul in this project, at least at this point. Initially there was, though.

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  • I’ve only been climbing for 2 years. I started gym climbing and bouldering, and have progressed to leading and outdoor sport climbing. I only want to go further into the “adventure” part of climbing, which to me is trad, multi-pitch, and eventually big wall and alpine. I feel that stories like the Dawn Wall project inspire me tremendously to push more towards that adventure side of climbing. But even when I do, I would still enjoy going to the gym with friends, or sport climbing at the New.

    I enjoy competing with my climbing friends to do hard moves, and onsight hard routes. I also enjoy watching videos of bouldering competitions etc. So, I like that there is this “sport” side to climbing, and there is also the “adventure” side as well. I think that it IS a sport, it just has much broader spectrum of types of activities than some other sports. Similar to skiing, which has slalom, freestyle, cross-country, etc. There are no winners and losers, or bests or worsts, because it’s an individual accomplishment type of sport.

    I think the attention that they are receiving for the Dawn Wall is a good thing for climbing, although I know some climbers would prefer it to be as fringe as possible. These guys are hardcore athletes, doing an amazing thing that no one else has ever done, and that a lot people didn’t even think could be done. They deserve recognition. The perfectionist in me wants to see them doing it without rehearsal, taking no rest days, and not down climbing to avoid a dyno move. But I don’t know a thing about big wall climbing or what 5.13/14 feels like, so I’m not judging. As far as the moisturizing and filing the fingers and shoes, I think you should cut them a break, it’s winter on a 3,000ft. granite face, and they’re climbing on stuff that takes millimeter precision. You gotta do what you gotta do.

    Awesome article, and great points you and the other commenters brought up! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment. 2 years is a comparatively short time for a lot of us, and I think that helps you to have a refreshingly accepting view of the whole thing. I started gym climbing and bouldering, too; and I remember just looking starryeyed and heart-throbbingly at every aspect of the sport, the media, the athletes, etc. That’s kind of a nice way to be, if I remember correctly. I don’t think I read a single negative word in your whole comment, which is pretty positive. Thanks for the uplifting reminder!

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      • Thanks! As a starry-eyed new climber (I’m 30 however) I don’t have very many negative things to stay about climbing. Only about crag etiquette and leave no trace principles. I’ve been hiking and backpacking for years, and there is a saying in the hiking community: “Hike your own hike!”. It means that, as long as you’re not impeding on another persons enjoyment of their hike, you should be free to do it however you please. I think that this can apply to climbing as well.
        Climbing can be different things to different people, and that’s one thing I really appreciate about it. For some, it might be a social thing. For others it might be a fitness activity. And for some it might be an adventure into the unknown. I think where the problem occurs is that people have a natural desire to push further, and higher, and harder, and faster. It’s just human nature. However, many of the hardest, highest, and fastest accomplishments have been achieved already. So the Tommy Caldwells of the world need to look for things not yet accomplished. So, sometimes the sport needs to expand to accommodate. Once it’s been done, people will only TRY to continue to climb it faster, and cleaner (I emphasize TRY!)
        I truly do appreciate the mentality behind trad climbing and not wanting to “scar” the rock face with bolts. It’s a very respectable attitude to have. However, if putting in some fixed gear means I can climb an otherwise un-protectable face, and do it safely, then I’m OK with that too. So long as it’s done with thoughtfulness.

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  • In my mind one of the great benefits these fellas are providing is a needed distraction from the daily march of horrors that generally fills the media. Their story has been picked up by scores of major journalism publications in the world. Most peoples diet of news consists of whatever radical group is scheming up the most horrific way to degrade other humans, governments treating their populations as disposables and as Americans fear mongering regarding whichever country represents the latest threat to our existential existence. To provide people with an opportunity to read about two people pursuing their dreams, ones which are essentially beyond comprehension to most readers, I think that’s healthy.

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  • Rock climbing has always depended on rules that permit achievements to be compared. Climbing with direct aid is very different from free climbing, flashing is different from redpointing, alpine style is different from expedition style.
    Some sets of rules are so restrictive that they lead the sport towards stagnation. Back when I started climbing, Jim Erickson felt that a single fall would result in a tainted climb. This rule was relaxed for the Naked Edge, and Half Dome, and was ultimately rejected by the community as being too restrictive. Henry Barber felt the rope should be pulled for every attempt, but few redpoints are achieved this way today. Bachar and others felt bolts should always be placed from hooks or stances, yet most climbers today have enjoyed rap-bolted sport climbs.
    I can remember feeling guilty when my second pulled on a sling, and we refused to attempt many great classics because our self imposed rules made them “too hard” for us.
    Tommy and Kevin have established a reasonable set of rules for their attempt. They have not made them impossibly restrictive. Future climbers can then try to improve the style of these ascents, if they so choose. I would rather see the sport develop in this fashion, rather than in ever harder free soloing, free-basing, and other self-limiting pursuits. No reason to question a contemporary style just to protect our own aging achievements.

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  • When people free climb big-walls and don’t clean and replace their draws on every red-point attempt, it definitely invalidates the ascent and diminishes the adventure aspect.

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  • Pingback: Alex Honnold, the Dawn Wall and How to Transcend the Rock Climbing Bubble | Brooklyn Boulders Blog

  • Careful. Adventure, much like climbing, is defined at an individual level. Why not tear up all guide books, erase all web sites with any form of beta, undo the YDS and start climbing from scratch? How’s that for adventure? Might as well unbolt every sport route in the world while you’re at it.

    I’m being extreme, but i’m being extreme on purpose. It’s up to each individual to define what adventure means for them. Reading a guidebook on a particular route to make sure you have the correct pro with you makes the ascent no less adventurous…at least IMO. Some may argue, but let’s remember that all activities (whether you call it a sport or not), progress over time.

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    • The original rant fails to adequately recognize scaling and context. The essence of rock climbing is one individual movement on rock. That is an adventure. If it is not an adventure for you, you need to explore more movements. This atom of adventure scales to the current Dawn Wall climb. Documenting the ascent with available tools fits neatly into a modern context. If you think that photographs taken of the ordeal Shackleton and his men endured diminished the adventure involved, or that cave drawings done at the site that is now Lascaux means that the artists were ninnys who should have been out hunting instead, then perhaps the argument would at least have consistency for one person.

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    • GoldenPup. My comment was sarcastic & disingenuous, so I apologize. I strongly dislike the original article, but I should not have added to the negativity & navel gazing. Cheers to Kevin & Tommy.

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  • Are keeping the community informed, utilizing your haul system to allow you to eat four-course meals, and taking extreme care of your resources (to the extent of fingertips) not pushing the limits of “adventure?” The fact that they are able to do these things while climbing the hardest route EVER only adds to the adventure, in my opinion.

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  • First off, let me say that this is among the most civil discussions I’ve seen on this. Thanks to the author who did an amazing job laying out his reservations and to the thoughtful posters. I’ll start by showing my hand–I’m totally stoked for Tommy and Kevin and I don’t mind that everyone’s gotten fired up about it. To be blunt, I think they deserve all the cash they can wring from this, because even the most elite climbers will always be relatively poor. Climbing is just too out there for most people, even as the gyms and sport crags might get a little flush at times. Basically, height and a TR fall is too much for most people. And that’s why, if you read the New York Times comments, you see that people really project adventure onto the project. Same thing with movies like Wild, about someone hiking the PCT–it speaks to people even though maybe it’s not that heavy of an adventure really. But I guess that’s why I’m still down with the way the project is being sent. Besides being completely awesome (as you indicated), it also really resonates with so many people as a huge, out there adventure, in a time when fewer and fewer people are actually putting down their phones and doing anything at all. I don’t mind thinking about climbing like a sport, just one where we are all on the same side. But it does bother me a little that video games are so much more popular than simply walking outside in nature is, with real competitions, huge audiences, the whole thing. I believe in adventure like you do and I just want everybody to get a little more of it, to push up to their edges a little. And the great thing is that while Tommy and Kevin are busy inspiring regular folk with an accessible story of an amazing feat, others can continue to dream up adventures way outside the box. I don’t think that adventure is locked in climbing–it’s way bigger than just climbing, and more inclusive of people. Thanks again for the rich conversation!

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  • Reblogged this on Stick Clip; The Blog and commented:
    I really enjoyed reading this piece. I can’t say more as a reactionary piece is coming soon.

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  • Pingback: Adventure Alpinists to Classic Craggers – Dawn Wall Project Reaction | Stick Clip; The Blog

  • As a relatively new climber (less than a year of trad experience), I greatly benefit from all the documentation of their progress. To see the pictures and the videos and the tweets of the climbers gives us such an insight into what they’re doing that I would sorely miss otherwise.

    But I get what you’re saying; I don’t disagree that “FA” is an arbitrary definition, but if they prove it can be done, regardless of the hype around it, they are showing it’s possible. Why not just consider it sent since they’ve free climbed each pitch already? I don’t know. It’s important to keep in mind that what they’re doing is not some survival expedition, and it is heavily supported from the ground. Nevertheless, even a self-sufficient expedition would probably bring nail clippers and lotion and tape and techy shoes.

    So if we’re talking self-sufficient expeditions, they are breaking no new ground. But if we’re talking pure climbing feat, they have set a new gold standard that will probably stand for years.

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  • Pingback: A Escalada do Século. The Dawn Wall Quest. | Nortebouldering's Blog

  • This was a fantastic article. It was well written, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. My two cents (and I don’t have the time to read all the comments, so hopefully this isn’t a word-for-word viewpoint from a few comments above this one) is that it is now the year 2015, and the kind of adventure that people can be expected to take is far different than in 1970, when Harding was taking on this beast. Both Harding and Caldwell (and everyone else involved in their ascents) took on a monster, one they weren’t even sure could be beat. They did so in very different ways.The difference some people aren’t acknowledging is the technology available. Harding was a madman. He was an absolute hard-ass. There were no 3am cell phone alarms to wake him up so that he could reapply lotion to his beaten, battered finger tips. He didn’t have friends climbing 1,000-feet up to provide him with additional food and moral support. Does that make Tommy a (excuse my teen girl slang) basic bitch of a climber for sending in this manner? And, more thought provokingly, does anyone really think that Harding would have said no if someone offered to provide him with more food as he neared the summit, and was running out? Yes, Tommy is climbing in a very different way than Harding did. There was certainly more adventure involved in Harding’s ascent, when he went up with a small team and no one knew how it was going, or if they were going to send, until they either summited (or plummeted). That being said, do those people who think Tommy isn’t climbing with enough adventure really expect him to go up there with just Kevin at his back and just enough food for X-amount of time and not use a phone report to the climbing world, to his sponsors, to his wife and family, how the climb is going all for the added factor of more adventure? We live in a more advanced world today. There is more technology available to us. Harding wasn’t famed for ignoring the technology available and going up on The Captain without it. He went up with everything the world had to offer him. He had pitons, several ropes, a full team, haul bags. There is more technology available today, and Tommy is using everything he has to try and take down an even bigger obstacle than Harding faced. You can’t compare the two, but Tommy can’t be criticized for climbing with less adventure involved in a world that’s 40 years further developed than Harding’s.

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  • Adventure to me means breaking new ground when outcomes are uncertain (which can be defined as many things – personal, emotional, physical, geographical, difficulty, danger). Being in the media spotlight can even add to the pressure rather than helping.
    These guys are clearly breaking new ground – no one else has got near it and any number of things could have prevented success, after the lifelong investment they have made in training to reach this point (eg. injury). Style seems pretty good too – they are not putting in bolts.
    Massive respect to them.

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  • Pingback: Why is the Dawn Wall so popular with the masses? | Climbing and other boring things

  • Reblogged this on Climbing and other boring things and commented:
    Here is a great blog article about what the general criticisms of Dawn Wall include.

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  • I agree with Matthew that most climbers use the best technology available to reach there objectives. I see nothing wrong with that. I have been climbing for 35 years and have seen lots of new gear come and go. I tend to embrace the new tech while others shun it and play the game the old way. Neither is right or wrong .. just different. Bringing the media in to the equation has a mixed effect. It is good in that more young folks will likely get excited about climbing and try to emulate or better the Dawn Wall adventure. The bad part is that the cliffs will get more crowded and there will likely be more rescues. On the positive side, more climbers means more new gear and a booming climbing industry. Take the good with the bad and enjoy what ever form of climbing you choose to pursue.

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  • Absolutely loved this article. Made me think, not only cringe (as it was the case with most of the Dawn Wall coverage…) Been thinking a lot lately about the sport/adventure dichotomy, and if there’s one at all.

    Have a read if you like: http://upthatrock.com/is-climbing-a-sport/

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  • The best part of your well thought out article is “Climbing is so outstanding because all of us – no matter what level we climb at – can have incredibly emotional experiences through climbing (whether scared shitless or lost in ecstasy)”. I would add that climbing is outstanding because no matter what “style” we choose to climb in, we are largely free to do so. And further: I don’t care what way you choose to practice your art, as long as it doesn’t infringe on mine. And as long as mine doesn’t infringe on yours………There’s always been ethics debates and there will continue to be. But there’s still plenty of free space out there to do things your own way and to fight for what’s yours. As T.S. Elliot said: “Teach me to Care and Not to Care”……It’s human nature to care deeply about things but we also don’t have control over everything and it’s hard to let go. I’ve climbed a long time and though the climbing style I like may be different from others, I’ve been able to continue on without any kind of prejudice. In short, caring in and of itself causes debate. Luckily what ever way you choose to climb is up to you. As Wannabe said up thread…….”My adventures were always going to be mine– regardless of what others do”. And unless someone tries to stop you, you are free to do so. So why worry about the rest of it?

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  • hello, im from switzerland and i dont really know how i ended up here.. anyways, my english isnt really so good so what im will say might have allready been said. First i wanted to say that i totally agree with you, i feel like the magic of the unknown is kind of gone, no shit they will free it if they try it 50 times in top rope mode and then try it, like you said i dont want to take credits away it is amazing what they are doing. secondly,and this is something that i am trying to workon is, this attitude that i feel is growing amongs climbing folks of how hard you climb is what counts. i feel like there are many people that will shape you as a person based on how hard someone climbs or what that person has accomplishe, this is what i think is beiing a problem it is my point of view i dont know about you guys.. third: i totally agree with the thingabout climbingcelebrities, like i dont know climber x sends his long proyect of 9b and literally like 5 mins later they poste it on every social media plattform, i dont know but i feel like in the end climbing wont be this adventure as you said, it wont be like the bigger the cliff the bigger the unknown. and my last point, i dont know what you think about this but i think ( and this might be offensive to some people even if it is not my intention), i think that a lot of these like really young kids that climb like 8c, like, they are kids and they are beiing pushed super hard and i dont know i feel like they are getting in this mode of , “it only matters how hard i climb” and i dont think thats the right way,and a lot of big brands support that. anyways, this is the first time i reply on something so it might be a bit confusing and again i dont want to be offensive towards anyone.

    By the way, your blog awesome! 🙂

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    • Hi Jean P,
      Thank you for your thoughts, and for your compliments. Your english is excellent, and I think the points you made hit home very well. I also agree with your misgivings about the direction climbing is going in with sponsored kids. It’s a mixed bag, of course. Some parents are very supportive and appropriately hands-off regarding their child’s gift. Others, though, bring to mind evil olympics gymnast and figure skating stories about overzealous parenting/coaching line blurring. One thought, which many of the comments on this article also elicited: regardless of what happens to the sport of Climbing, as individuals, we have the freedom to climb, talk about climbing, and dream about climbing in precisely the way we want to. If the community moves further and further from the mountains, people like you and I will find the mountains less and less crowded… and that may not be so bad. 🙂

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  • andrew del debbio

    No point in looking backward. The sport must grow and progress, standing on the skeletons of the old guys to get higher and higher. Climbing is about exploring the absolute limit of human physical and mental capability. The one thing holding us back, then, is the rock itself. The rocks existed before we did, so have not been optimized to truly push us to the limits of what we can do. The next generation must use explosives to blow up El Capitan, and in its place construct a series of climbing walls scientifically optimized to truly test our limits. Cameras will be built into every inch of the wall; food will be pumped via 5,000 foot IV tubes into the climbers bodies; the environment will be climate controlled, elevators with furnished sleeping quarters and naked women will ascend with the climbers; remote technicians will monitor the metabolic activity of the climber’s bodies and adjust route difficulty accordingly. Only then will the sport reach its true zenith. Only then will we know how amazing human beings really are.

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  • I completely agree, impressive yes! but gives me a kinda weird uneasy feeling

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