To this time, the methods used to put up new routes were primarily traditional. That is, they were established from the ground up. Climbers didn't feel it was ethical to go to the top by an easy route and then rappel down to preview the route or pre-place protection. They started from the ground on even the smallest crags. The "ground-up" method was the goal most climbers shared at that time. In this way, the non-specialists trained for bigger climbs they hoped to do in Yosemite, the Alps, or Himalayas. These objectives, after all, would definitely have to be tackled from the ground.
The traditional method required that the natural features of the rock, or "cracks," be used for protection. Permanent anchors were used only if no other forms of security were available and where no cracks existed. Crackless face climbing, placing occasional bolts on the lead, was most beautifully illustrated on the domes of Tuolumne, above Yosemite. Using tiny quarter-inch bolts, climbers placed permanent anchors in the rock faces—allowing them to free climb with at least minimal protection. Being the bold climbers they were, they often refused to place the protection frequently. They climbed the routes with the fewest bolts possible—creating routes that required boldness and ambition but that were not always safe. The runout, they felt, made the placement of permanent protection ethical, since the bolts were not actually taking away from the sense of adventure. Certainly this style did not reduce the climbs to the level of the first ascentionists but tried rather to avoid a conveniently bolted line and tried to preserve some fear factor.
During the early 1980's in France, a small group of climbers began combining free and aid methods in order to "work" routes that were new and extremely difficult. They used the rope and equipment to support and aid themselves until they could climb the route not using the aid.
The routes were pre-protected by permanent anchors (bolts) placed so that any serious fall could be avoided. Preplaced protection provided security, allowing climbers to concentrate only on the difficulties involved in climbing and not the danger. This method proved to be beneficial in developing advanced technique and enabled those climbers using it to improve at an incredible rate.
In 1985, two French climbers who had adopted this new style visited Great Britain and impressively climbed many of the hardest routes. After practicing it, one of them free soloed the hardest route in the country. Climbers around the world looked on as France began to produce many of the best climbers in the world. It didn't take long for other climbers to adopt the techniques developed in France, and soon climbers throughout the world were improving as well.
At this time there was a separation in the climbing world. Traditionalists believed that the ultimate style and difficulty lay in the use of less equipment or none. A new group of climbers was forming who believed the ultimate could only be achieved if the danger was decreased, or in effect eliminated, while they improved technique and increased their strength. Many did not and still do not know that this battle of ethics had been going on since the first climber placed a piton in the rock.
Many modern routes require the placement of clean climbing gear. The invention of the spring-loaded camming device and "Lowe/Byrne" ball nuts has opened new possibilities in the area of clean ascents. However, the level of difficulty attainable using and placing this equipment while climbing has not even come close to the level reached by the modern face climber. Climbers attempting to push the limits of clean climbing must often place their gear in the cracks prior to climbing a route of extreme difficulty. It is often difficult to set such protection while executing moves at this level.
Although this style of climbing is tough to learn and requires years of patient practice, climbs achieved using traditional methods carry a high level of satisfaction when completed and should by no means be written off as passe. There are hundreds, if not thousands of climbs, waiting to be done using these traditional tools.
Many of the skills learned through traditional climbing will greatly improve your ability as a modern climber.
Establishing a Modern Route
A modern free climb may be established in any number of ways, not excluding the traditional method. A route may be established from the ground up or from the top down. By top down, we mean that protection can be placed before an attempt on the route. This includes clean climbing gear if it can be placed, or permanent anchors if the situation calls for such. The goal of the modern free climber is to climb at the highest level of one's ability without falling. It is allowable to rehearse the climb before an ascent, although this admittedly lowers the level of style in which the ascent is made. Modern rock climbing is more than a combination of all that we have learned in the past. It is the further development of that knowledge, meshed with new technique, as occurs in gymnastics.
Climbers live a lifestyle of freedom. We travel from place to place looking for new adventures and challenges. In the past, it seemed that climbers searched for a common goal, but this is now less so. Some look to the mountains, others are satisfied with small cliffs and the challenge of gymnastic difficulty. We are all individuals trying to express our individuality in climbing. But our resource of rock is not infinite. We must take care that we do not destroy our climbing areas, thereby risking their closure by private, federal, or state agencies.
Some things you can do to help open an area to climbing or keep existing areas open:
Climbers of both factions should spend time looking at the problems that exist in their local climbing areas and learn to communicate with each other. This is the only way we will all be happy. That's why we climb isn't it?
Rating Rock Climbs
The modern rating systems have enlarged considerably over the last ten years, and even more so over the last twenty. The hardest free climbs in the United States in 1963 were rated 5.10, and there were not many of them. As of this writing, the hardest climb in the United States is rated 5.14c. The hardest in the world may be 5.15! Modern free climbing has become an established sport with seemingly limitless boundaries. But as climbers struggle to improve, they raise standards of difficulty to impressive levels.
The primary purpose of rating a climb is to inform other climbers of the difficulties they may encounter. Ratings are a subjective form of reference. They should be taken as such. In the United States, you will find that a climb that is considered risky may have a rating followed by an R (for runout) or an X (meaning no protection is available, natural or otherwise). Such unprotected climbs are less frequent, but they exist.
While traditional climbers have played an important part in the evolution of the rating scale, and have achieved the boldest climbs, the modern free climber has achieved climbs that are more gymnastically difficult than those achieved using traditional methods. The use of permanent anchors on some modern routes allows climbers to concentrate on the difficulty of a climb rather than the danger. This does not mean that there are no risks involved in this type of climbing; there are, but through understanding, and preparing for possible problems chances of injury are reduced.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication