Monday, 12 June 2017


I bought a helmet. It's shiny and it's blue and it's the cheapest one from Decathlon. Despite not really wanting one, peer pressure finally pushed me over the edge. Climbing culture has been subtly and not so subtly pushing helmets on us for a while now, but in the end it was my friends that forced my hand.

A roadtrip was on the cards: multipitch, trad and barely any boudering. The people I was going with told me to get one, so I did. Always pays not to be that guy. I still remember the halcyon days of trad in the peak and n'er a helmet in sight. Were we just idiots? Were we lucky? So now I wear a helmet on trad and multipitch. Except when I forget of course. Anyway, the new gear led long train of thought about risk, and events in the ol' climbing world weren't exactly helping.

Firstly, Ueli Steck died. A guy who always seemed completely solid and in control. According to the accident report he just slipped. Snow or ice seems way more sketchy than rock in this regard. At least rock is solid. Then again, there's that little video of Chulilla that's been doing the rounds on social media, reminding us that most sport crags are also just a good kick away from falling on our heads. Lovely.

Then there was that harrowing article on UKC. Jeeeesus, did they have to include gory photos and everything? It was really great to have those images stuck in my mind as I set off for that weekend's adventure. The only reason that many of us get out there at all is the irrational belief that it won't happen to you. But is that irrational? Only an infinitesimal proportion of climbers actually have a serious accident, and most of them are mountaineering rather than on rock. Even so, we were climbing loose dirty wet cracks on trad gear, so I double checked everything all weekend like a lunatic.

The following weekend it rained and I went to the wall to do some routes. After having led a few, we were told by the receptionist that if we were leading we'd have to wear helmets! In Spain! A country that normally couldn't give less fucks about health and safety. (Is this a thing now in real countries like England?) We'd seen others leading with helmets and quietly chuckled at their punterishness, assuming they were new to the sport or something. After that, we weren't exactly psyched on the whole thing and went back to bouldering. In 2030 when they force you to wear a helmet for indoor bouldering, I'll kill myself.

Honnold soloing Freerider is another thing that even the normies are aware of. An impressive feat, but when ever Honnold so much as moves one of his fat fingers, people start churning out the think-pieces about soloing, coverage of soloing, sponsorship and on and on. You'd think they'd get tired of writing the same article about the same dude every year or so.

Anyway, all this risk related stuff got me writing. (so really I'm not so different than those think-piece authors that I was just rude about) Personally I'd argue the most hands-off argument, which may not necessarily the most popular one these days. Ultimately, every climber is responsible for ensuring their own safety. Well that was a meaningless cliche, so let's try to throw some grey into the picture.

Conglomerate: fortunately not as loose as it looks 
What about when you're in the mountains with friends? If you take a risk and fuck up, you could be jeopardizing their safety. Valid point, but don't the friends in this situation also have moral agency? After all, they freely decided to take you with them on their trip. This leaves two options. Either they were aware of your well known capacity to fuck up and took you anyway, or they hadn't vetted you for this kind of behavior beforehand. So while the idiot-protagonist takes most of the blame, there's still plenty for the supporting cast.

Obviously this blame game is only played when the error is directly attributable to an obvious and dangerous mistake. The spectrum of accident causes runs from pure human error all the way to completely random events, with most somewhere in between. There are so many variables that it's impossible for us to be aware of all of them, so the pragmatic answer has to be personal choice. We're back to the cliche again.

So, climbing is an individual sport and as such, tended to attract people with an individualist mindset. Unfortunately this mindset seems increasingly at odds with modern culture.

That's why they'll ban climbing one day. The same way they'll ban driving as soon as self-driving cars perform better than their fleshy counterparts. The arguments will be exactly the same: that the risks and dangers of 'insert enjoyable activity here' simply outweigh the benefits. Ban smoking, drugs, alcohol, anything with a bit of edge. And climbing has that. No formal rules, the potential for death, and absolutely no barriers to entry. Protection from harm and freedom to harm oneself are often mutually exclusive concepts. Being protected may seem like a universally good thing, but it's smothering in the long run. Agency is like a muscle, it atrophies if you don't use it. If we never face choices, we'll fail the moment a real one is presented to us. And yeah, maybe some people will make the wrong choice and suffer the consequences, maybe some idiot will be 'inspired' and bite off more than he can chew soloing. But the alternative of a sanitized world sounds worse than that.

The problem is that the safety lovers appear to be dominating the conversation at the moment . They have all the right arguments: after all, why does any reasonable person need to smoke a cigarette or climb a wall. This nannying, hyper-rationalist vision of the world that makes perfect sense if you completely ignore human nature in all of its messy glory. It also has the ability to creep in without people even noticing they're ceding ground. So do something stupid while you still can.

Maybe I'm an alarmist? Exaggerating? The climbing equivalent of Infowars? I'm sure if you told
earliest adopters of our great sport that they'd ever be wearing helmets for indoor climbing, they'd have told you the same thing.

So much fun it should be illegal

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