DPM Climbing Issue 27 : Page 30

The Perfect By Sam Lightner Jr. I n fall of 1991, a cold front, powerful low pressure system, and a tropical hurricane combined off the eastern seaboard to create what author Sebastian Junger called "The Perfect Storm." Individually, none of these events was all that impressive for its particular atmospheric condition. However, when the three were pulled together into one super-storm, the results added up to 100+ mile per hour winds, 100 foot waves, and $200 million in damage. Seemingly unrelated, on a summer’s eve in 2013, I sat on my porch sipping bourbon and talking of climbing with a half dozen other climbers. The full spectrum of the sport was represented, from a 5.14+ sport climber to another who had freed numerous big walls, to an alpinist who'd stood atop Nameless Tower. Between us was 150 years of climbing experience on all continents and types of terrain. We conversed over the future of the sport, noting how difficult things may get and what challenges awaited the next generation. I commented that the greatest challenge may be getting out to climb at all. Ears perked, and I went on to explain how a host of conditions were already in place to make a "perfect storm" that could end the sport of rock climbing on public land. The Low Pressure Area: Old Bolts The American sport climbing movement began in the mid 1980's at Smith Rock after a number of US climbers, most notably Alan Watts and Todd Skinner, traveled to Europe and experienced the fun of bolt protected climbing. Prior to sport climbing, bolts were used, but they were placed on lead and did not necessarily protect the most dangerous part of a climb. You placed a bolt when you could, and if there wasn't a stance or a hook placement from which you could place a bolt, the better bet was often to continue and hope you got to easier ground quickly. A slow progression up through the grades, only taking on a route if you thought it likely you could pull it off, was a good way to avoid falling and thus getting hurt. Sport climbs were established with a different approach. The idea was to be challenged by the physical movement over the rock and to minimize the danger, so bolts were placed on rappel and in spots where you might fall. If it got difficult, there should be a bolt. If there was a ledge in the climb, a bolt would protect the terrain just above it. The traditional approach of rarely falling gave way to "throw yourself at anything... what harm could come." There was a crux, and you were now expected to safely fall there. The draw to this safer version of the sport was immediate and it spread across the country. Rock that had never before been climbed, like the blank faces of City of Rocks and the limestone canyons of Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, became popular climbing areas. Those first sport climbs were established with what was thought to be state of the art equipment, the 3/8 30 Photo by Andrew Kornylak Storm

The Perfect Storm

Sam Lightner Jr.

In fall of 1991, a cold front, powerful low pressure system, and a tropical hurricane combined off the eastern seaboard to create what author Sebastian Junger called "The Perfect Storm." Individually, none of these events was all that impressive for its particular atmospheric condition. However, when the three were pulled together into one super-storm, the results added up to 100+ mile per hour winds, 100 foot waves, and $200 million in damage.

Seemingly unrelated, on a summer’s eve in 2013, I sat on my porch sipping bourbon and talking of climbing with a half dozen other climbers. The full spectrum of the sport was represented, from a 5.14+ sport climber to another who had freed numerous big walls, to an alpinist who'd stood atop Nameless Tower. Between us was 150 years of climbing experience on all continents and types of terrain. We conversed over the future of the sport, noting how difficult things may get and what challenges awaited the next generation. I commented that the greatest challenge may be getting out to climb at all. Ears perked, and I went on to explain how a host of conditions were already in place to make a "perfect storm" that could end the sport of rock climbing on public land.

The Low Pressure Area: Old Bolts The American sport climbing movement began in the mid 1980's at Smith Rock after a number of US climbers, most notably Alan Watts and Todd Skinner, traveled to Europe and experienced the fun of bolt protected climbing. Prior to sport climbing, bolts were used, but they were placed on lead and did not necessarily protect the most dangerous part of a climb. You placed a bolt when you could, and if there wasn't a stance or a hook placement from which you could place a bolt, the better bet was often to continue and hope you got to easier ground quickly. A slow progression up through the grades, only taking on a route if you thought it likely you could pull it off, was a good way to avoid falling and thus getting hurt.

Sport climbs were established with a different approach. The idea was to be challenged by the physical movement over the rock and to minimize the danger, so bolts were placed on rappel and in spots where you might fall. If it got difficult, there should be a bolt. If there was a ledge in the climb, a bolt would protect the terrain just above it. The traditional approach of rarely falling gave way to "throw yourself at anything... what harm could come." There was a crux, and you were now expected to safely fall there.

The draw to this safer version of the sport was immediate and it spread across the country. Rock that had never before been climbed, like the blank faces of City of Rocks and the limestone canyons of Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, became popular climbing areas. Those first sport climbs were established with what was thought to be state of the art equipment, the 3/8 Inch, 5-piece Rawl galvanized steel bolt (now manufactured by Powers). It had nearly 5000 pound shear strength, which was way above twice the strength of the old button head 1/4 inch bolts that were the previous standard. The integrity of this new bolt, which now only barely makes the minimum safety criteria (according to UIAA guidelines), left most of us not even questioning the lifetime of the hardware.

Corrosion, or rust, begins the instant oxygen combines with the iron in steel. Throw in a little water or salt, as you do with most of our sedimentary rock climbs, and you speed the process up. Corrosion leaves behind iron oxide, a material with barely enough integral strength to hold itself together, much less hold you off the ground. The galvanized steel bolts placed on the climbs of the late 1980s and early 1990's have lived out their useful lives. Even in places you might think of as dry, like Owens River Gorge, this chemical process is taking place. This is not a problem that might exist. It is basic science; if you have these elements, you will eventually have this problem. The original bolts are old, rusted, and their failure is imminent.

The Hurricane: Who Are We?

The demographics of climbing have changed dramatically over the last 30 years, and again, it's probably related to sport climbing. When I began climbing in the early 1980's, my peers were generally outsiders to much of American society. They wore bandanas on their heads and were seen as a little "off" for risking their lives by climbing. They weren't interested in TV, often ignored politics, and rarely took notice of traditional sports. They didn't fit in, and the dangerous sport of climbing was a perfect place for these misfits to form their own little society. They understood that climbing was risky, and in fact, recognized that danger was part of the sports allure. There was no expectation of safety. Sure, Chouinard Equipment stamped a weight rating on their carabiners, but few of us really understood how that number was affected by a leader fall. And fall? Well, you rarely did that. Falling meant putting all that stuff that you really didn't understand to work, so the best approach was to fall as little as possible.

That, and more, has changed. Climbers used to be found near places where there was climbing, i.e. mountains. But with the creation of indoor gyms, climbing is found wherever people gather in large numbers. In 1980 you likely could have counted the total number of 5.11 climbers in Atlanta, Georgia on your right hand and still been able to sip a cup of coffee. There are now hundreds climbing at that level in Atlanta, and that's just one example of a place you would not have imagined as a community of climbers.

The climbers of 2014 aren't the product of a life on society’s periphery, but are cool high school jocks, urban professionals, and mothers of twins. We get up, go to work, go to the climbing gym or crag after work, and come home to the family. We can be found in every walk of life and in all demographics. In short, climbing has become a part of mainstream society.

This change has made for a much more fun and social atmosphere at the crag, but the masses have come to climbing because they believe it's safe. Seriously, do you really think all those people are doing this even though they think they might die? Of course not. It thus follows that climbers think as a group in a very similar way to the rest of the country, and to most people the idea of flirting with death is alien. They want and expect to be safe, and that is the second of three conditions that could form the perfect storm.

The Cold Front: Thank you, Councilor!

Those old misfits would have never thought to file a suit if they got hurt while climbing. Their families thought what they were doing was nuts, so Dad would have never filed a law suit if his hanky-wearing, gorp eating, recluse of a son, turfed-out at the base of something called the Bachar-Yerian. Fortunately, the law has recognized this, saying in effect that there are certain activities where lawsuits simply cannot be applied because they are "inherently dangerous".

But that's the law right now. The law evolves with society, and our laws are evolving to make sure you can be sued for virtually anything. You can ask for hot coffee at the drive through, or eat burgers and fries at every meal, and still successfully sue McDonalds for burned thighs and angioplasty. America’s attorneys have made no effort to curtail the frivolity of lawsuits, and for that reason anything is possible. You simply get your day in court to prove your side, thus being forced to pay to fight a suit for any conceivable reason.

Sliding down a 30% slope of snow with waxed boards strapped to your feet is thrilling, but people sue ski resorts every year because they got hurt trying to get that thrill. You can get an adrenalin rush from skateboarding, and you can also sue the skate park into closure when you bust your head open. By and large, we don't like to take ownership of actions that lead to our demise, and this is becoming more common in our forms of recreation. In a society where nomenclature allows us to put "alcoholism" and "obesity" in the same category as leukemia by characterizing all as a "disease," it's clear we won't accept responsibility. It's just a matter of time before an attorney with huge school loans says he's willing to argue that the decision to go climbing had nothing to do with the climbing accident you were in.

And the Euro's are rethinking whether climbing is dangerous as well. Last summer 12-year-old Tito Traversa was killed when he fell while on a climbing trip. The details are still being drawn out, but what is known is that the quickdraws Tito used to protect the climb were put together incorrectly. Neither the child prodigy of a climber, nor the adults in the area, noticed the incorrect slinging of the quickdraws. Since then, the Italian authorities Have filed manslaughter charges against the manufacturer of the equipment, the owner of the store that sold the quickdraws, and the climbing club that Tito was out with on the day of his accident. That's a lot of law coming down in a sport that has always been thought to be "inherently dangerous."

Ask yourself this: If Tito had fallen on properly equipped draws and three of the 15-year-old bolts had failed, resulting in the same outcome, who would be in trouble? If it isn't the fault of the recreationist (or his parents), it must be someone else. It's only a matter of time before we conclude that someone is the land manager that owns the crag.

The Perfect Storm

This is my perfect storm against climbing: the equipment we depend on starts regularly failing when the demographics of the sport have changed to make lawsuits against land managers more likely. The land managers respond to the cost of fighting the litigation by closing the areas to the sport.

The first salvo against the idea that we are responsible for ourselves was likely fired way back in 1991. In "Johnson versus the United States", the family of Ben Johnson filed a suit against Grand Teton National Park and the park's climbing rangers for the following:

Plaintiff Johnson alleged that "Ben Johnson would not have died but for the Park Service's negligent failure to: (1) adequately regulate recreational climbing activity in Grand Teton National Park; (2) initiate a rescue effort after Macal's [his partner] initial report; and (3) conduct a reasonable rescue effort after Macal's second report."

They didn't win the initial suit, so it was bucked up to the 10th Circuit of Appeals, all the while the Park Service paying for the legal fight. Among other things, in the appeal Johnsons attorneys argued that the Park Service did not post enough warnings regarding the potential danger of mountain climbing, did not test the competency of each mountain climber before he went out, and did not 'clear' the mountains of all climbers before dark. In the end, the 10th Circuit ruled that, "Decisions as to the extent or nature of mountain climbing regulation are truly the product of the Park Service's independent judgment - they are discretionary."

This was hailed as a major victory for land managers, but was it a victory for the sport of climbing? What happens when the National Park Service – or the BLM, Forest Service, or state park – get hit with this same type of suit multiple times a year? As the court said, it's in their interest to decide how to deal with this. If I was a Park Ranger or BLM regional manager and I had budget constraints to deal with, while a user group that amounts to less than 2% of my visitors was costing a lot money and headache, I might just ban the activity.

And that's exactly what the State of Hawaii did.

"On June 11th 2012, a young girl with a group from the YMCA Camp Erdman was critically injured by a falling rock at Mokuleia. The group was not wearing helmets, in violation of YMCA safety procedures.

The day after, the area was closed by the state's Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR)."

The closure was based on fears of possible future litigation. Climbing has since been closed, and though the Access Fund has gotten the state to relax much of the ruling, the future of climbing in Hawaii is very much in question.

The legal types out there are going to argue that this won't happen... that a precedent has been set. What I'm saying is that the very nature of who we are might be changing in such a way that we ourselves push to change that precedent. That 11-year-old on the climbing team in Peoria is being taught that it is safe to walk up to a wall he's never been to and try as hard as possible, probably falling into the air on a piece of equipment he knows nothing about. When he gets hurt at 22 and can't pay his med bills, he might say to himself, "I was taught it was safe... I expected that someone was keeping the climbs safe. Who are these government officials to tell me it’s not safe and that I'm responsible to know that." John Q. Ambulancechase will affirm that for him by attempting to challenge the precedent.

So what are we to do to stop this tempest from coming together? Honestly, it may be too late, but there are a few ways we can work against the coming storm.

First, join the Access Fund. Even if this super-storm doesn't happen, the Access Fund is the best friend of every climber in America. It has been fighting for your right to climb on every level and has proven time and again it is the best defense we have against closing a climbing area. A membership at $35 year, less than the cost of a tank of gas to and from the crag you visit each weekend, is money well spent.

You can also support national organizations like the American Safe Climbing Association or your local climbing organization. Most major climbing areas have an active community of advocates that are invested in raising money for hardware and replacing thousands of bolts every year with high quality equipment you can depend on for decades to come. This won't stop frivolous lawsuits, but it might make for fewer of them, and the extra gravy is you get to clip safe gear yourself.

After that, it seems we ought to remove "someone" from the lexicon. The next time you hear a person say "That bolt is a spinner...." or "The webbing is old on that anchor...." followed with "... someone should fix that," ask them who that "someone" is. Point out that if they recognize a problem and really believe it should be fixed, then they should fix it. Personally, when I hear "someone" in that context, I know they mean a person other than their self... some other person in our society. By asking for society to do it, they are taking a step away from the individualism that the sport of climbing was once all about. In essence, they are thinking in a way that allows us to be just like every other sport, and that may be our downfall.

Read the full article at http://mydigitalpublication.com/article/The+Perfect+Storm/1656107/200339/article.html.

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