Making The Grade

Why you may be wrong about what's right about chipping.

By Bill Ramsey | February 27th, 2012

The Rose and the Vampire, Just Do It. These route names roll off the tongue. Each climb has a place in history, both for what it meant to the sport, but also because it has the characteristics of a climbing “classic.” All are singular lines that tackle stunning features in grand positions. Yet each of these grand climbs also share a trait you many not know about, or if you do you might choose to ignore—each was deliberately chipped to go free.

Most climbers are openly hostile when expressing their opinions about chipping, maintaining a dogmatic disdain, yet hold manufacturing is a practice as old as climbing itself, and it would be an understatement to say that climbers are a bit schizophrenic on the subject. Why?

This essay presents what most climbers consider anathema—a limited defense of chipping. It was excerpted from the new book Climbing—Philosophy for Everyone: Because It’s There.

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Climbing and philosophy intersect with regard to the ethical behavior of climbers. Some of the ethical issues in climbing involve a straightforward extension of more general moral principles. For example, it is wrong to lie about your climbing accomplishments because, more generally, it is wrong to lie. However, other ethical issues involve factors that are unique to climbing and cannot be resolved by invoking broader moral rules. Is it wrong, for example, to place bolts on rappel? Is it cheating to use pre-placed gear on a traditional pitch? For these sorts of questions, broader moral rules do not apply in a straightforward way, and we must work out for ourselves what is right or wrong within the context of climbing.

When doing this, we can tailor a form of practical ethics for climbing. Traditionally, practical ethics has been the search for rational solutions to important problems we confront like climate change. However, practical ethics can be applied to less weighty matters such as rock climbing. While each climber needs to decide for himself which rules to abide by, it doesn’t follow that anything goes or that a simple majority opinion is decisive. It is certainly possible for climbers, just like anyone else, to embrace rules that are ill-conceived or that don’t really make sense. Thus, by using practical ethics we can ask if certain longstanding rules or attitudes should be revised or even abandoned.

Here I’m going to do this with regard to the issue of hold manufacturing. By applying some of the same strategies that are common to practical ethics, I’ll show how popular attitudes about hold manufacturing are unreasonable and out of sync with other common attitudes and practices in rock climbing.

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Practical ethics does not require an esoteric formula. Instead, like all good philosophy it simply involves thinking carefully about a topic in a critical and coherent manner. Yet it turns out that people aren’t very good at this. Instead, studies reveal that people reason in a manner that is driven by biases, embrace beliefs that are incompatible with other beliefs, fail to think about what their views entail, and endorse fallacious arguments. Consequently, good practical ethics can be both helpful and yet disturbing and iconoclastic, revealing how our ordinary views on a topic we thought we understood are mistaken. Practical ethicists often serve as social critics, challenging conventional assumptions and attitudes. One of the ways they do this is by revealing how some of our commitments conflict with other attitudes we hold. Practical ethicists often upset the applecart of consensus by constructing arguments that expose hidden inconsistencies in our beliefs.

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To begin, let’s reflect on the nature of the hold-manufacturing controversy. Unlike most debates, this one is not fueled by two equally outspoken camps. With few exceptions, virtually no one openly defends hold manufacturing. In climbing literature there appears to be almost universal consensus that any form of manufacturing is bad. Indeed, even in one of the few defenses of manufacturing, a notorious 1990 essay, the practice is described as “fundamentally terrible” and “degrading.”

So given the apparent consensus, in what sense is there a controversy? The controversy exists because despite the open expression of anti-manufacturing sentiments, hold manufacturing occurs on many new routes. In other words, common statements are in conflict with common actions, resulting in a deep incongruity about the way some rock climbs are developed. This odd double standard is often reflected in popular descriptions of various routes.

Take, for example, The Nose as a free climb. It is generally known that, besides the various pin scars that make certain cracks free-climbable, there is a section of the free variation—what is often described as the “Jardine Traverse”—where the holds used by all free climbers have been chiseled into the granite. So, on the one hand, it is widely claimed that routes with manufactured holds are tainted and that manufacturing should never be done. Yet, at the same time, a route that is made possible with manufactured holds is widely regarded as one of the greatest free climbs in the world. And this is true of many routes throughout the globe, in many popular destinations. Le Rose et le Vampire at Buoux, Bronx at Orgon, or The Crew at Rifle, to name just a few, are generally viewed as classics or groundbreaking achievements, even though their existence depends, at least in part, on a style of route preparation that is openly deplored.

What should we make of this? One possibility is that manufacturing holds is indeed always profoundly wrong, and we often just choose to ignore this. But I think a more plausible diagnosis is that, despite the overt indignation over manufacturing, we really aren’t clear about what, exactly, is wrong with it. Upon deeper reflection, the popular arguments against manufacturing are unconvincing and don’t hold up to close scrutiny. In other words, the reason manufacturing still occurs is because the condemnation itself is not properly justified. Indeed, if we employ practical ethics with regard to hold manufacturing—that is, if we commit ourselves to careful and consistent reasoning—we wind up with an analysis that suggests, at least in certain circumstances, manufacturing should be regarded as acceptable.


How would such an analysis go? Replicating a common strategy in practical ethics, the first premise would express a general normative principle that most climbers believe about acceptable practices in route development. The second premise would claim that hold manufacturing is a legitimate application of this principle (and thus an anti-manufacturing attitude is in conflict with the accepted principle). The conclusion would be that manufacturing in some circumstances is an acceptable practice. Here is such an argument:

(a) There are circumstances such that, in the preparation of a route, modifying the rock to make it climbable is acceptable.

(b) The set of circumstances in which rock modification is acceptable sometimes includes the manufacturing of holds.

(c) Therefore, the manufacturing of holds is sometimes acceptable.

While (a) might initially strike some as implausible, I think it is easy to show that it is a principle that most climbers embrace. The more controversial premise is (b). Of course, (c) follows directly from (a) and (b), so if you accept those two premises, you need to accept (c).

Before we evaluate premises (a) and (b) we need to clarify a couple of things. First, we should get a little clearer on what is meant by “hold manufacturing.” There is obviously a continuum of different rock alterations that have been described as hold manufacturing, including unintentionally creating holds with pitons, reinforcing existing holds with glue, “comfortizing” holds or aggressive cleaning, and of course, flat-out drilling holds in blank rock. Not much rides on how broad we make this continuum, so let’s stipulate that manufacturing includes deliberately drilling pockets to create climbing holds.

Second, we need to specify the sort of circumstances I have in mind when I claim that manufacturing is acceptable, as I certainly don’t believe it is defensible in every situation. Because so many climbers appear to have a zero-tolerance attitude, we can be fairly conservative while remaining revisionist. It is impossible to give a detailed description of all acceptable manufacturing scenarios, but we don’t need to. Instead, we can describe the prototypical scenario and later worry about how far it is acceptable to stray from that. Let’s say the archetype of acceptable manufacturing involves preparing an unclimbed sport route in a sport-climbing area that has mostly high-quality climbable sections but also segments of blank rock. To link the climbable sections a limited number of holds are manufactured in the blank sections. That is the paradigm the following argument is intended to defend.

The truth of (a)—rock modification is acceptable—is easy to see once we consider general attitudes about the removal of loose rock by the person who prepares the route. When bolting a route it is almost universally agreed that it is acceptable to remove any loose blocks, crumbly or muddy rock, creaking flakes, and so on. Indeed, the removal of loose rock is generally treated as obligatory. Route equippers who do not remove loose rock, especially on sport climbs, are often chastised. Since the removal of loose rock is clearly an instance of modifying the rock to make it climbable, then modifying the rock to make it climbable is something that practically everyone finds acceptable.

Premise (b)—acceptable rock modification sometimes includes manufacturing holds—by contrast, is something that, as noted, most climbers explicitly reject. Why should anyone accept this premise?

We know that a climbing-specific normative principle embraced by most climbers says it is OK to modify the rock to create a climbable route. The removal of loose rock is one such type of modification, and (b) claims that the manufacturing of holds is another. Someone who rejects (b) has the burden of presenting a compelling reason for thinking that hold manufacturing should not be treated as on a par with removing loose rock. Simply claiming it is wrong, and leaving it at that, won’t do. Below are four popular reasons that are commonly given for rejecting (b).

Reason 1: Rock Modification is Acceptable Only for Safety Reasons

Attitudes about the removal of loose rock stem in part from the potential danger it presents, and from a broader moral principle that you should not place others in unnecessary risk. The route preparer has an obligation not to expose subsequent climbers to unexpected hazards, and that’s why removing loose rock is acceptable. But this justification does not apply to the manufacturing of holds, and thus (it is claimed) (b) is false.

This initially seems like a good reason to treat hold manufacturing as different from removing loose rock. However, two points undermine the relevance of safety. First, not all forms of acceptable removal involve material that is potentially dangerous. Included in (a) is a general attitude that route preparers can and even should remove poor quality, flaky or dirty rock that may not pose any real hazard but that can nevertheless make the climbing unpleasant. A similar attitude applies to dirt, vegetation, lichen and weeds that might be found on holds or in cracks. Route preparers are described as having done a bad job if they leave obviously loose material on the route, even if the material can’t really hurt anyone. Consequently, it is widely acknowledged that acceptable modification of the climbing terrain extends beyond safety concerns.

Second, the main choice confronting the route preparer is not between ignoring a potential hazard to others and removing that hazard. After all, if no route is established, the loose rock will pose no real danger. The real choice is between establishing a route (whatever that requires) or simply walking away and establishing no such route. The upshot is that it really can’t be claimed that modifying the rock in this way is necessitated by safety concerns, since there are always other options available such as only establishing routes on solid rock.

Reason 2: Hold Manufacturing Violates Important Environmental Commitments

Most climbers have a perfectly legitimate concern for preserving the natural environment, at least as much as possible. Manufacturing is often described as environmentally unsound because it alters and “disrespects” the rock. Thus, it should not be treated the same as removing loose rock.

Respect for the environment is indeed good, but we already accept that our use of the outdoors involves changing the environment in various ways. Trails to the cliffs, bolts in the rock, permanent anchors for rappelling, and the removal of loose rock and flora all involve a widely accepted modification of nature so that we can go climbing. It is hard to see why an environmentally driven concern for the rock would distinguish between the removal of loose rock and removal of solid rock to make something climbable. Moreover, it is hard to see why the removal of lichen, weeds and grass isn’t more environmentally dubious than manufacturing, given that it involves killing a living part of nature (notice that, from an environmental perspective, killing a tree is considered more serious than smashing a rock on the ground).


Some agree that we sometimes need to alter nature for our purposes, but insist that there is a continuum and that hold manufacturing is at the extreme end of that continuum, beyond an acceptable level of environmental impact. I have no problem with the idea that there is a continuum of environmental impact, and that there is a line we should not cross. What I reject is the proposed ordering that places manufacturing further down the continuum than other things we find acceptable. In comparison to trails, bolts, chain anchors, chalk and the excavation of loose material, hold manufacturing on blank sections of rock is probably one of the least environmentally impactful aspects of rock climbing. You might be tempted to say that hold manufacturing permanently alters the rock, whereas things like chalk are only temporary. This is unrealistic thinking. Take a hike through Smith Rock, Eldorado Canyon, the Motherlode at the Red, or virtually any other popular cliff with darker rock, and from the trail you will see the obvious chalk on the wall that has been there for the last 20 years, and will continue to be there for several generations. In truth, it is easier to fill in a few drilled pockets than it is to wash all of this “temporary” chalk off the walls.

Reason 3: Hold Manufacturing Harms Future Generations of Good Climbers

Another argument that initially seems plausible is a forward-looking argument about the future of the sport. Here, it is claimed that by manufacturing holds to make a route possible today, preparers are robbing future generations of currently inconceivable natural lines. Had today’s 5.15bs been “chipped down” to mere 5.14s, the Sharmas and Ondras of the world would now have nothing to project.

A number of considerations undermine this reasoning. First, in our description of acceptable manufacturing, we stipulated that proper modification only applies to truly unclimbable rock, such that no future climber could ever climb it. In discussions of this topic, there is a lot of fretting about discerning what is and isn’t unclimbable rock. Statements like “Who’s to say what is unclimbable?” and “No one really knows what will be possible in the future” are commonplace. Nonsense. While it is indeed true that people are climbing things today that were once described by some as unclimbable, it doesn’t follow that unclimbable rock is impossible to detect. Unless you are completely ignorant of physics and human physiology, it is easy to recognize sections of rock that will never be climbed in their current form. If you think it is impossible to recognize truly unclimbable rock, let’s make a deal. I’ll pick out a 20-foot section of rock on a cliff somewhere and declare it unclimbable. If, in the next 15 years, it is actually climbed in its current form, then I will pay you $10,000. If it is not climbed in that form, then you must pay me $10,000. Any takers?

A stronger response to this concern is to recognize that a general acceptance of hold manufacturing will significantly help, rather than hinder, future generations of climbers. At any given point in time, including future points in time, there is a lot more unclimbable rock in the world than just barely climbable rock. Pick whatever grade you think might be the cutting edge for some future generation. 5.17d? Okay, there is a great, great deal more rock out there in the harder-than-5.17d range that could be converted into a 5.17d than there is rock that  is naturally 5.17d. So, if your concern is that the future 5.17d climber won’t have enough routes to do, then you should endorse a pro-manufacturing attitude. Note, this point applies to any future grade and any future generation. While I’m not suggesting that this is an especially good argument for manufacturing, I am claiming that the concern-for-future-climbers argument is a bad argument for opposing all hold manufacturing.

Finally, this criticism of rock modification is partly grounded in the assumption that it is always done to make the climbing easier—to bring the rock “down” to a lesser climber’s ability. In truth, there are lots of climbs where holds have been chipped off a route to make it harder. Here again, rock modification beyond the removal of loose material actually benefits, rather than hinders, the top climbers.

Reason 4: This is a Slippery Slope; Any Acceptance of Manufacturing Will Lead to Abuses

A final argument against manufacturing (one that is also grounded in legitimate concerns) stems from the idea that any sort of tolerance of manufacturing can lead to all sorts of abuse: the destruction of great, natural, really hard lines, or the modification of existing routes.

The problem with this argument is that it has nothing to do with the issue. Of course, most things done badly are bad. But that has nothing to do with the propriety of the practice done responsibly. Note that few people think the existence of bad bolting entails the need to abolish all bolting. Route preparers who engage in irresponsible and gratuitous manufacturing await the same condemnation as those who engage in irresponsible and gratuitous bolting. Because my argument is a defense of the limited sort of manufacturing described above, the possibility of other kinds of manufacturing is largely irrelevant. Remember that irresponsible manufacturing sometimes occurs now; our current condemnation hasn’t prevented it from happening.

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These four standard arguments for rejecting (b)—limited chipping is acceptable rock modifiation—are, upon reflection, not compelling and fail to support a case against manufacturing. The anti-manufacturing attitude does not accord with other things most rock climbers believe, like the acceptability of modifying the rock to make it climbable. Given that those latter beliefs are deeply entrenched, the former attitude should be abandoned. Our conclusion (c), the claim that the manufacturing of holds is sometimes acceptable, is the sensible view. Let me wrap up by considering a couple of other points.

First, isn’t there some sense in which a non-natural route is inferior to a completely natural route? Yes, I think that, all else being equal, a purely natural climb is usually better and more appealing. In most outdoor pursuits, the more that is provided by nature, the better. As with snowboard jumps, kayak runs, mountain-bike paths, and so on, a naturally occurring medium in rock climbing is superior to one that is contrived. But it is important to understand the sense in which it is superior. A route with manufactured holds is on a par with one that has, say, poorly positioned bolts or awkward moves or wildly inconsistent difficulties. In all such cases, we do not think the route preparer was being unethical to establish such a route. We just think that the route has some features that detract from its overall quality. This is the attitude that should be applied to routes with reasonably manufactured holds.

My final point is this. No doubt many of you are reading this and getting increasingly angry about my defense of manufacturing. You may be thinking, “Some yahoo is going to use this as a license for chipping holds.” But if you reflexively think that manufacturing is always bad, then you haven’t been paying attention. Given the deficiencies of the anti-manufacturing outlook, you should instead be considering the possibility that your outlook is more of a bias without proper support. Indeed, given how often an anti-manufacturing attitude is defended by appeals to nothing other than tradition, or that “it just is wrong” (with heavy foot stomping), it resembles other forms of dogmatic thinking.

Consider this: if you are a serious climber who climbs relatively hard sport routes, there is a good chance that you have done a route with at least a few manufactured holds. Moreover, there is also a good chance that despite the manufacturing, climbing the route was gratifying and rewarding. Now what should the appropriate attitude be toward the route preparer, who spent time, money and energy so you could have that experience? Does it really make sense to view the preparer with condemnation and scorn? That seems unappreciative at best, and at worst incoherent. Or is it instead more sensible to recognize that it is sometimes acceptable for preparers to modify the rock so other climbers can have the sort of experience you had? The latter position, I have come to appreciate, seems far more reasonable and philosophically defensible.


Bill Ramsey teaches philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has been climbing for 33 years, and while he has never chipped a hold, he has sometimes enjoyed routes on which others have.

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