Beyond Clean Climbing

A new ethic must go beyond clean climbing, and extend from more than just how we should act while climbing.

By Gavin Lord | September 21st, 2017

When we buy gear and clothing, we make decisions that have real, nontrivial impacts, and are difficult because they involve trade-offs. Photo: Stefan Resch.

When Lionel Terray wrote “Conquistadors of the Useless”, climbing and alpinism was very much on the fringe. Engaged in selfish pursuit that generates nothing of use for society, the lifestyle had a romantic mystique. While climbing has since changed in many ways, its impact has grown tremendously. As it is, the consumption patterns of the typical climber places us easily among the most selfish on the planet. Although we could certainly point the finger at other consumers who do worse, the difference is that—along with the wider outdoor community—we claim to care.

Back in April, Climbing magazine ran an article titled “How Green is Climbing Gear?”, which delved into the strategies that gear and clothing manufacturers are taking to reduce the production footprint for the products we all consume. Alison Dennis points out that “right now, sustainability is about incrementally improving supply-chain practices,” and suggests consumer choice as the impetus for change. Dennis isn’t wrong about the dominant perspective in the industry, but we need to understand the limits to these types of solutions.

As long as personal consumption continues to rise, incremental increases in efficiency cannot reduce our overall footprint. Instead, the negative impact of the outdoor and climbing community increases every year.

This tendency is called the Jevons paradox; attempts to reduce impact are outpaced by an expanding consumer base that is constantly presented with new gear. The trend is towards products that are ever-lighter, more technical, less serviceable, and usually less durable. Although leading companies have ambitious sustainability initiatives, and may proclaim minimalism and environmental conservation, their annual sales figures tell a story of growth and increased consumption.

When we buy and use gear and clothing, we make decisions that have real, nontrivial impacts, and are difficult because they involve trade-offs. Lightweight foam helmets offer better protection against lead falls, but don’t compare to the lifespan of an Ecrin Roc (now discontinued). Dyneema slings have less environmental impact than nylon, but this reduced footprint isn’t meaningful if the sling doesn’t last as long. These trade-offs and decisions threaten to overwhelm the individual consumer and tarnish our relationship to the environment with a nagging guilt. The concept of consumer choice—voting with your dollar—hasn’t worked so far, and the global footprint continues to rise.

A new ethic must go beyond clean climbing, and extend from more than just how we should act while climbing.

For these reasons, technological fixes and consumer choice are insufficient to solve a growing environmental crisis that is socially constructed—our pattern of consumption. Recycled fleece and low-carbon ropes are not going to save us.

So what is the solution? How do we turn back from the path that we are on? The simple answer is that we need to reduce consumption, and become empowered beyond our role as consumers. What that looks like in practice is harder to conceive. There are a couple of obvious solutions I could point you towards: don’t fetishize gear, buy durable instead of ultralight, find new ways to share gear, or offset with reductions in other areas of your life. Then again, I never was one for practicalities; the philosopher in me believes that we can work towards a solution by returning to the vision and ethics of the greats that we follow. Given a guiding vision, the entrepreneurial and creative among you will find solutions that are probably far better than mine.

A new ethic must go beyond clean climbing, and extend from more than just how we should act while climbing. Any rewards we get from this useless pursuit, any meaning we give to the art of climbing, comes from the process and not from standing on the summit. If the style and gear that shapes this process knowingly causes considerable environmental harm, then is it still clean climbing? While Royal Robbins pointed out the damage caused to the rock by our gear, why should we not think about the damage that gear causes when it is produced and consumed?

In “My Life at the Limit”, Messner says that a good line adapts itself to the natural features of the mountain. Now it is our turn to decide whether we continue to follow this line once we return from the mountains.


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