Thursday, 30 April 2009

Trad musing

Spring has been kind so far, with fairly uninterrupted good weather for weeks now. It’s been getting a bit warm for the usual grit crags, so rather than jump on the limestone bouldering/sport climbing band wagon I’ve decided to continue with the tradding which I’d been getting into in autumn. At this time of year some of the most elusive crags come into condition (Wimberry, Hen Cloud, Kinder, Ramshaw, Black Rocks, plus loads of Yorkshire places). Most of the year crags such as these can be either too cold/green/wet/bleak or too hot/midgy. It’s a window of opportunity that a lot of climbers seem to miss out on, either persevering at grit crags which are too hot to enjoy or assuming the grit season is over and jumping ship to the lime. I guess part of this is down to how few of the serious climbers I come into contact with regularly want to climb trad on anything approaching a regular basis. Why should this be? Looked at objectively, out of trad, sport and bouldering, the UK’s trad resources are easily our greatest treasure in terms of quality, quantity and diversity. At first glance it makes no sense. I’ve often pondered on the subject and will attempt (by the power of bullet points) to outline why I think this situation exists.
In this context I’m primarily referring to traditional (ground up or there-abouts) trad climbing, though to a lesser extent some points hold true for highballing and deep water soloing and some for headpointing. In no particular order:

  • Trad climbing is an increasingly expensive game. At £50 each for a camming device it’s easy to see why new climbers coming out of the walls, looking to do some outdoor stuff might go for cheaper options like bouldering and sport climbing
  • Many new climbers start out climbing at walls. Walls most directly replicate bouldering and sport climbing. There is a skill gap which has to be crossed before a wall strong climber can become a good tradder, a gap which is much smaller for bouldering or sport climbing.
  • Trad climbing has a lot of faff per minute on the rock. Long walk ins, racking up, placing gear, removing gear, belaying trepidatious leaders/seconds, getting back down again, etc. It also generally lacks the weather proof alternatives that are available to the sporter/boulderer, further reducing the climbing to faff ratio.
  • Unless you’re willing and able to stick your neck a long way out it’s a very hard discipline to get ‘impressive’ at quickly. Anyone motivated by a desire for kudos may soon loose heart in the face of slow progress and/or real life fear.
  • The harder it gets the scarier it gets as a general rule, but for most people boldness doesn’t improve at the same rate as finger strength! Different people will accept different levels of real and perceived danger. For some the fear, be it justified or not, is insurmountable and takes any pleasure out of the actual climbing. The reckless/unlucky might also be put off by an accident or near miss.
  • The modern approach to climbing is characterised by a pre-occupation with power/stamina levels. Many climbers are to varying degrees paranoid about letting these slip. Whilst bouldering and sport climbing can be seen as having cross benefits for most other types of climbing, tradding is not likely to improve either bouldering power or sport stamina. A climber shifting seasonally between disciplines is likely to feel relatively week/unfit when moving from a period of trad climbing.
  • For climbers with some level of trad aspiration the above point often leads to the logic of “climb hard while I’m young and mop up the bumbly stuff when I get too old to crank”. From what I see at the crag this is flawed logic. In my experience people tend to get more rather than less risk averse as they grow older, which in turn funnels them into sport climbing. People don’t stop trying to push themselves on relatively hard stuff when they get older, far from it. As often as not the sport crags have a disproportionately high number of veterans. A youth of sport climbing is not, in most cases, a great training for a trad based dotage.
  • For the average money rich (by world standards) but time poor British climber bouldering and sporting perhaps represent a more ‘productive’ use of limited time. Train during weekday evenings then do targeted intense climbing at the weekend. Nothing is worse than spending a week in the office then walking in for miles only to get rained off and getting bugger all done. Maybe tradding only makes sense to people with lots of free time. Unfortunately the time rich are often cash poor, obviously a big problem for someone looking at putting a rack together from scratch.
  • The above factors make for a change in the old traditional progression of a climber. Where once it was standard for a climber to serve a trad apprenticeship, nowadays your strong youth is more likely to follow their peers into bouldering. It’s natural for a beginner to do what other more experienced climbers they meet are doing, which for said buff-youth-down-the-wall is unlikely to be trad. Hence the trend is further perpetuated.
All in all if you agree with my reasoning you’ll also agree that it’s not actually very surprising that more serious effort, I’d even go as far as to say ‘the majority’ of serious effort above a certain difficulty level, is put into bouldering and sport climbing in the UK, despite these being less well resourced at the crag.
Essentially I’m saying that while I think trad is massively rewarding I can see why it’s not everyone’s bag. And while it’d be nice to tempt a few more of my friends to get into it, if only to get a better supply of partners, the likelihood of this happening is slim.


Fiend said...

Good post bonusjoyus. I agree the trad in this country is ACE. Best equal in the world??

I'm in a similar position, although most of my non/rarely-tradding friends have been trad climbers initially, and moved to bouldering/sport climbing. So they have the kit and the experience, just not the motivation...

I personally think there's one pretty important factor, an extension of bullet point 5: Irrespective of real or indeed perceived danger, irrespective of pure fear, trad climbing is really really fucking hard psychologically compared to bouldering or sport. I know the latter two have their own frustrations (oh the joys of mere frustration, how tempting that is) and that some trad climbers are fortunate enough to be fairly detached from the psycological challenge, but for many people, the sheer psychological and emotional intensity of trad, particularly when trying to push oneself, is just plain HARD. And I suspect there's a strong temptation for many not to bother...

bonjoy said...

Yep, fear is a weird and often irrational beast. I know a guy who's a brilliant OS soloer, but has to stick clip every bolt when on sport routes due to fear!

t_b said...

It's fashion, the ease of bouldering, the new walls, the obsession with "pulling hard". People training to go abroad sport climbing on holiday. The danger. It's time consuming. Is it more complicated than that? Basically trad is hard work and takes a lot to get decent at. Why would you bother scaring yourself silly? Good post though. In the last 2 weeks I've really enjoyed perfect grit trad temps and seeking out new venues and routes "that got away".

Richdraws said...

Trad interests me, I love Gritstone and the style of climbing. From my point of view the jump from bouldering to Trad climbing is massively intimidating. Learning it surely requires a great deal of trust - much more so than sport climbing.

Paul said...

Very interesting to hear opinions on this from across the pond. In Ireland we don't have the domestic sport climbing option, so the vast majority of new climbers go straight from the wall to the boulders. Then when they start coveting routes, theres the discovery that you basically have to go back to scratch. No point being able to pull like a tractor if you can't place a wire! Its something thats having a gradual but noticeable effect on the numbers of new trad climbers vs top ropers/boulderers. It could also be one of the reasons for Irish trad standards in general lagging so far behind (though thats an entirely different kettle of fish!).

Good post, cheers.

bluebrad said...

Excellent post Bonjoy and agree with all of the points that you have made especially those regarding fear and progress. Will have to dust off the trad rack and check out the crags that you have mentioned.