Why Climbers 100 Years Ago Are More Badass Than You
After climbing the Grand Teton, I felt like a badass. Later, I learned a little history of the route I climbed: Glenn Exum was a mountain guide in the Teton range who normally led people up the mountain’s first climbed line, the Owen-Spalding route. One day Exum, for whatever reason – boredom, maybe – established a new line up the mountain, which was later named the Exum ridge. The route is a mountaineering classic, one that thousands of people climb every year. But Exum climbed it without ultra sticky-rubber rock shoes, without magical spring loaded camming devices for protection and without a rope or a belay to catch him if he fell. He didn’t know what the climbing would be like once he started climbing. He was a true badass. I was just a poser.
Climbing is now just a little more safe and a little less sexy. The climbers at the forefront of the sport continue to push their limits in breathtaking ways – like Chris Sharma’s superhuman feets of athleticism, or Alex Honnold’s terrifying ballsiness – but all that has struck me as a self-conscious attempt to recover some of the danger of the sport. Climbing 100 years ago was dangerous; the manufactured excitement of today’s climbing is more of an affectation. There’s a certain anxiety of lateness for today’s climbers: the unsettling feeling that everything hardcore has already been done, like you’ve shown up to an awesome party that’s winding down.
John Muir, the OG of outdoor badasses, climbed Mount Rainier in 1888. When his party reached the glacier, the real climbing, he writes: “Every one of the party took off his shoes and drove stout steel caulks about half an inch long into them, having brought tools along for the purpose.” Climbers like Muir didn’t have the glacier-gripping luxury of crampons, like the climbers of today, which left them with precarious purchase on the mountain their were climbing. Their only choice was to hammer nails into the bottom on their boots, hoping that would give them enough traction.
He continues: “Thus prepared, we stepped forth afresh, slowly groping our way through tangled lines of crevasses, crossing on snow bridges here and there after cautiously testing them, jumping at narrow places.” Mount Rainier is a serious mountain to climb, even today. To do so without crampons is insane!
“Besides being well shod each carried an alpenstock,” continued Muir. Alpenstocks are long poles that climbers used for balance and to arrest their fall if they slipped. They look kind of like the staff of a wizard. Muir probably resembled Gandalf while traversing the Rainier glacier, complete with an awesome outdoor beard.
Climbers today use ice axes, which were inspired by the alpenstock and are considerably more effective. The long head of the ax makes it easy to dig into a hard packed glacier. I can’t imagine what it would be like if you slipped on a glacier and had to arrest your fall with an alpenstock – in fact, one of Muir’s party members on Rainier fell and shot down the glacier. “So steep was the ice slope no one could move to help him,” Muir said. “But fortunately, keeping his presence of mine, he threw himself on his face and digging his alpenstock into the ice, gradually retarded his motion until he came to rest.” What a badass.
People climb with ropes to save their lives from a catastrophic fall, but early climbing ropes were almost more dangerous than climbing without one. They were made of hemp, which isn’t the best material to make climbing rope out of. For one, if you took a bad fall, the rope would just break – not the kind of feature you look for in a product.
And even if the rope did catch you on a big fall, it would probably kill you anyway. Climbing ropes of today are dynamic, meaning the rope will stretch when loaded with force, softening your fall. Really old climbing ropes were static – they didn’t stretch, so if you fell a long way, it would break your back like a dry toothpick.
Most climbing routes around the world have beta – descriptions of the route, including tips on what type of gear you’ll need, what kind of climbing you’ll encounter, as well as its difficulty.
How did climbers 100 years ago know how many pitons to bring with them on a route that had never been climbed before? They didn’t know. They were explorers trudging off the edge of the map.
Climbing beta today is the equivalent to Googlemaps giving you driving directions to a movie theater. Climbing 100 years ago — walking blindfolded in the Australian Outback. I think we know which option is more hardcore.