When I logged into Facebook today, I was interested to see that several organizations/individuals I follow (National Geographic, International Mountain Equipment, Inc., and Tommy Caldwell) had linked to an article that appeared on the New York Times website yesterday. The subject of the article is the impact of social media, like Facebook, on the sport of climbing. I’ve reproduced the article below, but you can also read it here. All photos are from the news story.
On Ledge and Online: Solitary Sport Turns Social
Alex Lother, Dec. 09, 2011
Last month the climber Tommy Caldwell lived on a nylon ledge hung 1,200 feet up El Capitan, the massive sweep of granite that stands sentinel over Yosemite Valley, for more than two weeks.
One of the world’s best all-around rock climbers, Caldwell slept on the ledge, cooked on the ledge and went to the bathroom into a receptacle hanging below the ledge. And at the top of this solitary, silent sport, he was being watched by thousands of spectators around the world.
From Singapore: “Inspirational, Tommy! Well done!” From Poland: “Smiles from Krakow. Keep pressing!!!” From Slovakia: “Go, Tommy, go!!!”
Caldwell updated his progress on Facebookusing his iPhone, which he charged with portable solar panels. His fans, a group that grew to more than 4,000 during his climb, could follow along in real time with commentary from the climber himself. No need to wait days, weeks or months for a print article or video. The Dawn Wall, as Caldwell’s project is known, is the latest example of what has become an increasingly accepted practice among professional climbers and in the wider climbing community: from-the-route social media. Observers enjoy it, sponsors encourage it and climbers get to share what is inherently a selfish pursuit.
But a vocal minority questions what happens to a sport whose ideals of purity are traditionally based on adventure, commitment, self-sufficiency and individual achievement when online interaction happens instantly.
“In the last six years, more climbers have started engaging in almost-live updates from the mountains,” said Katie Ives, the editor of Alpinist magazine. She says she worries that “instead of actually having the experience be the important part, it’s the representation of the experience that becomes the important part — something is lost.” David Roberts, a writer and climber, said from-the-route media “introduces a fatal self-consciousness” to a climb. It removes the “blissful sense of being alone out there.”
On his recent climb on El Capitan, Caldwell battled fatigue and the impending winter on what will be considered the hardest big wall free climb in the world (free as in free of aid; he used a rope and protection in case of falls, but only his hands and feet to go up). Driving home to Estes Park, Colo., Caldwell, 33, said the route did feel different from others.
“It felt like there were a lot of people watching our progress, like a football game,” Caldwell said. “Usually when I climb it’s just me and my partner. It’s a very solitary thing.”
“This is a whole new world,” he added.
As soon as mountaineering was considered a recreational activity, climbers began reporting their feats in one form or another. In 1336, the wandering Italian poet Petrarch wrote an account of his long walk up Mont Ventoux in France. By 1953, sponsors of expeditions wanted news quickly. On the first ascent of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a reporter was on the expedition, eager to report success to the Crown, which wanted the update — that a subject of the British Empire had conquered the highest summit in the world — before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
By the late 1990s, satellite linkups and the Internet had reduced the interval between an event and coverage of it to virtually nothing. In 1999, on an expedition that made the first ascent of the northwest face of Pakistan’s Great Trango Tower, an unseen line was crossed. A highly visible, remote objective matched with a reported sponsorship budget of $50,000, a full camera crew and daily Web updates from the climbers on the wall (via an elaborate system involving a satellite linkup from base camp) drew the ire of the wider climbing community.
Mark Synnott, one of three climbers on the expedition, said he came away from the experience conflicted. “It was a necessary evil,” he said of all the media. But without the computers and cameras there would not have been an expedition, and without the expedition there would have been no new cutting edge route on the tower. “The idea is pretty cool if it can be done the right way,” Synnott said.
Caldwell, the El Capitan climber, said people perceived the Great Trango Tower expedition as “bringing something into the mountains that didn’t belong there.” But something has changed, he said. “People started to realize it could add to the experience.”
In 2008, nine years after the Great Trango Tower expedition, a young climber and artist named Renan Ozturk traded his sketchbook and pencils for a few new tools that would allow him to film, edit and upload media from the base of a remote wall in the Indian Himalayas. Ozturk, a sponsored athlete who was part of the climbing team, said his idea was to make media that was “authentic in a good way.” He added, “If the people are doing it for the right reasons, it will show.”
Zack Smith, a climbing partner of Ozturk’s and a world-class Alpinist in his own right, said he had rejected the trappings of professional climbing, sponsorship and documentation of his climbs.
“I want to make decisions from my heart, my gut, my brain,” he said. He invoked Kodak courage, the idea that people tend to push harder when being filmed or photographed. “Climbing mountains is a dangerous pursuit,” he said. “When you mix in the potential desire to impress people, that’s a very dangerous thing.”
Up on El Capitan, Caldwell’s camp sat high above a busy loop road in Yosemite National Park. He had cellphone reception. Full bars. The cliff is perhaps climbing’s most public sphere. In high season thousands of tourists a day scour the walls for the tiny specks creeping their way up its oceans of granite.
Before an injury forced him off the wall, Kevin Jorgeson, 27, was Caldwell’s partner on the route. He began posting updates from the route via Twitter in 2010. Caldwell was skeptical at first, but came around.
Last year, facing a large snowstorm, Caldwell and Jorgeson posed a question on a message board on a climbing Web site, to see if their hanging camp would be bombarded by falling ice after the storm cleared, making it too dangerous to stay. Out of hundreds of responses, a few people with experience on the wall after a storm explained that their camp was unprotected from above and would be showered with dangerous chunks of ice.
They retreated the next day.
-Story from the NY Times, can be accessed here.
I spent some time thinking about what the article is saying; I’m thankful that the author did not actually take a side on the “document vs. don’t document” argument. I don’t think this is a black and white issue, but I also don’t think its as big an issue as people are making it out to be. Ultimately, I think this issue comes down to personal choice.
When I climb or enjoy the outdoors, one of the things I enjoy about the experience is that I can get away from electronic communication and be unreachable for a short amount of time. We live in a world where constant communication is the status quo, and personally I find escaping from that system to be both personally necessary and very fulfilling. While I do maintain this blog and share my experiences here with photos and text after the fact, I don’t want to sit out on a belay stance somewhere and give live updates.
That said, bear in mind that climbers like Tommy Caldwell are in a very different place than me. For Caldwell, climbing is his job (though it is obvious how much he also loves it; lucky…), and he is under contract to his sponsors to give updates on what he is doing.
I also don’t believe that documenting a climb or an ascent detracts from the feat per se; I would say instead that up to the minute documentation detracts from the climb for some climbers. Also, I don’t accept the “purity” argument, as it is incredibly subjective. Today, we accept all sorts of aids as “pure,” many of which were seen as cheating by past climbers. Ropes, for instance, were seen as “not sporting” by Victorian British climbers. If you wanted to climb a mountain in those days, you did it on your own skill; if you fell, you died, and you were obviously not equal to the task. That was “fair” climbing. Today, there are very few who have moral qualms about roping up.
My point is this; if you feel that documentation of a climb would detract from the experience for you, then don’t document! But don’t whine when others don’t share your opinion, and decide to provide updates in the manner of Caldwell and his partners. Its a personal choice folks, and browsing through the comments on Caldwell’s Facebook page, most of the climbers who read the article would agree.
Climb on, Tommy Caldwell!