Climbers and their Critics

I want to start this era with a quote from the great American figure Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Teddy Roosevelt

Given recent accomplishments that have appeared (quite rightly) at the top of the climbing news feeds, this seems particularly apt. However, as i’m currently learning with my studies, the critic has a place. The key is how the critic goes about it.

Second 9a

First, we need to give this some context and have a look at the story that grabbed the climbing headlines: rising French climber Charles Albert climbed No Kpote Only at Rocher Brule in Fontainebleau and has given it the grade of 9a. This is only the second boulder problem of this grade in the world, after Nalle Hukkataival climbed Burden of Dreams at Lappnor in Finland.

Below is a collection of some of the news reports from various sources across the world.

“But it’s barefoot!”

A lot of the focus of the internet commentary that inevitably ensued focused on the fact that Albert climbs barefoot; a rarity in the climbing fraternity at large, let alone among the elite. In truth, there would be similar comments if he differed from the norm in any other way too – if he climbed without chalk or had a disability for example – and this difference has led many to claim that he can’t use standard grading systems if he’s not going to participate in a standard way. One friend of mine last week even suggested a new grading system for barefoot ascents; something i personally think is more than a little unnecessary.

Another angle that people have looked from concerns Albert’s pedigree when it comes to hard boulder problems. While he has climbed five 8c problems – four of which in the forest and one in Rocklands – and two 8c+ problems – again both in Font – both of those V16s were first ascents, with both still awaiting a repeat. Even the magazines have been quick to point this out (see Climbing magazine link, paragraph three, above). It seems the community isn’t convinced of his ability to make such a bold statement.

Meanwhile, another intriguing question that has been posed is closely linked to how we grade boulder problems in the first place. Harder problems are obviously linked to effort and often, this comes from the number of sessions it takes to complete. Nalle spent around 60 climbing days (plus supplementary training including replica training) where Albert managed it in 20 (or so i’ve heard).

For many, grading new problems is as simple as that. Personally, i’m not as certain, and while it is a good gauge, Nalle himself states in The Lappnor Project that all the pieces need to fall into place at just the right time for a project at your limit to fall. Is it comprehensible that Albert found this perfect attempt earlier than Nalle with both finding the climbs equally as hard?

Either which way, the debate continues and the critics remain as vocal as ever:

The role of the critic in grounding the process

There are many examples of where critics have proven crucial to development. In academia, as i am learning now, once a paper is published it isn’t really taken as totally genuine unless it has peer review. In journals, responses to papers – and sometimes responses to these by the original author! – are included in the same journal. Unless someone has dissected what you’ve said, it seems it isn’t taken as seriously.

In terms of climbing, sometimes critics who have yet to even visit the climb can offer something to the community in a beneficial fashion. James Pearson learned this the hard way with Walk of Life, after suffering with over-grading with a few climbs in the past. Plenty saw fit to comment, passing judgement as they saw fit and the route was indeed downgraded substantially. It seems that in this case, the community at large was right to get involved and ground the decision.

Not that this made Pearson feel much better and following the furore of Walk of Life he moved to Austria, effectively shunned by the very same people who were calling him the next great climber not months before.

When critics go too far

Of course there comes a point where the critic can go too far; where they can believe they are equal in importance to the “doer of deeds” mentioned by Roosevelt. That is, after all, what started this piece off. The treatment James Pearson received certainly falls into this category.

Offering a distribution of importance between the doer and the critic will always remain impossible, although i would argue the climber (in this case) will always come out ahead: without the critic, the climber’s achievements remain but without the climber, the critic has no critique and fails to exist.

With the anonymity of the modern commentator, there is an ability to comment without risking one’s reputation in the same way as we would in face-to-face conversation. The term Keyboard Warrior is now standard fare, referring to people who don’t actually participate but are quick to judge; the very same that i’m sure Roosevelt was referring to in his original quote.

There is, of course, an irony in me creating a comment on the commentators and thus judging them. I guess the only real difference is the fact that i’m not passing judgement on an individual or a single achievement, more that i’m looking at a practice instead.

For all the criticism that Pearson and Albert have both received in making their bold statements at the time they did, one thing must be said: in researching this post, i have noticed that those repeating the routes are normally very praiseworthy of the initial climber, even if they do disagree with one aspect. And i think that must be remembered.

Criticism is important and the critic has their place in grounding anyone’s achievements. But they must always remember that their very existence relies entirely on the “doer of deeds” and as such, they should always show respect. Charles Albert will always have mine, both for his climb and for his bravery in the face of criticism.

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