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The Threshold Effect

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Peter Beal is a long-time climber and writer, more of his internet musing can be read on his blog, [Photo] Alan James

Alfred Mummery wrote in his 19th century classic book, My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus, “It has frequently been noticed that all mountains appear doomed to pass through the three stages: An inaccessible peak – The most difficult ascent in the Alps – An easy day for a lady.” While the misogynistic temper of this famous quote is obsolete, its more general point seems to ring true. Climbs get easier over time.

Why does this happen and how does this happen? It’s easy enough to understand how a climb might become easier for an individual climber on the second or third ascent. But consider the tendency for succeeding generations of climbers to find a previous generation’s testpieces to be manageable, even trivial. Consider the remarkable story of Eldorado Canyon’s Genesis. Originally graded A5, Genesis attracted the attention of Jim Collins, a young college student. Collins described in an article the almost superhuman training tactics he used to prepare himself for the ascent.In 1979, countless hours of physical effort and mental focus eventually resulted in success. According to Collins’ own account, he even changed the dates in his calendar to reflect the year 1994 when he imagined Genesis would be regarded as trivial.

Yet by 1982, the route’s second lead ascent by British climber Jerry Moffat was immediately followed up by his toproped ascent in running shoes and, by 1985, it was flashed by French climber Patrick Edlinger. Today Genesis garners the grade of 5.12d, a level reached by many young sport climbers in their first year. So what happened exactly? Looking at the relative strengths of Jim Collins and Jerry Moffat, it is hard to believe that physical capacity had that much to do with it. And given Collins’s own solo of the Naked Edge in 1978 (before Genesis was freed,) it is unlikely that Jim was at much of a disadvantage psychologically. Differences in climbing gear between the two were relatively negligible.

It is fascinating to see how Collins in his own discussion of the preparation for the route, saw this pattern emerging. He wrote, in an essay called Hitting the Wall, “In studying climbing history, I noticed a pattern: climbs once considered “impossible” by one generation of climbers eventually became “not that hard” for climbers two generations later. 5.10 seemed nearly impossible to climbers in the early 1960s, but by the late 1970s, top climbers routinely on-sighted 5.10 as warm ups for harder projects.” It appears that by the late 70s the cycle was beginning to speed up radically, beyond Collins’ own predictions.

This didn’t just happen in the relatively simple practice of sport or traditional rock climbing. In alpinism and Himalayan climbing, the rapidity with which the testpieces of yesteryear become the training arenas of the present has been accelerating in the past ten years. There is no question that better technology has played a part in this. But the sense that something transformational is occurring with the likes of Ueli Steck is hard to shake. Turning the once-epic and feared Eiger North Face into a kind of racetrack is just the beginning. When top performers such as Steck seem to be able to dismiss the limitations of the recent past so convincingly and completely, one has to wonder what sport climbing is becoming?

I wonder if the crucial difference can be found in what sociologists and epidemiologists describe as the threshold effect. Described by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point, the

threshold effect describes how ideas, practices, diseases and internet memes rapidly spread once they reach a critical mass.

Peter Beal is a long-time climber and writer, more of his internet musing can be read on his blog, [Photo] Alan James

What kinds of thresholds are at work in climbing and how can we reach them? For example, common sense would indicate that there are probably responses to types of visual or other stimuli that can radically aid or hinder the act of climbing but which can be rapidly overridden mentally. As a specific instance, consider that beginning climbers are notorious for perceiving sections of rock as “blank.” Was it the case that climbers of an earlier era were much more inclined to accept the overall concept of blank or impossible rock than most climbers would be today? It’s not only the actual achievements of harder climbs that have changed this perception. The game changes again when climbers who have repeatedly seen 5.15 or V15 in online climbing videos then go out and try routes.

Consider also the limiting aspects of grades. Although they seek to give an objective frame of reference to climbs, they also distort our perceptions of them. By setting up categories, they artificially create barriers, fictitious frontiers of a sort. Whether alpine ED or YDS 5.14, we all have a response to the presence of these signs of, well what exactly? It is highly unlikely that any two climbers experience a climb the same way. The feelings and emotions that are an essential human part of climbing are persistently changing and adapting both to the climb and to reactions of others. What would happen if we altered our attitudes toward them, working with grades positively instead of as exclusionary? How many times as climbers have we responded positively to others’ positive emotional states and acted with more confidence, reducing the perception of difficulty.

It seems clear that certain kinds of climbs and climbers are more effective at changing perceptions of difficulty. One of the contributions of a Chris Sharma or an Ueli Steck is to put a friendly face on the seemingly impossible, to create the impression that this kind of climbing is accessible to everyone if they can make the commitment to try harder. Older attitudes of elitism and arrogance towards outsiders helped limit progress across the climbing world by restricting access to information and creating the impression of superhuman ability on the part of top performers. The legends of the past cultivated auras of exclusivity and superiority, whether in Chamonix or Camp 4. In particular, with the push for media exposure, more climbers are able to see the best in action than ever before and make up their own minds. Better protected routes have certainly changed the attitude towards all kinds of climbing. In Great Britain, scary E8 or E9 routes have become commonplace because of the emergence of sport climbing and the fitness and technique training it allows. Alpinists find local dry-tooling spots that force a revision of what is possible with crampons and axes. And all along the numbers of people practicing the sport increases and the conversations among them foster a sense of belief and solidarity, not isolation and privilege. The articles and essays about the stagnant Yosemite scene in the mid-80s and 1990s, a time of incredible change and progress in climbing elsewhere, illustrate the point.

I think that this topic deserves closer study as research may reveal that the most important factor for advancing technique and ability is not gear or training but something much less tangible and much more subjective, that is the relationships climbers have with each other within a larger community. I wonder if the more aware we all are of these relationships and how we can contribute to helping all of us become better climbers, we may become more sensitive about caring for the natural environment and becoming better activists on its behalf. Instead of being preoccupied by battling imaginary opponents or overcoming primarily psychological limits through brute force, we listen more carefully to the complex realities of the act of climbing.