Imagine a summer’s evening in the late 1970s. Two climbers sit atop Gogarth, the centrepiece in British climbing’s insatiable thirst for new routes at the time. As the sun begins to dip into the Irish Sea the climbers, Pat Littlejohn and Ron Fawcett, share thoughts on the current state of climbing.
Tuesday, January 24th, 2017
Around them are acres of unclimbed rock. They debate recent technological innovations such as cams. Ron’s hands are dusty with gymnastic chalk to improve his grip, which Pat is still holding out against. Ron recalls his recent first ascent of The Cad using two bolts, and the controversy it stirred. Both men are uncertain what role drilled protection will play in future. The next step seems obvious – a Cad-like climb without any bolts, or even its rest at half-height, but beyond that it is hard to tell. Predicting the future is a fun but problematic game. In the late 70s, could Ron Fawcett and Pat Littlejohn have possibly conceived of the modern version of climbing they both now enjoy in their sixties, or the gear that facilitates it? Probably not. The top levels in 2016, E12 and 9b+, would have been beyond even the wildest imaginations of that time, as perhaps would the fact that the cliff they sat atop, Gogarth, is now almost full of routes, with little scope for major new lines. The sheer number of climbers would surely have surprised them. Even more surprising would be the fact that many of them prefer to climb indoors on dedicated artificial walls than outside on the crags. If climbing has evolved at such a rate in the last three and a half decades, then what shape will climbing take in a similar time from now? Let’s take a look at what climbing might be like in 2050.
How we will climb in 2050
“If climbing has evolved at such a rate in the last three and a half decades, what shape will it take in a similar time from now?” Advances in technology have always been associated with many of the progressions in climbing. Dynamic ropes allowed climbers to take falls without injury. Crampon front points halved the ascent time for ice climbing. And sticky rubber shoes gave anyone who used them a huge advantage. These breakthroughs mean that average climbers of the 21st century are regularly climbing routes that were the testpieces of the previous generation. In the same way, new equipment coupled with new attitudes could well see the keen weekend climber of 2050 warming up on E5s and grade IXs. As the most gear-reliant branch of climbing, mountaineering is likely to see the biggest steps forward. Already we have clothing with built in heating, but the burgeoning world of fibretronics, in which fibres have electronic capability, could see the seamless integration of electrically-powered heating within a normal-looking lightweight garment. That same piece of clothing could also incorporate its own lighting, and digital connectivity to provide feedback on body temperature or heart rate, plus functions such as navigation and tracking. All these will be powered by the fabric’s ability to use solar power. At the cutting edge, one can imagine a super-light climbing suit that would double as a survival suit, meaning the Ueli Steck’s and Ines Papert’s of the future will have no need for sleeping bags on their ascents. For the majority, alpinism will become a safer more comfortable experience with issues such as frostbite a thing of the past, and rescue location and navigation a much easier process. The gains offered by new technology will present new ethical challenges to climbing, just as Littlejohn resisted with the introduction of chalk 35 years ago. Even small changes in the gear used to play our game can affect the rules. How would we view sticky rubber gloves, already selling well to aid crack climbing, developed in the future so that they cover the entire hand, perhaps making the worst gritstone sloper a viable option for the average climber? With friction now at our fingertips, such gloves could radicalise crack climbing – imagine dynos between jams, or linking together marginal one finger seam-smears. Perhaps further stretching the boundary of what’s considered ‘cheating’ could be the development of new trad protection using vacuum technology. The wonders of German manufacturing has already brought the 2016 ‘Gekkomat’ which allows humans to scale buildings ‘Mission Impossible- style’ but can support up to 550 pounds. If the next step can be made to fine tune these devices to work on uneven rock surfaces, plus the small matter of reducing their current 66 pound weight, then the ultimate runout buster could transform a route like the Welsh E9, The Indian Face, into a fun E5. Of course one shouldn’t under-estimate human influences on the future of climbing. The changing demographics of climbing participants could likely have a significant effect in the same way that long distance running has been transformed by East African runners, who are genetically gifted and highly motivated to earn the rewards on offer in Western European road racing. In the same way, local climbers in areas such as Nepal and Peru could come to set new standards in high altitude performance. The remarkable speed ascent of Everest by Babu Chiri Sherpa in 16 hours and 56 minutes, who also spent 21 hours on the summit without auxiliary oxygen (which remains the record) has pointed the way ahead for future mountaineering by local climbers. The spread of climbing walls across the globe, together with climbing’s inclusion in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, already suggests that many of the best climbers in the world in 2050 won’t be predominantly white males. Top performances are coming from increasingly younger climbers. The case of Ashima Shiraishi, who climbed 9a+ and bouldered 8C two years before Adam Ondra did in his climbing career, suggests it’s possible that by 2050 climbing could be one of the first sports where the top female levels become equal, or perhaps exceed those of men.
Where we will climb in 2050
“Perhaps the ultimate climbs of 2050 will be creations sanctioned by the IFSC & replicated across the world’s leading indoor venues” At the end of the 1980s, there were only forty or so climbing walls registered in the UK with the BMC. These had evolved from the brick edge University corridors of the 1970s, but it was the success of the first commercial indoor climbing facilities – Seattle’s Vertical World that opened in 1987 and the Mile End gym in London in 1989 – that really started the climbing wall revolution. By 1996, the number of UK climbing walls had quadrupled, and today there are over 400 facilities registered with the BMC. The indoor experience is already a major part of many people’s climbing and in the future this process will continue. By 2050, outdoor climbing will probably be a minority interest amongst those who consider themselves ‘climbers’. In major world cities such as London and New York, this may already be the case. Indoor climbing, particularly in the big urban areas, is already seen as a glamorous fitness activity. Indoor bouldering, it’s been said, is ‘the new squash’. Today, the English regional cities such as Bristol, Manchester and Sheffield have four or more walls, with London almost twenty. Much of the clientele of these places began climbing at a wall and have never ventured outside. As Paul Twomey from the Climbing Academy explains, “I would estimate that at least 90% of our membership at TCA will never take it any further and climb outside. For many, it is a replacement for other regular exercise such as the pool or the gym. For most of these people climbing will never be about adventure. But they do enjoy and benefit from the many other positive aspects, such as movement, social interaction, and the process of improving through learned skill and increasing fitness.” In the future, indoor climbing will move further and further away from a style mimicking outdoor crags and develop its own unique genre. We can already observe this process taking place in the ultra-dynamic problems using large, multiple structures that are in vogue in high level bouldering competitions: this is not a kind of climbing you can do outside, as geology doesn’t produce any equivalent shapes. The influence of the urban gymnastics of parkour has already been felt today where crimpy small hold problems have been dropped at World Cup competition level in favour of large volumes, requiring compression or dynamic moves, and most competition finals now include at least one ‘running no-hand’ style co-ordination problem. Most contemporary bouldering walls are following this trend with the current German team coach Udo Neumann’s wall Stuntwerk in Cologne pushing the avant-garde end of parkour-style problem setting for all its users. Head setter Niklas Wiechmann describes the boulder problems there as “moving-riddles, best solved with creative movement and not forcing that much raw power. You need flow and sometimes to feel the funk.” This element of play moves climbing away from the traditional focus on reaching the summit, and is reflected in Entreprises recent Clip’n Climb walls which look more like something from Willy Wonka’s confectionery department than a crag. In the same way that modern swimming pool facilities borrow from fun rides with their pirate ships, wave makers and flumes, the walls of the future will no longer mimic the outdoor experience but create their own unique vertical worlds with linked jumps, obstacle challenges, and moving structures. Whilst much of this evolution will be targeted at the general user, walls could well rise even further in importance for progression at the elite end of climbing. With natural cliffs increasingly criss-crossed with lines, finding new, hard, quality outdoor routes will become an ever-tougher proposition. For the future 9A boulder problems and 10a routes, nature will have difficulty providing everything that’s required to create the perfect combination of moves. With future testpieces so close to human limits, one of the biggest challenges for would-be ascensionists will be finding the correct conditions in which to climb them. Indoor walls will be able to provide optimal temperature and humidity control, so perhaps the ultimate climbs of 2050 will be creations sanctioned by the IFSC [the International Federation of Sport Climbing] and replicated across the world’s leading indoor venues. Or perhaps as climbers flock to Oliana today to test themselves against Sharma’s legendary routes, in 2050 climbers will travel to the UK to try Caledonian Countdown, a 100 metre inverted marathon across the ceiling of Ratho Wall, then pop down to Sheffield to try, The Wave, a seven move resin creation that has held out against the world’s best for a decade. The obvious cloud on the horizon for outdoor climbing is shifting weather patterns produced by climate change. Projections for the latter half of the 21st century by the UK Climate Impacts Programme based at Oxford University suggest that summer and autumn in the UK will be noticeably warmer; in southern England perhaps by as much as 4-5C. Rainfall could increase by 10-20%, but snowfall may decrease by up to 60% in Scotland and 90% in the rest of the UK. Such changes would see the disappearance of winter climbing in England and Wales. The negative effects of climate change have already been felt further afield. In the Mont Blanc range, where the Mer de Glace glacier has already retreated 500m during a 14 year observation period, the permafrost in peaks such as the Dru is melting and whole sections of the mountain are disintegrating in frequent, colossal rockfalls. But climate change won’t have linear effects. Amongst the ever-changing weather some areas might see more snow in the future, such as has been observed in the Karakoram, where greater winter snowfall is actually fuelling glacier growth, whilst in other Asian mountain regions they are decreasing. In 2050 climbers will have to adapt to such changes when choosing where to climb. Whilst there might be nostalgia towards the now-crumbling Alps, or the impossibly hot crags of southern Spain, new venues will have been opened up in Norway, thanks to warmer, drier summers. And Patagonia’s granite spires, with their summit snow mushrooms melted entirely, might be favourites of the adventurous 2050 rock climber.
Why we will climb in 2050
“There is of course a wider debate, beyond not just whether the Olympics might syphon off the best to climb “faster, higher, stronger” – and that is which values our society wants to invest in” I write this piece in the afterglow of the extraordinary spectacle of sport, commerce and politics of the Rio 2016 Olympics. The next staging of the Games in 2020 will be held in Tokyo, Japan, and will include climbing as one of six new sports. What effect, if any, Olympic inclusion will have on grassroots climbers isn’t yet clear. What is evident is that it is a huge financial opportunity for companies and organisations associated with climbing to make money. During the Rio Olympics, Rugby Sevens was included for the first time. Its success was measured not just by the story-writer’s dream result with Fiji winning their first ever Olympic Gold, but the fact that the hashtag rugbysevens was used on social media 550 million times. In marketing terms, each of those is a potential sales opportunity. It’s not just business that will be jockeying for climbing’s Olympic windfall, but organising bodies. Like Russia and China, the British government put great stake in the prestige of the medal table. For each of the 67 medals won in Rio, UK Sport invested £4.1million since the last games in London. Going by current competition form, at least in the women’s event, climbing could be a strong gold medal contender. Whilst direct links have been denied, the BMC’s recent proposed name change to Climb Britain mirrors those of organisations UK Sport likes to do business with. Already, the international representative bodies have split into competing bodies, so by 2050 there’s a strong chance British climbers will have a choice on who they want to represent them. It is worth pausing to consider the costs of this process, too. Climbing was chosen alongside sports such as surfing and skate boarding to broaden the market for lucrative advertising and media partners for the International Olympic Association. The IOC president, Thomas Bach, described the reasoning behind these new sports as “With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.” Despite being ‘a non-profit organisation’ the IOC is a huge business in its own right, earning $4billion in revenue from the Rio Games, and as a business partner it likes to throw its weight around. Typically, sports adopted by the Olympics have to adapt their game to something attractive to the Olympic committee. And, as in the case of climbing, traditions are of little interest. This means that in Tokyo 2020, climbers will compete in a triathlon of bouldering, lead and speed climbing; a bizarre combination that Chris Sharma has called ‘a big shame’, with Adam Ondra feeling strongly enough to suggest that he might boycott the event altogether. Such strong criticism from two of the world’s strongest climbers does not bode well for the Olympic competition. There are many who feel much more positively, such as World Cup bouldering champ Shauna Coxsey, who is weighing up the extra training required for speed and lead. “If I do decide to compete in the Olympics” she said, “then it’ll be challenging, but I like challenges. For the young generation coming through, the Olympics is going to help climbing reach a bigger audience and get more funding”. In some ways the Olympics could play the same role in indoor climbing that Everest already does in the mountaineering world: envisaged by the general public as the pinnacle of the sport, but in reality a kind of surreal, highly financialised offshoot from mainstream alpinism. It’s well known that to be the very best you have to start young: Adam Ondra was climbing 8a at the age of nine, and whilst he competed indoors from an early age, his legendary affinity with rock is largely down to the huge volume of outdoor climbing he started as a youngster. For the new generation of young Olympic hopefuls this won’t be an option. A top level boulderer like Shauna Coxsey already trains 40 hours a week; if you then add in the extra work load needed to excel at the other two disciplines, it becomes obvious that Olympic wannabes just won’t have time to climb outdoors. There is of course a wider debate about whether climbing’s inclusion in the Olympics might, in future, syphon off the best climbers in the world to climb purely indoors. The funding behind the Rio Golds was highly targeted at the upper handful of performers, with non-medal athletes often cut out of programmes. Whilst there may be some trickle down effect for the grassroots of improved training facilities and coaching knowledge, there is a ruthless focus in these programmes on the elite. The funding behind the UK’s 67 Rio medals is slightly more than the annual total given by the UK government to all 15 of our National Parks, with their estimated 175 million annual visits: this is an interesting reflection of what we value most as a society. Obesity levels have trebled in the UK over the last 30 years, and the prediction is that by 2050 over half the UK population could be obese. By 2050 the UK’s health epidemic must surely force our government to re-look at its priorities; especially as the value of the outdoors in maintaining good physical and mental health is so widely known and documented. In some ways, the neglect of the outdoor experience by wider society could see the values that have been at the core of climbing for centuries – free play and adventure, enhanced by their increasing scarcity. The extraordinary rise of overprotective measures from health and safety directives in recent decades, through to the ‘safe space’ movement on University campuses across the West, reflects a world increasingly ruled by fear of the unknown. In the future, there will be further attempts to regulate, commodify, and digitally track or ‘enhance’ what we do as climbers. Yet at the same time the traditional capacity of climbing to act as an antidote to the pressures of society could perhaps be even more potent by 2050. The rocks and mountains where we play are extremely difficult to manage and constrain, and much of their essentially wild character will remain well beyond the 21st century. And as opportunities for risk, rule free play and commerce-free challenge become rarer, the value of outdoor experience in 2050 could be considerably greater than it is today. The counter-culture nature of climbing also offers perhaps the most exciting possibilities for future breakthroughs. These will come, as they always have, through moments of brilliance enacted by exceptional individuals. These could be mavericks unconstrained by the norms of our sport, such as Johnny Dawes, whose visionary routes transformed trad climbing standards in the 80s and whose experiments with dynamic sequences predated many of the changes in modern climbing. Or perhaps such breakthroughs could come from exceptional athletes or artists who come to climbing from outside it, and whose unfettered thinking allows them to take a fresh look at the challenges climbing could offer. The mountain runner Kilian Journet, who has been attempted to set a speed record on the north face of Everest, is equipped with Olympic level fitness, an insatiable thirst for exploration, and new technology in the form of a running shoe that zips into different outer layers as he gains height on the mountain. For people such as Journet, the questions of where, how and why we climb await answers free of any constraints imposed by preconceptions of what climbing should be. Without the current limitations of what might be possible, these ‘black swan thinkers’ will reshape climbing in ways beyond not only Fawcett and Littlejohn’s imaginations back in the 70s, but far beyond our own current understanding.
[First Published in Climb Magazine, Dec 2016]
* * *