Cayoosh Mtn.

Richard So is an unlikely backcountry badass.  I’m not exactly sure what his life would look like if he hadn’t discovered the outdoors while at university, but I suspect that he would be very good at video games.  As it is, he’s found a natural outlet for the kind of obsessiveness that could have made him so good at Call of Duty.  Instead of locking himself in front of a computer in his parent’s basement, he’s out exploring the mountains around Vancouver on foot and on skis every chance he gets.  For example, he’s been out skiing more than forty days this season – not too shabby for someone with a full-time job in the city.

Rich doing some highly intellectual reading in Spain.

Rich is also an excellent photographer (for example, this photo sure makes it look like we live in a nice part of the world).  A large group of us skied Cayoosh Mtn. on the Duffey Lake Road on Sunday and since my camera batteries were frozen, I thought I’d share a few photos that Rich managed to get in spite of the adverse conditions.

Ned Atkins looking for the top of the "Million Dollar Couloir". With high winds, exposed terrain and our group of nine skiers, I think we made the right decision to opt out of this descent. Photo: Rich So.

Oftentimes, I think that skiing and climbing are just excuses to hang out with your friends in places that are more scenic than your living room.  Although I’ve been known to make the occasional derogatory remark about skiing, when the weather and the snow are good, it’s an undeniably congenial social diversion.

Paul Backhouse nearing the summit of Cayoosh. Photo: Rich So.

Skiing makes me realize that despite appearances to the contrary, I’m actually a rather goal-driven person.  I really don’t care much for the journey; I just want to get to the destination (not surprisingly, all forms of eastern spirituality are completely lost on me). Skiing powder is wonderful of course.  But standing on top of some bump that happens to have a name on the map, and then skiing powder is somehow much more satisfying.

Not being much of a skier, I cut all the extraneous straps off my pack which means that I don't have any way to attach my skis. Photo: Rich So.

Rich So is similarly motivated.  He’s got a collage of maps covering one of the walls in his place.  As he traces the route of each new trip, the blanks on the map are continually shrinking.  Is it so unnatural to want a concrete representation of your experiences?   I think most of us do, whether it’s photographs, lines on a map, ticks on a list, or words on a blog.

You might almost think that I know what I'm doing. Photo: Rich So.

Maintaining a Presence in the Blogosphere


I'm delivering on my promise to post over-exposed photos of my climbing partners' asses. The coastal ice climbing season began promisingly enough. In late november, Ken Glover and I got scooped on Blue Moon on Rye at the Green River Bastion near Pemberton and climbed this chimney system on the left side of the crag as a consolation. It was the middle of three such lines and although never particularly desperate, it provided four short pitches of entertaining 'scottish' style climbing.


As far as I can tell, the success of a blog has as much to do with the frequency of posts as it does with the quality of content.  When the average blog reader is looking to waste their time or avoid whatever it is in the real world that they ought to be doing, reliability is of paramount importance.  As a semi-professional time-waster and procrastinator, I can say this as a result of more than idle speculation.


Karina Benavides crossing a log over Owl Creek near Pemberton. In late november we climbed some ice a bit to the left of a route called Rusty. We did a 60 meter pitch which began with a short pillar and finished with a low-angled but very thin ramp.

Unfortunately, I haven’t done have any interesting climbs recently to report on (hence the above photos from this fall).  It’s frustrating to have time, partners and a long list of objectives when the weather and conditions are uncooperative.  With the exception of some cragging and bouldering on rare occasions when the rains have abated, I’ve actually been spending most of my time skiing.


Ken Glover about to carry a rather large rack of gear up a relatively mellow snow slope after it proved to be too warm for the route we'd hoped to attempt. What's truly impressive is that he put his harness on over his crampons while standing in this fairly precarious and exposed spot.

Although I’ve been heard to say that a bad day climbing is still better than a good day skiing, I’m beginning to develop a grudging appreciation for sliding down hills on a pair of planks.


Karina skiing near the Brew Hut.

However, there are many things about skiing that remain mysterious to me.  These include:

• Ski hill fashion.  Admittedly most forms of fashion are lost on me, but the popularity of things like neon and plaid seems a bit odd.

• Helmet cams.  Literally every second person in the lift line seems to be wearing one.  Am I the only person who thinks that the footage tends to makes even good skiing look both boring and nauseating?  For example, I once decided to ride a mountain bike trail on the north shore after seeing a POV video that made it look flat and easy.  In actual fact, it was terrifyingly steep and I ended up having to walk my bike down much of it.

• Turns for the sake of turning.  I think my cross-country ski racing background has ingrained in me a need to ski as fast as possible at all times.  Unfortunately, this can make a lot of backcountry yo-yoing a bit boring.  Why bother skinning uphill for an hour only to straight-line it right back down again in approximately 30 seconds?

• Steep descents with multiple rappels.  I actually have a great deal of respect for people making serious steep descents.  After all, isn’t skiing without the possibility of falling to your death a little dull?  However, trying to quantify steep skiing is a bit trickier than something like climbing.  How many rappels can you make and still call it skiing?

• Telemarking.  Just kidding. Although I don’t understand why all the focus is on making the gear heavier instead of lighter.


Ultimately, it's hard to complain too much about being out in the mountains on a nice day. Karina with Tricouni Peak in the background.

If you’re looking to waste some time or perhaps learn more about ski culture, these links are a good start:

Fat skis

The difference between AT and telemark



Dreams of Big, Sunny, Spanish Sport Climbs

It’s raining again here in Squamish and the high freezing level isn’t exactly inspiring me to get out skiing today.  However, I’ll avoid any more ethical ramblings for the time being and instead try to post something more visually, as opposed to intellectually, stimulating. I happen to be daydreaming about sunny rockclimbing and so I thought it would be appropriate to post a few photos from a couple of multi-pitch sport climbs in Spain.

Zeppelin (5.11c, 10 pitches), El Chorro

Sarah Panofsky negotiating a decrepit section of the Camino del Rey in El Chorro. This suspended walkway was built so that the King could survey the construction of the railway through the narrow gorge. It is now falling apart but thankfully there's a cable running along it to clip into.

In January of 2008, Stefan Albrecher and I got sick of planting trees in the damp and desolate hills of Northern England and Scotland and hopped on a plane from London to Marrakech, Morocco.  After a few weeks of being tourists, Stefan left to return to Canada and I began to make my way towards the Moroccan coast.  I arrived off the bus in the city of Fes at 3am in a state of mild intestinal distress, only to be swarmed by a group of kids asking, and eventually demanding, that I give them money.  Trying to escape, I ducked into a hotel and asked for a room, only to have my credit card be declined.  I later discovered that someone in North Vancouver had made a copy of my Visa and had been using it to buy gas for the last month.  What’s more, my bank account was empty; the owner of the company we’d been working for was refusing to pay us because a freak snow storm had apparently flattened many of the trees we’d planted.  I used my last few dirhams to email my parents and buy a loaf of bread and then settled in on a park bench next to my backpack full of climbing gear.  My parents were off having an adventure of their own, but eventually they bailed me out and I was able to make my way to Tangier where I caught a ferry to Spain.

All of this is to say that when I arrived in El Chorro and met up with my friend Sarah, I felt a great sense of relief to have landed in such a relaxing and idyllic place.  We spent most of our time climbing on the many excellent sport crags and lounging around in the sun.  However, on my last day we climbed an adventurous ten pitch route called Zeppelin.  The approach involved rappelling off a railway bridge and into the bottom of the gorge.  Most of the climbing was enjoyable and moderate, although a roof at mid-height proved to be a bit challenging for my feeble arms.  Needless to say, I was sad to have to leave Spain and return to the dampness and drudgery of tree planting.

Sarah Panofsky at a hanging belay midway up Zeppelin in El Chorro.

CADE (5.11b, 18 pitches) Terradets


High on the Paret de les Bagasses. Photo: Rich So.

This route on the Paret de les Bagasses (bag asses?) sounds quite impressive, but in fact most of the climbing is very moderate with only a few harder moves thrown in.  In April of 2009, Rich So and I climbed a few routes on this wall on days when we were tired of being humbled by the warmups at Terradets’ signature crag Les Bruixes.

Some of the bolt hangers are very helpful on the Paret de les Bagasses. This one is on the classic, and very polished, route Smoking.

Postmorten (5.11b, 8 pitches), Terradets

On Postmorten. I'm not sure why I'm looking so concerned. Photo: Rich So

The Roca Regina is apparently the “queen” of Spanish big wall climbing.  The rock at the beginning of this route left a little to be desired but it became increasingly flawless as we gained height.

Looking down after a particularly amazing pitch of overhanging jugs.

Murciana (5.11b, 8 pitches), Riglos

The Mallos de Riglos.


After a few weeks of generally rainy weather in Terradets, Rich So and I decided it was time to check out Riglos in the Huesca province.  Sadly, the rainy weather followed us, but we nonetheless managed to climb every major formation in the area.  One particularly memorable climb was the Murciana route on the Pison.  Starting up the route, we quickly caught up to a slower Spanish party.  We soon had another party on our heels which turned out to be well-known climbers Alex Huber and Heinz Zak.  Alex was rehearsing the route for a future free solo ascent and Heinz was there to take pictures.  Everything went smoothly until Rich was preparing to follow the crux pitch.  Alex and Heinz were also at the belay and, not wanting to climb around behind them, Rich decide to climb harder moves than necessary straight above the anchor. It turned out to be more difficult than Rich had bargained for and he slipped and fell, landing with his ass directly in Alex’s face.  Heinz and I both thought this was hysterically funny although some of the humour in the situation seemed to be lost on Alex.

Richard So, Alex Huber and Heinz Zak. Note the look of concern on Alex's face.

Fiesta de los Biceps (5.11d, 8 pitches), Riglos

Rich So cutting loose on Fiesta de los Biceps.


Fiesta is the most famous route in Riglos and deservedly so.  The rock in Riglos is a unique and juggy reddish conglomerate that takes some getting used to but is actually remarkably solid.  With eight sustained pitches of overhanging jugs, Fiesta de los Biceps is pretty much my idea of the perfect sport climb.

It gets pretty steep near the top.

Punsola-Reniu (5.11b, 7 pitches), Montserrat

Rich So and Laurent Soyris on the Cavall Bernat.


I met Laurent Soyris in Indian Creek in October of 2008.  He pretty much fulfilled every stereotype I might have had about French climbers, from his chain-smoking to his tendency to pull on the odd quickdraw when things got tough.  We later climbed a few routes together in Chamonix where he showed me other French techniques such as how to rappel off the telepherique guard rails and how to weave your rope around guided parties in lieu of placing gear.  He came out and joined Rich and I for an ascent of the Punsola-Reniu route on the Cavall Bernat spire and we had a great time trying to come to grips with the small, intricate cobbles that characterize the climbing in Montserrat.

Laurent Soyris demonstrates another important european technique: belaying off the inevitable summit statue. Photo: Rich So.

On Chipping: A Few Thoughts Concerning Practical Ethics and Climbing

The following post is both pretentiously pseudo-academic and about climbing.  In short, it is unlikely to appeal to anyone.

The weather in Squamish hasn’t been very inspiring lately.  Consequently, the amount of time I’ve spent online reading about the latest controversies in the climbing world has been bordering on unhealthy.

Climbing, it has been noted, is an arbitrary game where the participants make up the rules as they go along.  It’s a lot like Calvinball (and not surprisingly, many climbers are about as emotionally mature as Calvin – myself included).  The current controversies and debates are part of the ongoing historical dialogue wherein climbers articulate the ever-changing structure of rules that make it possible to talk meaningfully about climbing.  What it actually means to “talk meaningfully” about something as silly as climbing is another question.  I imagine that someone with post-structuralist leanings could find plenty to deconstruct within the “play” of the climbing game (PhD theses have been written about more ridiculous things).

Some of the current topics of debate include whether it’s acceptable to place bolts on rappel in the mountains, how much evidence do climbers need to provide to support their claims, and what responsibilities do route developers have to future climbers.  Of course, these ethical squabbles ignore more inconvenient moral questions such as whether your time and money is best spent climbing mountains instead of helping to feed impoverished children in the developing world (my roommate Seth’s opinion on this is here).

Colin Haley climbing on the North Rib of Mt. Slesse. He's been a diplomatic and articulate critic of rap-bolting on Cerro Torre.

Rather than addressing one of the controversies du jour (if the weather doesn’t improve, I’ll be ranting about rap-bolting soon enough), I thought I’d broach the topic of climbing ethics by discussing an essay called “Hold Manufacturing: Why You May Be Wrong About What’s Right” by Bill Ramsey.

I recently discovered the book Climbing: Philosophy for Everyone.  It was in the “Philosophy” section at Chapters, nestled amidst books such as Twilight and Philosophy and Metallica and Philosophy.  I’ll admit to enjoying the odd book of pop psychology, sociology or physics, but the abundance of books about the philosophy of vampires is something of a sad comment on the state of intellectual affairs in our culture, particularly given that I couldn’t find any books on the philosophy of Quine or Kripke.  Curmudgeonly misgivings aside, I’ve been enjoying the essays in Climbing: Philosophy for Everyone.  In fact, I’m somewhat astonished by the mere existence of so many contributors with solid credentials in both climbing and philosophy.  In particular, Ramsey’s contribution regarding the ethics of chipping holds into otherwise unclimbable sections of rock struck me as a cute piece of reasoning that provides a good model for applying practical ethics to climbing related problems.  Ramsey argues that the anti-chipping view is untenable and that most of the “overt furor and indignation” is the result of dogmatic bias.  Although Ramsey is quite convincing in his support for limited chipping, I tend to think that there’s more to the formulation of the rules of climbing than he would have us believe.  After giving a quick sketch of Ramsey’s argument, I’ll survey a few lines of reasoning that could provide plausible rebuttals.

Karina Benavides climbing Monkey Space in Smith Rock, Oregon. Bill Ramsey along with Chris Jones made the first ascent of this route in 1979.

True to the nature of this age of internet experts, the fact that I know next to nothing about moral philosophy is no obstacle to my pontificating about it at length.  However, intelligent people have been thinking about these problems for the last few millennia and a remarkable literature on Ethics exists.   Most of the half-remembered ideas that follow are borrowed without a shred of academic rigour from smarter people than myself.

What is it that makes something right or wrong? Ramsey writes that “While climbers need to decide for themselves many of the rules they ought to abide by, it doesn’t follow that anything goes or that a simple majority opinion is decisive.” This is a sensible view, and it seems reasonable to extend it to claim that facts of matter must exist with respect to climbing ethics independently of what individual climbers or climbing communities happen to believe (in philosophy jargon, Ramsey is making a meta-ethical claim against subjectivism and social conventionalism which are both forms of moral relativism; some form of moral realism seems to me to be a natural alternative to these views).

Moral relativism is an understandable post-colonial sentiment but it turns out to be incoherent.  For example, that slavery was widely accepted in 18th century American society doesn’t mean that it was morally right.   Likewise, if a community of climbers takes to bolting next to good cracks, that in itself is not sufficient to make it ethical, even on their own crags.  A further problem arises when this community comes into conflict with a staunchly anti-bolting community.  If we accept moral relativism then it seems impossible to adjudicate such a dispute.

Consequently, it’s reasonable to conclude that there must be objective moral facts about climbing ethics.  Admittedly, the nature of these seemingly semi-mystical moral truths and our relation to them are difficult questions.  I certainly don’t have the answers, although I would suggest that moral truths are perhaps not so different from other abstract entities such as mathematical truths.

A bizarre geological feature of Chamonix granite. The frontpoints of my crampons fit remarkably well into this pocket at the crux of the popular Arete des Cosmiques on the Aiguille du Midi.

Ramsey’s pro-chipping argument is a perfect model for applying practical ethics to climbing.  His first premise is that altering a cliff in order to make a climbing route possible is acceptable.  This may sound contentious to a non-climber, but the truth is that most climbs require significant alterations to the rock. Even in Squamish where the granite is remarkably solid, first ascentionists often need to clean off loose blocks, crumbling flakes and a great deal of dirt and moss.  In fact, failure to do so will generally result in complaints and the widespread avoidance of the route.  Given that the establishment of many of the best rock climbs in the world required cleaning loose rock or drilling bolts, rejecting Ramsey’s first premise would mean condemning much of what climbers have traditionally valued.

Ramsey’s second premise is that in certain situations, manufacturing holds to create a climbable route constitutes an acceptable alteration of the rock.  The kind of situations that Ramsey has in mind are of the following type: “…the preparation of an unclimbed sport route in a sport climbing area that has mostly high-quality climbable sections but also segments of blank rock with no climbable features.”  As Ramsey notes, this second premise is the one that most climbers “…explicitly and even vehemently reject.”  He claims that the burden of proof is on the climber who accepts his first premise but rejects his second.  If altering a cliff for the purpose of climbing is acceptable, what is it about chipping that makes it unacceptable?

From here, Ramsay’s argument is negative: he states that there are four reasons for rejecting his second premise and he seeks to demonstrate that each of these reasons are untenable.

The first reason that he considers is that rock modification is only acceptable for the purposes of safety.  Ramsey has two strong reasons for rejecting this claim.  Firstly, we commonly consider it acceptable to remove poor quality or flaky rock that is of no actual danger to anyone.  Secondly, the real choice isn’t between removing loose rock or leaving a potential hazard.  It’s between “…establishing a route (and doing whatever that requires) or simply walking away and establishing no such route.”

The second reason for rejecting chipping that Ramsey considers is that it “violates important environmental commitments”.  This is clearly not the case.  Drilling a tiny hole in a cliff alters the environment about as much as throwing a pebble.  Not to mention that climbers routinely remove moss, lichen and bushes from cliffs.  Even the visual impact of a drilled pocket is negligible compared to the trails of chalked holds and bolts at many climbing areas.

The third reason commonly put forward against chipping is that it robs future generations of strong climbers.  Personally, I’m rather partial to this consideration and I suspect that there have been a few natural 5.15s and 5.16s chipped into 5.13s and 5.14s simply for the sake of a mention in Climbing Magazine and a few pairs of free shoes. Ramsey’s defense is that these aren’t the cases he’s talking about.  He has stipulated that he’s only defending the chipping of otherwise unclimbable rock.  This seems reasonable; I don’t climb 5.14 (Ramsey, however, climbed 5.14b at age 48!) but I’m pretty sure I know unclimbable rock when I see it.  A second response that Ramsey makes is that chipping could potentially benefit future strong climbers.  At any grade, there is always more unclimbable rock that could be chipped into a route of that grade then there are naturally occurring routes of the grade.  What’s more, chipping doesn’t always make routes easier; there are numerous cases where routes have been chipped to make them harder (and thereby more newsworthy).

The last reason that Ramsey looks at is that if chipping is tolerated, it could lead to abuses.  He claims that this is missing the point: “…most things done badly are bad.  But that has nothing to do with the propriety of the practice done responsibly.”  Although I tend to agree with Ramsey, I do think that he is too quick to dismiss this objection. Admittedly, we don’t decry all bolts simply because their use is occasionally abused. However, as a society, we’re generally content with laws that prohibit children from purchasing guns over the counter, in spite of the fact that we don’t tend to think guns themselves are bad if they’re used responsibly.  Analogies to guns (drugs are another example) are poor however; the consequences of misusing a gun are rather more serious than anything associated with the manufacturing holds.

I hope that I’ve given Ramsey’s defense of limited hold manufacturing a fair treatment. It’s certainly a sound and provocative piece of reasoning.

Ramsey writes that “… despite the overt furor and indignation over manufacturing, we really aren’t very clear about what, exactly, is wrong with it.”  I think he has convincingly defended this statement by showing how the most popular anti-chipping arguments are incoherent.  However, I feel that he’s being slightly disingenuous by dismissing off hand the origins of this “furor and indignation”.  Surely climbers deserve a little more credit than Ramsey is giving them.

We all have numerous strongly held moral intuitions that we would be hard pressed to defend with a coherent argument.  For example, we may say with great certainty that murdering innocent children is abhorrent and yet be unable to give a defense that doesn’t reduce to a fundamental belief that human life is intrinsically valuable.  I do not mean this to be analogy to chipping holds; I simply wish to point out that if someone were to propose a theory of morality that proceeded validly from apparently sound premises to a conclusion that it is acceptable to murder children, we might see our resulting furor and indignation as a sufficient reason to reject the theory.  In fact, this notion is central to the workings of the field of practical ethics.  When someone proposes a theory, a typical response is to dream up a counter-example which satisfies the ethical criteria of the theory while failing to accord with our moral intuitions.  (As a side note, how to adjudicate between our philosophical intuitions and apparently sound theories with counter-intuitive consequences is a fascinating problem – particularly in fields like logic and pure math.)

If we are to claim that our anti-chipping intuitions are based on more than mere bias we need to show where Ramsey’s argument goes astray.  To this end, I’ll examine a few options which I hope will show that, at the very least, the problem is more nuanced than Ramsey makes it out to be.

Ramsey claims that cleaning loose blocks from a route and chipping are both instances of rock modification.  However, I think that climbers view the cleaning of loose or flaky rock not as modifying, but as exposing.

Sorry, I'm not much of an artist.
Do you think I have to much time on my hands?

On the view represented by the second diagram, Ramsey’s argument fails because the instances he gives of acceptable rock modification no longer look like rock modification at all.  The instance of rock modification that are considered acceptable might only be those that are done for the purposes of safety.  I think this distinction between the concepts of cleaning and modifying helps to explain the difference in attitudes that climbers have towards trundling loose rock versus chipping holds.

This is the type of semantic distinction that philosophers like to make, but they don’t mean much if they’re not a reflection of the way things are out in the real world.  Is cleaning equivalent to exposing the true nature of the cliff while chipping is somehow defaming that same nature?  I think this distinction will appear more plausible to climbers who haven’t been directly involved in creating a new route.  The reality is actually rather messy.  While I think that this distinction captures some of what motivates anti-chipping intuitions, in actual fact it’s arbitrary.


New routing in Squamish is a dirty job. Helping Jer Frimer on his route the Milk Road. Photo: Jeremy Frimer.

Another response to Ramsey is to claim that he has failed to consider an unanswerable reason against considering hold manufacturing to be an acceptable form of rock modification.  But does such a reason exist?

On the east side of the Cacodemon Boulder in Squamish there’s a completely blank wall with a line of pockets drilled into it.  This route is outside the scope of Ramsey’s argument since it doesn’t link natural features; in fact I don’t think there’s a single natural hold on the route.  In my opinion, this route should never have been established (although I still have a great deal of  respect for the people responsible for it).  In his conclusion, Ramsey admits that “… all else being equal, a purely natural climb is usually better and more appealing than one with manufactured holds.”  Ramsey means “better” in a purely aesthetic sense, and I think this captures some of what I object to about the drilled pockets on the Cacodemon.  It’s not that the route is such an eye-sore (well, the plastic gym holds are a bit ugly).  It’s that, apart from being a game where the participants stipulate the rules, climbing is a creative pursuit with attending aesthetic considerations.

Climber’s commonly make value judgments about the quality of routes.  Ramsey admits that manufactured holds generally detract from the value of a climb, but he thinks they do so in a way that’s similar to poor bolting or wildly inconsistent difficulties.  We generally wouldn’t consider a work of art to be so bad that it was wrong to create it unless it promotes hate or pedophilia.  Can a climb be so unaesthetic that it should never have been created?  This is a difficult question, but if anything qualifies, it would be the drilled pocket route on the Cacodemon.  The vagueness of Ramsey’s definition of “limited” chipping admits to something of a Sorites Paradox; it seems like the line between reasonably chipped routes and routes like the one on Cacodemon would be a tough line to draw.  Conversely, if Ramsey isn’t willing to defend fully chipped routes (as he seems to avoid doing), he ought to give an account of how chipped holds that link natural features are different from ones that don’t and how we are to decide how many natural features are required to make chipping acceptable.

As I write this, the weather outside has improved.  With the appearance of the sun, ideological squabbles appear somewhat trifling.  Nonetheless, climbers take this stuff seriously.  My primary intent in writing this rambling essay (aside from passing a rainy day) is to show how I think it’s feasible to examine climbing ethics at least semi-rationally. Whereas much of the “debate” surrounding the ever-rotating series of ethical controversies in climbing is little more than insults and dogma, I think it’s quite to possible to examine things both sensibly and politely.  However, with any luck, the weather won’t give me occasion to try to do so again for at least a little while.