Sunday, November 16, 2014

Contrivization....or, "does it have style?"

Some weeks ago Ash and I went up to Ogden to spend a half day on the via ferrata system in Waterfall Canyon.  Via ferrata is sort of an interesting deal that got it's start in World War I as a way to move troops around in really steep terrain; the "iron road" is basically a route put in up/through  cliffs that uses rebar embedded into rock as "holds' (ladders) with an associated cable that is fixed every 10 feet or so in order to clip into it and have bomber protection in the unlikely event of a fall.  It's apparently gotten really popular in Europe (particularly in the Dolomites) since it has appeal to those who may not be into 'climbing" per se, and even for the gnarly mountain dudes it can provide a conduit to covering ground in sections that might otherwise be too scary to solo or blast through unprotected.  Some years ago famed climber Jeff Lowe worked with a few folks in Ogden to put one up on the steep cliffs of Waterfall Canyon and even though it's been sorta low on the list of things to do it's been on said list long enough that it finally rose to the top, so we went up to give it a go.

It turned out to be really fun; there are three routes that go from easy to harder and it's pretty straightforward; just start climbing up a rebar ladder with rungs that are bent into a U with the ends embedded in the rock, periodically use the rock as steps, and always keep one of the two locking carabiners clipped into the adjacent cable for protection.

Ash getting going one one of the routes

The two more-advanced routes feel a bit airy; lots of exposure and quite steep to even overhanging.  For someone not comfortable with exposure it can be a bit exciting.  But because people can do it together, it's easy to be "right there" to provide support to someone who might be intimidated, as opposed to the more-typical yelling very generic and not-very-helpful "support" from far below when doing "real" climbing. 
you feel kinda "up there"
 It's a fun way to spend a morning or afternoon.  However, I kept having a word creep into my head:  "Contrived".  

Is taking a perfectly good crag with a couple of good pitches-worth of fine climbing on it and throwing hundreds of pieces of rebar on it to make it easy and approachable for practically anyone "contrived?"  Absolutely.  According to the interweb, the definition is thus:
        1) deliberately created rather than arising naturally or spontaneously.
  • 2) created or arranged in a way that seems artificial and unrealistic.
By this measure the Ogden via ferrata is indeed contrived. And reading spray on the interweb indicates that others feel the same.   However, it begs a couple of interesting questions:  what isn't contrived?  And another one: does it matter?

For us types who like to spend our times in the mountains, we typically do so in a variety of ways:  hiking, cycling, skiing, climbing, running.  All are great.  But the truth is that all are...contrived.   We get plastic buckled boots, carbon fiber skis, and fancy bindings to go play in the snow.  We use $5000 contraptions to ride trails that are cut to 6% grade-perfection.  We climb crags and protect them with bolts every 5 feet.  Even more "pure" activities like traditional climbing are a bit contrived:  we piece together a viable line on a crag, put in mechanical protection, tie up slings and place bolts/change to get off climbs. The fact that it is done via naturally-occurring bulges, cracks, and holds is nice, but the truth is that we are the unnatural, artificial components to the climbs; ie - we aren't lizards!  And hiking and trail running are great; but again, most of the time it's done on trails that were cut by motorcyclists back in the day or a modern-day trail cutter.  

But really, who cares?   We all just do these silly activities for fun, so why does it matter how we do them?   Apparently, however, there are many people who feel that the style in which we all do these activities is of utmost importance.  We have a good friend who seems to be acutely aware of - and critical of - the "style" of outings: was it done maintaining the highest possible line?  Was it descended from the top?  Were you in lockdown or tele? (that one seems almost moot these days!).  Was it done in one continuous push?  Did you fire it down the middle or sneak it down the side?  It seems like there's a distinctive period in the evolution of doing these activities that comes after the initial, naive, enthusiastic participation where people seem to care too much about how the activity is actually executed.  The Community has allowed that The Activity shall be performed This Way, and The Community looks far down its nose at folks who do not perform in the manner of The Way.

One of my favorite examples of this is the road bike criterium:  at some point The Community has decided that going around the same flat, uninteresting, 4-corner, half-mile city-block course as many times as you can in an hour is of Utmost Importance.  Thereupon many folks are willing to not only focus their entire weekend around that hour and shell out $45 for the opportunity, but also risk their egos, expensive bikes, and life and limb to do so.  Contrived?  Absolutely!  But it's super exciting and fun, and therefore worthy.

But over time some folks realize that The Way is not necessarily the only way:  it's ok to ride a bike without your legs being clean-shaven and wearing your kit.  It's ok to climb a trail that is typically used as a descent.  It's ok to stop short of the summit if that's what the conditions/situation dictates.  It's ok to climb the route via a different variation.  It's ok to ski the south face when the north face is "better".  And you can even do those unusual things with "style", if that's an important value.

And you can "climb" a via ferrata!  Sure it's contrived, but it's all about fun and enjoyment - while not at the expense of others' fun and enjoyment - and not necessarily about style.  But if style is important to you then do with your own sense of style, contrived or not!

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