The concept of Fair Means has really only become apparent to me since my mountaineering career began almost a year ago. I never really considered the impact of human drive and the human need to conquer places and things we see in the background of our daily lives. The mountains were really just too far away; distant snowy landmarks in my peripheral and, at the time, who climbed them, or how they were climbed, were never thoughts worth entertaining. At my core, I am an environmentalist- I have always cared about Leave No Trace ethics and about being respectful of the natural world. But that respect never translated with any real direction into the mountains and it certainly never translated into the idea of Fair Means.
When I began spending time in the mountains, and in more remote areas in general, that environmentalist- edge began to grow, rearing its prominent head at every turn, with each new encounter with human waste left behind by previous parties, by every piece of webbing lazily left dangling in gnarled masses on upper bits of rock, by every moment I spent listening to people bragging about the summits they had “bagged” during guided trips. The initial irritants seemed natural to me; the latter were foreign and confusing.
This last winter, I went to Kelly Cordes’ reading of The Tower at the Portland Patagonia store. In those few, very memorable hours, I felt a little itch start in the back of my mind, the “this is what you’ve been thinking about but haven’t been able to put words to” itch. I continued to spend time in the mountains, becoming more and more frustrated at people’s utter lack of consideration for not only the planet, but for the epic giants they are fortunate enough to spend time near or upon. I still struggled to label the itch and began trying to scratch it.
And then, I started Kelly’s book and down the rabbit hole I fell. Dots began to connect, and an underlying sense of responsibility and activism began brewing. I vacillated between angry with my fellow mountaineers (or people who have decided to label themselves as such), frustrated that little is being done to protect the areas that we few hold so dear, and ecstatic that I, with Kelly’s help, was finally able to define and relate to an idea: Fair Means.
Frequently in the last ten months, when discussing an upcoming trip with friends and coworkers, I have been asked, “Oh, are you going up there with a guide?” and my reaction was naturally to simply say “no, we’re going up on our own.” Andy, my wonderful partner, and I have spent hours learning as many advanced alpine skills as we can and even more hours practicing them for times when we would really need them. Why would we skip the learning and have a guide carry us to the summit when we had all of the necessary tools to be successful at our disposal? Initially I was offended by their inquiries, my ego getting in the way of my explanation, so I went further and asked myself: is taking a guide service to the summit of a peak really an act of Fair Means, or is it simply a way of paying to accomplish a goal and take a selfie? If you know you’re safe throughout the climb and don’t need to spend the time laboring away honing skills on your own time, should that summit really be included on your “tick list”? It seems like half the battle with mountaineering and alpine climbing is dealing with the complete lack of guarantee that you’ll make it to the summit- a prime example being the brief, but highly educational push Andy and I made up Mount Hood a few weeks before we were able to push for the summit. We started climbing in the early morning and ended up in a fairly heavy white-out that yielded only a couple feet of visibility. But, we didn’t panic, we took it as a learning opportunity of how to deal in white out and low-visibility conditions (which would work to our benefit on Shasta). With a guide service, that summit attempt would never have happened- there would have been no point in taking inexperienced climbers out knowing that they would not have the skill to handle the weather and would likely be outraged at not being “successful in tagging the summit.” That language in general has really began to piss me off. Tagging a summit? What a degrading and ego-driven statement that is.
Fair Means is often looked upon on climbing as a term to describe climbing a route without tarnishing the rock or causing damage to the natural environment by placing permanent gear, or bolts. But I’d like to take that conversation a step further in my critique of using guide services to “bag peaks.” How are those acts any different?
There isn’t any concrete damage, in theory, left behind my guided parties (although, for those of us who have been on route with guided- or even large- groups, the damage they inflict is tangible), but the routes are not climbed under Fair Means when the materials required for completing the climb are pre-set and all-but-guaranteed. There is no style associated with having someone pre-fix the route for you, just as there is no style associated with having another person ride your horse to the first place finish in the Grand Prix Ring, or having a race coordinator show you all the short cuts for your upcoming Ultrathon. If Fair Means is what matters, and style goes hand in hand with Fair Means, shouldn’t those two be held to the same standard in mountaineering?
I do feel, genuinely, that Guide Services have their place. If you don’t possess the skills to be safe and successful on a trip or don’t have someone willing to teach you those skills, by all means, take a mountaineering course. In one fell swoop, you are not only helping yourself but you’re also preventing future accidents and decreasing eventual high risk levels when you plan trips with others. But, climbing fixed ropes that you have no idea how to put up or having someone belay you on stable, “safe,” terrain that you’re unable to navigate and having you unable to return the favor because you barely know how to use an ATC makes for neither a genuine experience or for an educational ascent. Those trips should not be used to feed the ego- they should not be added to the “tick list,” they should not be bragged about… at least not until they are completed under your own power.
In an ideal world, the thought process behind being guided up a peak is to go about thinking of it as a learning experience- an experience that will lead to your growth as a mountaineer, as a member of a team, as a person who wishes to partner with the outdoors in the realm of striving to reach greater heights. When you look at guiding as a means to an end, as a way of all but guaranteeing what is often defined as “success,” that’s when issues arise and the act of climbing loses all meaning.
Guide services and my conflict with them aside, my current objective is to learn as much as I can about gear placement. My knowledge of how to clean gear has been improving but up until recently, I was content to be a sport climber and to simply follow my partner up gear that they placed on natural terrain. But as my knowledge and respect for mountains has grown, so has my desire to climb them by Fair Means, of my own volition and with my own power (and the power of my partner). Because, if I’m going to be judgmental towards those who use guide services to climb mountains, then isn’t it hypocritical for me to use bolts placed by others to climb mountains when I am perfectly capable of learning how to protect rock/snow/ice on my own? There definitely is a time and a place for bolts- crucial anchor systems and blank face climbing often seem to justify their use, but there is a limit to how far one should go to reach their objectives, and brutal honesty is an absolute must when confessing to your use of bolts, etc., during a climb.
Kelly Cordes summed this thought up beautifully in The Tower,
“In a sense, it all seems silly, people nitpicking over two-inch-long metal studs that nobody can even see until they’re upon them. Isn’t the point to get to the top? No. Climbing style is everything in the mountains. Getting to the summit today means nothing. A helicopter can have you there in five minutes. The other extreme is free soloing naked. In between lie the nuances of the craft, and just like any game this one has rules. Only the rules are unwritten and the specifics forever shifting. But the fundamental principle remains: the mountains are not commodities, silly as it might sound from the outside, these are our temples, places worthy of our respect. It’s no sillier than anything else worshiped around the world.”
Fair Means is more than just the idea of climbing under your own power; Fair Means boils down to climbing in style. The ego becomes a hindrance here for most people, myself included. Early on in my dive down this rabbit hole, I was eager to talk with people about the mountains we’d stood on top of, but my eagerness began to die off when I realized that discussing what could be labeled as accomplishments was tantamount to being a braggart and I wanted nothing to do with being, or being perceived as, such a person.
Style, at least for me, goes beyond how much of a route or a mountain you are able to climb under your own power; it extends into a place that touches on how well you explain your experience afterwards. What lessons were gained during the experience? What new levels of personal achievement were attained? How connected to the places beyond yourself were you? If you cannot answer these questions with anything genuine, you should take some time and dig in, find the meaning, and if you are still unable to come up with an answer, maybe you should try the route again, this time, in style, under Fair Means, and I bet you can come up with something worth sharing.