Leave The Stone Alone: Is It Ever OK To Chip A Hold?
Although route manufacturing began to minimize in the 90s as climbing gyms gained in popularity and climbers and the National Park Service began to question its ethicality, chipping has permanently affected some of the community's most cherished routes and still persists to this day.
In November of 2016, extensive vandalism in the form of broken and chipped holds occurred in Utah's Little Cottonwood bouldering area. A month later, climber Ethan Pringle discovered the crux hold had been manipulated on Meadowlark Lemon V14 in Red Rock, Nevada. Whoever chipped or "aggressively cleaned" the crux hold made it easier to pull on, and on closer inspection, it was clear to Pringle that it was not his imagination.
Meadowlark's first ascensionist, Paul Robinson, said the route was, "One of the best boulder problems I have ever climbed in my entire life and feel so lucky to be able to call this one mine. Five stars is an understatement for this incredible boulder."
Any climber can recognize the tragedy here. Because of the actions of a person who could have been ignorant, lazy, or malicious, but certainly mediocre, Meadowlark is tainted for anyone seeking to recreate the bliss Robinson derived from the route. Ultimately, that is the biggest argument against hold chipping: It deprives newer generations of climbers of trying their hand at climbs established by legends of the sport or from establishing new lines in their purest form.
In 2013, climber Ivan Greene was caught on camera altering routes at the Gunks in New York. He lost a sponsorship and was largely blacklisted by the climbing community. Greene's defenders argued he was cleaning a route, but most who watched the video believed he was manufacturing holds. The Gunks is one of the east coast's most beloved and trafficked climbing areas, and the issue kept the climbing forums busy in the aftermath. Nevertheless, it's hard not to agree that Greene and chippers like him are ultimately depriving future climbers from achieving something great or enjoying something pure that climbers have enjoyed before them.
Now, are there arguments for chipping that make sense? Of course, but it's extremely circumstantial. Ultimately, it's up to the land manager's discretion, whether public or private. If the manager says "No," it's a firm "No." But if the policy is more ambiguous and you're new to an area, speak to locals if possible, but otherwise the best practice is to leave it be and climb what you can. Can't climb it? Get stronger.
As Rock and Ice mentioned in their article on Greene, climbing areas such as Riggins, Idaho, are a well-known exception due to the nature of the rock available in the area. Without chipping, there wouldn't be any routes there.
The majority of climbers don't seem to take any part in the act of chipping, as dozens of articles and forum posts will tell you. It appears to be a minority practice, with an odd middle ground of people bordering on aggressive route cleaners or low-impact chippers. But when it comes to the number of established routes and routes left to be established, bad or misguided actors can certainly have large, permanent impacts.
As Pringle noted, good mentorship can do a lot, but can only go so far. "[Meadowlark being chipped] was the act of one or possible a couple people going against the whole community, and there will always be people like that. Sadly this sort of thing has been happening in climbing for decades, and I have a feeling this won't be the last time we see it."
For the sake of appealing to those who still believe there to be a grey area in the topic, here's a practical step-by-step checklist on how to approach chipping:
If the climb has already been established...
1. Do not chip the holds.
If the climb in question has no previous ascent...
1. Do not chip the holds.
Still grey? Fine, if we must:
1. Consult with the land manager. If that is not possible, do not chip the holds.
2. Consult with the locals. If that is not possible, do not chip the holds. If they tell you it's OK to chip, refer to step one.
3. Use the internet to familiarize yourself with who manages the land, the rules regarding climbing there, and who to contact with questions. If this is too much effort or the information is not available, do not chip the holds.
4. Do not chip the holds.
In general, there's no logical or defensible reason to chip holds on established routes. When those scenarios occur, the hierarchy is the land manager, and after that it's up to the local community or climbing coalition to sort it out. Rarely will the average climber ever have to chip anything other than loose rock. As for unestablished routes, maintaining harmonious relationships with land managers is vital to preserving climbing opportunities for everyone, and a big part of that is reducing their workload. Practicing good ethics and etiquette in regards to chipping, alongside the "leave no trace" philosophy, is a kind of unspoken diplomacy that benefits the community for generations.
Let's be real: In most instances, chipping is cheating. On some sappy and perhaps spiritual level, maybe not all rock is meant to be climbed, and maybe it's the rock or maybe it's you.
Either way, it's always safe to assume you should leave the stone alone.
By Joe Dimeck
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