I got into a minor scuffle the other day on Facebook over the fact both I an Vanessa had placed some bird beaks on Mescalito last month, probably about ten in total. This was the around the same time that “Piton’s Pete” also was given a hard time on placing some beaks on Zodiac, and so I was given a bit of a slagging, that I should know better, set a better example etc.
First off I guess a lot of people don’t know what a ‘bird beak’ is (if you’re an alpine or winter climber or hard trad climber you should), and I know when we set off up Mescalito Venessa certainly had no clue. She also did not know that a ‘beak’ (also known as a Pecker or Tomahawk) was also a ‘peg’ and that a peg was also a ‘piton’, or that to place such as thing was also known as ‘nailing’. Her lack of knowledge reminded me of how when I climbed Zenyatta Mondatta with Airlie Anderson she kept calling down for “mouse beaks”, which always cheered up our chilly belays (bird beaks are so named after Jim ‘the bird’ Bridewell, who took Chouinard Crack’N Ups and created small hooked pegs).
The scuffle came about because Mescolito (and Zodiac) is known to go clean, i.e. no pegs are hammered, and that advertising this fact — that beaks had been placed — I was giving the impression to young climbers that it was OK to nail.
I try to avoid social media scraps these days - who’s got the time - but this one is a great subject to explore.
The idea of clean climbing seems like a done deal, first of that once a route goes clean that it will forever be clean, and anyone who nails is lame or ‘weak sauce”. But is it?
The first I heard about clean climbing was watching Charlie Fowler and Xavier Bongard climbing the Shield clean in Rock N Wall, hand placing pegs, beaks and modified Spectres. I knew almost nothing about big wall climbing, just a guy in a climbing shop, but that film got stuck in my head. And so when I finally got to Yosemite the very first thing I did was head up to do the second clean ascent of the Shield! Looking back both of us were clueless. We had only one set of aliens, no beaks or big sawn-offs and no offsets. What we did have were cam hooks, and I’d had the pleasure of talking to the Ed Leeper on the phone a few times (I was at work so Outside picked up the bill!). Anyway, we got all the way to the triple cracks where that youthful fire winked out, taking a 100-foot fall when a fixed head blew (turned out back cleaning your Aliens was not a good idea). Hanging level with the portaledge, having taken the biggest headfirst fall in my life, all I could say was “praise the Lord and pass me the pitons”.
Later I heard that Rolando Garibotti and John Middendorf, who was climbing above with the film crew, where placing fixed gear where it was needed, which I guess was just the usual valley gossip (see Johns’ responce!), but then really a clean ascent was easy to achieve so maybe that’s not true. Anyway not long after our failed attempt a Brit team of Andy and Matt did do the second ascent (we did leave some fixed Leeper Z pegs we could not get out, so maybe we played our part?).
Around this same time the mags picked up on clean climbing, and I guess they felt that they were leading the charge, changing people’s behaviour, but really it was pretty much a done deal already anyway.
Around the turn of the century there were big leaps in climbing protection, with Aliens coming first, followed by offset cams, cam hooks (old hardware rediscovered), beaks, wires, as well as an explosion in information (the explosion in big wall climbing was also due in large part to the dot-com boom in the Bay area, something often ignored). Almost overnight there was just no need to be placing angles, blades or lost arrows. When we did Iron Hawk everyone told us how our left arm would be toast, all that nailing the wing, but in the end, I think all we placed was RURP (hand placed) and a few beaks (but again, the ‘knife blade traverse’ was full of fixed junk). It was not that people had to find a harder way to climb clean, but that clean was just easier and quicker, plus it allowed you to feel righteous (in our hearts we all want to be a revolutionary).
Routes began to go down clean, Zodiac, Tangerine Trip, North America Wall, and the mags pushed this idea. Places like Zion became almost no go zones for pegs, and climbers like John Middendorf further pushed this new way of thinking by the idea of creating clean placements (something you can do by rubbing the rock with your finger on some routes!). Climbs like Spaceshot and Prodigal Son (maybe the best starter wall in the world) no longer needed pegs, with the pegs that were needed left in place or glued in, the other placements just using wires used in old peg scars (Prodigal Son has some of the best nut placements I’ve ever seen).
And yet there was a part of this picture that was missing: all the fixed junk, the rusty RURPs looped with shoelace, the frayed wires and countless dead heads, the peg studs and rusty shit you had to hook to get past, not to mention a whole host of rivets and bolts (44kN stainless to home made, from solid button heads to rivets you’d not hang a picture off). For a route to go clean, you need all this gear in place, the pitch often being a clip up, the scariest via ferrata you’d ever do, but a clip up none the less. And when you blow a head, what then? Well, you also blow your clean ascent as you need to place a new one, and the person who comes next piggy backs their clean ascent on your hard work - but what if you can’t place a head? Very often - and increasingly—the head placements can not be reused and are just trashed. Here the only option is chisel a slot for a #1 head, or better still to use a beak tapped on top of the deadhead if you can (a specialised ‘dead head beak’ is often needed). “Oh, but just hand place it” the devout will shout, but what happens if you fall due to not getting the best out of the placement? The answer is you rip out more heads and end up making the pitch unclimbable, resulting in bat hook holes, drilled edges, rivets or bolts.
In 30+ ascents of El Cap and many other walls around the world, I think I’ve only ever placed about ten heads, as I see heads as being just about the worst gear you can ever place (I’d rather place a bolt). And peg wise, I’ve probably placed less than fifty angles, blades, Z pegs or arrows - but beaks, well I’ve placed many, many hundreds.
When I place a beak I do not wail on it; you can’t, I make sure first that it ‘fits’, that it hooks into the placement, and then I tap it in with less than five blows. Most beaks I place are medium or small, and almost all can be cleaned by hand (large ones should never really get more than five blows otherwise they’ll get fixed). Each time a beak is placed I think of John Middendorf’s idea of creating a better placement, that you are creating a hooking slot for other people to use, that slot becoming more and more defined as hammering is needed less and less (like hand placed beak on Lurking Fear a good example of this). A good beak placement, unlike a normal piton scar, should not wear out, but wear in.
On many routes, such as Mescalito, there is also the new reality that routes are just trashed, covered in junk that’s either broken or about to break, and also that these routes are now shared with free climbers. On Mescalito one of the crux pitches graded A1 turned out to be the hardest, the reason being that fixed pegs had been removed to allow finger holds to be used, that easy clip up now an exercise in flared nutting, cam hooks and offset cams. And this, of course, leads to the obvious conclusion for the devout and holy climber, that once a route goes free, it can no longer be climbed!
As climbers of big walls, as well as climbers in general, is our responsibility to keep routes clean, we’re these routes custodians. We must take care of the cracks, to take out fixed gear that will turn to junk (old pegs, wires, beaks). Yes, they allow a clean ascent - but will only fill up placements with rusty stubs or steel or alloy sooner than you think. When I climb the Nose I always carry a hammer, and I take out every single fixed piece I can find, removing dozens of fixed wires on every trip (I have a very large rack of DMM offsets!). This year I found the Glowering Spot crux crack a simple clip up, every placement sporting a wire. This, of course, is great is you’re speed climbing, but it downgrades the experience and is also disrespectful for the first ascentionists. With my hammer I cleaned out every single stuck wire, as well as many others on the great roof (another junk trap), and other pitches, and next time I’m going to take something to chop out all the junk Link Cams on the stove legs, that yes can be clipped today, but tomorrow will just be junk. If we don’t take care of these walls, they’ll end up as junk yards (I was glad to be at the Glowering Spot when the guys broke the Nose record and did not need other people’s junk the pull such a feat!).
Lastly, it’s very easy to get carried away with being a virtuous and noble climber, thinking everyone should live up to your standards, but how did you become so able for such virtue? The answer most often is by doing a lot of shit that was no so right. A climber pushing their skills above the Black Tower on Zodiac should not be expected to fall and break their spine in order to get a nod from you, just as Dave Turner is not expecting for you to hook for fifty feet without placing a rivet or bolt. Yes to place a bolt on the black tower would be a sin, but the tap a beak five times and so save your bones is not, that when you did it clean, there were five or six fixed pieces that are no longer there now (I’ve done Zodiac six times and so have seen how pitches can sprout beaks, RURPS, nuts and cams and lower the grade, then be empty on the next trip up).
And yes - all this sounds defensive, that I’m covering my ass, and I have to admit the older I get, the less I like to fall. But this is also important, and as climbers, we all too often live by ideas that grow old and less fit for purpose than when they were set down in stone. We can kid ourselves, but we cannot kid a blank seam full of tiny lumps of busted copper (unless we’re Adam Ondra or Tommy Caldwell!).
I thought I’d leave the last word to Vanessa, seeing she’s only just new to big walling (and mouse beaks), as very often
I was going to write “whats a piton?” but then thought maybe I’d be serious for once as my climbing character is at stake :-) Firstly no offence taken at all, honestly. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. i wasn’t going to write a response at all, as i like to use Facebook only to connect with friends and for a bit of a laugh. I think internet rants and arguments are a waste of precious time/just people saying horrible things they would never say to each others faces…just my opinion (I’m always telling andy to stay out of them as they just escalate but he never listens!). So for the first time in my Facebook history here’s my tuppence worth…for starters I love, no adore, climbing and everything outdoors, and I do my very best always to leave as little a mark as possible. And I wouldn’t have married anyone who didn’t feel the same. Andy knows he can get away with a lot with me but kill an insect deliberately and its a deal breaker! (although we do both eat meat - isn’t life full of grey areas?) And now on to the climb…, I’m not such a novice that I wasn’t aware mescalito should go clean. Mescalito was my fourth time up el cap and my sixth big wall so still a novice big waller yes but not a first timer. Also, I absolutely love it and have been a diligent student in andy’s school of zero sympathy and very hard knocks so maybe I get bonus points: -) I had studied the topo, online forums etc. before we got on the route so was fully expecting to do it cleanly. I tried my best to do this. I fell, I blew lots of tiny nuts and cams bounce testing them, in short…had a great time!! :-) but I couldn’t quite get it clean. Like andy said lots of the copperheads were blown or just completely gone. A few times I got geared up for ‘C3 fixed heads’ and literally found zero fixed heads. These were the times I sometimes ended up placing a beak (as a last resort when I couldn’t get anything else to work). I used i think five beaks in the entire route. I definitely used the hammer way more knocking out andy’s bloody offset wire placements! On the subject of ‘beaks’ though and all this clean/not clean talk…I agree with you everyone should do their best to do routes clean but I think the logic can be a bit flawed and people can get on their high horse a bit about it all and fail to see the grey areas in the semantics…like what really is clean? If all the copperheads were there and I had clipped them instead of the odd beak, I would have done it clean, is it?? But I would have just been clipping fixed gear placed by someone who did not do it clean!!! Equally am I correct in saying if we had replaced the missing and blown copperheads we would have been hammering assholes, but the next person to do the route (using our copperheads) would be a hero with a ‘clean’ rep (literally 😊). All sounds kinda daft to me, but I do understand your point and thanks for bothering to say you didn’t want to offend me.
John Middendorf responds
And yes, I am listening, and no, we did NOT assist the first clean ascent of the Shield. It was me and John Wason who were rigging Dan Manix in position for the film. It was my idea to just climb ahead of the team for the filming. We actually also climbed just about the whole thing clean. We were very careful NOT to change the character of the climb for the film, but key areas, lie the Groove Pitch, were in good nick with fixed gear. I think Bill Jo started that rumor and it has persisted ever since. funny How stories like this never die and morph! (how did Rolo get into the story!?)
But you are exactly right about the quantity of fixed gear. Although Charlie and Xaver both did some wild C3+ on that route in places where a copperhead had blown, say, most of the groove was fixed at the time of ascent. I have climbed the shield a few times, and once was there on the solo after it had been ripped clean (by Troy) and without many of the necessary heads had to do some wild aid (pre-beaks). so Your discussion is valid, but really clean climbing should be encouraged.
I climbed a route here in Australia last year with Simon Mentz, Ozymandias. It is likely C3 (hard to tell as it was my first aid route in 20 years), but both Simey and I felt pretty run out on dicey strings of tipped out stoppers and rps. It would be A1 nailing, all good knife blade and beak cracks, but the challenge is to keep it clean. i think in that rock, a softer granite than Yosemite, that there is continuing damage to the pin scars even by the clean gear removal, making it harder.
The important thing really is that if you do use a hammered placement, to be really aware of how you clean it so the scar is more likely to leave a clean placement. It is a fine art, most won’t be able to do it, but it generally has to do with hitting the piece upwards more than down when cleaning.
Clean aid is hard! But it is amazing what you can do if you decide to neck it out, far more than one would initially think. Here I followed Grossman’s lead and would definitely try the C3, probably I did some C4 even, if doing a trade route (on pitches that would be A1 or A2 with pins). It is a good ethic, and should be honoured. And even though I brought the first BirdBeaks to market, most of my climbing in Yosemite was pre bird beak so I can see how hand place beaks would change the game here, I can’t comment on the specifics of Yosemite trade routes. i really do think you should consult Grossman as he took the art of clean climbing to new levels back in the 80’s and 90’s.
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Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram