Levels of modification (in the context of WOS)


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Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Topic Author's Original Post - Aug 1, 2006 - 09:37am PT
I have been reading through the 500+ posts on SupperTopo regarding Wings Of Steel, and one detail of the debate caught my attention. About two thirds of the way down this thread ( www.supertopo.com/climbing/thread.html ) Mark Smith mentions that in about 10% to 15% of the micro ledges they used had to have one or two exposed crystals removed in order to make enough room to place their vary small hooks. In response jeff benowitz vehemently stated that any modification done with a drill was a hole and should be included in the hole count. Now this point may well have already been addressed in a later post which I have not read yet, but I feel impelled to weigh in on this point with my unique perspective as a Geomorphologist (meaning that I have a science degree in the study of how big mountains break down into progressively smaller rocks which eventually roll to the sea).

Breaking off an exposed crystal is an artificial means of accelerating the natural weathering process. Drilling a hole is an artificial means of creating a cylindrical feature which would not occur naturally. Thus, breaking off an exposed crystal is more natural, and thus more “clean” than drilling a hole. While breaking off a crystal and drilling a hole might both be counted as modification, they are not the same thing, and minor modifications such as removing an exposed crystal should not be part of a “hole count”.

Of course this it is a mater of scale. If you remove the exposed crystals, and then start chiselling into the feldspar which holds the crystals in place you are trenching. This goes beyond the next natural step in the weathering process and becomes increasingly contrived as you are weathering the rock at one point far beyond the weathering stage of the surrounding rock to produce a feature which would not likely have formed there in that way on its own. At some point, which I will not try to define here, trenching quickly becomes just as contrived as drilling a hole.

I should state that I am not against drilling. I think the decision to drill should be a function of both the situation and the local ethic. I just wanted to make the argument that removing exposed crystals, rock crust, or loose flakes is not the same thing as drilling a hole. Removing an exposed crystal to place a hook is, I believe, a higher standard of ethic (less impact) than drilling a hole to place a hook. What do the rest of you think?

Teth Cleveland
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Aug 1, 2006 - 10:43am PT
There is a distinction made between "natural" alteration of the rock and "intentional" alteration motivated to aid in the climbing. The "intentional" alteration usually includes anything you do with an implement... e.g. hammer, while pulling crystals off with your hands, trundling loose rock with your hands and feet, etc. are considered legitimate alterations.

"Accelerated weathering" using a hammer is definitely considered unnatural.

"Accelerated use," such as the famous Bridwell alterations on Geek Tower, and elsewhere, are considered unnatural.

Wings of Steel is the subject of much controversy. In the '87 Reid-Meyers guide that climb was labeled so in the section on El Cap aid climbs:

"...During the 70's Nose veteran and crag rat Warren Harding was occasionally active on the walls, climbing big, steep, obscure and often blank routes that have not seen second ascents and that are now largely ignored. Most notable was his ascent of the Wall of the Early Morning Light with Dean Caldwell in 1970, a route that stirred such controversy (because of the 300 holes drilled) that Robbins felt compelled to chop the route. Impressed with the standard of the climbing, he abandoned his bolt removal efforts about halfway up the route... Unfortunately, the Harding Dawn Wall debate over justifiable bolting reemerged wit the ascent of Wings of Steel where close to 145 drilled holes were placed over 1,200 feet."

There is definitely an esthetic of minimal alteration of the rock in creating a climb. I believe the authors of Wings of Steel have a different view of their activities and may have been subject to arguements based on second hand knowledge. You have hit the modern "motherlode" of commentary on the route in the thread you referenced. There is still passionate debate along many different threads; number of holes, treatement of "outsiders," who regulates climbing activity, what are ethics and esthetics, etc, etc,

A good friend of mine once advised, on a totally different topic:

"...before you do anything irreversible, think."

his voice is clear in my conscience always. Altering the rock is irreversible, you would be wise to take my friend's advice.

Aug 1, 2006 - 11:33am PT
well g-whiz, son. i guess i've "modified" an assload of footholds with my sticky rubber. turns out i'm a dirty, nasty chipping ho-bag after all.

give me a f*#king break.

Trad climber
the south
Aug 1, 2006 - 11:33am PT

Alternate and rapid accelleration of the effects of natural weathering.

S. I. Hiyakawa woud love it.

But I think most people would agree that a hole is a lot worse than a little chipping, and I also think that anyone who has had their ass in a sling would rather chip or drill than die.

East Coast US
Aug 1, 2006 - 11:40am PT
Hey Teth,

I was just bouldering in and around Peggy's Cove [Nova Scotia] last week. It's like a version of the meadows with tons of A+++ quality rock with no crowds and perfect weather [at least while I was there]. That's my third time there and I'll be back; hopefully in mid-September with a good hurricane swell. I'll be commuting between Lawrencetown Point [beach] and Peggy's Cove.

I love NS!

PS -- OOPS! Back to Wings of Steel :)
PPS -- I'll post a picture or two soon.
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Oakville, Ontario, Canada, eh?
Aug 1, 2006 - 04:58pm PT
Hey guys,

Apologies for not having written up my trip report for Wings of Steel. It spanked my ass but good - a super-hard route, no doubt.

A consistent problem with Mark Smith and Richard Jensen is that these boys are just too darn honest! Rather than say, "we didn't enhance anything" they chose to say precisely what they did.

Before I got on Wings of Steel myself, and you can find the post here somewhere, I was very facetious and wrote something like, "Oh, so you only enhanced the rock a little...." or words to that effect. It was rather smart-assed, but after reading more of the stuff that Mark and Richard wrote - which is they thought they did it only three to five times I think[?] - I chose to give them the benefit of the doubt.

What I found on the first pitch of the Legit Start - and which Ammon has already confirmed that he saw on the first two pitches of the Bogus Start - is that there are NO ENHANCED HOOK PLACEMENTS. If they knocked off a crystal or two [not sure how big a "crystal" is to them, but I'm guessing slightly larger than a few grains of sand] neither Ammon nor I could see it.

You can end this thread right here - Mark and Richard climbed the sickest, baddest-ass most terrifying run-out insane hooking I have ever seen - without enhancing anything - a route that has hugely harder hooking than anything else on El Cap I have seen including Reticent Wall, Jolly Roger and Sea of Dreams.

Without doubt, Wings of Steel is in a class of its own in terms of quality, difficulty and seriousness.

But you don't have to take my word for it - the first two pitches of the Legit Start have been fully rebolted with new stuff. [You'll love the Zamacs...] Go see for yourself. You should probably take a 20-foot cheat stick like I did, too.....

Report coming, sorry for the delay. Sheesh.

Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Topic Author's Reply - Aug 2, 2006 - 07:55am PT
Thanks for your input Pete. I look forward to your TR on WOS. I have always liked slab climbing. Strength is irrelevant on slab. Instead it requires you to flow like water and be incredibly precise with how you place your hands and feet and have perfect control over your centre of gravity at all times. I am guessing it would be a similar experience to be hooking up slab. I can see were people used to climbing the steep stuff would not like slab. After climbing some really hard steep routes it would be a bit of a blow to the ego of some people to feel like an amateur again when they get on slab. On slab you just can’t use strength and tenacity to substitute for form and finesse.

For the first couple of responders I should clarify that I said that removing an exposed crystal is “cleaner” than drilling a hole, not “clean”. For the record, I consider the removing of rock using direct force (your unassisted strength) to be “clean” and the use of a tool to apply leverage or a blow to not be “clean”. You can use a tool to clean debris out of a crack and still be clean, as long was you do not use the tool as a lever or hammer. My point is that once you have crossed that fine line where your actions are not “clean”, there is still quite a continuum between removing a single sand grain sized crystal and chopping a step. I would contend that removing a single small crystal has the least impact of any “modification”, as trying to remove half a crystal would likely dislodge the whole crystal anyway (unless it is a large crystal which would be an altogether different matter). I would contend that even placing a piton in a crack would have more impact than removing one or two sand grain sized crystals.

Gunkie, I am glad you enjoyed our boulders. What level do you climb at and what style to you like (crimpy, slab, overhang?) Let me know and I will give you a classic to try next time you visit. Don’t chisel any sand grains though; anything which is not “clean” could get you lynched in Nova Scotia. The Ethic is fairly extreme here.


Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Topic Author's Reply - Aug 2, 2006 - 01:28pm PT
Yeah, we have a saying that our rock bights back. It’s sharp, really sharp, but great quality. Didn’t mean to imply that you were likely to do any chipping, just using your potential visit as a seg-way into a comment on the local ethic. I suggest the next time you are in the area you check out Polly’s Cove (between Peggy’s Cove and West Dover). It is a beautiful hike in, right by the water, and a great place for the fammily to enjoy the sun and the sea breeze while you play around on 5.10 moves. Some of it is a bit highball though, so you may want to rent a crash pad at the MEC if you haven’t brought one. We also have a number of small crags if you like to get higher off the ground.

I can’t speak for the local surfers, but I would be pissed if I found out that a local climber treated you that way. By Lawrencetown Point do you mean that narrow beach along an eroding cliff on the headland past Lawrencetown beach? I think it is listed as Half Island point on the map. I was told that the local surfers think of this area as their own secret spot and I was told not to tell anyone about it. I suppose I can understand them wanting to keep it quiet, but to write something anti social like that on your window like that is very lame! You should get better treatment from the climbing community here.

If you don’t like lining up to climb, Nova Scotia is your kind of playce.


Aug 2, 2006 - 02:01pm PT
I'd like to weigh in on this one as well. I know Mark and Richard very well. Mark and I grew up climbing together. We worked through the grades with a ground up ethic. Mark was always more bold than I was. At one point we joked about being the best 5.7 climbers around, we just didn't have the stones to lead beyond that grade. Needless to say we eventually got passed it. Mark is an extremely honest climber, if we "cheated"(hung on a piece etc.)it was not consider a free ascent. Wings of Steel was a visionary route. I remember the difficulties Mark and Richard had over their climb and my disappointment in the climbing communities response over the climb. I also remember how difficult it was for them to get back on that route after all the BS. Their ethic was probably purer than most. They did not convientley "forget" even the smallest of changes they may have made to the rock. They logged a serious amount of flight time on the first two pitches. As I recall there have been a few routes deemed "overdrilled" by some who even went up and chopped some of the lower pitches only to find out later, and with regret, that the route was a classic. So for all the naysayers, sharpen those hooks, tighten your spinchters and launch. Oh, and by the way, happy flying.
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Oakville, Ontario, Canada, eh?
Aug 2, 2006 - 06:10pm PT
"Visionary" is certainly an appropriate word. Those boys were bad to the bone!

You wouldn't think "aid" climbing would be strenuous or exhausting. I mean, you're standing in aiders, right?

When I toproped the first pitch of Wings of Steel, it took me damn near six hours. I couldn't [or wouldn't] do all of the moves - there were about four I just couldn't suss. Trying to stand in balance on those microscopic hook placements, and keep the hook from popping, while trying to find the next hook and get on it, was some of the most strenuous climbing I have ever done!

You can call me a pussy if you like, but before you do, you might want to go up and give 'er a try yourself. Truthfully, my body was aching for about three days afterwards, so intense was the effort required. You can laugh when you read about your foot falling asleep in the aiders, but it actually happened.

What it so far beyond my comprehension - because the climbing is so hard - is imagining Mark and Richard twenty and thirty feet out on these crappy placements, and somehow balancing there in extreme pain, distress and fear, and drilling a bolt or rivet on lead.


Hats off to those boys.

As an aside, there are virtually NO hook placements like this on Wings of Steel, as hotlinked by Levy in another post.

This isn't a photo from Wings of Steel.

Here's what you'll find on Wings, as taken by Richard:

Most of the placements are almost as bad as what you see above.

The hook placements should be rated PFS - Pretty F*ckin' Sick.

In the other post, the bastard went and linked Richard's photos and trip reports - I was savin' 'em for my own trip report. Oh well, serves me right - too damn slow. Better get writing, eh? Sheesh. Sorry for the delay.

Teth - Wings of Steel is unenhanced. I can tell you with near certainty that of the 151 hook placements Mark and Richard made, you won't be able to find the 3 to 8 that were "enhanced". Not a chance.

Big Wall climber
Fresno, CA
Aug 2, 2006 - 06:25pm PT
hahaha... If the hook moves looked like that (top photo), that sh#t woulda been sent!

I'm remembering even some smaller placements than the linked photos from Richard's site, too. Am I wrong here, Pete? I remeber standing in an aider on a placement that size, but only the thickness of a dime. Both Richard and Mark told me that this was pretty common (dime-thickness) Scary. And I was just hooking along the base. I seem to remember quite a few like that when I was higher up on the wall, as well.

Edit: I guess, after looking at my hooks, the second picture (orange-ish rock) is about right...

Big Wall climber
hiding in plain sight
Aug 2, 2006 - 06:30pm PT
You say you toproped it?
Who led it?

That is the start that goes off the loose block at the base, right? Up a few moves to the 1st bolt?

You really need to get some of those small radius petzl hooks, they reduce the pucker factor significantly.

Methinks someone has monkeyed with it since I was on it in 2000.
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Oakville, Ontario, Canada, eh?
Aug 2, 2006 - 06:42pm PT
I cheat-sticked my way up the Legit Start on the right. Ammon climbed the Bogus Start to the left. Once I got to the anchor, I toproped it. I couldn't lead it, no how, no way. Severe pucker factor on ridiculously small and sick hooks.

Legit start is stand on block, make long reach to rivet [not one of Mark and Richard's, but I used it] to two normal hooks on a normal edge to a head I placed, all going up and right to the first bolt.

Christian, who did you climb with and when? Did you climb the Bogus Start coming in from the left? Didn't you get three pitches up? Were with you Mark? What did you think of the second pitch???

What did you think of the route and what you saw?

Trad climber
Provo, Ut
Aug 2, 2006 - 07:09pm PT
Sick sick sick... Is it bad that those hook pics turn me on?
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Oakville, Ontario, Canada, eh?
Aug 2, 2006 - 07:25pm PT
You are enjoying a certain "third party detachment".

In another post, Gunkie wrote the climb might be renamed Depenz because he would need to wear adult diapers if he ever got on the climb.

Actually, I was thinking more of a barf bag - you know, like you find in that little slot on the back of the seat in front of you on an airplane? Truly I was sick to my stomach in fear at the thought of actually being on the sharp end [and I was on toprope!]

I swear - I would frickin' PUKE with fear if I ever had to lead it. No thanks!

I mean, I might shag an ugly chick and puke later, that might POSSIBLY be worth it, but El Cap sure isn't!

**caveat - PWUI!

Big Wall climber
hiding in plain sight
Aug 2, 2006 - 07:41pm PT
Mark had gone off to seek fame and fortune by then.
I tried it as a solo project, but the heat ultimately baked me off.
I went off the block that you describe, I stacked some other rocks to reach that rivet.
I think someone sabotaged a lot of the placements, as there seemed to be fresh(er) looking rock under several spots.

I came away with the feeling that I wasn't having fun, and the route had been maimed by someone we both know.

If you were using talons, I'll bet you were feeling a bit 'edgy'.
If I still had them, I'd send you those petzl's, but alas, I was robbed of all my outdoor gear in 2004.

Good on ya' for giving her a go though.

Yeah, I got to three. It wouldn't have happened without the petzls.
And now I am remembering a lot of smoke in the valley from forest fires too.
And that head was fixed at the time.

The valley sounds like a zoo these days. C-ya around sometime, eh?
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Oakville, Ontario, Canada, eh?
Aug 2, 2006 - 07:42pm PT
Russ Walling:

I am looking for your help. You are one of the few people who is actively writing on this forum today who was directly involved in the Wings of Steel debacle. Your name came up frequently when I was spending time with Richard and Mark.

I was wondering if you would be willing to share your recollections? I am wondering if you have had a change of heart all these years later? Mark and Richard have told me some things that you allegedly had said and done, but because it is hearsay [from Mark and Richard] I won't write it here.

Russ, I have never met you in person, but you seem like a decent and forthright guy. Your portaledges are superb, and you have always looked after me. My FISH double recently completed its 293rd night on El Cap, and I will always recommend your gear.

Sometimes when we are young and stupid, we say and do things we later regret. [Sometimes when you are old and stupid - like me - you say things you later regret!] Sometimes it's time to offer an olive branch. Maybe you might want to say a few things to Mark and Richard after all these years?

I believe in forgiveness and reconciliation. I can tell you that Mark and Richard believe the same.

Cheers, mate.

Christian - didn't think you were such a short-ass! I managed to reach that rivet with an outstretched arm. Then again, it's possible I grabbed Ammon's pig-hanging rope to lean out! So maybe I speak out of turn.

How high did you get? Didn't you get as high as the third pitch?

Big Wall climber
hiding in plain sight
Aug 2, 2006 - 07:58pm PT
I'm 5 10, I think we are the same height or darn close.
It was only a couple of rocks.

I got to the top of 3, and left a leaver biner, an oval.

Oh, yeah I DID puke on that one, almost forgot that. I think it was as much from the pine smoke as the fear. I didn't fall though.
Russ Walling

Social climber
Out on the sand, Man.....
Aug 2, 2006 - 08:04pm PT
For Pete:

Did you read all that WoS thread? It seems my position was stated about 12 different ways. Not sure what is supposed to change. Re-read the thread and pull some specifics if you like, and run them up my flagpole.

For the record, it is unfortunate what happend to them fellahs during that time. Also for the record, and let there be ZERO doubt on this one: I did not have anything to do with any bolt chopping, feces, gear destruction or shiit bombing from above. That ain't my "bag" man.

As for what I have supposedly done and said as per Richard and Mark, I would like to hear this also. As I recall, some 25 years later now, there were many people exceedingly fired up about the whole debacle. Fired up enough to take some sort of action. I was not one of them. In fact, it has been so long now that I can't even say for sure who were the shiiters and choppers. I knew then, but I don't know now. How they are thinking that I was one of the major players is a mystery to me.

As for filling in blanks, the only guys I know that were even around then and are available right now are Werner and Deuce.

Rather than pollute this thread with another WOS filibuster, I'll start a new thread here and we can go from there.
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