Sunday, 12 August 2012

Courting Controversy - Brin Rock

As a Highland rock climber my primary goal is trad climbing - onsight, adventurous, wild and remote.  All the other climbing I do I often think of as training or I do because weather, conditions or a lack of partners mean trad is out of the question.  Living in the Highlands means these last three factors are often at large: it rains a fair bit, it's often cold, and there aren't many climbers about, which means in a year I end up doing more bouldering and sport climbing than trad. And that's great, because as well as the well-known wealth of brilliant trad climbing we have up here, there's also a lot of very good bouldering, and due to the hard work of a few dedicated folk, an expanding wealth of excellent sport crags.  

The realistic truth is that if I want to be a rock climber in the Highlands I want sport crags, and this means I need people getting out there with drills and bolts, doing the dirty work (Don't ask me, I don't know my arse from my Hilti).  This also means you need crags; crags that are suitable for bolting; that aren't historically or ecologically sensitive; that don't have an established no-bolt ethic.  Coming from a tree-hugging long-term viewpoint, I don't think we should be bolting things that might one day make good trad routes for a fitter, stronger, bolder generation.

And this is my dilemma.

There's a word that's been spoken quietly by the Highland scene for the last year or so: Brin.  Brin Rock is a crag high on a hill in Strathnairn, steep, south-facing, schist.  Best known by climbers these days for the boulders at the foot of the hill, but the crags muster a few trad routes from the 70s and 80s.  Nowadays these routes get very little, if any, traffic.  In the last few years, and unknown to each other, two men visited Brin - Andy Wilby and Guy Robertson.  They both saw the crag from opposite ends of the spectrum. Andy has been responsible for a large number of the sport routes in the Inverness and North West areas, including the now super-popular Moy Rock, and he saw a large amount of steep, fairly blank looking rock on an unpopular and forgotten buttress - ripe for sport development and rejuvenation.  At the same place, Guy saw the potential for a handful of hard, bold trad routes and put up an E6 of his own called Astroceltic Soundsystem.  Not knowing that Guy had climbed his route, (parhaps the moral of this tale is that more open communication in the secretive Scottish scene is needed) Andy and another Inverness local, Dave Douglas, started bolting the crag, staying away from the original trad routes.  When they found out about Guy's route they chopped the bolts that encroached on his line, but continued bolting elsewhere on the crag.  And that's pretty much where we are now.  The bolts are still there, and the crag is growing in popularity with a 'retro-concensus' seeming to emerge.  

I'd stayed away from the crag, not really sure what I made of it.  The sudden appearance of a load of new sport routes on a crag near home (including rumours of a 3* 7a) got the short-termist climber in me excited, but the more philosophical (idealistic?) long-termist part of me couldn't help but be concerned about seeing established trad venues being bolted.  If this crag now, what next?  With the surge in popularity of climbing you can't help but wonder what someone without the knowledge of the history and ethics of British climbing might want to bolt, and will the bolting of venues like Brin just encourage gung-ho bolting?  

In these debates people often say 'it makes a better sport crag than trad crag', or 'if bolting makes the crag more popular, then bolt it'.  I don't hold with these arguments at all - rock is rock, a natural resource.  It doesn't have amenity value or human worth.  If a crag isn't popular, so what?  Does it have to be?  In the geological time-scale of rocks, climbing has been around for the merest fraction of a fraction of time, what gives us the right to drill bits of metal into them just because we, humans alive today, aren't good enough at climbing to get up them without drilling?  On the other side, I've no-doubt that some climbers could do most of the sport routes I've ever done on trad, so should those bolts be chopped?

Anyway, enough cod-philosophy.  I felt like I had to go to see for myself, so went up on Friday morning with Nick.  To be honest, I still don't know where I stand.  I'm simultaneously impressed with the amount of work Andy and Dave have put into developing the crag (access paths through the dense vegetation, an in-situ rope up the scramble to the base of the crag and good bolting), and impressed with Guy for trad climbing up a bloody scary-looking steep wall.  On that sun-baked session I warmed up on a nice 6c called Captains of Crush but failed to redpoint the rumoured 3* 7a One and Only.  I was loathe to admit it, but it is a brilliant sport route, sustained and unlikely-looking, long moves between good holds, and no obvious gear placements.  I felt I had unfinished business up there.  Rich recommended a return visit on Sunday morning so I went back up to see if I could seal the deal.  It was a lot cooler, with more of a breeze, and I managed to get it done on the first redpoint.  Rich then ticked The Pink Wall, a great-looking, rather steep 7b(+?), and I surprised myself by doing Snake in the Grass, the 7a+ variation into One and Only, which, again, climbed brilliantly.

I had hoped the crag would be crap, with crap routes, a crap view and crap rock, and I'd  feel justified in not really wanting the bolts to be there, but the truth is that it's pretty good, it's close to Inverness and has a spread of grades that other local crags don't really have.  But, the question is, if this is OK, what will the uber-wad trad climbers of the future have to climb?


moleo said...

I'm not sure I see the argument that rock doesn't have amenity value or human worth, or that we don't have any 'right' to bolt it.

When you consider many millions of tonnes of rock we quarry or blast for our own purposes, drilling a few tiny holes in outcrops here and there isn't worth mentioning. The rock doesn't care which bits of it we attack with tools or choose to leave alone - it's all about the importance we consider crags to have.

I'm not sure that a shortage of extreme bold rock for future generations is that much of an issue either, balanced against the much greater number of people who will enjoy climbing these routes with I think I'm pretty pro-bolt in this case!

Andy Hyslop said...

Hi Gaz,

I'm a friend of Yan and Tess's living in Aviemore. Been meaning to contact you for some time to see if you would be interested in getting out climbing? Nothing desperate or frightening. I'm very flexible on time.

All the best,

Andy Hyslop

Gaz Marshall said...

I dunno. I'm not especially pro-quarrying either! I guess the debate exists because there are fundamentally different philosophical views that will never agree. Personally, I dont think that humans wanting things is a good reason to change what exists naturally in the world, but appreciate that that's a bit of a hippy view.
And I know it's a laboured point, but where is the logical end to your last point about larger numbers of people enjoying safer routes? Bolting everything? Surely there's got to be a place for hard bold routes? Just cos I can't do them doesn't mean many others will in 10,50,100 years.
Anyway, it's cool to see there's at least some discussion! Catch ya soon fella

Gaz Marshall said...

Hi Andy,
I'd heard about you too! It would be great to meet up and get out - an Aviemore-based partner is a rarity these days. Mind you, we're planning to move to inverness in the next few months.
I don't work on Fri, Sat, Sun. Think I'm booked-up this weekend, but you around next? Have car, happy to chase good weather!
Easiest thing might be to get my number off Ian and Tess.
Cheers, Gaz

moleo said...

I totally agree there is a place for hard bold routes, but there is no shortage of these around for the few that are keen, and we aren't overly spoiled for choice in sport venues. Maybe there will be a future trend towards gnarly chop routes and we're robbing the next generation, but to me that seems quite unlikely. There aren't many trad venues I'd like to see bolted - Farletter is one though ;)

As for changing what exists naturally in the world, I'm pretty much with you idealistically but right now, given our ongoing mismanagement of resources on a global scale, bolting of crags isn't even a drop in the ocean. On the principle of leaving no trace you'd have to stop mining the metal used to make climbing hardware and climb in bare feet, not to mention abandoning mechanised transport, telecommunications and living in a house. It's like worrying about over-pruning a bush while the Amazon is deforested.

Anyway it's good to have a bit of argument about it. One of these days I'll have a weekend off...