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Climbing Ethics

Rock climbing is sport (and much more than that) without referees, and its ethics are not written, not very often all climbers agree about them, and furthermore, they keep evolving. A topic that is very often discussed nowadays is the use of kneebars, or better kneebars with the use of kneepads. Surprisingly, kneepads have been WIDELY used in the climbing scene only for the last couple of years. It is true that there are a few crags like Hueco, Rifle or Jailhouse where locals have been using quite good home-made kneepads for decades, using duct tape to prevent them from moving on their legs. In Europe, you would see a home-made kneepad from time to time, but it was more of something against the pain and not really increasing the friction. My approach for many years had been - climbing in shorts, being gentle in the kneebars for a few climbing days in order to let my skin adapt, the skin really grew harder and I could sustain the pain of making multiple kneebars in one route in the limestone tufa cliffs. Sometimes, I would be sand-papering my knees for days before the trip to be better prepared. This worked really well in First Round First Minute 9b. My old home-made kneepad did not work for that kneebar, I just could not feel it. Bare skin did not stick enough either. So I eventually climbed the route in jeans, using a small piece of wet toilet paper on my skin just before setting off, which made my jeans really stick to the skin and eventually, that made my knee stick to the wall.

Modern kneepads are so good that they are not only comfortable to climb with and you do not bruise your skin - which means knee-baring has never been that much fun. But you can also do kneebars where it was impossible before. That might make some climbs significantly easier. My opinion is that it is just an evolution of climbing and most of us do not consider climbing shoes or chalk bag cheating. It is sad even for me to sometimes see that a certain classic climb can be climbed in a different way with the use of a kneepad, often making it a worse and less homogenous route. But it is something we must accept. Even for me, it was not easy to see Stefano Ghisolfi in Change, using the kneepads in places where it was not possible for me without kneepads, but it is evolution and in this case, fortunately I do not think it changes the grade.

While the kneepads are comfy to climb with, the more often you bring it into the routes, the more often you actually do kneebars and gradually you are getting better in them. It is a skill that must be practised just like crimping or making dynos. On the other hand, it sometimes leads to a situation that doing 30 kneebars in one route is actually not that efficient any more, and you would maybe climb better with less kneebars and resting. With more kneebar skills, I often find a kneebar myself which makes me excited that it is the trick that might help to send the route, but sometimes I find out a few tries later that this particular one is so bad that it does not help at all. And obviously it depends on your kneebar skills. Somebody who is not good in kneebars might prefer to skip a few of them, whereas some other climbers might be very thankful for them.

In case of Perfecto Mundo, all the kneebars are very marginal. If you do not have special taste for kneebars, you will probably never bother using them. I was very hesitant myself about most of them - if they actually help at all or if I would be better off just flowing through the route without them. I think it will be the case of many routes in the future that it will be an individual decision whether to bring a kneepad for some very marginal kneebars or not.

It is true, unfortunately, that the kneepads might make the grading a little more inconsistent. While some kneebars might be impossible for people of short size, there might be the opposite problem as well. At the moment, I do not have any problem at all using the kneepads on my first ascents or in the routes that were put up recently when the kneepads were accessible and available technology. On the other hand, there are some really historical routes like Hubble, world’s first 8c+ or 9a (grade of this route is not the topic of this article) where the use of a kneepad might be seen as questionable, because Ben Moon in 1990 did not know about this technology. And it might be fair to say that the only ascents that count should be done in the same style as Ben’s. Well, but climbing shoes have evolved, ropes have evolved, most climbers do not have that heavy rasta as Ben in 1990! On top of that, it is not that easy to find the line in terms of kneebars. If you only climb in shorts, then it is simple - you use just your bare skin. Once you use long pants, some pants are better for kneebars - jeans are better than other pants, etc. I do believe you might find a textile that might be almost as good as rubber. Where to draw the line then?

I think it is important for professional climbers nowadays not only declaring an ascent, but also the way of sending the route. It is quite obvious in terms of multipitch and alpine ascents to provide details, but it should be more obvious for sport-climbing and bouldering as well. (I mean, once you have a video, that is pretty much enough). Then, it is everybody’s decision to use or not to use a kneepad, use the original method or the new method and so on. On the other hand, I believe professional climbers should try to reflect these facts (kneepad when it wasn’t used for the FA, new beta and others) into the grading even though they only repeat the routes and should not just take the guidebook grade for granted.

Well said! Really accurate in my opinion

Excellent article, Adam! It's important to respect the way of the past while accepting the progression of technology within the sport. I think as long as we are respectful to our predecessors, say what you did and how you did it, and do your very best not to damage the route, it is all good!

Even tough Im not the one who hates it when people use knee pads , I also dont really like it. Freeclimbing is (as far as i know) defined as climbing only with the help of your hands and feet. I do see the point that climbing shoes are also not really fitting into that, just like knee pads. But theres again the question: where to draw the line? Next step could be wrapping objects around your knee to stick them into holes in the wall to ,,build“ a knee bar yourself. As long as a kneepad just protects your skin, its ok( in my opinion) but anything that helps you or even makes another kneebar possible, should at least be noted, so people know, that you had some kind of aid.

Well then offwidth cracks and chimneys would become a real pain with your thinking

Just a little comment to say that the pictures are amazing, the quality and details are outstanding !

Great article! As a newer climber, I always find it difficult to subscribe to the idea of 'doing it in the style of the first ascentionist'. Like you mentioned modern gear like shoes and ropes make it easier, so
where should we draw the line?
If a classic from 1890 was climbed barefoot with no chalk does that mean that every ascent thereafter needs to be too? You could even go as extreme as using the same beta as the FA?
I believe as long as the line is free-climbed it 'counts', regardless of what beta or gear etc the climber uses. (Exception being eliminates). But like you mentioned, if the climber wants to specifically have the experience that the FA had, then he/she can do it in that style!
Imposing style-rules on others and taking away from their achievements doesn't seem to rest well with me.

"Imposing style-rules on others and taking away from their achievements doesn't seem to rest well with me."

I don't think Adam is really calling for style rules and saying what should or shouldn't be allowed - he's saying you have to say honestly what you did. Don't just write in your Instagram caption "So excited to finally send X route!" In the same way that alpine climbers are expected to describe their style - did they use oxygen, did they fix ropes, did they preset camps or move in one continuous push, etc - crag climbers should be expected to do the same. Ondra specifically says that posting an unedited video of the send works for this, or you can describe it in your report or social media post or whatever. But there should be an expectation to report the style that the send was done in.

Excellent considerations! Knee bars may or may not be a skill, and may or may not significantly change the grade. Just like the discovery of critical toe hooks or heel hooks. In so many of the situations knee bars/"hooks" are considered as something that is just given to you, in contrast to other hooks and skills. Something that any climber can use. The resistance against knee bars may often be quite annoying. The knee "hooks" or bars are here to stay. It is very hard to find a logic way to argue against them, as you elegantly point out. In my opinion it is an important part of the evolution of climbing, and something that is naturally advancing the difficulty of rock we are able to climb. Continue your pursuit of climbing the most difficult piece of rock ever known to mankind!

So well said Adam. Nothing more to add. It is so nice to see that you, the best climber over all disciplines, take responsibilty and share your thoughts on topics that leave place for discussion. Your opinion means a lot!

Thank you Adam for this article, it is very helpful for us profane climbers to understand this topic. I agree with you on the importance of stating the way you sent a route, and any other detail that can help people understanding the approach you followed and the reasons why you chose a style rather than another. The evolution of equipment and techniques affects every type of sport, and sometimes it has sparked debates or led to bans. I'm thinking of the bodyskins, banned from swimming competitions a few years ago. Referring to a discipline closer to free climbing, in dry tooling they distinguish between sending a route in DTS (dry tooling style) or with Yaniro figure.
Do you think that climbers in the future will use different grading systems depending on the style they adopt?

And what is your opinion about using a fan during the climbing? Can you imagine everybody does it...?

Well asked. I wonder myself.

If chalk is considered ok, a fan, which has much less impact on the rock and probably does a lot less for the climber, must be ok as well.

Great article man!

Everyone is free to do whatever they like, although it seems that people try to control everything nowadays.
Pads to prevent pain or increase friction, fans to improve friction conditions and so on.
I think we should keep things as simple as possible and maybe depend mostly on our bare hands if not feet too!

For most climbs, I draw the line at pants. I climb at a pretty high level and knee bar all the time, and have never needed anything more than pants, sometimes even shorts (bare skin on rock). Put some skin in the game, have some grit. Otherwise, you might as well climb with gloves too. I have some particular personal ethics around hand crack gloves and tape gloves too, but won't get into it here.

If you're climbing at some extreme level and you're going to be hanging in a sharp, completely hands free knee-bar for multiple minutes, knee-pad is justified. But look, if Sasha Digiulian can climb Thundermuscle and hang in a bare skin knee bar for a couple of minutes, you should be able to handle a moderate kneebar in pants.

Is like toehooks area on new shoes. Was any in 1990 for Ben Moon?

an importent point is:
can you downgrade a climb wich is done and graded without pads(not bars)?
or do you have to take the lower grade for your ascent.

climbing ethics but , do what i say not what i do...
is it ethic have a guy hanging with a fun dryingn the holds like he does in Perfecto?
climbing at night with lights...with a lot of people around you working for you?? driving thousands km only for send?
i dont thing so

I agree with you Adam... Just climb and enjoy!!!

Hey, is it possible to put the title photo (climbing-ethics-1.jpg) as a poster on our wall?

My shared climbing flat is looking for fun posters and this photo would fit perfectly. :)

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