A few years back I was at a party at Kurt “The General” Smith’s house near the New River Gorge. Conversation topics were typical, ranging from the latest antics of some commercial raft guide, to progress on the American Alpine Club campground, to the latest developments at the crag du jour, a steep stretch of sandstone not too far from the dam at Summerville Lake. Kurt, who had been taking a hiatus from climbing, was getting back into it and had put up a few new routes at the new zone.
Now Kurt’s climbing history goes way back, from his early days at Joshua Tree, Tuolumne, and the Valley, to many hard FAs in the early days of Rifle, to big new lines in Potrero Chico, Mexico. Those are just a few highlights, and you could write a whole blog, or book, about Kurt, but that’s not the topic here. Rather, it was something Kurt said at the party that struck me. It was good to see him getting back into some climbing, I said, and asked why the change. He said it was because of this new area. “I’m a first-ascent climber,” he said.
As if that was a “kind” of climber. I had never thought of first-ascensionists in quite this light. Rather, to me, first ascents had seemed like prizes – something one aspired to, or lucked into, or attained by being the best at a certain place and time, or knew he would never do because he wasn’t good enough. Almost everybody would like to do a first ascent, and lots of people actually do at least a few first ascents, but Kurt’s statement implied something categorical about the climber himself. And I instantly recognized it.
A “first-ascent climber” does almost nothing but. First ascents, that is. For an FAC, repeating climbs seems vaguely pointless, or at best a secondary activity, like climbing in the gym. If a first-ascent climber isn’t working on a first ascent, he (or she) is likely not climbing established routes, but is probably making money for buying bolts for a planned first ascent, or building trail to a new crag that is home to potential first ascents, or maybe, on a “rest day,” repeating some of his or her own first ascents. Plain old climbing on other people’s routes feels somehow hollow. You would like to enjoy it, but you can’t.
You might assume that this obsession with FAs must be about ego, but this has not been my experience. Most FACs are proud of their best routes, and occasionally rave about them, but usually in the vein of how amazing it is that such and such wall actually went, that the crack could be that splitter, or that the line of holds even exists. Non-FACs are just as likely to rave, and more likely to brag. I have met many FACs who often don’t even report their routes. They may make meticulous topos (Jay Smith of Moab comes to mind), yet almost never show them to anyone unless asked.
First-ascent climbers are often not sending the hardest. Most, in fact, operate well below the current standards, spending too much time equipping to be bothered with training. They are more interested in getting to a sweet line first and equipping it “correctly,” than in actually redpointing the thing. Often, they will bolt lines that they know are way too hard for them, taking great pleasure in opening the line and working the moves to the point that they really know the route, then giving it away to some athlete capable of sending the rig.
Some FACs are craftsmen. The main buzz they get is from cleaning and meticulously equipping a line so that everything is just exactly as its should be. Every bolt sits perfectly, in just the right place. Other FACs are more like cartographers. They take pleasure in mapping out previously unexplored terrain, assigning place names, and establishing the original classics in the area. Still other FACs are public servants. Their main pleasure is in having other people climb and enjoy their routes.
Regardless, here’s a hats-off to “first-ascent climbers” everywhere. Without you, there would be no guidebooks!