Being a climber who’s branched out to the domain of caving, I’ve definitely fantasized about establishing sport routes or boulder problems on the walls and ceilings of caverns I’ve explored. Once you’ve climbed for a bit, you almost can’t help but have “intrusive thoughts” like these. Virtually every surface you see begs to be climbed.
Thankfully, however, the conservationist in me is able to overpower the inner ape. Fun as it might be to swing from stalactite to stalactite, I know that any fleeting glee I might derive from such a feat of gymnastics would be far outweighed by the damage I’d cause.
You see, while cliffs and caves are both made of rock, there’s an important difference between the two terrains. Whereas cliffs are constantly exposed to weathering — and therefore crumble and morph at a relatively rapid rate — caves are sheltered places where the pace of change is slowed way, way down.
This dilation of time matters because it allows all manner of minerological and biological curiosities to come into being, curiosities that are easily ruined by our clumsy movements. (Even during my last trip into Alabaster Cave, which isn’t so isolated from the outside world, I ran into a small lawn of gypsum hairs, some of them two or three centimeters in length. Even shallow breaths caused the tiny filaments to tremble, so I promptly reversed course back through the crawl I was in to avoid damaging them.)
A Bad Example
If you’ve heard of one rock climber, it’s probably Chris Sharma. Sharma’s prodigious strength and skill have enabled him to send some of the hardest lines in the world — including Catalonia’s La Dura Dura, which is rated at an astonishing 5.15c on the Yosemite Decimal System.
I’ve always been a big fan of the guy myself — not so much for his physical prowess as his general outlook on the craft of climbing. Though he’s one of the best at what he does, you get the impression it’s still about fun for him above all.
Unfortunately, though, I’m going to have to call him out for his 2014 bolting and climbing of a multi-pitch route in Oman’s Majlis Al Jinna Cave. The first issue I have with the endeavor has to do with what I was saying a minute ago; caves are fragile places that deserve special respect. Sharma’s superfluous drilling and scrambling and falling all over the place has undoubtedly caused irreparable harm to an amazing place. The other big problem for me is that, owing to Sharma’s fame, there’s probably going to be a lot of copycats out there. This is bad news for a cave near you.
The Virtue Of Restraint
Some of you, no doubt, will ignore the argument above and still wonder why I’m being such a cave climbing killjoy. To you I ask how you’d feel if a burgeoning headstone sculptor showed up to your local granite crag and took a chisel to one of your favorite lines in the name fun and practice?
I think when you look at things from this perspective, you’ll see the crux of the matter. Humans, non-human animals, other life forms — we all want and need different things from the Earth’s wild spaces. I am of the opinion that we outdoorsy types should always strive to leave the ecosystems we enjoy as intact as we possibly can because this ensures that co-users won’t be robbed of their own enjoyment. A little bit of restraint goes a long way.
As for the “instrusive thoughts” I referred to at the beginning, I suppose there’s no harm in visualizing yourself creeping across the ceiling of a cave like trogloraptor. Just don’t let your machinations get the better of you. As the Reverend Billy Graham once said, “[I]t is not a sin to be tempted… [S]in comes when you yield…”
(Today’s photo of formations in California’s Crystal Cave is courtesy of Victor Gane — Wikimedia Commons.)