Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On Ropes

To to punk who pulled the fixed rope on Lions Head on Saturday, March 1st, 2014,
I know who you are and I'm calling you out. That rope was fixed by one of our guides so that general public and guided parties alike could use it for the day. This fixed rope was intended to assist people in moving through an area of the trail prone to traffic jams subsequently speeding up a sometimes rather slow process. Your removal of this rope meant that they did not have a resource to utilize that they expected to be in place for their return trip down the mountain. The next time you let your ego and ideals get in the way of other individuals working on the mountain, think about how your actions are affecting others and not just your petty self. Please come out to the Tetons with intent on cutting the fixed rope up to the Lower Saddle. If you want to share your thoughts on this matter, please call me at 860-460-4100 or swing by personally to 25 Spring Hill Loop, Bartlett, NH.

-Keith Sidle

I ran into this on Facebook yesterday evening when I got back from a Presidential Range Traverse.  There were a lot of comments, some just saying "kick his ass," but some well-thought out arguments from both sides of the coin.  

I am the punk who pulled the fixed rope on Lions Head on Saturday, March 1rst, 2014.  In true "punk" fashion, I didn't just pull it.  I cut it into little pieces, stuffed it into my pack, and tied one piece on the outside so if anyone had any questions that day on the mountain they'd know who the culprit was.  I admit there was a smack of egotism in tying the remaining bit of rope to my pack.  The owner of the rope called me out on cutting it and I gave him my name and my employer.  At no point did I attempt to hide in any shadows.  

I also readily admit that while I premeditated my action, the idea that the rope was someone's (as opposed to a guide service's) property never crossed my insular head.  I feel terrible about this; and now realize I have certainly not thought the whole thing through.  It's always a pleasure to see Keith out guiding; he greets me and others with a stout handshake or a commiserating smile, and I am sorry to lose his respect, if indeed I ever had it, because I think he's a good guide, and guy, to boot.  His point about my being petty is true.  A gentleman would have politely phoned, inquired, done research, and I did none of those things.  For that I am sorry and responsible.  I was angry at seeing a new fixed rope (perhaps I'm not the only one taking it down?  This was my first time…) every time I took clients up the Lions Head trail.  I didn't know who the rope belonged to and I didn't care; multiple guiding services put them up and as many take them down.  If Keith calls me out on that, I have no defense.  He's right.  I did to the rope what I do with unauthorized Cairns.  I destroyed it.  

My own opinions on fixed ropes are that of any other, ego-driven, idealistic climber.  I think they're cheating.  I also think they're trash.  While I realize on a mountain with full snow-cat access, a restaurant on top, massive cairns, two cabins, buckets of shit left from outhouses, a full-service hut, a cog railway, and a weather station, this may seem like an absurd notion, I suppose we must pick our battles.  For whatever reason the fixed rope continually re-appearing on the crux step of Lions Head has always irked me.  

Why are guides allowed to put up lines on a trail officially maintained by someone else?  Certainly, in due time, a wooden ladder will be built, a via-ferratta will be bolted in, the trail will again be re-routed, or  the snow rangers will fine me and tell me to stop and I will have officially lost, but until that time how dare we, as climbing guides in the Whites, leave our shit on a mountain?  Certainly it speeds the process up of people getting back down and from a practical standpoint I'd love to get back to the pub as much as the next fellow.  But we all signed up for this job; we're all making money taking people up Lion's Head, an obviously crowded and crazy venue.  Let's live with that responsibility, and at least have the pride to do it right, even if it takes a little longer.  We don't leave our top-ropes up on the Thin Air Face because we're coming back the next day and it would be easy, do we?    

It's our job to give competent instruction and by the time we reach the steeps on Lions Head with clients hopefully we've gone over enough to have our clients adequately climb the step using proper technique.  It always gives me joy to watch beginner climbers get up and down without a rope.  It bolsters the power of instruction, which should be a guide's job.  It's insulting to the client to simply fix a rope and say: "You're all going to need this."

Leaving a rope up affects everyone's day.  People go up Washington, with guides or alone, to experience the mountains, not to have a single individual or guiding service dictate how everyone else experiences a trail.  That's not fair to anyone.  A rope changes the demeanor of a hiking trail and it's not our place to do so.  We may cry "Everest, Denali, Rainer," as great examples of mountains bristling with fixed lines, but again, those mountains have true death potential.  They're not 6,000 foot peaks with a section below tree-line that's a little tricky.  

From a safety aspect, the fixed rope does little more than offer false security; you're grabbing on to an axe with one hand and a 10 mm rope with the other with no real belay.  Most Washington ascentionists, I've noticed, do this in mittens.  How does that offer safety?  It's still a bottleneck, people still struggle with the section, and people still get hurt.  

That steep section also acts as a great "you must be this tall to ride" bit of trail.  It's a good bet the people unprepared to tackle a few feet of tricky rock without the fixed line are the same people who will be unprepared for a storm, late getting down, and will ultimately risk themselves and others.  I'm sorry, kids, but it's mountain climbing; we're lying to ourselves if we say anyone can do it.  Learning to treat the day as an experience, not a goal, is something I always try to impart and I think it's pretty important to cull the "get to the top no matter what" demeanor in folks.  Probably that's just my ego-driven, holier-than-thou idealism getting in the way again, though.   

As guides, we all carry a little bit of rope to help people through this section should they absolutely need it.  This goes back on or in the pack and isn't left to mar the way for everyone else.  It's work, I know, to belay three or four clients down safely but again, guiding is a job.  This job isn't always as fun or rewarding as other times, but let's just suck it up and do it, shall we?  As for screwing the guide who placed it as a safety measure; he had a short-rope affixed to his pack when I talked to him and I'm sure he was able to use that to get his clients down safely if they needed it.

My friend Johannes was right when he mentioned in a Facebook comment that I should have returned the rope somewhere.  This is what I'll do next time.  It was childish of me to do what I did and I understand everyone's anger but I also feel strongly the rope on Lions Head is a gateway drug into laziness with other areas of this profession.


  1. Why don't you replace the rope that you cut? Taking down is one thing but destroying someone's property is vandalism. Be a stand up guy and replace it....I have no problem with removing it just the needless destruction of a functional rope.....I would understand theft, although I do not condone it. I never really have understood the mind set that allows someone to destroy something out of spite.

  2. While your ethical stance on the importance of self-reliance for all who enter the mountains (in my opinion) is both sound and commendable, your actions amounted to a brash destruction of personal property and in all probability had a direct financial impact on an individual’s livelihood.
    That shit aside, I am sitting in a cubical where for eight to ten hours a day I bask in emf while exercising my clicking finger instead of my grip strength and core. My mind constantly wanders to a freedom in the mountains that I currently experience all too infrequently.
    And so, for basically selfish reasons (to be read as “I dig your writing man.”), I sincerely hope that this incident has not soured you to blogging. Keep it coming.