Did you see the article on speed records in the New York Times this past Saturday? It was surprisingly well told by Sean Patrick Farrell. Ordinarily, I don’t get that much out of climbing stories told through mainstream media.
The article, titled “A New Tool for Mountain Climbers: A Stopwatch,” summarizes the debate surrounding speed records in mountain climbing and does so rather objectively too.
Ferrell reviews the mind set of those climbers that seek to climb “a bit faster or with purer style.” He also recognized that, to some audiences, speed records are contrary to the nature of what the climbing experience ought to be. But he also points out through examples that those who seek the shortest times do so either for themselves or for their sponsors or are motivated by the glamour of the status.
I have my preferences of what an ideal mountain experience is — we all do — and I never want to knock the “progressive” new trend whether it’s speed, weight, or fancy equipment. That’s because the trend can be 1) often fun to follow, 2) a noteworthy athletic performance, and 3) pushing the limits of what we believed was possible. Out of that we sometimes find some real, substantive result from the accomplishment.
However, I can’t stand “progressive” approaches, like speed climbing or extreme light hiking, when someone or some message conduit promotes or represents it as not only the way of the future, but the only way of the future. Maybe that’s just my perception of the media’s power (since I can’t think of any concrete examples.) But in terms of the progressive nature in outdoors sports, consider the light-weight hiking movement: Just because trail running shoes are lighter doesn’t necessarily mean I’m comfortable giving up my beloved traditionally-styled, full-grain leather boots. (These days, I actually hike mainly, though not exclusively, in my classic New Balance 461s.)
As for the speed record issue specifically, we all ought to respect the general idea that spending less time on the mountain reduces the chances that something will go wrong while climbing. As Peter Bernstein says in his book, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, time is on the other side of the coin of risk. But less time — over the same amount of ground and elevation-gained — can also introduce risk factors that otherwise would not be in play on a slower-paced traverse, such missing clues to identifying a crevasse.
I enjoy speed records; they are easy to understand and to be stand in awe over. But for me, it’s not my style and certainly not the future for everyone else. For those that race the clock, good luck. Just be sure you do it for yourself.