Recently, an ethical issue in regards to bouldering has arisen and I’m compelled to share some thoughts, and hopefully start a discussion.
Climbing is often touted as a lifestyle sport, with vaguely defined rules and regulations as to how to participate. People climb for many reasons, one of which being that they don’t want to be told what to do or how to do it. Yet our sport is grounded firmly in the achievements of our athletes. Lynn Hill climbing the first free ascent of The Nose, Lisa Rands climbing the FFA of The Mandala, or Daniel Woods flashing the first V14, Entlinge. What do these ascents actually mean, not only in and of themselves, but in the greater context of our sport? Sometimes it’s hard to understand, because while many of the ethics which define climbing are well understood by the community at large, these ethics have also not been clearly written down.
There are many ways in which this lack of structure has played out, and over the years I have argued hundreds of times, on this site and in person, for more standardization, more definition, and more structure to what we are doing (by defining starting holds, stand/sitstart ethics, uncut footage, etc), in an effort to give more meaning to the achievements of our sport and in turn the sport itself. We’ve decided in a public and communal sense on how to define (with our language, actions and ethics) climbing, bouldering, first ascents, repeats and flashes, and that these things hold meaning. Without this meaning, achievements in bouldering are little more than playing in the woods. The ascents and the ethics by which those ascents are achieved and the terminology used to talk about those ascents quite literally define our modern sport. Unfortunately, climbers try all the time to take advantage of the lack of complete structure that pervades the system, in an effort to gain some kind of perceived advantage.
The reason for all of this is a recent ascent by Francesca Metcalf of The Chattanoogan V12, in Little Rock City. Francesca claimed to have flashed the problem, which would be the first flash of a V12 by a female. Interestingly enough, she had climbed the second half of the problem, a V7 called Midway, weeks prior. Because she climbed the harder part of The Chattanoogan on her “first attempt” of trying, she credited herself with a flash ascent. She was honest about the fact that she had tried the problem previously, and even so, her ascent of a V12 is up to par with other talented females across the country.
Her use of the word flash is specifically what I’d like to challenge, as it is far different from the one myself and many, many other climbers have come to understand over the years, which is this:
Flash: to climb a boulder problem from the start on the first attempt, having never pulled off the ground on any part of the climb whatsoever. Forbidden: hanging from the holds, climbing other sections as a warmup or otherwise (difficulty being irrelevant), climbing a shared start or finish with another problem. Allowed: Feeling holds, receiving beta before and during the climb, brushing holds, watching videos of other previous ascents. This definition is admittedly incomplete, but for the sake of this discussion it will suffice.
It is imperative we clearly define the standards by which achievements like this are measured, and that those standards are exactly the same for everyone. By making her ascent public, and disregarding the standards that have been laid out by climbers over the years, the climber implies somehow that she wants to compete on the same public playing field as everyone else, yet not by the same rules. It’s not clear to me what has entitled her to think so. While her ascent of the climb is legitimate and impressive, claiming the ascent as a flash does nothing but attenuate the rules and definitions by which we all play.
Some will argue that they don’t want to be hindered by rules or told what do, and that they climb to get away from all that. Or that all they really want to do is play on stones in the woods. That’s fine, we should live in a free society. But you can’t have it both ways, making real and public claims about achievements intended to mean something (I made the first female flash of a V12…) but not using the proper structure or definitions to back those claims up (…but I had already done part of the problem). I think most people would agree that while people can and do have the freedom to bend the truth, outright lie about ascents, or chip boulder problems, this is not the best expression of our sport or ourselves. Bouldering is built on the achievements of boulderers, and those achievements are defined by the language and ethical structures we use. With clear and meaningful definitions, ascents can represent real tangible progression.
I would love to hear thoughts on what you think constitutes a flash, and whether or not Francesca’s ascent should be considered the first female flash of a V12.