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Rock and Ice Article

Climbers Who Cheat

Is dropping weight in order to succeed on a hard ascent “cheating”?

There’s no doubt at all that losing pounds is the surefire quickest way to help you climb harder. Training to improve finger strength, getting better at lock-offs, and even back-stepping (the single most useful technique in all of climbing!) don’t hold a candle to the instant results gained by shedding a few layers of flab.

Weight-conscious road bikers will shell out thousands of dollars for carbon-fiber road bikes that are merely a pound (or less) lighter than their cheaper aluminum counterparts. I always laugh at the irony of seeing old, fat, bulbous-shaped rich guys, who are crammed into spandex, riding the lightest $10,000 road bikes on the market. Apparently, it’s easier to drop 10 G’s than drop a pound off themselves.

But we climbers don’t have the luxury of purchasing that competitive edge. We have to get lighter the old-fashioned way: tried and true calorie counting. But at what point does losing weight to climb hard offend our senses of “what’s fair”? When does losing weight become cheating?

Some (but certainly not all) of the top climbers in the world have the hollow, sunken-cheek, and ashen look of anorexics. Look at any World Cup podium, and the finalists seem like they could be blown over in a stiff wind. They are praised for pushing standards in the sport, while their weights are discussed behind their backs and cited as the only reasons for their successes—as if anyone could be that good if only he or she were willing to lose that much weight.

When climbers, our friends and peers or even the pros, succeed on a hard climb, it’s common to hear others qualify their ascents behind their backs.

It’s cool that that person sent such-and-such route, but it was only because she was 10 pounds underweight, because he could make the reach easier, because her body fit the crux sequence better, because her hands were smaller, because his hands were bigger.

For a while, the website took a stand on the issue by supposedly not reporting any ascents done by climbers with a BMI under 17 (a number the site computed using the height and weight the climber himself had entered into his online profile). However, it seemed to be more of a symbolic stance than anything else, the message being: we don’t want to promote anorexia in climbing because it’s cheating.

But conscious weight loss is often as much a part of success as good genes and good technique. The lighter you are, the harder you climb. It’s that simple.

Until you take it too far, of course.

To be clear, I’m not in any way endorsing anorexia or promoting it as a way to improve. Anorexia is a very serious health problem, and statistically about 10 percent of people who are anorexic will die from it. Women are ten times more likely to be anorexic than men, and as many as 150,000 women die from anorexia each year. Those who don’t die suffer serious health effects such as heart and kidney problems, depression, epilepsy, anemia and brittle bones. Obviously, you can’t be a top athlete and be anorexic.

That’s what we want to believe, but the truth is you’re not going to be a top climber unless you’re thin. Changing one’s weight for athletic performance is hardly a new thing. In sumo wrestling, the biggest, fattest, heaviest dude is going to win, or at least have the advantage. Competitive sumo wrestlers are recruited as young men and undergo a decade of training during which time they as much as double their normal, already stocky weights from 200 to 400 pounds. Gaining such fantastic poundage is achieved by not eating breakfast, and eating a large meal (the equivalent of five regular meals) twice a day, washed down by massive quantities of beer. Obviously, this lifestyle comes with its own host of health problems—yet this weight altercation is fully embraced as part of the sport.

An interesting and parallel issue is the use of steroids and other performance enhancers in sports. In road biking, blood doping is illegal. In all professional sports, steroids are illegal. They’re illegal … but paradoxically, a lot of athletes (especially baseball players) take them. You won’t see a “clean” Tour de France winner any sooner than you’ll see a fat world cup climber.

So, given this reality, what is our beef with steroid use in baseball, blood doping in cycling, or dropping weight to climb hard? I wonder what it is in us that doesn’t like to see other people change their appearance in order to gain a competitive edge? I’m not sure, but one theory might be that we have a primal fear of seeing other people get ahead of us—and if we can find a way to justify that instinct, by calling unfair means, we’ll do so. I doubt that we are altruistically concerned for our peers’ wellbeing.

The movie Bigger, Stronger, Faster explores steroid use in America—debunking a lot of the propaganda out there about what steroids are, and their danger. I watched this film recently, and thought it was fascinating—it changed a lot of my opinions about steroids.

In the documentary, you are taken into the lives of many juiced-up Gold’s Gym meatheads. You see them spending all their time, money and focus on getting bigger. That’s it. There are no ends beyond getting bigger. I found the film to be an absolutely absurd portrait of humanity.

But probably no less absurd than climbing: where we count calories, hang from hangboards with weight belts on, campus up wooden rungs, spend all our spare time in a gym following taped holds, and all of that to ultimately scamper up a piece of rock that is infinitesimally more difficult than the last rock we scampered up.

The big thing the movie missed, however, is the acknowledgement of how pointless the ends are. Herein lies a truth that I think is equally apt for climbing.

We want to be winners. We want to get big, strong, fast, and wealthy as quickly as possible. In climbing, we want to climb as hard as possible, as quickly as possible, and send our projects fast. Essentially, we want life to come easy, by any means necessary.

It’s a paradox because that’s not really what we want, because the real meaning and purpose and spiritual fulfillment is found in the struggle, not in the ends. If you shortcut that process, which is arguably what severe weight loss does, then you are shortchanging yourself on the best part.


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