The Art of the Pass

Categories: Perspectives , Community

Guest blog by Brady Robinson, Access Fund Executive Director

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ~MAYA ANGELOU

Two years ago, I climbed the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome in a day with a good friend of mine. It was just a month before pitches 10 and 11 fell off in a massive rockfall event, but aside from the chimneys feeling a bit more spacious than I had remembered from a previous ascent, nothing felt amiss. I was leading a block of pitches and came upon three different parties converging at the top of pitch 8, near the bolt ladder, which forms a natural bottleneck leading into the chimney pitches above. There were ropes everywhere. Based on their huge nylon backpacks, two parties appeared unfamiliar with standard Yosemite wall techniques. Passing them in the chimneys would be tough. I decided to try to get to the bolts first.

Brady Robinson dangles in front of Half Dome shortly after falling out of the Harding Slot on Astroman in Yosemite Valley. Photo courtesy of Stefan Griebel

I climbed fast, simul-climbed with my partner, and placed almost no gear in the moderate terrain leading to the bolt ladder. I tried to smile and stay out of people’s way as I went past, breathing hard and grabbing hold after hold like a man possessed. I arrived at the bolt ladder and had a friendly chat with an experienced climber who was stopped nearby. I looked down and could see that my partner was having some trouble and that unfortunately we had left a wake of disorder and discontent in the climbers below us. We had clearly not executed our pass of the other parties as well as we should have.

I said goodbye to the other climber and entered the chimney section of the route. Soon my partner and I couldn’t see anyone below us. We later topped out and got back down before the pizza deck closed. We felt good about our ascent, wondered at the fates of the other climbers, and hoped they were settled in for the night.

About a week later, I found out through a mutual friend that the experienced climber I had met and passed, who had seemed so friendly at the time, was livid with me for the way I had passed the other parties on the route. I ended up calling him, and we had a civil if somewhat tense conversation. We discussed the ethics and techniques of passing, and the merit of asking permission to pass when you’re halfway up a big wall with no bivy gear. I apologized to him and said I’d write up an article about my experience and share it one day.

So, today, in our world so full of conflict and news of our fractious society, I reflect on what I did wrong, and I think it all comes down to this: I forgot to be kind and considerate. I could write a long article on the ins and outs of passing, and how to manage your ropes and your interactions with other climbers, but the most important lesson I learned is that when encountering other people in possibly stressful and conflictual situations, it is important to slow down, have good interactions, and respect them as human beings. I failed to do so on Half Dome, and I left the other climbers feeling worse for having met me that day.

As we discuss and debate the protection of our climbing areas and public lands, as we engage with those who may have views different than our own, it is not naïve to be respectful of others. Compassion and empathy are not weaknesses, they are signs of strength. The elevation of our national discourse begins with the one person whose actions we have the greatest ability to control: ourself.

When passing by other climbers on long rock routes, in boulder fields, or in the many public forums debating the issues of the day, I’m going to do my best to do so in a respectful way that elevates and doesn’t bring people down. Climbing has been one of my greatest and most consistent teachers; I am forever grateful for the lessons it continues to bring to my life.

Brady Robinson is Executive Director of Access Fund. He has been with the organization for 10 years and is an avid climber. He lives in Boulder, CO.