Dave Bingham Interview
City of Rocks
Sauni Symonds: Most people don't know the difference between sport climbing and traditional climbing. Please explain it.
Dave Bingham: When climbing started it was always you start at the bottom and you look for a crack, you look for a weakness in the rock and climb the weakness. In the old days there were various kinds of wedges and now there are these fancy cam gizmos that make it a lot easier and safer. So that is what is now called traditional climbing as opposed to sport climbing which involved sort of after all the cracks got climbed. What was left were the faces and between the cracks where there is no place to put protection in. So those kind of modeled after the Europeans who don't have - a lot of their rock is not protectable, there are not a lot of cracks so they started putting in fixed protection on their route way back early on. And the Americans in the 80s started adopting those European techniques of putting in fixed protection on the faces between the cracks and that is now called sport climbing.
So the route we did is a traditional climb - putting in protection on your own as opposed to a pre-protected climb where you just clip a carabiner into a fixed piece. The fixed anchors are called bolts and it is a drilled hole in the rock and then there's an expansion bolt that is put into it and they will stay there. It requires some maintenance, and every dozen or so years they get replaced.
Symonds: What about bouldering? How is that different?
Bingham: People have always bouldered and it was always seen as practice for real climbing and I'd say in the last 10 years or so bouldering has become its own element of climbing and with a lot of particularly young kids. This is their way to make a mark. My generation kind of did all the cracks and we did all the faces and now the younger generation is focusing on these boulder problems where they're doing super hard, really difficult moves but only 2 or 3 moves in a row.
Symonds: And only sometimes a couple of feet off the ground.
Bingham: Yeah and often putting a pad down, starting sitting on the ground and doing these very, very hard moves that if these moves were on a roped climb you would be in the upper levels of difficulty. But it's very accessible. Bouldering is very accessible because it's a social thing, you have a bunch of people hanging out, you don't need all the gear. So it is quite popular.
Symonds: Talk about the gear, equipment when you first started climbing compared to today.
Bingham: Equipment for climbing has changed a lot. I first started climbing way back in the early 70s. We were using pitons, we were using hemp type ropes, not the nice ropes we have now. Having the advanced gear has changed everything. It is much easier to place, it's much safer and that has allowed people to climb harder stuff. Back before the advances in gear things were just much more dangerous and the rule that the leader does not fall was very important. After the equipment got better it was okay to push yourself and fall on your gear.
When sport climbing came about that took that to the next level because then the gear was always totally secure. You're not worrying about is that a good piece or not so good piece. It was always good so you focus on the movement of the climbing and not whether you were going to get hurt.
Without protection, if you fall you die and now at the high end of sport climbing falling - it's what happens on the way to figuring out a difficult route because the difficult routes, they are like a choreographed routine where you practice and practice and you finally are able to execute the moves without falling. So often you are falling dozens of times before you are able to do it without falling.
Symonds: I almost think of this place now for climbers like an amusement park in a lot of ways because most everything seems to be sport climbing now.
Bingham: It's funny - back in the 80s this was one of the first areas in the country to adopt sport climbing. It was kind of controversial. People didn't like the idea of putting in fixed anchors because most climbers have a leave no trace ethic so there's a conflict there. Over time people have realized that the fixed stuff is fairly unobtrusive and the safety element makes it so much more accessible and safer so if you don't want to go out and feel like you are risking your life you can still climb. So that's the attraction.
Where this place was considered a sport climbing area nowadays most other areas have totally adopted sport climbing so this area is now considered almost a traditional climbing area because there is still a lot of crack climbs and there are a lot of fixed anchor sport climbs but it is kind of a mix here whereas a lot of modern climbing areas are all sport climbing.
Symonds: So you started climbing in the early 70s?
Bingham: Yeah. I started climbing back east - I did some outbound programs where they taught us what are now really old fashioned climbing techniques of body belay where the rope is just around your back. You would tie directly into the rope, no harness. So it has changed a lot.
Symonds: When did you first climb here?
Bingham: I first climbed here in the spring, I believe it was 1978. I came down here with a bunch of guides from Yosemite. I wasn't a guided client but with some friends who worked together and I fell in love with the place immediately. I'm from back east and coming into the City of Rocks for an easterner it was such a magical place that I fell in love with the place immediately and just wanted to spend a lot of time here.
Symonds: You used to be a champion climber - how do you keep yourself charged now?
Bingham: It is interesting going from being one of the young tigers to being one of the old dudes and it's a challenge psychologically to accept that you are getting older and still find a love in it. And I think the lesson learned is looking at why you are doing it. Are you doing it for outer recognition or are you doing it for something personal? Happily I feel like I still love doing it and it is okay that I don't climb as hard as I used to.
Symonds: So is that the difference maybe? When you were younger it was to win the prize and now it's more just for your own satisfaction?
Bingham: Honestly I don't think outwardly. I think of myself being a competitor that it was about ranking and hierarchy but I don't think it ever really was. I think that was just a vehicle, like competitions are a vehicle for challenging yourself and I like to look at it that way - that it is not about beating the other guy, it's just about having somebody to push you. That's the way I look at competition. Not about getting ahead, it's just about really doing what you can do.
Symonds: What other places have you climbed in Idaho?
Bingham: I haven't climbed in northern Idaho but I've climbed a lot pretty much everywhere else in Idaho and have established a lot of routes in different parts of Idaho. Most of the routes around Twin Falls I had a hand in, and up in the Limestone Cliffs. Out in the Lemhis we've done a bunch of routes. So yeah, I mix it up, get all over the place.
Symonds: You were telling us about how many first ascents you have here.
Bingham: At the City of Rocks I've probably done upwards of 200 first ascents over the last 30 years. We kind of reluctantly added first ascent info because I think I write in the book that none of us really cared. It wasn't like we were doing it - and here's the route I put up. We were really doing it just for the process that it was fun to do. But people want to know and now you can look back and you can go oh, that has a feel of a Bill Boyle route or that has a feel of a Chris Barnes route and it's pretty interesting. So I did somewhat reluctantly add first ascent information to the guide book.
Symonds: Why would you not want to add that?
Bingham: Well, there is the fear that people are doing it just to get your name in the guide book. I think the fear is that people will put up routes hastily, maybe not well thought out just to get it done and get some sort of fame whereas most of the people who really do that kind of stuff, that do put up new routes really are just doing it for the love of it and they are not trying to get famous. They are just doing it because they love exploring.
Symonds: How do you feel when you come out here and climb a rock?
Bingham: At this stage for me I've spent so much time and this place is like part of me growing up. It is so much part of me and I see people doing routes that I put up and it makes me feel great to see people enjoying those routes. It is very different. It is much mellower now just getting out, getting out with the kids, being out here passing it on really. Encouraging the youngsters to - encouraging them to take it somewhere else, do some new stuff.
Symonds: What is the major difference between climbers of your era and young climbers today?
Bingham: Back when I started climbing it was really a band of misfits and it has changed in that it is much more mainstream now and you don't necessarily have to be a misfit to climb. It is sort of socially acceptable whereas back in the 70s it was a pretty peculiar bunch of folks out there. Now it can be anybody. Now it's family and all walks of life.
Symonds: What goes into the planning of a route? What is in your mind? Why would you do it here rather than there?
Bingham: Well, there's that idea that in the old days you would look for the line of least resistance and the sport climbing mentality is looking for the line of most resistance. It is like there has got to be a harder way. Trying to find the blankest face and making it, finding a way to get up that. Usually, you may see the line and hope there are enough holds on that so you can climb it. So that's kind of the high end mentality - climbing the blankest looking, most impossible looking overhang as opposed to like how can we sneak around this to get to the top. A lot of these climbs they don't even go to the top. It gets easy and you stop.
Symonds: 20 years ago we met you out here and we climbed a big rock that is closed to climbing now. Talk about that climb.
Bingham: Yeah. Sadly - the management here has been really good and it had to happen because the place really was getting trashed back in the early 70s and so management had to come in and do something to protect this area. Consequently we as climbers have lost some things. We've lost access to some of actually the best rocks. There's a rock that is called the Dolphin that has the highest concentration of difficult routes probably in Idaho and it is on private land and so we don't go there anymore. So it is definitely a loss.
And we would love to see the park purchase that land so that it is part of the reserve and we can climb there again and I know they have been working on that but naturally enough of the land owners are very hesitant to give up their property.
Symonds: So would you say in Idaho that those climbs on the Dolphin are the toughest you've ever done in Idaho?
Bingham: Absolutely. Yeah, there are some, now there are some climbs that rival the climbs on the Dolphin but for a concentration of 5-12 through hard 13's the Dolphin is still probably the premiere hard climbing spot in Idaho.
Symonds: And nobody can use it.
Bingham: And they can't climb it. You could but you'd be trespassing.
Symonds: Educate us on how the routes are rated.
Bingham: Originally the rating system was developed in Yosemite and was designed to be a 1 through 10 scale, 10 being the hardest but then it didn't take too many years before something harder than a 10 and people didn't know what to do with that so reluctantly they opened it up and started doing 11's and then 12's, 13's - now it is up to 15. The difference between a 15 and a 10 is really dramatic. The people operating at that really high end are Olympic caliber athletes who have certain body types now. You have to have the right genes to be climbing a 5-13 or harder.
Symonds: Where would you find a 15?
Bingham: I think there is one in the United States. There are quite a few in Europe. The Europeans, their rock is more conducive to hard climbing because it has a lot of features but small features. Here you could never do that because there are not enough features. It tends to be smooth so it doesn't have to get that steep if there are no holds at all.
Symonds: What is your favorite type of rock to climb?
Bingham: I do love the granite climbing here and particularly at City of Rocks because it is relatively featured for granite. I think my favorite climbing ever is in some of the sandstone in the southeastern United States that is very steep, very overhung with a lot of features so you can climb these just dramatic overhanging walls relatively easily. It's just very dramatic looking stuff. Big overhangs.
Symonds: How does Idaho climbing compare to the rest of the country?
Bingham: Idaho is a little bit off the beaten path and that is its saving grace in a way. From a local standpoint it is great because a lot of the areas in Colorado and Utah are very crowded. You go to a climbing area and there is somebody on your favorite route. So Idaho is still relatively quiet which is a great thing. And we have a lot of good climbing. It is a little under the radar because it is out of the way and so we're really lucky to have good climbing without the crowds.
Symonds: Compare climbing here today to when we were here 20 years ago.
Bingham: Even though this is no longer the hot spot, it's not like the cool place to climb the numbers here have grown every year so usage is greater than it has ever been. And all the people who used to come here still want to come here because they love it and the high-end climbers don't come here as much because they've moved to the newer, kind of chic type areas.