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Midnight Enlightening

If you haven’t heard by now, a friend by the name of James took the drastic step of erasing the lightning bolt on Midnight Lightning. As you can imagine, this caused quite the stir. Facebook comment strings, Reddit threads, and of course the comments on James’ blog post (not to mention on his Facebook wall) indicated, for the most part, that people disagree with what he did. Some were vehement, some were articulate and well-reasoned, and some settled for pithy insults.

After a day to marinate on the event and fallout, I’d like to jot down my thoughts before they are lost, swept away by time like the chalk was brushed away from the Columbia Boulder.

Upon first reading the post, I felt ambivalent towards the action itself. I did feel admiration for someone who would dare to remove such an icon and then claim responsibility. I felt there must have been some strong justification for it, even if it was not well articulated in the blog post. I also enjoyed the photo of Nik Berry climbing ML, but with the caption “Nik Berry on an unknown problem.” James is a witty writer and I’ve always enjoyed his blog.

I want to point out, for those unaware, that James has some cred in the valley. He’s not a nobody, he’s not a misguided gym rat. He earned a Valley nickname and has established big wall routes. I respect the hell out of his climbing life.

Perhaps it was this respect that kept me from immediately and angrily denouncing him on the internet, as so many who don’t know him (and some who do) have. I wanted to understand his motivation.

Left: John Bachar climbs the Lightning. On the right, the naked Columbia Boulder. Photos from jameslucas.blogspot.com

Left: John Bachar climbs the Lightning. On the right, the naked Columbia Boulder. Photos from jameslucas.blogspot.com

Upon further reflection, it seemed as though there was little justification for erasing the bolt. In his blog, James presented the history of the climb and the names of the early ascentionists, then made a brief attempt to convince the reader that the mark had lost its magic because people climb it all the time. It seemed to me that James was more bitter than anything, perhaps jaded from seeing so many climbers in Yosemite.

Justin Alarcon wrote a great defense of the lightning bolt in the comments on James’ blog that I recommend reading. A highlight is this: “Has ‘the chalk transformed into a trademark, another tourist attraction for passing climbers’? Yeah, maybe a little bit, but unless you’re really jaded by the whole climbing scene or caught up trying to be cool in Camp 4 the ‘Bolt’ still has a lot of magic left in it.”

The discussion is an interesting one, but it should have been had before one person decided that they would attempt to delete 30 years of history from the most iconic boulder problem in the world (I say attempt, as the bolt has since been redrawn). The last line of his blog post is “Does climbing need these trademarks?” This is a great question, and it should’ve been asked before the bolt was erased.

I am particularly dismayed by the dismissive attitude some have taken to this incident and the subsequent fallout. I’ve read more than a few comments along the lines of “there are more important things to worry about.” My response to this is, sure, it’s not a big deal. We climb rocks. First world problems. But if we already acknowledge that climbing, though a trivial pursuit in the grand scheme of “bigger things to get pissed about,” is what is important to us, then we all are definitely allowed to hold these symbols sacred.

I suppose it’s kind of a funny dichotomy we climbers exhibit. We trivialize and belittle our own activity even as we design our whole lives around it.

I do not think James deserves some of the hatred directed at him. Armchair critics spit venom and haters gonna hate, but the unavoidable fact is that he sparked a conversation and forced a lot of climbers to deeply examine the aforementioned issues: what climbing means to them, the power of  symbols, and for those who are fortunate enough to have visited to Yosemite, the significance of Midnight Lightning and the history of the Valley.

The Bolt still exists. In fact, the bolt has likely been erased and redrawn many times. From this perspective, no harm no foul. In the end, I think this has been a net benefit for the climbing community. When threatened with the loss of an important piece of history, we snapped out of Ondra-Onsight worship, of gym-climber bashing and making fun of retail store mannequins, and we all had a relatively civil conversation about what a simple chalk drawing meant to us. Only the imminent closure of a popular crag can crystallize us, an otherwise often apathetic group, in such a manner. If nothing else, it is heartening to see others reflecting on the meaning of the bolt.

Maybe, instead of thinking of James as a selfish asshole or a pretentious prick (others’ words, not mine), it would help us all to think of James as having martyred himself for the sake of lighting a fire under our collective asses. For the fact is, the deed was done. Now what are we going to do about it?

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