The Threshold Effect
Posted on: July 11, 2011
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Alfred Mummery wrote in his 19th century classic book, My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus, "It has frequently been noticed that all mountains appear doomed to pass through the three stages: An inaccessible peak - The most difficult ascent in the Alps - An easy day for a lady." While the misogynistic temper of this famous quote is obsolete, its more general point seems to ring true. Climbs get easier over time.
Why does this happen and how does this happen? It's easy enough to understand how a climb might become easier for an individual climber on the second or third ascent. But consider the tendency for succeeding generations of climbers to find a previous generation's testpieces to be manageable, even trivial. Consider the remarkable story of Eldorado Canyon's Genesis. Originally graded A5, Genesis attracted the attention of Jim Collins, a young college student. Collins described in an article the almost superhuman training tactics he used to prepare himself for the ascent.In 1979, countless hours of physical effort and mental focus eventually resulted in success. According to Collins' own account, he even changed the dates in his calendar to reflect the year 1994 when he imagined Genesis would be regarded as trivial.
Yet by 1982, the route's second lead ascent by British climber Jerry Moffat was immediately followed up by his toproped ascent in running shoes and, by 1985, it was flashed by French climber Patrick Edlinger. Today Genesis garners the grade of 5.12d, a level reached by many young sport climbers in their first year. So what happened exactly? Looking at the relative strengths of Jim Collins and Jerry Moffat, it is hard to believe that physical capacity had that much to do with it. And given Collins's own solo of the Naked Edge in 1978 (before Genesis was freed,) it is unlikely that Jim was at much of a disadvantage psychologically. Differences in climbing gear between the two were relatively negligible.
It is fascinating to see how Collins in his own discussion of the preparation for the route, saw this pattern emerging. He wrote, in an essay called Hitting the Wall, "In studying climbing history, I noticed a pattern: climbs once considered "impossible" by one generation of climbers eventually became "not that hard" for climbers two generations later. 5.10 seemed nearly impossible to climbers in the early 1960s, but by the late 1970s, top climbers routinely on-sighted 5.10 as warm ups for harder projects." It appears that by the late 70s the cycle was beginning to speed up radically, beyond Collins' own predictions.
This didn't just happen in the relatively simple practice of sport or traditional rock climbing. In alpinism and Himalayan climbing, the rapidity with which the testpieces of yesteryear become the training arenas of the present has been accelerating in the past ten years. There is no question that better technology has played a part in this. But the sense that something transformational is occurring with the likes of Ueli Steck is hard to shake. Turning the once-epic and feared Eiger North Face into a kind of racetrack is just the beginning. When top performers such as Steck seem to be able to dismiss the limitations of the recent past so convincingly and completely, one has to wonder what sport climbing is becoming?
I wonder if the crucial difference can be found in what sociologists and epidemiologists describe as the threshold effect. Described by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point, the threshold effect describes how ideas, practices, diseases and internet memes rapidly spread once they reach a critical mass.