As the sport continues to surge, the need for all climbers to evaluate their impact is huge right now...
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As cited in a recent feature from the Access Fund, America’s Deteriorating Climbing Areas (Vertical Times Summer 18/Volume 112), the number of new commercial climbing gyms doubled between 2016 and 2017. And while there are certainly positives to the rise in climbing's popularity (read: the Olympics!), there are repercussions for this growth too if it goes unguided, especially when outdoor crags become overcrowded.
Environmentally, many climbing areas are not designed to hold that many people. You can see the effects of overtrafficked crags when you go to areas like the Buttermilks in Bishop, where the delicate vegetation is now almost non-existent at the Main Boulders. Or, in the Red River Gorge where exposed roots and eroding ground levels at the base of crags also indicate more traffic than the area can handle on its own.
Safety on real rock, of course, can also be a challenge, particularly when a lot of climbers are introduced to climbing in the gym. Grades and climbing styles in the gym rarely resemble those outside. The gym won’t teach you about hazards like uneven landings, loose rock, bad bolts, or aging fixed gear. Raise your hand if you have witnessed a cringeworthy display of unsafe climbing in the past year, or worse yet, witnessed an accident as a result.
Last year Shelma Jun of Flash Foxy wrote about the Mentorship Gap, a new phenomenon in climbing where the number of new, less experienced climbers is surpassing that of experienced climbers. As a result, critical elements of sustainability, safety, and ethics are not adequately getting passed down to this new wave.
Lauren Callaway climbing "Mexican Crack" (UT). Photo: Savannah Cummins
A lot of the good habits that I learned over the years were because someone pointed me towards them (usually while I was displaying the opposite behavior). It was always kind of embarrassing, even though it usually came from a friend. But the alternative, to continue doing something wrong or even dangerous, was always (and is still) worse. Given the diversity of experience (and the Mentorship Gap), being open to giving and receiving feedback from strangers is something that needs to be learned. Each climbing area is unique, having its own set of challenges and local ethics (for instance, don’t show up to the Frankenjura with a stick clip, but don’t go to the Red River Gorge without one). Even if you have been climbing somewhere for years, there’s probably something that can be learned to make the place better for everyone. Nowadays, getting beta is easy with the internet, and doesn’t involve the tribal initiations that it might have in the past.
Many new climbers don’t have the same access to guidance on safety, sustainability and ethics that more “seasoned” climbers had. So, it’s convenient to point the finger and blame new climbers for these issues facing the community today.
But is that fair? Is it possible that even very experienced climbers with thorough knowledge of their local areas might also be part of the challenge? According to the Access Fund, anyone that shows up will have a degrading impact; the problem is that now, there are way more climbers visiting crags, and even experienced climbers don’t always know how to recognize the signs of that impact.
I’ve been thinking a lot about things that passed as acceptable when climbing was less popular a decade ago when I first entered the sport in Boulder, Colorado. Specifically, I’ve been questioning the standard of accountability that I personally need to hold, to both minimize my impact and be an example for others, now that the sport is growing.
That's easier said than done.
The truth is, it’s not always fun to do the extra work to be a good steward, especially when you never had to do it before (which is actually arguable). It’s difficult to change habits. When I climbed regularly in Rocky Mountain National Park several years ago, stashed pads were a luxury that not only made the hike easier, but also limited the number of tourists bugging me about what I was carrying. But the number of climbers has increased significantly, and the sustainability of the area (and the future of climbing in the Park), relies on me changing that habit.
The sustainability of climbing in general relies on me adhering to strict principles associated with each area that I climb in. In the same way, the safety of the sport relies on me feeling like I’m doing overkill in practicing safe climbing habits, especially around new climbers. Even though I'm just one person, I have to apply this level of importance to my actions.
Lauren Callaway getting a power spot and support at the Women's Climbing Festival in Bishop. Photo: Jenn Flemming
Providing mentorship is another way to help stabilize impact as climbing continues to grow, but it’s not realistic for a lot of people in the way that they received mentorship in the beginning—likely within an established relationship with one or two climbing mentors.
But that doesn’t mean we should remain complacent and allow all of the following generations of climbers to fumble their way through learning the ropes. There can be consequences of not speaking up. One story that sticks in my head was that of a friend noticing an unsafe belay situation, not saying anything, and then witnessing a fatal ground-fall. It would’ve been so easy to say something.
The need for all climbers to self-evaluate is huge right now. I wonder a lot about what specifically to change that would have the most impact, and what current practices have the most consequences on others, and the areas where I climb. I love organizations like the Access Fund, the American Alpine Club, and Leave No Trace, that provide online resources, and I recommend reading them (multiple times over if possible). Here are a few that I highly recommend:
•Commit to the Access Fund’s Climber’s Pact
•Understand and follow Leave No Trace’s Seven Principles
•If you have a local climbing organization, learn about their initiatives and consider donating or volunteering.
•In terms of etiquette and respect, there are also quite a few organizations dedicated to inclusivity in climbing. Some that you can learn more about and support are Flash Foxy, Alpenglow Collective, Brown Girls Climb, and Brothers of Climbing.
•Lastly, invest in several WAG bags, and keep them with you whenever you go climbing in areas without easy access to toilets.
A handful of climbers from the La Sportiva team weighed in about potential issues they've notice at their favorite climbing areas, and gave some pointers. I hope that you find these useful—they are provided with the best of intentions.
Jonathan Siegrist holding tension on "Whispers of Wisdom" in RMNP. Photo: Shaina Savoy
Jonathan Siegrist (RMNP): Being from Boulder, people used to think you were crazy hiking all the way to Upper Chaos only a handful of years ago, but now it is hugely popular. There are a handful of challenges that the Park Service has to monitor, including parking, trails and landing zones, waste, and stashed pads. Stashing pads is a not allowed in the Park because of its effects on the local wildlife, and rangers are watching this closely. Also make sure you are aware of voluntary closures, like the Meadow Boulder in Upper. Let’s build a long-term relationship between climbers and rangers in the Park.
Ben Rueck cutting loose on "Hell Belly" (V8) in Moab, UT. Photo: Jeff Rueppel
Ben Rueck (Escalante/Bears Ears): The desert ecosystem is immensely fragile. What this means is that attention to trails, not leaving any waste behind, and camping in designated areas are all key. In terms of climbing, the desert sandstone is really soft. Many of the popular climbs have completely changed character over the years, so be careful and make sure that you have the right size of gear. Since the popularity of Indian Creek has really increased, be polite to others and share the routes. Leading by example is always better than being cranky!
Carrie Cooper holding the swing on "Death Scream" in Joe's Valley, UT. Photo: Jeff Rueppel
Carrie Cooper (Joe’s Valley): What a lot of people that visit Joe's Valley for the first time don't know is how linked the town of Orangeville is with the area. For many of the residents, Joe's Valley is part of their livelihood, whether it be farming, ranching, or working at the plants at the top of the Canyon. Drive a little slower going up the Canyon, be careful knocking rocks off into the road, and make sure your car is parked so that it won't disrupt traffic. Erosion is also a problem. Each bouldering zone has a certain capacity for people, pads, dogs, etc. When there's too many people, the ground level and the vegetation get pushed back further and further. Being able to self-limit and avoid areas where there are already a lot of people is important.
Emily Harrington (Rifle): I grew up climbing in Rifle, and it will always be special to me. The number of people coming to the Canyon has grown markedly in recent years, and there are lots of issues associated with hosting that capacity. When the camping is full, people overflow into local BLM land, where the camping is not regulated. It’s important for campers to be responsible and minimize their impacts on this land, which is also shared by other recreators and local ranchers.
Nik Berry working "Wet Lycra Nightmare" in Yosemite. Photo: Austin Siadak
Nik Berry (Yosemite): I’ve been climbing in Yosemite for almost a decade, and it is the best climbing in the world! It’s no secret that the NPS has struggled a lot with climbers over the years, but in recent years this relationship has really improved—let’s keep it that way! The biggest change I notice is on the walls, where there are usually many parties sharing the same route. A lot of passing goes on, so it is important to monitor how fast you are going with respect to people in front and behind you and communicate with them to pass as smoothly and safely as possible. Also, no matter if you’re on the wall or down in the boulders, ALWAYS pack it out!
Vikki Weldon working through thin hands on "High Plains Drifter" in Squamish. Photo: Savannah Cummins
Vikki Weldon (Squamish): I’ve been climbing in Squamish for 15 years, and have lived there for the last five—it's such a great community! Three issues I've noticed that are likely associated with the growth of the sport are: poop, safety, and fixed gear. To minimize the first, try to plan ahead and get to a toilet before you climb. If that doesn’t happen, follow proper disposal principles (don’t just put a rock over it), and make sure you are far enough away from water. To maximize safety, be conservative. The grades outside are different from the gym, and the gear isn’t always straightforward. Lastly, we have a lot of fixed gear in Squamish. Make sure that fixed gear is safe before you use it, and also don’t booty (take) fixed gear. This can be a really unwelcome surprise for a climber who is expecting it to be there!
Lauren Callaway (Bishop): Winter in Salt Lake City is cold and harsh, and I’m lucky to have the flexibility to be able to spend a month in Bishop climbing in the Buttermilks and Tablelands every year. The High Desert landscape is very sensitive. To minimize your impact you can make sure to stay on marked trails, avoid vegetation, camp in designated areas, and try to keep the landing zones from spreading. The highball boulders are great, but I also see a ton of broken ankles, so make sure that your pads are set up properly, and that your spotters know what to do if you pitch off the top!
Preview Photo: © Jenn Flemming
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lauren Callaway is a member of the La Sportiva Climbing Team.
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