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How Can Outdoor Climbers Stop Killing the Outdoors?


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What is Rock Climbing?

Rock climbing is a sport in which participants climb up, across, or down natural or man made rock formations either indoors or outdoors. The goal is to ascend a predefined route or problem without falling. Outdoor climbing has two forms: bouldering and traditional (trad) climbing. Boulder climbs are called “problems” and are graded on a V scale in most places. Most of Europe uses an older grading system called the “Font Scale”, but you are not likely to see that in the U.S (Gill).  The V scale starts at V0 and goes up from there. Currently, the highest bouldering grade out is V17 (Gill). The higher the number after the V, the harder the problem. Trad climbing climbs are called “routes” and are graded on a different scale. This scale starts at 5.0A, then goes to 5.0B, then 5.0C, then 5.0D. After D, it moves onto 5.1A. It continues in this same pattern, the current hardest route is a 5.15D called “Silence” (Gill).  Similarly to the bouldering scale, the higher the number and letter the harder the problem.

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A Short Informational Video:

Click here to read more about my personal connection!

The popularity of rock climbing, both trad and bouldering, has soared in North America over the last 20 years, disturbing wilderness areas that had been untouched for centuries (Matthews). Its popularity poses many potential negative impacts on the environment. It is responsible for increased traffic to outdoor areas which can lead to things like pollution, disruption of wildlife habitats, and destruction of biodiversity (Matthews). The biggest problem we are currently facing is that almost all of the climbing areas in this country were developed quietly, by an adventurous few, at the time when this sport was relatively unknown. The majority were not designed by experts as actual sites to be used recreationally, with an infrastructure to contain and minimise the impact and protect the environment. This was never a problem when the cliffs and boulders saw few visitors, but as the popularity of this sport grew with it the number of climbers have also grown, and unfortunately,  climbing areas are buckling under the pressure of more visitors. I think that many climbers lack the knowledge that there is a real problem, or that threats to climbing access even exist. This is why I think that education is a key first step to solving this larger problem. We must expand our education and outreach to reach more climbers and help them understand how to limit their impacts. The use of social media can be such a powerful tool to help spread awareness. Below is an image of the base of a climbing location in Kentucky that was closed for over seven years due to significant erosion. There has been so much soil erosion you can see the tree roots that have been uncovered. As you can clearly see, it has been ruined by the huge number of visitors it sees yearly. It did not open again until late 2018 when a group of dedicated workers were able to restore it.

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A Brief History:

Pictured here is athlete Royal Robbins who is believed to be one of the pioneers of American rock climbing.

Outdoor climbing was how the sport first gained in popularity. Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains is considered to be the birthplace of outdoor climbing in America (“El Capitan”). Yosemite is believed to have first been climbed in 1952 with athlete Royal Robbins (“Royal Robbins”). In America, however, climbing really took off in the 1900’s with athletes like John Stannard, Bill Forrest, Dean Caldwell, Warren Harding, Galen Rowell, John Salathé and more (“40 Years of American Rock”). All these men were traditional bolted faced climbers, meaning that they hand drilled the bolts into the rock (DiAngelis). Bolts are small metal screws with a metal loop in the shape of a “D” at the bottom. In the loop, there is a double-sided carabiner with one end hanging from the bolt and the other end used to loop your rope in. Climbers would drill these bolts every 15-75 feet as they climb up their specific route (Evans). There then becomes several different routes on a single rock-face, leading the rock to become riddled with holes. This obviously does nothing good to the natural environment, because the wear and tear due to the natural erosion is bound to be worsened. Drilling bolts into the rocks adversely affects the natural state of the rock formation. It permanently alters the rock and can lead to soil erosion being accelerated. Many of these rocks appear to be resistant to damage, but most formations are actually very fragile and susceptible to degradation caused by human activities (Kepof). Overtime people created a new form of climbing called bouldering because trad climbing required so much expensive gear. Bouldering is said to have begun in the 1990s with athlete Chris Sharma (Sharma), who is considered to be the best climber in the world. Really the only gear you need for outdoor bouldering are shoes and a crash pad. A crash pad is a mattress-like pad that is typically about 4 by 6 feet (McNamara). You place them under your climb so that you can fall onto it and it will soften your fall. But as you can imagine, placing a 20 pound pad will easily and quickly ruin any natural vegetation and plant-life that is living there (McNamara). These sites were getting filled with trash which led to pollution, on top of that, people would try and go off trail which disrupted wildlife habitats and destroyed biodiversity (Giuliano). Nearly 100 years later and climbing has only risen in popularity, leading to more and more damage to our natural sites. How much more can these sites take? If you want to learn more about this problem’s origin, click here to read my full essay!

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What Is Happening That Will Help?

The Access Fund is a non-profit organization that is working incredibly hard to lessen the impact. They have created numerous programs and plans and are raising funds to get them in place. They created a nationwide inventory of climbing area needs & stewardship plans. The Access Fund uses their efforts to assess climbing areas across the country, documententing their urgent needs, identifying future concerns and opportunities, and developing comprehensive stewardship plans. Each climbing area is unique so  that each location needs its own documented stewardship plan in order to obtain land manager approval and necessary funding, then prepare for an environmental review process (“Our Mission”). A program that is crucial to solving this problem is The Access Fund’s Jeep Conservation Team program. This is a program with three teams already consisting of trailbuilders and conservation specialists. They are on the road for ten months out of the year, traveling to different local climbing communities helping to address stewardship challenges (“Our Mission”). 

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How YOU Can Help:

With all of this hard work that larger organizations are doing, it is often hard to find what you could be doing that would have an effect. I think that many climbers lack the knowledge that there is a real problem, or that threats to climbing access even exist. We must expand our education and outreach to reach more climbers and help them understand how to limit their impacts. Word of mouth is such a strong tool, you can start by helping to spread awareness. Let your community know that there is a problem. If you want to try and make a bigger impact, you can help by donation money to non-profit organizations. Whether it’s $5 or $500, it will make an impact. Below is a link where you can donate to a phenomenal non-profit organization called The Access Fund. They have created numerous programs and plans and are raising funds to get them in place. They created a nationwide inventory of climbing area needs & stewardship plans. If you want to learn more about solutions, be sure to read my full essay here.

Here is the donation link: https://www.accessfund.org/join-or-give

In closing, I would like to share The Access Funds climber’s pact. They created this short list to show climbers that there are small and easy ways that you can help our earth.

  1. Be considerate of other users
  2. Park and camp in designated areas
  3. Dispose of human waste properly
  4. Stay on trails whenever possible
  5. Place gear and pads on durable surfaces
  6. Respect wildlife, sensitive plants, soils, and cultural resources
  7. Minimize group size and noise
  8. Pack out all trash, crash pads, and gear
  9. Learn the local ethics for the places you climb
  10. Respect regulations and closures
  11. Use, install, and replace bolts and fixed anchors responsibly 

(The Access Fund: The Climber’s Pact)

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Thank you so much for checking out my website! I really appreciate it, be sure to leave me some positive constructive feedback in the comment section. It is always welcome and appreciated. I am especially curious to hear some thoughts about my big picture solution aspect of this project. Lastly, I am calling all of you to action, we need to work together to find out what else we call all do to help minimize the impact outdoor climbing has on our environment.

Click this link to view a complete bibliography for this project!

Thanks, Della Reichel

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COMMENTS: 4
  1. April 23, 2020 by Andrea

    Hi Della! As a fellow rock climber, I want to say thank you for spreading awareness on this topic! I understand ‘big picture’ solutions can be daunting for issues like this, and I think that what you added at the bottom about outdoor ethics will be very useful. Are there specific places where you rock climb that you notice require some care after maltreatment? If so, have you thought about what you could do to improve those spaces?

  2. April 25, 2020 by Mais Mehyar

    Hello Della, I never really considered this topic before. I have done hiking trails before and a little bit of climbing, but I never thought of the impact it had on our environment. Environmental issues are really big now-a-days, so I think raising awareness about this issue is extremely important. You have done a great job in explaining this issue.

  3. April 26, 2020 by Elise

    Love this project! I do a lot of backcountry sports so I think about this a lot too. I volunteer with my local trail organization to help restore trails from overuse and spread awareness about trail etiquette, so it’s cool to learn about an organization like the Access Fund that operates across the country! I also think a lot about my emissions from driving into the mountains and the effect that has on the environment. Recently, I’ve been really involved with Protect Our Winters which is an amazing organization that also partners with a lot of climbers (Tommy Caldwell does a lot of environmental advocation work with them!), so if you’re interested in climate issues and climbing, definitely check them out if you haven’t!!!

  4. April 27, 2020 by lucy

    Hi Della, I do not rock climb but I hike a lot and I know a lot of people who rock climb! They are genuinely some of the coolest people! I think it is awesome that you are raising awareness for the environment. Sometimes people who love nature the most can leave a footprint without meaning to. Great work!

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