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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rock Climbers Leaving their Mark

Air Date: Week of

Rock climbing was once the province of a handful of true daredevils. But today, thanks to a whole new generation of high tech climbing equipment and access to climbing, the US now sports an estimated two million active climbers. As the numbers of new climbers rise, some wilderness managers are worried about the impact on the natural landscape. Robin White has our report.


CURWOOD: Rock climbing was once the province of a handful of true daredevils. But today, thanks to a whole new generation of high-tech equipment and easy access to practice climbing arrays, the US now sports an estimated 2 million active climbers. It can be a rushing thrill, and some climbers push the limits of endurance and strength and see a climb as an ultimate extreme weekend workout. But as the numbers of new climbers rise, some wilderness managers are worried about the impact on the natural landscape. Robin White has our report.

(Scraping and tapping)

WHITE: Rock climbing used to be a quiet contemplative sport: a rope, a hammer, and a few metal spikes called pitons, were all you needed to climb a big wall. Climbers used to follow the natural cracks in rock faces. Cracks provided secure places for hand- and footholds and a ready-,made niche to bang in your piton. These days there is another tool.


WHITE: The cordless electric drill came onto the market in 1976. It's transformed the sport of climbing and changed the face of many once-pristine cliffs.

(Drilling continues)

WHITE: With drills, climbers can secure metal bolts on almost any surface, allowing ascents in places that were once inaccessible. The technology has made rock climbing almost easy and has boosted the sport's popularity. But Mark Fincher, climbing ranger in the Yosemite Valley, says the use of bolts is having a degrading effect on the wild places where people come to climb, like this cliff in Yosemite.


FINCHER: These were the original 2 climbs at this area, these 2 cracks here. And they were fairly popular, they got a fair amount of use. You know, this area was still denuded of vegetation before all these other climbs went in. But it didn't extend too far; that whole area was still vegetated. And then in a space of about 3 years, all these other climbs went in, probably 40 new climbs all went in, virtually all bolt-protected. And you see the results. A lot greater area impacted. More soil erosion, more litter. More aesthetic impacts in the rock, there's just a lot of chalk you can see.

WHITE: That stuff up there, in there?

FINCHER: Right, all these right spots here.

WHITE: Fincher points out white patches on the cliff. It's chalk, which climbers use to dry sweaty palms to get a better grip. So many climbers do this that it leaves a trail of handholds which almost allows climbing by numbers. Climbers also leave trash: wads of brightly colored nylon slings mark the tops of vertical trails. Down below a network of access paths leads to soil erosion and damaged vegetation.

(Echoed ambient conversation)

WHITE: The new bolted routes reflect a new style of climbing called sport climbing. The trend began in climbing gymnasiums like this one in San Francisco. Gyms make climbing safe, easy, and convenient. Mission Cliff's owner Mark Melvin says instead of long, arduous climbs, which may take days or weeks, indoors climbers learn a taste for doing short routes to test their strength and technical skills. Then they head for the mountains.

MELVIN: Now, there's been the advent in the last, say, you know, 6 years of sport climbing, which are well-protected routes, the commitment is a lot greater. It looks, it's more like a climbing gym. And you can work more on the hardest technical limits in climbing and so forth. And that's actually made it -- a lot of places in the country now have areas that weren't even thought of before to climb. So it makes it really fun.

WHITE: And routes which take only minutes to complete are proliferating. In one privately-owned area of the Owens River Gorge in the eastern part of California, where climbing is unregulated, there are 1,000 climbing routes in a single mile of gorge. The prospect of that density of climbing on public land has some wilderness managers nervous. The use of drills is already illegal in some national parks, although climbers are known to still use them discreetly. The Bureau of Land Management has proposed making the use of drills and bolts illegal, except where authorized by local land managers. And the US Forest Service is considering the option of banning all new bolts in wilderness areas. Jerry Stokes, Assistant Director for Wilderness with the Forest Service, says it goes back to fundamentals.

STOKES: With each issue that arises, we have to go back and revisit the Wilderness Act initially to see if this activity fits within what Congress intended that wilderness be managed for.

WHITE: The 1964 Wilderness Act prohibits the use of so-called structures in wilderness, and managers like Jerry Stokes have to decide if rock bolts fall under this provision.


WHITE: At Pinnacles National Monument in central California, Sam Davidson is belaying a partner who's climbing using bolts placed by climbers who've come before.

(More tapping)

DAVIDSON: (Calling) Sounds dubious.


WHITE: (To Davidson) What's he doing there? He's tapping on the rock?

DAVIDSON: He's testing the rock quality, the quality of a certain hold, by just tapping it with the palm of his hand or his fingertips.

(Tapping continues)

WHITE: Davidson is a paid organizer for the Access Fund, the nonprofit organization which advocates for climbers' rights. By banning bolts on public lands, Davidson says the Forest Service would be putting climbers in danger.

DAVIDSON: If a lightning storm comes in on you, for example, I mean you are the greatest conduit up there on the rock, and sometimes you have to get off in a hurry. The option of being able to leave a fixed anchor is very important to climbers. You may not have to, but you should have the option.

WHITE: That's because fixed anchors give climbers the safest way to get down off the rock. Organized opposition by the Access Fund against the rock bolting ban made the Forest Service back down temporarily on its proposal. But in the long run, park managers say there's a deep philosophical question of whether wilderness exists to be used for safe recreation or whether it exists to be an untouched island in an increasingly mechanized world. Jerry Stokes quotes one of the authors of the 1964 Wilderness Act, Howard Zonheiser.

STOKES: "I believe we have a profound fundamental need for areas of the Earth where we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters of our own environment. I think what we have to keep in mind is that these areas are not established for us to take our mechanized equipment or our paraphenalia into them to dominate these areas. They are to be enjoyed on their own terms."

WHITE: For climbers who use bolts, that would mean not being able to enjoy thousands of acres of public land. And in a burgeoning sport hungry for new climbing spots, the message isn't sitting well. The Access Fund already has its eye on thousands of miles of desert rim rock likely to become public land if the Red Rock Wilderness Act is passed. The area contains the last unexplored climbing areas in the lower 48 states, and climbers say they have a right to scale those cliffs, bolts and all. The Forest Service is holding public forums on the issue this fall. For Living on Earth, I'm Robin White in San Francisco.



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