Egregious Wilderness Climbing Violations at Joshua Tree

Date: 9/17/2012

Within the pristine wilderness of Queen Mountain in Joshua Tree National Park sits a beautiful area called The Underground Chasm. Earlier this year, a climber noticed that the approach steps to Underground Chasm were chipped into the rock, and the routes also appeared to be “enhanced”.

Prior to 1998 there were no regulations for bolting in the Wilderness of Joshua Tree and as a result many ‘sporty’ routes appeared on Queen Mountain. However in 1998 the Park prohibited placing or replacing any bolts in Wilderness, pending a formal management policy. Now existing bolts may be replaced one-for-one and new bolts require a permit. A subsequent Park Service investigation of The Underground Chasm discovered hundreds of illegally placed bolts, fixed rope, burnt Joshua Trees, stashed camping and climbing gear, chipped steps and damage to other nearby trees and plants—all misdemeanors individually punishable by a mandatory court appearance and $5,000 fine.

The Friends of Joshua Tree and Access Fund have worked hard for decades to establish a positive relationship with the Park, and egregious wilderness violations like these jeopardize access to Joshua Tree Wilderness for all climbers.

Fortunately the Park reached out to the Access Fund and Friends of Joshua Tree for help instead of summarily closing the area to climbing. In June, representatives from the Access Fund and Friends of Joshua Tree toured the Underground Chasm with Park staff, then met with the Joshua Tree Superintendent to discuss how to respond. The discussion ranged from doing nothing, to removing all the illegally placed bolts and banning all climbing (and bouldering) within Joshua Tree Wilderness. Given the number of violations, clear connection to climbers, and budget challenges, removing all of the bolts and banning climbing in the area was an option that the Park seriously considered.

Luckily, the years of relationship building and stewardship that climbers have invested in Joshua Tree helped mitigate the situation, and the decision was made to: 1) Use the incident to educate climbers about proper wilderness ethics; 2) Evaluate the illegally established routes under the Park’s permit application protocol; and, 3) Only remove those routes that would not have been granted a permit. Thankfully, the illegal acts at the Underground Chasm will not (at least for now) affect climbing access. However, if such blatant violations continue, the Park will have to consider policy changes that could significantly reduce climbers’ access.

The Friends of Joshua Tree, Access Fund, and the Park are highlighting the Underground Chasm story this October at Climb Smart 2012. The Climb Smart program is a national climber awareness campaign designed to promote safe climbing and individual responsibility. Please join the festivities this October 19th through the 21st that kick off the Joshua Tree climbing season with three full days of clinics, guest athletes, climbing education, Park service projects, and multimedia presentations. For more information on Climb Smart 2012 visit http://www.friendsofjosh.org/.