5 Signs Your Climbing Area is at Risk

You’ve probably seen the recent hype on social media about climbing areas “loved to death”. And we consistently hear from some climbers that they just don’t see what the big deal is—when they head out to their local crag, it looks normal to them. The signs that a climbing area is deteriorating can be difficult to see if you don’t know what to look for. And if you haven’t been climbing in the same place for the last decade, it may look perfectly normal to you, since you haven’t seen the deterioration over time. But it’s critical that we learn to spot these common signs of trouble so we can adjust our climbing practices and help protect the climbing environment for the future.

1. Bathtub Rings

What’s wrong with this picture?
Ever use a friend’s shower and find yourself aghast at an unsightly “bathtub ring” of soap scum? A similar phenomenon happens at climbing areas, and it’s a telltale sign of heavy erosion that causes distinct lines of different colored rock—and land managers are similarly aghast. This photo was taken at Lovers Leap in California, and it shows the typical scenario where the rock most recently exposed due to erosion is a lighter color, with less exposure from air and sun. Some of you may be thinking…”Sweet, our routes are getting longer!” … and while that’s technically true, land managers see that as a clear sign that climbers have a real impact on the land, contributing to soil loss that endangers native plants and trees and destabilizes cliff bases.

What you can do to help:

  • Be gentle with vegetation—it holds soil in place and prevents erosion. Don’t drag bouldering pads and keep your gear as tightly contained as possible.

  • Leave the dog at home or train against digging. Many pups dig when it’s hot to find cooler soil to rest in.

  • Volunteer with your local climbing organization, Access Fund Conservation Teams, or land managers to help mitigate erosion.

    2. Lack of Vegetation

    What’s wrong with this picture?
    This photo shows the loss of vegetation over time at the popular boulder, The Hulk, in Bishop, CA. Take a look around your local crag or boulders and note all of the vegetation that grows beyond the area where climbers belay, gear up, and sit to watch their friends climb. That vegetated area used to go all the way up to the base of the cliff or boulders before it was trampled and killed. Chances are this “staging area” is now dusty and barren. While some impacts to this area are inevitable, these zones of impact are becoming wider and wider every year, as climbers take up more space and spread themselves out further, threatening native plant and animal species that call the area home.

    What you can do to help:

    • Keep your gear as close to the base of the crag or boulders as possible, on durable surfaces like rocks or earth that is already packed down. Never place your gear on vegetation.
    • Minimize group size so that less people are trying to occupy one area.
    • If you’re not climbing, stay close to the base of the cliff instead of venturing further back into vegetated areas.
    • Leave the hammock at home. Hammocks expand staging areas as visitors seek out trees, and force others to walk around them.

    1995 Photo © Brian Ketron, courtesy of Marty Lewis

    3. Exposed Tree Roots

    What’s wrong with this picture?
    This is part of the approach to the popular Meadows crag in Rumney, NH. Climbers often see slopes like this and think they are perfectly normal, but this is a sign of big trouble. The drastically exposed tree roots show what happens when trails are created by foot traffic without proper planning and construction. The vegetated slope on the far left is a good example of what the entire slope once looked like. Once the vegetation was destroyed, there was nothing left to hold topsoil in place, and over time it got washed away. Eventually, those tree roots will be unable to hold the remaining soil in place and the tree will die. The slope will continue to erode without the stabilizing properties of the tree, and climbers will find another way up the slope and this pattern will continue to repeat itself as people avoid the gullies and walk to the side.

    What you can do to help:

    • Stay on existing trails. Never bushwack your way up a slope or cut a switchback when a trail already exists.
    • Take the same trail down that you took up. Spreading foot traffic onto multiple paths expands the problem.
    • Volunteer your time at an Adopt a Crag or make a donation to help trail crews build sustainable trails that can withstand increased traffic.

    4. Spider Web of Trails

    What’s wrong with this picture?
    This photo from Joshua Tree, CA shows the spider web of "social trails" that are slowly degrading the environment. You can see one main trail in the middle and a vast network of unofficial trails, all leading to the same place. Official trails are created to concentrate our impact to one defined route, protecting the surrounding environment. Over time, if climbers continue to create more and more unofficial trails, the area between the parking lot and the crag will be a wasteland.

    What you can do to help:

    • Stick to approved and marked trails, even if it takes a little longer to get where you're going. Never cut turns or switchbacks,
    • If new route development necessitates new trails, contact your local climbing organization so you can work together to create a sustainable approach.
    • Volunteer your time or make a donation to help fund our efforts to install signage, rehabilitate social trails, and build sustainable new trail.

    5. Toilet Paper Flowers

    What’s wrong with this picture?
    Those aren't sweet smelling roses you're seeing behind trees and rocks at your favorite climbing area. These "toilet paper flowers" are a growing problem at climbing areas, and they are indicative of a larger issue lurking just below the surface. Human waste can contaminate water sources, spread disease, ruin other people's experience, impact wildlife, and raise the alarm of land managers. Digging a poop hole and covering it used to be an appropriate way to dispose of your business back in 90s, when there were few other people out climbing and a handful of poop holes in the middle of the forest was no big deal. Now that crags are extremely popular and crowded, think about how much waste is encroaching on water sources and climbing areas? Many of the most popular climbing areas are surrounded by a minefield of human waste.

    What you can do to help:

    • Use toilets whenever possible, even if you have to hike a bit further.
    • Keep a few waste disposal bags in your pack for emergencies, and pack it out.
    • In popular, high-use areas don't dig a hole. Pack it out in your waste disposal bag.
    • Always pack it out in a bag in desert and alpine climbing areas. Soils in these areas lack the microorganisms to break down human waste.

    Restoring Deteriorating Climbing Areas

    Good LNT practices are essential, but they won't solve all of the pressing issues that crags and boulders are currently facing. Many of the most heavily used climbing areas need intensive mitigation work and recreation infrastructure to help protect these areas and allow the surrounding environment to bounce back. As a community, we need to invest in car-to-climb infrastructure at popular crags and boulders—this means parking, bathrooms, well built trails, and reinforced staging areas.

    Our Access Fund-Jeep Conservation Teams are already doing this work at climbing areas across the country—building reinforced staging areas and belay platforms that keep climbers from trampling slopes, designing bomber approach trails that will resist erosion under large volumes of traffic, installing way-finding signage to keep climbers on trail, revegetating trampled areas, and installing port-a-potties and wag bag dispensers. And our policy team is working hard to make sure our public lands get the funding and attention they need and deserve.

    Take The Climbing Advocate Pledge

    I will stand up and use my voice to protect climbing areas
    I will minimize my impact while climbing outside
    I will be kind and create a welcoming and inclusive climbing community