Face the Facts: Climber Impact Outpaced Stewardship Efforts Long Ago

As I talk with climbing advocates from across the country, one phrase hits home again and again: “Our climbing areas are being loved to death.”

Crowds at Kraft Boulder Field in Red Rock Canyon. Ancestral lands of Southern Paiute and Western Shoshone

While this has been a long-term battle, we’ve reached a troubling tipping point. Our stewardship efforts are no longer able to keep pace with the impacts from the growing number of climbers.

I love meeting new and old climbers at the crag, experiencing all that climbing has to offer. There’s nothing like the climbing experience, and it can change your life for the better. But the hard truth is that most of these climbing areas weren’t “built” to handle the number of climbers using them today. Most of the parking lots, toilet facilities, approach trails, and staging areas that support our climbing areas where established back in the days when climbing was pretty obscure and the cliffs saw few visitors.

Take the famous Bridge Buttress at the New River Gorge in West Virginia, which is stacked with classic routes with easy roadside access. This historic area was one of my first climbing road trips 20 years ago—despite its easy access, despite the bridge overhead, trees grew close to the cliff and we felt like the only climbers there. For many climbers, this incredible area is where their love affair with The New started.

But as our numbers have swelled, our love of Bridge Buttress has completely overwhelmed this place. The staging areas at the base of the cliff were nude, trees were dead and dying because of exposed roots and compacted soil, social trails were going every which way off the main approach, which itself was crumbling. And the impact was starting to spread into the neighboring forest.

Bridge Buttress before restoration work. Ancestral lands of S’atsoyaha, Tutelo and Moneton.

Access Fund teamed up with the New River Alliance of Climbers (NRAC) and the National Park Service (NPS) on a major, much-needed restoration of this popular climbing area. Crews began the work of building sustainable stone staircases, retaining walls, and restoring native plants. The Conservation Team worked alongside the Appalachian Conservation Corps and NPS trail staff to remove a rapidly deteriorating wooden staircase, replacing it with a solid stone staircase. They also reinforced several belay platforms and staging areas to protect tree roots and give space for native vegetation to thrive.

Just one of the major restoration projects accomplished alongside the NRAC, ACC, and NPS. Ancestral lands of S’atsoyaha, Tutelo and Moneton.

But Bridge Buttress is just one success story among the hundreds of crags across the country that are in need of restoration. The story is the same from Maine to California: Our climbing areas are in big trouble. And while it may be easy to point fingers and say that “all these new climbers coming out of gyms are the problem” it’s simply not true. The fault doesn’t lay with any one group of climbers—it is our shared love of these places that is overwhelming them. Yours, mine, theirs. It’s all of us.

As a community, we’re at a crux. But we’re climbers. We can’t be afraid to take on this challenge. Our charge now is to love these areas back to life. And that starts with getting real about the impacts, acknowledging the need for recreation infrastructure to protect these places, and bringing a whole heck of a lot more resources to bear. And by resources, yes, I mean money. We can do it, if we come together as a family of climbers.

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As you gather with family and friends over the holidays, remember your climbing areas and the special experiences they bring to your life. At Access Fund we’ll be thinking of you, your local crag, and your generous support. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift before year-end to help us love our climbing areas back to life.

Zachary Lesch-Huie
Vice President of Programs & Acquisitions