The Double-Edged Sword of Climbing’s Newfound Fame

Even before the explosive growth of outdoor recreation during the pandemic, climbing was well on its way to going mainstream—with Red Bull sponsorships, former President Obama tweeting about the Dawn Wall, a debut at the Olympics, and Alex Honnold at the Oscars, it's more popular than ever. If you were climbing 20 years ago, you probably saw the same couple of cars in the pullout every weekend, and could count on one hand the number of people you saw at the crag. But today, those five or six cars have ballooned into literally hundreds on a busy weekend.

Climber parking at The Happy Boulders in Bishop, CA. Ancestral lands of Northern Paiute, Eastern Mono/Monache, Newe (Western Shoshone) | © Ryan Tetz

The Price of Fame

But climbing’s rise in popularity has had an unintended effect—trails are falling apart, the base of cliffs and boulders are becoming pounded wastelands devoid of plant life, shade trees are dying, and bits of climbing tape and bar wrappers float by in the breeze. The original developers of many of the most popular crags could scarcely have imagined how popular climbing would one day become. And the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the growth of outdoor climbing even more.

“We’re at a tipping point,” says Ty Tyler, Stewardship Director for Access Fund. “The overwhelming majority of America's climbing areas were developed decades ago, under the radar, and were not created to withstand the sheer number of climbers using them today.”

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Being outside in unspoiled nature has always been at the core of the climbing experience, alongside the camaraderie shared with other climbers and the joy of pushing ourselves to physical and mental limits. Jamming splitters under a bluebird sky in the Utah desert, or crimping hard on bomber Tennessee sandstone boulders with the fall colors blazing all around. These are experiences that none of us forget, and they are part of what sets climbing apart from other sports. But those experiences are threatened.

Climbing has come into its own as a mature activity, but the infrastructure at climbing areas has not kept pace. We’re at a critical juncture, right now, where we need to make big investments in climbing areas before we ruin these places and compromise what is so special about the climbing experience.

“We need to say goodbye to a past where we could do whatever we wanted, wherever we wanted," says Peter Croft, legendary stonemaster and climbing lifer. "Even with the best of intentions, we are making a bigger impact than ever before.”

Crowds of climbers at popular bouldering spot on Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, CO. Ancestral lands of Arapaho, Cheyenne, Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute).

A Familiar Dilemma

This problem is not unique to climbing. Mountain biking, hiking, and many other outdoor activities have faced and overcome similar challenges in their maturity, forcing leaders in their communities to reckon with the blossoming popularity of their sports and their associated impacts. Take hiking and backpacking for instance. As popularity grew steadily over the 20th century, impacts at popular destinations like Yosemite were immense. The serene meadows we take for granted today were being trampled bare by hikers, and popular trails would sprout spurs and parallel paths that deepened with every season, making an unsightly mess of some of the most scenic hikes in the park. The National Park Service noted that “by the 1970’s, many trails were ‘loved to death’.”

But the park was able to curb these impacts by concentrating hiker use. They installed boardwalks through the meadows, provided navigation signage, and placed natural barriers to direct traffic onto trails, preserving the environment that visitors were there to experience in the first place. While popular hikes like the Mist Trail and Lyell Canyon now include more human-built features than before, their beauty is undimmed, and the remainder of the park—mostly wilderness, largely unvisited—is shockingly empty and ripe for adventure. Though crowding remains a major issue, the impacts on the environment have been controlled through thoughtful planning and infrastructure.

What's Next for Climbing?

So where do we go from here, as a climbing community? To start, we invest in car-to-climb infrastructure—parking, bathrooms, trails, and reinforced staging areas—at popular crags and boulders. This is expensive, highly technical work that includes building retaining walls, staircases, and belay platforms to prevent continued erosion. In hot spots like Smith Rock and the Gunks, and newly developed areas like Denny Cove, this work has already been done to great effect. Climbers are directed and concentrated onto well-built, strategic infrastructure, concentrating impact onto durable surfaces that can withstand the traffic and protecting the surrounding environment so that the animals and plantlife we share these areas with can continue to thrive.

A newly constructed belay platform at Denny Cove in Tennessee gives climbers a safe and dry place to belay while protecting the surrounding ecosystem from erosion and rapid degradation. Ancestral lands of ᏣᎳᎫᏪᏘᏱ Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee, East), Shawandasse Tula (Shawanwaki/Shawnee), S’atsoyaha (Yuchi).

This infrastructure will help protect crags and boulders from the increased visitation they are already facing. In the short-term, these efforts will create disturbances around the work site, but in the long term they will lead to healthier ecosystems—preserving America's climbing areas and our access well into the future.

The need for these changes may be unpalatable to some climbers, especially those who remember a different, wilder climbing experience and the raw adventure, self-reliance, and independence it brings. Luckily, we are blessed with vast wild landscapes and countless climbing areas in this country, many of which are yet to be discovered. From obscure but excellent gneiss boulderfields only an hour north of New York City, to off-the-radar crags right under the noses of the usual Bishop long weekend crowds, there are still ample opportunities for a climbing experience defined by solitude and the absence of human touch. In the hundreds of millions of acres of wilderness and otherwise undeveloped or simply remote landscapes across the nation, the opportunities for true climbing adventure, way out there, totally self-reliant, are enough to fill many lifetimes.

But for the crags that are famous, and that are slammed every weekend, it is time to act. We can choose to let climbing areas continue to get beaten down and denuded, or we can invest in infrastructure that saves these special areas. The challenges we face as a climbing community are serious, but by no means unbeatable. We have the resources, knowledge, and skills to prevent the degradation of the crags we love.

"With grit and common purpose, we can protect our most precious climbing resources," says Croft. "And by starting now we get to chart our own course, and create the future we want to see."

Access Fund will be hard at work building partnerships between local climbing organizations, weekend warriors, land management agencies, and other conservation groups to make this work possible. Our three traveling Conservation Teams will continue to tackle these complex sustainability challenges across the country. But we are counting on your support. We hope you will join us by educating yourself and your fellow climbers on the environmental impacts facing our climbing areas and what you can do to help—and by donating your time and your resources to help us solve these critical issues. Access Fund is committed to the long-term sustainability of America's climbing areas, and with your help, we can make this a reality.

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