What Seasoned Climbers Have to Learn About Minimum Impact

The saying goes that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But that’s other people, right? We climbers are a fairly adaptive bunch. Need to reverse a sequence? No problem. Bad weather moving in? We know what to do. Only brought one belay device? Don’t sweat it. And when someone mentions a way to climb safer or more efficiently, our ears perk up, listening with rapt attention. It could be an evolve or die situation that we find ourselves in.

But, what happens when someone mentions Leave No Trace (LNT) around a group of veteran climbers?

Photo courtesy of ©Andrew Burr

All too often, we fold our arms, lean back and whisper with one of our partners about the approaching weather window. We think we know best. We think the following service announcement is another “Gym to Crag” message for all those “new climbers” that keep showing up at the crag. We think we know what we’re doing.

Don’t we?

I say “we” because I’m guilty of it too. Those talks/infographics/videos/blogs weren’t for me. I’ve been camping since I was six. I’d memorized the outdoor ethics code during my time in Scouts. I know what I’m doing.

But minimum impact principles have had to evolve due to the sheer number of people visiting our climbing areas. Just because an apple core or banana peel is biodegradable doesn’t mean it should be chucked into the woods anymore. My beloved Smith Rock gets over 600,000 visitors per year—imagine if everyone chucked their banana peels into the woods. They take a full two years to fully biodegrade, and the place would be a mess.

Our numbers have grown, and the nature of protecting nature has changed. And so can we. Seasoned climbers like you can lead the charge. Climbing ethics have always been at the forefront of the sport. And those of us that are the cultural influencers in our community can create widespread change just by leaning in.

Growing up in Kentucky, I was around when Roadside Crag was closed due to climber impacts. The highly trafficked wall was suffering due to litter, social trails, human waste, and eroded staging areas. It was heartbreaking as a teen to be told that a place full of memories and future plans was now off-limits.

While the litter and other factors were all preventable issues, the heart of the problem was that the crag was being loved to death. Landowners attempted to sound the alarm by talking with the local climbing coalition and distributing pamphlets, but climbers refused to change their course. After years of fighting the good fight, the crag was closed in 2011 to all climbing.

The good news is that Roadside has reopened, albeit with limited access. However, the crag will never be the same. Despite years of rest, there are still years of work required to restore this crag to its former glory. This is a primary example of why everyone should focus on climbing access.

So, where do we go from here? How do we move forward with this knowledge?

The first thing is paying attention. We’ve learned to do our research before heading into the backcountry or out to the crag. Climbing has taught us to double-check before checking again. Apply these same principles to conservation. Bring that same attention to detail, whether you’re climbing abroad or at the crag in your backyard. Access can be very different in various states. Climbing access in Colorado is far different from access in Kentucky.

Climbing ethics are evolving as our community grows. Catholes are no longer acceptable in most popular front-country areas. The off-trail shortcuts over switchbacks no longer have minimal impact when hundreds of other climbers are doing the same thing. We can’t treat the base of our project like our own living room anymore. The simple act of keeping our gear in a confined space, close to the crag, can prevent huge amounts of erosion, and most importantly, help protect climbing access.

The next thing you can do is sign The Climber’s Pact. Consider this the Freedom of The Hills for the climbing environment. After reading through the content, sign the pact, and Access Fund will send you occasional emails that provide insight and tips on the evolving nature of caring for our climbing areas.

One of my favorite parts of The Climber’s Pact is the final commandment: Be an upstander, not a bystander. As climbers, we can’t afford to think that we already know everything, or that caring for our climbing areas is someone else's problem...that’s the philosophy of a bystander. Whether you're a bolt-clipping aficionado or a grizzled alpinist, it’s time for seasoned climbers to be upstanders. From pitons to nuts, aid climbing to free climbing, consider climbing access the next step in the evolution of climbing ethics. Sign The Climber’s Pact today.

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About Keith Erps

Keith Erps was born in the south with dreams of the west. Despite high levels of stoke, the transition from crimping southern sandstone to jamming PNW granite was anything but smooth. He spends most days drinking cheap coffee and complaining about wet rock.