What We Can Learn from the Ten Sleep Controversy

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, you’ve probably heard all about the route development controversy at Ten Sleep Canyon in Wyoming.

Tensleep is managed by the US Forest Service. | Apsaalooké (Crow), Cheyenne, and Očeti Šakówiŋ (Sioux) Territories. | Photo courtesy of © Louis Arevalo

In case you aren’t in the loop, the general gist is this: a group of climbers equipping new sport routes pushed local ethics and historic norms to the extreme by manufacturing entire sequences of holds to create new routes on the limestone at Ten Sleep Canyon. A second group of climbers who opposed these manufactured routes took extreme action by chopping the bolts, filling in holds, and installing padlocks on the first hanger of other routes to make a statement. And then Bighorn National Forest officials stepped in and banned route development across the entire forest.

It’s tempting to jump to one side or the other of this controversy, but we’d encourage you to think instead about what we can learn from this situation.

The actions taken by both groups of climbers—the ones manufacturing holds and the ones chopping bolts—are now responsible for a host of damage to the rock in Ten Sleep Canyon. The Forest Service considers both sets of actions to be unlawful. The environment has suffered at the hands of climbers on both sides, and the reputation of the climbing community as a whole is at stake.

Access Fund has been working for nearly 30 years to prove to land managers that climbers are responsible users and stewards of our shared public lands. And local climbing organizations all across the country are working to establish relationships with public land managers to do the same. The actions of these two groups of climbers at Ten Sleep undermine our ability to protect climbing access, steward our climbing areas, and have a seat at the table on local and national-level policy issues that impact climbing on public lands.

It may not be obvious in the heat of the moment or when you’re reading online forums, but this incident could easily have implications for climbing far beyond Wyoming. Forest Service officials are in regular contact with each other, and districts that once welcomed climbing are now starting to ask difficult questions: Are the climbers here doing the same thing? Should we start a permit process for new routes and replacements? Should we institute a moratorium until we can assess what climbers are doing? Do we have a Climbing Management Plan?

This incident reflected poorly on our community as a whole, and land managers around the country are taking notice. Right now, Access Fund and Bighorn Climbers Coalition are working to repair the damage with our partners at the US Forest Service. If the route manufacturing and route removal don’t stop immediately, the climbing community could lose the privilege of climbing in Ten Sleep altogether, with no recourse other than a lot of meaningless finger pointing. The climbing community must respect the moratorium on new route development in Bighorn National Forest if we ever want to see those restrictions lifted.

So, where do we go from here? It’s up to the climbing community to rebuild trust with the land managers. We must speak with a unified voice in favor of access, conservation, and stewardship—not just at Ten Sleep, but across the country.

So, what can we all learn from this unfortunate situation? Here’s our take:

  • Chipping, gluing, or otherwise manufacturing holds on outdoor climbing routes is not only unethical and illegal, and it will jeopardize access for the whole community.
  • Vigilante bolt chopping also damages the resource and jeopardizes access.
  • When it comes to concerns about local ethics, climbers need to work with local climbing organizations to protect climbing resources and partner with land managers.
  • Our actions as climbers—both positive and negative—reflect on the entire community nationwide.

Let’s put this episode behind us and come together to protect and respect Ten Sleep Canyon. It’s an incredibly beautiful landscape, and it’s up to us to take care of it and pass it on to the next generation of climbers.

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