Access Fund and NPS to Tear Down Climber Trail, WY


By Armando Menocal, Honorary Access Fund Board Member

Actually, its not a trail but a 100-foot wooden stairway built around 1992 to stabilize the badly eroded base slopes of Grand Teton National Parks only true sport climbing area. The stairway is the only passable access to Blacktail Buttes 80-foot Main Wall. Although the stairway was built to protect the heavily used area, it was intended by the Park Service, primarily, if not exclusively, for the benefit of climbers.

And, yes, now the Access Fund and the Park Service want to tear the stairway out. The stairway starts a few feet from a parking area, which is right off of US 26-29 and only a short distance from the Park entrance at Moose Junction. The stairway gives climbers access to sunny, solid rock in a mountain range known for loose rock; alpine climbs; and 3- to 4,000-foot approaches. Blacktail Buttes south-facing limestone cliffs rise prominently above the forest. If youve ever seen a photo of a climber on steep rock silhouetted against the stunning background of the Tetons, it was of Blacktail Butte. Add recently replaced, bomber glue-in bolts on all of its 16 routes, which range from 5.10 to 5.13, and its no surprise that Blacktail Butte has become popular with local and visiting climbers.

The stairway, easily visible from an RV traveling on the highway, also attracts many tourists who assume that the stairway must go to a not-to-be-missed sight. Instead, around the top of the cliff it peters out into various game trails. Camera-toting sightseers in flip-flops may out number climbers.

The heavy use and the Tetons mountain weather have severely shortened the stairways useful life span. Steps are broken. Erosion has undercut anchoring logs and planks. The rope handrail has been gone for years. And, despite the stairway and a good, two-switchback trail to the crags top, climbers have gashed shortcuts.

A repair or rehabilitation of the stairway, however, would have to meet the current Park Service building standards, which would mean, for example, no rope handrailindeed, no handrail at all. The railing would have to be a fence with open space no more than three inches wide. And, large plank stairs staked over scree, dirt, and roots are certainly an unnatural approach to a climbing site in a national park.

The NPS and the Access Fund immediately agreed that the stairway should go and be replaced with a natural trail. The new trail will be longer, traversing out into the forest and returning to join the cliff at the base of the Main Wall. A 5-minute climb up stairs will be replaced by a 10-minute hike through the forest. The upper trail will also be rebuilt.

Tearing out the stairway and replacing it with a natural trail, however, is not the actual challenge. Signage, maps, and physical barriers, such as large, downed trees across eroded slopes, will be employed to keep climbers from attempting to re-impose the directisima of the stairway. After all, the stairway largely followed the original climbers route straight up to the cliff. Will climbers follow a switchback that heads away from the cliffa cliff that they can see tantalizingly close byjust because we tell them its a better way? That is the hope of the project.

The Access Fund and Grand Teton National Park expect to undertake the project in the summer of 2008. Work days for volunteers may stretch over a week or more. Wyoming Access Fund Regional Coordinator Mark Daverin is in charge for the Access Fund.