04/14/2008

Climbing Access Threatened at Sunset Rock

4/15/2008

By Samantha Christen, Southeastern Climbers Coalition

Climbing at Sunset Park, one of the premier trad areas in Tennessee, is in danger of being nothing but a bittersweet memory, according to representatives of the Southeastern Climbers Coalition (SCC).

Matthew Gant, a member of the SCC board, said the National Park Service was recently on the verge of shutting down climbing at Sunset. One month ago the rangers had given up on climbers and had made plans for closing Sunset to climbing permanently, Gant says. He further explains that the park service cited numerous negative incidents involving climbers, including loudness (Sunset is in a residential area), blocking trails with ropes and gear, and unruly dogs. Local climber groups were able to convince the park service not to go ahead with the climbing ban. According to Grant, the rangers want to see more involvement in education, monitoring, and self-policing of the crag by groups like the SCC.

Sunset Park is part of the Chickamauga National Battlefield Park, a major battle in the Civil War. As such, it is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Samantha Christen, the SCCs area representative for Sunset, points out that this is the only military park in the U.S. that allows climbing, and there is no particular obligation for the NPS to continue this practice. At any point in time, they (NPS) can come in and shut us down with absolutely no explanation, she says.

The SCC has been a key organization in maintaining the sometimes uneasy relationship between climbers, the park service, and the residents of Lookout Mountain. Volunteers from the group have put in a tremendous number of person-hours on trail work, erosion control, and installing bolted anchors to spare the trees at the top of the cliff. Christen says the park service appreciates this work, but only to a point. We are only, in their eyes, fixing what we broke, she says. In their eyes, we, at this point, really have done no preventative maintenance, just repair of damaged areas.

The NPS maintains Sunset as a memorial to the Civil War battle; recreation is a secondary concern. This is especially true in light of recent government cutbacks, which have left the park service shorthanded. If climbers make the rangers job more difficult, they may consider it easiest just to get rid of the problem by banning climbing, Christen and Gant say. The park service does not hate us, nor do they wish to see us go as a user-group, Christen says. However, with the decrease in manpower due to federal cutbacks, they are prepared to take necessary measures to ensure that they are able to do their jobs.

The SCC is currently working on a plan for educating Sunset climbers on the issues involved and on how to deal with people who violate the rules. Some possible steps include fliers to hand out or put on climbers cars; letters to climbing gyms, school clubs, and outdoor organizations; and encouraging people to ask their fellow climbers to move their gear off the trail or keep their voices down.

In the end, though, it will come down to whether Sunset climbers care enough about this great destination to do the right thing. All it will take is a few uncaring individuals out of the thousands who climb at Sunset every year to put an end to almost 50 years of great southern climbing. For the latest status of Sunset and what you can do to help, go to the SCC website: www.seclimbers.org/index.php