America's Deteriorating Climbing Areas

Even before COVID-19 sent droves more people outside to recreate, our climbing areas were in trouble. Eroding approach trails and beat-down, barren bases. Protruding tree roots that were never meant to see the light of day. Toilet paper flowers. “Bathtub rings” along the rock face, a reminder that once, before the people and the rope bags and the crag dogs and the packs and the bouldering pads, the earth had risen much higher.

Roadside Crag, KY showing signs of significant erosion. Roadside Crag was closed for nearly 7 years, due in part to climber impacts. The Access Fund-Jeep Conservation Team restored this area in 2018. Ancestral lands of Osage, ᏣᎳᎫᏪᏘᏱ Tsalaguwetiyi, Shawandasse Tula, Yuchi, Adena, and Hopewell.

Now, in the middle of a global pandemic, a huge rush of people are heading outdoors to climb—accelerating the already booming popularity of outdoor climbing. But most crags were developed when the sport was still fringe. Haphazard approach trails that usually took the most direct, not the most sustainable, line from the car to the cliff worked well enough when a few dozen people might visit the area over a season. But dozens have swelled to hundreds if not thousands, and lightly used approach trails have been transformed into deeply eroded gullies.

“None of these places were designed as recreation sites—and yet that’s exactly what they’ve become,” says Access Fund Stewardship Director Ty Tyler. “Our numbers at these places are similar to that of an urban park where families go to picnic. The difference is that those parks were designed to handle the traffic. Climbing areas weren’t.”

How COVID is Crushing Our Climbing Areas

Right now, crags and boulder fields around the country are seeing a record number of visitors— with some locations reporting up to a 300% increase—and our climbing areas are buckling under the pressure.
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Access Fund is working with local climbing organizations across the country to address the problem with support from land managers, grants, and a whole lot of sweat. Climbers are building retaining walls, beefing up belay bases, installing port-a-potties at trailheads, and creating new trails that will last for decades. But the number of deteriorating crags is growing every day, while the number of volunteers and the funding to support them remain too scarce.

Recruiting help for these projects—in the form of money or labor—is sometimes made more difficult by the fact that many climbers don’t recognize the problem as a problem and, sometimes, don’t recognize the solution as a solution.

Take The Gallery in the Red River Gorge, for instance. Stacked with high-quality lines from 5.8 to 5.13, the crag attracts both new and experienced climbers—and lots of them. On a beautiful Kentucky weekend, every route is apt to have a line hanging on it by late morning. The crag is well loved and equally well impacted. To address the conditions at The Gallery, the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition (RRGCC) went big.

With the help of three separate grants, including one from Access Fund, the group completely transformed the base area. It took 5,000 man-hours and 20 tons of rock, but they created two levels of terracing and built a fence along a retaining wall. The idea behind the fence, which has been used successfully at other climbing areas, is to concentrate the impact in the areas now built to withstand it, and restore the area on the other side of the fence, allowing for revegetation. But the fence didn’t go over so well with everyone, and some climbers left the RRGCC some feedback on a nearby sign.

Curtis Gale-Dyer, land manager for the RRGCC, would dispute that the fence is a waste of money. Climbers are leaving a trace, with or without the fence, and the game now is to manage that trace.

“Back in the ’90s, climbers would go in the woods and do their thing and leave,” he said. But in the intervening decades, the Red’s popularity has exploded. “A lot of climbers are having a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that climbing is big,” Gale-Dyer said. “It’s grown and it’s huge. Areas are getting destroyed.”

Land managers have to do active management, Gale-Dyer said, which in turn allows individual climbers to leave no trace. One of the seven core principles of leave no trace is to travel on durable surfaces. The RRGCC and other local climbing organizations are creating those durable surfaces in the form of beefed-up belay bases and bomber trails.

Gale-Dyer’s response to the vandalized sign was to buckle down and do some research. He wanted to make a case for why the RRGCC is doing what it’s doing, and he did it with numbers. Here’s what he found:

  • There are roughly 436 climbing gyms in the United States and Canada.
  • 43 new commercial gyms opened in 2017—nearly double the number that opened in 2016.
  • Based on liability waivers, between 1,000 and 1,500 people try climbing for the first time every single day in the U.S. (Within two hours of the Red, the number is 28.)
  • In 2016, the RRGCC had an estimated 50,000 visits to its properties.

His point, of course, is that the Red cannot expect to see fewer climbers, or even a steady number of climbers. More climbers are coming, and land managers need to find a way to manage the flood.

Recognizing the Problem

A little farther south, Cody Roney, executive director of the Southeastern Climbers Coalition (SCC), has also experienced climbers not understanding that a problem exists.

“People don’t know what issues look like; that’s probably the major problem,” she said. “People think, ‘This is fine to me. I don’t need to come out to these trail days.’” But if she can get them there, Roney has seen their perspectives transform. “When they come out to a trail day and do meaningful work, then they understand,” Roney said. “That’s what a well-built trail looks like. That’s what erosion is and how it’s caused.”

Andrea Hassler, one of the expert trail builders on the Access Fund-Jeep Conservation Team, has had similar experiences all over the country. “Climbers go straight uphill to the cliff,” she said. “We’re strong and fit and capable, and we can navigate a supereroded trail. So we don’t necessarily care that the trail is falling apart. What we care about is the climb.”

When Hassler works with volunteers on trail days, she tries to help them visualize how an area used to be, before it became a heavily visited crag. “There are visual cues if you know what to look for, and you can reconstruct what a place used to look like,” she said. “If you’re at the base of a cliff or a boulder, the plants used to come all the way up to the cliff line. You can see tree roots that are exposed—they’re supposed to be under the soil. You can look for the bathtub ring, which can be a few inches or a few feet above the ground. That part of the cliff used to be underground; it was not exposed to the elements.”

Motivating Action

So getting climbers out to trail days changes their perspective. But how to get them out? That’s a ubiquitous problem for Access Fund and local climbing organizations.

“The people who do show up for a trail day want to work hard,” said the SCC’s Roney. “It’s getting people to show up for a trail day that’s the hard part.”

Before COVID-19, Roney and others around the country have had success turning trail days into celebrations, with raffles, live music, beer at day’s end. She’s also been impressed with coaches of local youth climbing teams in the Chattanooga area, who encourage, prod, and sometimes require their team members to do trailwork service projects, making stewardship a part of what it means to be a climber.

Julia Geisler, executive director of the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance (SLCA), has also found it helpful to keep in mind that there is no “they” when it comes to protecting the places we love to climb to ensure access. We are the “they,” she says. No one is going to come along and fix an eroded trail or replace fixed hardware. It’s up to us.

Geisler said climbers also frequently don’t understand what stewardship actually entails. “There is a misconception that stewardship is just picking up trash,” she said. “At the beginning, that’s what an Adopt a Crag was about, and we did it to build the trust of the land management agencies. What we’re doing now is legitimate stone masonry work with professional trail crews and highly skilled anchor replacement efforts. It’s recreation infrastructure that needs to accommodate our growing numbers.”

Crags of Tomorrow

It’s time to think about crag stewardship and development more holistically. It’s about more than equipping routes with bolts or fixed anchors—it includes everything from appropriate parking and trailhead facilities, to sustainable approach trails and staging areas, to stainless steel hardware, and more. While this isn’t the way crag development has typically unfolded, that’s changing, at least when it comes to new areas acquired by Access Fund and local climbing organizations. Some of these areas, developed from scratch, are demonstrations of what sustainable climbing areas can look like.

That’s the case for Denny Cove, a 685-acre parcel of land outside Chattanooga with a several-mile ribbon of delectable Tennessee sandstone running along it. The property was purchased in 2016 by the SCC with support from Access Fund, the Land Trust for Tennessee, and others.

“It’s the first area we ever bought that had no trails,” Roney said. “We were able to cut new trail, and that trail is going to be sustainable forever.”

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).

Gale-Dyer has had a similar opportunity in the Red developing a new crag just opening this summer at Miller Fork Recreational Preserve, purchased by Access Fund and RRGCC in 2013.

“The bolting was finished about two years ago, but we kept it closed to put the trail system and the belay bases in place first,” he said. “Hopefully we are able to stop the erosion before it’s even an issue.”

With thoughtful, careful planning, areas like these may look about the same to the next generation of climbers as they do to today’s. And for Access Fund’s Tyler, that’s really what it’s all about.

“It comes down to quality of experience, now and for the next generation of climbers,” he said. If we don’t address today’s deteriorating crags, the small, incremental impacts that we don’t notice day to day will continue to mount over time: staging areas that keep getting larger, boulder landings that keep getting steeper, crags that keep getting sunnier as shade trees die, and first bolts that are higher off the ground than when they were placed.

“These impacts affect our experience in a negative way,” Tyler said. “But they also degrade the natural environment, and that becomes an access issue. The impacts of climbers, unmitigated, will lead land managers to close areas down to protect natural resources.”

How You Can Help

  • Notice the impacts: The first step to fixing the problem is recognizing the problem exists. When you’re out at the crag, pay attention to the conditions around you. Are there exposed tree roots? How much plant life is around? How sloped is the base? Are your feet slipping on the dirt and disturbing the soil? These are signs that climbing is taking a toll.
  • Limit your impact: Now that you see the problem, work to keep it from getting worse. Put your gear close to the wall and move the belay closer in, not farther away from the cliff. Stay on the trail if there is one, or try to step on rocks and other durable surfaces.
  • Get involved: Step up with your back, your wallet, or both. Keep your eyes open for volunteer opportunities with your local climbing organization or with Access Fund-Jeep Conservation Teams. If you have financial resources, please consider donating to Access Fund or your local climbing organization. Adequate funding is a critical part of making these projects successful.
  • Use your voice: One of Access Fund and local climbing organizations biggest challenges is getting approval from land managers to tackle stewardship. You can help by telling land managers that you support streamlined approval processes for partners. Sign the petition.

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