12/03/2020

Crags of the Future

You’ve heard it before—America’s climbing areas are deteriorating at a rate roughly equivalent to the explosive growth of climbing. So how do we restore these areas, avoid closures, and make crags sustainable? And what does sustainability even look like?

This belay platform at Denny Cove in Tennessee gives climbers a sustainable place to belay, while protecting an ephemeral stream and wildlife habitat below, which would otherwise be destroyed by climber traffic. Ancestral lands of Cherokee, Shawnee, and Yuchi.

It helps to first recognize the problem

Most crags were developed decades ago, when the sport was still fringe. A few adventurous climbers parked on the side of the road and took the most logical path through the woods to discover climbing opportunities. More climbers followed, cutting those trails and belay areas deeper and deeper over the years. Maybe a parking area was put in, but probably not. More than likely, cars are lining the side of the road.

“None of these crags were designed as recreation sites—and yet that’s exactly what they’ve become,” says Access Fund Stewardship Director Ty Tyler. “Climbers are flooding to these crags at a similar rate 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.”

Part of the solution: car-to-climb infrastructure

Many of the issues climbing areas are facing can be solved with proper planning and infrastructure that is designed to manage visitors and protect the climbing environment.

Think of it this way:

  • Build sustainable trails >> Climber traffic can be concentrated onto well-built paths that protect the surrounding environment.
  • Provide sufficient parking >> Dangerous and illegal parking concerns can be resolved.
  • Reinforce and shrink ever-expanding belay and pad areas >> Climbers can stick to durable surfaces without trampling the whole area, giving the environment a chance to heal.
  • Install educational and trail signs >> Climbers will know how to navigate responsibly.

These are just a few examples of the kind of work that is necessary to protect many of our most popular climbing environments, so that the animals and plant life we share these areas with can thrive—and we can enjoy access for generations to come.

What does sustainability look like?

If you haven’t been climbing at the same area for decades, it can be hard to notice the problems as problems. Or the solutions as solutions. Here are some visuals to help you recognize an unsustainable situation versus a sustainable one.

Moss Rock Preserve, Alabama

Moss Rock has long been one of the Deep South's best and most historic climbing areas. But years of high visitation caused extreme erosion and soil loss, and conditions got so bad that climbers all but abandoned it. The Access Fund Conservation Team began a total restoration of the area in 2016, and it's well on its way to recovery.

Proper trails and reinforced pad areas concentrate climbers onto sustainable paths to protect sensitive tree roots from further damage. Ancestral lands of Shawnee, Yuchi, and Muscogee.

Fun Rock, Washington

This popular, moderate crag outside Mazama has been drawing more and more climbers every year. The belay area was supported by a set of rotting timbers, installed decades ago, which were collapsing and quickly destabilizing the hillside and threatening trees. The Access Fund Conservation Team restored this area earlier this year.

These new stone steps reinforce the hillside, protect the trees, and give climbers a sustainable area to belay without damaging the surrounding environment. Ancestral lands of Okanagan and Nlaka'pamux.

Bridge Buttress, West Virginia

The famous Bridge Buttress at the New River Gorge is stacked with classic routes with easy roadside access. And it's also a classic example of climbers loving an area to death—severe erosion, beat down belay areas, soil loss, the list goes on. The Access Fund Conservation Team is actively working with the National Park Service to restore the area.

A formal approach trail gives climbers a sustainable route to approach the crag, which stabilizes the hillside and protects the surrounding environment, giving vegetation a chance to recover. Ancestral lands of Yuchi, Tutelo, and Moneton.

Whose job is it to fix these areas?

This type of infrastructure is expensive and requires highly technical skills. Few land managers actually have the budget or resources to make it happen. And when faced with overwhelming impacts and not enough budget to mitigate those impacts, a land manager’s only answer is often to restrict access or shut an area down.

This is where climbers come in. Access Fund is already doing this work all across the country. But even with six full-time trail-builders/conservation specialists on the road, we’re barely scratching the surface. We need your help to make bigger investments in car-to-climb infrastructure at popular crags and boulders before land managers shut climbers out.