The 4 Biggest Threats to the Future of Climbing

It’s a fact: One in five climbing areas in the United States face access issues at any given time. The tremendous growth in climbing has put us under the microscopes of land managers across the country. We all have an impact on the land when we go climbing, from the most grizzled trad dad to the green-as-can-be gym climber visiting the crag for the first time. And those impacts are starting to stack up into a future for climbing that’s anything but guaranteed.

Climbing in Red Rock Canyon. Ancestral lands of Southern Paiute and Western Shoshone. Photo by Kiliii Yuyan.

1. More Climbers

Thousands of people try climbing in a gym for the first time every day in the United States. In a recent survey of gym climbers, 95% reported they were interested in climbing outside. In 2020 alone, some states reported up to a 50% increase in public land use levels year over year. New climbers discovering the freedom and adventure of the sport is always a good thing, but we have to step up as a community to make sure our greater numbers are balanced out by more education around how we can all be better stewards of the places we love.

2. Overregulation

More traffic means land managers have a harder time ensuring the impact to natural resources is minimal. And it's important they do, or else we'll lose access entirely. But when land managers are strapped for resources—which they all too often are—the easy answers are to curtail access with temporary stopgaps, like limited parking and blanket closures or permit and reservation systems, without collaborating or consulting with the user groups themselves. We need to be in the room and at the table when land use policy is being developed to ensure temporary reactionary measures don't become permanent.

3. Outdated Infrastructure

Most climbing areas were developed decades before climbing went mainstream, back when you recognized all the cars in the parking lot on any given weekend and oftentimes had the crag to yourself. The idea of infrastructure didn’t even come into the equation back then, and now that these areas are seeing more and more climbers on a regular basis, it’s really starting to show. Hammered belay areas, spiderwebs of social trails, exposed tree roots, eroded cliff bases, and even human waste in plain sight are continuing to plague the places we love. We might even be loving them to death.

4. The Times Are Changing

The nature of protecting nature has changed, and we need to change with it. Seasoned and new climbers alike have to put the effort in to stay up to date on what it means to climb responsibly, how Leave No Trace ethics can change over time, and what responsible climbing means from crag to crag since issues can vary widely. Climbers may very well be the biggest threat to the future of climbing, but by embracing the changing ethics of climbing responsibly, we can make a difference.

What Comes Next

With the exponential growth of climbing and the access issues that come along with it, we as a community have our hands full with new threats we’ve never had to reckon with before. But the good news is that many of the issues start with us, as climbers, which means they’re all fixable by the community as a whole. Access Fund is working urgently to position the climbing community as part of the solution. We have four incredibly powerful programs that are already addressing these challenges on the ground:

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