Should We Be Worried About Bouldering in the Desert?

 

indiancreekBefore you start reading this article, I want to make one thing clear: I AM ASKING A QUESTION, NOT PROVIDING AN ANSWER. This is a subject that has been on my mind, and I am curious what others in the community think about it.


If you are like me, you probably spend too much time on social media looking at “climbing porn.” AKA beautiful photos and videos of climbers climbing climbs in climbing areas. Climb climb climb.

Lately, I’ve been noticing an increasing trend of media covering bouldering in the desert – specifically in Indian Creek, part of Bears Ears National Monument. Just google Indian Creek Bouldering and see what pops up.

Not long ago – maybe five years, bouldering in the creek was completely off my radar. Now I feel like I see it everywhere.

And this makes me nervous.

One thing you will likely notice about the media is that much of it focuses on, features, or is written or narrated by Chris Schulte. Personally, I don’t think you could find a better spokesman for the sport of bouldering, and for bouldering in the desert more specifically. He is reverent, respectful, and open-minded, while encouraging thoughtful reflection about how we interact with the places we climb, and leaving as small an impact as possible.

“We can build gyms anywhere,” Schulte writes in a Black Diamond blog post. “We can’t make another Indian Creek or Yosemite or Fontainebleau. Taking care of our areas is now an essential part of the curriculum, and climbing is growing too fast and too large to simply avoid the fools and the issues.”

But I wonder if the path of casual disclaimer, humble narrator, and peaceful ambient music is enough to offset the potential problems that an onslaught of bouldering traffic might bring in this zone.

Bouldering tends to be very high impact, compared to the trad climbing that Indian Creek is famous for. If nothing else, the sheer fact that there are far more boulderers out there than trad climbers is a fact worth considering. Regardless of the activity, more people means more impact. And while bouldering doesn’t typically involve bolts, it does often involve enormous amounts of chalk clearly visible at a ground level, where non-climbers travel. It also often leads to (with or without the permission of land managers) the creation of flattened out landing zones, and a vast network of social trails to and from various problems. Some places, like Squamish, I think that lends a dreamy affect to the dense forest. I also think it rarely affects the sustainability or health of that type of biome.

But the desert is different. What life exists there fights tooth and nail for purchase, and social trails and landing pads have a real impact. And while it may seem asinine to point it out in a valley filled with cattle, perhaps holding ourselves up – as a community – to the standards of cattle ranchers is not productive. There are signs throughout the Creek pointing out the delicate ecology, specifically the cryptobiotic soil, and encouraging LNT practices. In general, treading lightly is heavily encouraged.

My question is, by promoting bouldering in the desert – even with the best of intentions – do we risk opening up the flood gates to a community that doesn’t always tread lightly? Bouldering has the lowest bar of entry of any type of climbing, and often boulderers are coming straight out of the gym with little knowledge of how to comport themselves in a wilderness environment – especially a place as sacred (and as replete with different user groups) as Indian Creek.

I think one good answer is, “if I don’t publicize it in a way that I think is helpful, someone else will publicize it in a way that is harmful.” Personally, I understand that logic and have used it to rationalize my own promotion of another sensitive zone that is near and dear to my heart. But I still have doubts about the effects of my own best intentions, as well as those of the people promoting Indian Creek bouldering.

In the end, there is no ONE right answer. Somewhere between sticking your head in the sand and pretending the people aren’t going to come and doing nothing to promote respectful use of the resource, and full on spray-fest with no regard to the resource at all, lies the perfect medium of how to manage climbing in public lands. That happy medium is a million dollar question, and one that I think we as a community should be incredibly vigilant about trying to answer. The places we love to climb (and our ability to climb there) may depend on it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories!

Post them in the comments thread, and please, BE KIND. Nobody is out to get anyone here – the goal is simply productive conversation.

5 comments

  • When I first saw the bouldering videos coming out of the Creek, I had a similar reaction: is this really the best thing for this place? A lot of hard work has gone into preserving/improving access there, and bouldering has the potential to create a whole new wave of issues. That being said, I think it’s up to those of us who have been visiting the area for years to inform the new climbers who are being drawn to the boulders. It’s probably a good idea to strike up a conversation with all the pad people you come across to make sure they are up to speed on how special/fragile the place is and how to tread as lightly as possible. Hopefully we can all coexist and continue to be good stewards of this sacred place.

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    • Thanks for your comment, BJ. I think we definitely can (and likely must) coexist. That conversation you mention sounds like a tough one to have, but it would be incredible to see it happen! Chris Schulte certainly sets the bar high with his writing and narratives on the subject, and it helps too that he tries hard to break down lines between different types of climbers (he’s setting the bar high with serious new trad lines, too, as I bet you know).

      It’s a tough one for me. My gut says that following Chris’ example and producing responsible media is the right way to go – but I still fear the ripple effect. In the end, I actually think a lot of this will fall back on major industry brands to be incredibly scrupulous about the tenor of the media they share regarding bouldering in the creek. To that affect, BD is already doing an excellent job (IMO).

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  • Should we be worried about bouldering in the desert? The article and two comments have already exposed deeper questions, the real roots of the problem of our impact. Even while we pigeonhole boulderers as the highest impact subset of climbers we need not worry about them specifically. Climbers are changing the Creek and more are flocking there every year and it’s hard to not feel conflicted about this. Witnessing large groups of newbies trying to get their ropes up on the warm ups makes me cringe; the elitist part of me wishes that they would do their trad-homework elsewhere and make the pilgrimage to this sacred space only when they’re truly ready to respect the cracks – but who am I to say when and how people should come to experience this alluring place? It’s hypocrisy, because I’d be pissed if someone told me how and when I could visit a place. But still, the feeling remains, because even though I don’t enjoy being told what to do, I still hold myself to those old-school standards and it must mean something. Maybe a conversation about how climbing was once passed on by mentors and how valuable that really is for situations like this.
    I also question the motivations of the sponsored climbers and professional social media-types. I understand that an athlete who gets paid to climb must produce visible, quantifiable results; I understand that a boulderer walking past these aesthetic blocs will be compelled to climb them – but why on earth, if you care about this land and are simultaneously a representative of a company that reaches hundred of thousands of people, why would you ever promote yourself by advocating climbing in a fragile area on fragile rock? On some level I get the “responsible media” argument, but perhaps this should come later – the boulders being better off by word-of-mouth flack for as long as possible. I would never tell someone that they ought not climb here, and maybe that’s an ultimate-freedom/nihilistic bent to have about it all – we are humans, we do our thing and have our impact, we die, the earth keeps turning – but I also wouldn’t overtly invite thousands to come via YouTube.
    The spirit of climbing dies at the exact moment that we use it to advance our own image in the eyes of others. This is a razor fine line; as a shutterbug I am also compelled to capture and share beauty but I must implore the denizens of cyber-reality to continually examine their motivations and outlets. At this point these are the most important questions – wondering about the negative effects of social-media, authenticity, and the repercussions of their misuse and where it will lead this exponentially exploding “community”. We all have a fundamental right to use public lands, many are compelled to create and share media, and this exposes a paradox – seeking attention and recognition and maybe even money while simultaneously desiring minimum impacts on the land that is already giving you so much.

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    • RP – whoever you are, thanks for your comment and well-elaborated thoughts. There’s a lot to chew on and think about in your words here, a lot that echoes my own thoughts on climbing today in general.

      But what is the solution? I guess that’s my ultimate question. You and I and anyone else can bemoan the state of climbing today, we can feel nostalgic about olden days, but that doesn’t change the reality of what climbing is today.

      Do we stick our heads in the sand, or do we face the hard issues head on? To me, that question gets at the very heart of the debate about whether to publicize a place or not. Two things are possible (let’s leave Chris Schulte for the time being, and focus on me). 1.) I can shut my big trap about Cochamo, a place I love, and it will either remain a sleepy little paradise for a select few, or it will blwo up when someone who knows almost nothing about the political social or environmental climate there puts out a sicky gnargnar youtube video of sending the raddest crack in south america. Or 2.) I can deduce that people are GOING to talk about it, and I can try to speak through the loudest megaphone, and make sure that what gets heard about cochamo is what SHOULD get heard: that it is a special, delicate, complicated, and at risk place that deserves to be treated carefully, quietly, and pensively… and I can hope that by guiding cochamo’s visitors to that sort of mentality, I will preclude the unthinkable opposite (industrial tourism with no care for sustainability) from happening.

      In the end, there’s no crystal ball, so we can’t know. All we can do is try our best, based on our best guess.

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  • It’s true, there is so much we can’t know and questions often lead to more questions. Still, it is important to think on these things because so many of my own feelings, with regard to climbing and life in general, are antithetical. It’s maddening but it seems like a natural law.
    I don’t know much about the situation in Cochamo, and while it can be useful for the sake of comparison, I feel it may be too different for a direct transfer of situational ethics. Indian Creek has five major cities within a radius of less than 500 miles where hordes of new climbers are being churned out, while Cochamo is a semi-remote valley that takes real effort to visit. You have shared stories and pictures from this faraway place, while a representative of a major brand with extensive media range is putting a fragile area on the radar of thousands of people. I don’t have the answers, but I can’t help but wonder about motivations because coverage like this will produce irrevocable changes that I suspect will not be positive for the area. C’est la vie.

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