Should We Be Worried About Bouldering in the Desert?
Before 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.