Worried About Bouldering in the Desert? A Follow Up

A couple weeks ago, I wrote an article called “Should We Be Worried About Bouldering in the Desert?” My goal was to generate some discussion around that question. Predictably enough, given all that’s going on right now in the world (and specifically in the Bears Ears) there wasn’t much response. In short, the obvious answer is “probably not, when we could be worried about X, Y, and Z instead.”

That said, I did get some good conversation in with a few individuals who really have a lot more to say on the subject than I do, and I wanted to share their thoughts here. Please enjoy the following Q+A on bouldering in the desert, by Chris Schulte (CS, Professional Climber), Jason Grubb (JG – Outreach Manager for Leave No Trace), and Travis Herbert (TH – Education Director, AF).

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Q1: As you know, I recently wrote an article asking a simple question, “Should we be worried about bouldering in the desert?” Without trying to provide an answer, I did hope to give context for why I was asking. What do you think about some of the claims I made, such as “Bouldering tends to be very high impact, compared to the trad climbing that Indian Creek is famous for,” “there are far more boulderers out there than trad climbers,” and “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”?

CS: I’ll try to be brief and concise, which may come off as a bit prickly, but this is important, so bear with me. it’s not a simple question, and you did try to provide an answer through your claims, framing your opinion through your statements. To address your listed claims directly: bouldering has potential to be very high impact, though the blocks are scattered and hard to find. No resource exists to direct potential suitors, which is a MAJOR deterrent. Furthermore, trad climbing brings thousands from around the world to campgrounds, parking, and bolted crags with specific well built trails to the cliffs to climb blown out cracks with human stains following the corners. The impact is nowhere close to comparable. Far more boulderers out there than trad climbers? In context, this is ridiculous. Worldwide, maybe. As far as Often Leads To… sure… like everything else in climbing. Because climbers are human, and humans are lazy and scared. You can’t just single out boulderers.

JG: I think it’s important to qualify “impact”. If we’re talking solely about landing zones and social trails, then I’d agree that bouldering may be higher impact. But, if we’re talking about social impacts (loud groups, crowding, etc.), human waste, or which impacts are more long term (i.e. permanent anchors), I’d argue that trad climbing is just as, if not more, impactful than bouldering. With that said, I think the pursuit isn’t the issue, the issue is the individual. A small, uneducated group can have significantly more impact than a large group aware of their impacts and working to reduce them.

TH: Any person that climbs outside has an impact each time they go climbing. The amount of impact depends upon a myriad of factors. Full disclosure: I haven’t personally climbed at Indian Creek. I won’t attempt to make assumptions about the relative impact of trad vs bouldering without climbing there or talking with people knowledgeable about the area, whether that is land managers or locals. According to the OIA Topline Report for 2016 there are 4.6M people who climb “Sport, Indoors, or Boulder” and 2.5M who climb “Trad, Ice, Mountaineering”. Despite these national numbers I don’t have any evidence to suggest that the number of people bouldering in Indian Creek comes anywhere close to the number of people that go there to climb routes. Environmental impact due to trails to boulders/routes and landing zones/staging areas are a consequence of use. Most of the environmental impact to soil in a pristine area will happen within the first few visits. From there future impact may vary depending on a number of factors from susceptibility of the terrain to erosion, number of people visiting the resource, etc. 

Q2: So, in a nutshell, what is your answer: is bouldering in the desert something we should be worried about? Why or why not?

CS: Uh yeah, cuz scared and lazy. People. Humans. But prolly not yet an issue, not for a while. But it’s really easy to make it an issue within the climbing community, with a blog post, for example.

JG: “Worried about” in what sense? Worried about from an ecological perspective? Sure. Human waste in a water source, for example, can be a big deal. Especially in a sensitive environment like the desert. But do I think we should be worried about access issues due to bouldering in the Creek? No.

TH: All climbers have a responsibility to understand the environmental and social impacts they have when climbing outside and work to minimize those impacts. The desert is a uniquely fragile environment. Learn about the issues and nuances of climbing in the desert. Be curious. Are there examples of climbing areas that have been closed due to poor climber behavior and environmental impact?  Yes. Is that a possibility for bouldering at Indian Creek?  Maybe. Maybe not. Because bouldering development there is relatively recent and in the grand scheme of things, not many people are bouldering compared to climbing routes, I would say we have an opportunity to shape the story of bouldering at Indian Creek into one where the resource is respected, impact is minimized and trails and landing areas are sustainable relative to use. This is going to take a concerted effort by everyone who climbs and boulders there to make happen and it will likely happen in partnership with land managers. 

Q3: Jason, you just completed a study about adherence of boulderers to LNT principles in Rocky Mountain National Park. Can you give us a brief abstract of the study, and your findings?

JG: Without paraphrasing too much, our findings essentially found that boulderers tended to adhere to Leave No Trace, except when it came to bouldering specific issues, like building landings and stashing pads, for example. This highlighted the need to created bouldering specific Leave No Trace recommendations to better resonate with this audience. The published journal article outlining our research findings can be found in the December 2016 issue of the International Journal of Wilderness. 

Q4: How do you think those results may or may not relate to Indian Creek?

JG: It’s difficult, if not impossible, to say. Our sampling of boulderers in RMNP during the summer of 2015 could translate to boulderers in the creek, but it may not. I’d be very hesitant to extrapolate those RMNP findings to other boulderers.

Q5: Travis, through your work with the Access Fund you’ve tried to educate climbers on LNT principles, wilderness best practices and generally how to reduce your impact when you climb outside. How is that going? What’s the next step for AF?

TH: Our work on education at AF continues to evolve. The past three years we focused heavily on the creation of an event series called the ROCK Project Tour, which was a multi-day event focused on education, stewardship and the transition from climbing indoor and outdoors. They were really successful and created a lot of buzz around our work and the importance of reducing your impact each time you climb. This year we are focusing on creating content and resources for the climbing community to use to help spread the word about how they can protect America’s climbing by being a responsible climber. This is something that our partners have been asking for that was challenging to deliver on the past few years while running multiple events per year. There won’t be any events this year, but we hope that this new content has a broad reach and inspires climbers to get involved.

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Q6: Chris, as I noted in the first piece, you have been an admirable spokesman for bouldering in the desert, and I appreciate that. That said, have you had fears or doubts about publicizing or promoting bouldering in this place where (although bouldering has existed for a long time) bouldering has never been very popular?

CS: Absolutely. I don’t trust people. Which is why I’ve not published a guide, which is a conundrum of its own. Publish a guide in hopes of educating people before they go? Eh, I don’t trust em still. Let em roam free to blow it? Also hard to swallow, but having no guide is a big safety. And thank you. I try fucking hard, because I love it.

Q7: I usually try to do a cost-benefit analysis before making media about climbing in a place that is not already “blown up”. Often, the answer I come to is, “If I don’t promote a respectful, sustainable, low-impact form of climbing here, someone else will promote it less conscientiously.” Where do you fall on that cost-benefit analysis for bouldering at Indian Creek? Do you ever have similar thoughts?

CS: Well, I’ve seen the results: creek bouldering has increased perhaps %1000… from just me to about 9 others 😀 no guide=no motivation. People are greedy and cowardly, and won’t waste time exploring with an open mind and sense of adventure; they wanna have hard sends served up. I’ve sweated over this media for years… I gotta say, you too are in effect promoting media on creek bouldering as well, and your line of questioning casts bouldering and boulderers in a less than positive light.. have you watched any of my videos or read my essays and posts? I’d hope you could pull my stance from there..
(Editor’s Note: like I’ve said, Chris is an incredible spokesman for bouldering and climbing in general. I think the media he has produced around bouldering in the desert is admirably done, not just from an aesthetic viewpoint but also from a moral one. If I did paint boulderers in a negative light, it was not intentional. My goal was not to cast the entire community in any particular light at all. Basically, bouldering, like trad, like sport, all carry their own difficulties and negative implications. As the media about bouldering in the desert increases, so too will the bouldering (assumption). My goal was simply to take a moment and discuss that as a community before it happened. Since trad climbing has already blown up there, I missed the boat for a parallel discussion on that form of climbing. The biggest concern I have is that the only people (by and large) who go where the trad climbers go is trad climbers. The bouldering that I’ve seen, however, often seems to be much closer to road level, where other user groups are more commonly present. So the chance for different user groups interacting seems higher there, and that makes me worried.

Q7: If you could say one thing directly to folks doing ANY kind of climbing in ANY fragile or delicate zone, what would you say?

CS: Don’t be an idiot. You know what’s right, quit being lazy.

JG: I’d say this, “You represent your user-group”. Whether someone believes that, or not, is up to them, but doing what we can as individuals enjoying our favorite pastimes, to portray those endeavors in the best possible light, helps ensure that everyone wins. For example, a horseback rider could cross paths with 100 climbers having perfectly cordial interactions, but if climber 101 is a complete asshole, guess who the horseback rider is going to remember. Being aware of our favorite sports’ shortcomings and doing what we can to minimize those misgivings goes a very, very long way. The primary impacts in desert or fragile environments are protection of water resources, trampling of vegetation, and human waste. Properly dispose of human waste, and travel and camp on durable surfaces, those are my two primary recommendations.

TH: Your responsible behaviors at the boulders or crag matter. It starts with you. Lead by example by learning about the issues and best practices to reduce your impact in all types of terrain, but specifically fragile or sensitive environments where you climb. When you climb in the same places over time you really begin to see the collective impact of our recreational use spreading. If it is your first time to an area, plan ahead and do your research to learn about the sensitive issues for each place you climb. Talk to people. Be curious. Ask questions. Find the local gear shop or talk to some other climbers and ask them about local etiquette and issues to be aware of and take them seriously.  

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Q8: Travis, as a representative for AF, what resources do you know of for people who are worried, concerned, or frustrated with the behaviors of climbers in their local communities?

TH: Spreading the good word and protecting America’s climbing begins with each of us leading by example every time we climb. We will mess up sometimes, but you’ve got to start with yourself. Then, make sure to talk about and plan for reducing your impact when you climb. Make it part of the conversation, just like you pick where to climb, what food and gear to bring, etc.

There is no shortage of information out there about how to reduce your impact when you climb outside. We have a resource toolbox on our website that provides a ton of info and will be building that out even more in the coming year. If you are climbing somewhere and see an issue that may threaten access you can report that issue to us and we can try to help. If you are specifically asking for techniques to help climbers talk to other climbers when they see behaviors that will negatively impact the resource, less information exists, though there are techniques that may help. The Authority of the Resource is a technique promoted by LNT that is one option. Jason and I have talked about creating climbing scenarios that incorporate ART to share with the climbing community. That is still on the table as a potential project for this year.  

Other than that, get involved. Join the Access Fund. Support your Local Climbing Organization. Volunteer at an Adopt-a-Crag stewardship event. Spread the word among your climbing partners and friends about the importance of protecting the places you love to climb.  

Q9: If bouldering in the desert ever does become incredibly popular, what guiding principles would you want desert boulderers to consider?

CS: Care about the place like you mean it. And desert bouldering is: Joe’s, Hueco, Buttermilks/Tablelands, Red Rocks.. hell, all our most famous bouldering not in the mountains is in the desert.

JG: Our impacts are individual, but cumulative. Understand the cumulative impacts over time. Oftentimes, our experience as recreationists represents just a snapshot in time of that area. Recognizing the fact that it’s not just you and your buddy bouldering in that area that one weekend, but instead it’s hundreds if not thousands of individuals compounding those impacts that goes a really long way.

TH: Bouldering in the desert and equally fragile environments like the alpine is already popular. Hueco, Buttermilks, Tablelands, Red Rocks, Joe’s Valley along with more obscure areas in AZ and NM are all popular desert bouldering destinations. Alpine bouldering is very much on the radar of land managers in RMNP, Yosemite and Grand Teton National Parks. We released “The Pact” in 2014 which builds upon LNT principles and applies to climbing. We are updating this content now and will launch the updated version this summer with supporting resources that really answer the questions of “why” these behaviors/principles are important for all climbers to know and practice. We feel strongly at AF that part of what it means to be a climber includes taking responsibility to protect the places you climb. Do your part! If you aren’t sure how, contact us and we can help guide you toward a way to give back that works for you.

Q10: Anything else you would like to add?

CS: You really should try it (a lot) before you write about it. As a writer, pay attention to your tone, as it ends up being the takeaway, and I can’t help but read intent. Your original post seems written for a particular audience, and reads a bit divisive. “Just asking questions” doesn’t defuse your line of thought, nor does it work as a disclaimer when all your questions go in the same line.. most important, again, don’t knock it til you try it? Ask questions of those who know before you fire off a seedling manifesto? Come get into it!


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