3 Ways Rock Climbers Make the Crag a Better Place

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It’s easy for climbers and conservationists to butt heads, but the truth is, we’ve got a lot in common.

Climbing ethics frequently revolve around environmental considerations—most often, trying to poop in the right place and making sure no one’s looking when you yank plants out of that perfect .5 crack. In other words, conversations usually revolve around what we’re doing wrong. The guilt can be real, but maybe it doesn’t have to be. It turns out, there are plenty of ways climbing is actually good for the environment.

Climbers and Biologists Work Together

The cliff ecosystem is a complicated one. Climbers are now a part of that vertical ecosystem, and contrary to popular belief, that’s a good thing. In Colorado, the Climbers for Bat Conservation project relies on climbers to notify them about bat populations they wouldn’t otherwise have thought to study. In the Adirondacks, climbers keep officials updated on peregrine activity and new nest sites. In Nome, Alaska, gyrfalcon monitors list trad climbing know-how on the job description for their seasonal employees.

Biologists are chronically underfunded, and wandering the backcountry looking for critters that may not exist isn’t exactly conducive to paying the bills. Plus, spending four to eight years in a PhD program doesn’t always lend itself in achieving mastery in gear placement.

Most climbers, on the other hand, have spent those same four to eight years with nothing better to do than dicking around on rocks. Miraculously, we have thus become indispensable. Having us around is like having an army of highly enthusiastic spiders to deploy into all the cracks and crevices land managers can’t reach with their county-issued Dodge pickups. We’re a powerful resource that scientists want to tap into.

“I have a lot of respect for rock climbers as a group, and I think they do a great job of being environmental stewards,” says Dr. Nora Covy from the University of Northern Colorado. Without climbers, cliff faces that might otherwise have faced development are now protected. In 2010, climbers banded together to create a conservation easement instead of a subdivision to protect access to Jailhouse Rock. In 2014, the Access Fund acquired Maine’s Eagle Bluff to ensure permanent conservation (and climbing).

Corey Buhay sorts gear at the base of Pingora in Cirque of the Towers, WY | Photo courtesy of Corey Buhay

Climbing Traffic Minimizes Destructive Pests

Covy’s recent research shows that, though heavily climbed areas had a slightly lower biodiversity than lightly trafficked spots, climbers didn’t have a significant impact on the presence of birds, plants, or bugs. Swallows and warblers, which raptors often hunt, go crazy for the refuge that route traffic creates. And it’s a chain effect: Those smaller birds eat a lot of pest insects, like mosquitos and bark beetles, which are currently wreaking havoc on Rocky Mountain forests.

Climbers Can Save Bird Species from Extinction

Covy cautions that climbers do affect bird behavior and recommends avoiding the aspects where they most often nest and roost: south and east-facing cliffs. The good news? Nesting takes place in spring and summer when south and east-facing walls are often too hot to touch, anyway. Spent your summer retreating into the shade? Pat yourself on the back.

Now for the elephant in the room: raptor closures. There’s nothing quite like showing up to your favorite crag and finding out some bird has dibs on your project for the next five months. You can’t see the bird, but you definitely know it hasn’t been training as hard as you have, and you’re positive it isn’t going to make full use of that pure vertical you’re so close to conquering.

You’re also probably sick and tired of researchers waving the latest issue of The Journal of Ornithology in front of your face like the Bible before a sinner.

Sure, the research is pretty unanimous: Climbers reduce the nesting success of birds of prey, and anxious parents have been known to dive bomb the wayward climber without giving him a minute to put in a second piece of gear 10 feet above a tipped-out cam. The research also shows that, without a doubt, closures work, according to Christine Kelly with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. And she would know; Kelly’s spent 12 seasons watching peregrine falcons come back from beyond the brink of extinction in North Carolina.

Climbing has a negative impact on the peregrine falcon (left), but the violet-green swallow (right) actually benefits from it. Photos: Jerry Kirkhart, Flickr (left), Rob Stoeltje, Flickr (right)

There are folks on both sides of the debate who disagree about closure benefits, but we should all leave our torches and pitchforks in the hall closet (at least for now). And here’s why: Climbers helped bring the falcons back. Whether it was an effort to protect access or a realization that part of climbing is experiencing nature in moments of serene, breeze-ruffled exposure, climbers have done everything from improving nest drainage with handfuls of pea gravel to releasing peregrine falcon chicks in the New River Gorge.

Christine Kelly of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission at the North Carolina Wall in Linville Gorge, NC | Photo courtesy of Christine Kelly

How You Can Help

There are only so many chicks to go around, so Covy, Kelly, and the Access Fund have some tips for anyone feeling left out. Here’s how you can play your part in positively affecting the environment.

  • Rappel where you can to minimize the eroding soil and avoid kicking up plants during an arduous walk-off.
  • Slap up some bolts or sling a rock if you see a strangled pine. Tenacious trees are a crucial part of the cliff environment, and damaging the bark knocks years off their lives.
  • Get excited about nature. Nature is rad, and climbing through a habitat no one else gets to experience is part of the fun. “I think one of the most important things is just having an awareness for the environment,” said Covy. “Instead of having this viewpoint that it’s a blank rock surface, see it as an ecosystem. Even if you can’t see them, there are all sorts of organisms living there, and having a curiosity about that goes a long way.”
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