The Future Of Climbing Areas

Here are five popular destinations where climbers and land managers are taking action to mitigate impacts on their local crags.

To go bouldering in Bishop, Calif., climbers wind down the bumpy, unpaved 3.5-mile Buttermilk Road through sagebrush-covered hills with the snow-covered Sierra Nevada peaks in the background. The tops of the house-size Peabody Boulders come into view first—as well as cars lining both sides of the drive. Rounding the last bend on a busy weekend, climbers could pass upward of 200 bumper-to-bumper vehicles, some parked on fragile brush. A dozen or so people cluster beneath each egg-shaped granite boulder. The crowds are impacting the landscape—and Bishop isn’t the only climbing area experiencing growing pains. What will it take to sustain areas like Bishop for future use? Here are five different areas and what local climbers and land managers are doing to help mitigate the effects of climber traffic.

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More climbers means more impact

Increased or heavy use of climbing areas can have effects on the landscape from the parking area all the way to the top of the crag. According to organizations like the educational nonprofit Leave No Trace and the Access Fund, that can include trampling of vegetation, human waste, soil erosion, disturbing wildlife and degradation of cultural artifacts. Some climbing routes themselves are changing through use over time, says Erik Murdock, policy director for the Access Fund, which is dedicated to conserving and protecting America’s crags. Thousands of hands and feet touching the stone can change the shape of holds, particularly with softer rock like sandstone and limestone, he says.

The Outdoor Industry Association estimated in 2018 that there were more than 2.5 million outdoor climbers in the U.S. The Access Fund estimates there are approximately 30,000 climbing areas in the U.S., according to Murdock. That averages out to more than 83 climbers per crag. Of course not everyone is climbing at the same time, or evenly spread across the climbing areas. And while it’s difficult to track the numbers of outdoor climbers, land managers and climbing organizations both report that climbing areas are seeing more use than ever, creating issues that affect the natural environment.

While local and national climbing organizations take on the task of education and conservation to help climbers understand how to take care of their crags, ultimately, responsible use is up to each individual climber. And many of the most popular sport and trad areas were developed in the late 1980s and early ’90s when there were significantly fewer climbers, Murdock says. So things that might make a climbing area more sustainable under heavy use were not a consideration at the time, he says. Like durable trails, large and well marked parking lots, bathrooms and long-lasting anchors that could handle thousands of ascents per year.

“Climbing areas were developed by climbers who wanted to put up the routes, but they weren’t considering what’s going to happen in 20 years when climbing explodes,” Murdock says. “Where will people park? Poop? Stage at the bottom of the route? They were not prepared for the influx of climbers.”

Each of the 30,000 climbing areas in the U.S. is unique, and no blanket solutions exist. But it’s time to adjust and look for solutions, Murdock says. “We have to do something now before we love our public lands to death. Our footprint is getting bigger and bigger, but examples of good climbing infrastructure prove that things bounce back. Better vegetation, cleaner areas, better landings, better climbing experience.”

Here are five climbing areas in various stages of response to the effects climbers have on the environment. Some are examples of minimal management, while others could have implications for how other areas could be managed in the future.

A New Development: Denny Cove, Tennessee 

Previously owned by a private logging company, this 685-acre area 30 minutes outside Chattanooga was acquired by the Southeastern Climbers Coalition (SCC) in 2016. Climbers started going to Denny Cove’s sandstone cliffs in 2011 and eventually brought the area to the attention of the Access Fund and the SCC to try and create reliable infrastructure—which could help mitigate damage to the environment—before it became a well-known climbing area. “The challenge with Denny Cove is this shale layer underneath the sandstone, so you stand on eroding layers of crumbling rock when you’re belaying,” says Andrea Hassler, the SCC’s executive director.

The SCC spent four months building access trails, a parking lot, an improved road, belay platforms, staircases and retaining walls to combat erosion and funnel traffic to specific places. Then Denny Cove was transferred to South Cumberland State Park. “We’re designing it to be a place that can handle a high number of users, that’s the goal,” says Hassler, who has 10 years’ experience building trails. Denny Cove has also served the purpose of absorbing overflow climber traffic from the nearby Foster Falls, a popular sport climbing destination. Signs placed at Foster Falls inform climbers that if they can’t find parking at Foster Falls, they should check out a new state park just down the road. “That’s a huge benefit of creating new areas,” Hassler says. “We can spread out our use and make it easier on the land and a better experience for us.”

The Multisport Magnet: Bishop, California 

Formerly a sleepy ranching town, Bishop, California, has become an epicenter of outdoor recreation in the last 10 years thanks to its prime location between several major cities: Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Reno. Ample camping on BLM and Forest Service lands and a lifetime’s worth of world-class climbing make it a playground in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Tai Devore, president of the Bishop Area Climbers Coalition (BACC), says he’s seen “exponential” growth of climbers in the 16 years he’s lived in the area. “We are a kickass place, so it’s a no-brainer that you’d want to come here,” Devore says. “There’s just more people recreating: climbers, anglers, skiers, hikers, equestrians, off-roaders, mountain bikers.”

With so many people eager to use the land, dispersed camping has become one of the most contentious issues. There’s a great deal of open land surrounding Bishop, but no clear borders of where camping is allowed and where it is not. This can cause campers to leave much wider impacts than necessary, according to Devore. He says there’s a need for more visual signage, funding to enforce regulations and better infrastructure for parking, camping and restrooms. To accomplish this, collaboration is paramount among a “chessboard of land managers” including the Forest Service, BLM and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power—as well as competing user groups and their respective organizations. To help coordinate with other user groups to find solutions, the BACC—which was officially formed as a nonprofit in 2018—recently received approval from land managers to hire two full-time climbing stewards. These stewards will work on the ground in Bishop climbing areas to educate visitors on local rules and best practices.

A sign along a dirt road points to a campsite, with a sunset over rocks on the horizon.

Signage at Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site. Photo credit: Colette McInerney.

A Unique Model: Hueco Tanks, Texas

“The landscape is a literal oasis in the Chihuahuan Desert. Water is found year-round, feeding the typical desert flora and also deciduous plants like oak and cottonwood trees,’ says Clark Bledsoe, manager of the American Alpine Club’s Hueco Rock Ranch, which is a mile from the state park where the climbing is located. “Animal life is as diverse with mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and even crustaceans.” Humans have closely interacted with Hueco for 10,000 years, he says: The caves and boulders have been homes, hunting grounds, sacramental and spiritual centers and farmland. Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site was designated as such in 1970, and after a few decades of overuse and abuse a Public Use Plan (PUP) was implemented in 2000 to protect the historic, cultural and environmental aspects of the park.

Bledsoe says the PUP mitigates challenges that might be brought up by an increase in the number of climbers. Certain areas require climbers to have a trained guide, there’s a limit to how many climbers can be at a specific boulder, the number of daily visitors to Hueco is limited to 160 and all visitors must watch an orientation video. Bledsoe says the Hueco model works because the landscape there is very concentrated. “The park itself has very clear borders: where the rocks stop,” he says. “Almost everybody I talk with agrees that the climbing experience is usually premier and wonderful. It really can feel like you’re having a remote, private experience, like you have Hueco all to yourself.”

A Success Story: Joe’s Valley, Utah

Out of the gray ridgelines of central Utah rises one of the most popular bouldering zones in the West, and Murdock, policy director for the Access Fund, points to the recent infrastructure development of Joe’s Valley as “a great example of a full-blown rehab of a climbing area.” What used to be an area with trammeled, dry, and dusty pull-outs, unregulated camping with no bathrooms and zero signs has been transformed with new bathrooms in all three main sections, and clearly marked camping and trails that have helped the reappearance of lush vegetation. Adriana Chimaras, the director for tourism for Emery County, points to the proactive Salt Lake Climbers Alliance (SLCA) as being the driving factor for getting things done on an otherwise slow government timeline. Written by Chimaras’ partner and longtime Joe’s Valley climber Steven Jeffery, a new 300-page guidebook is expected to be released at the end of 2019, which may also contribute to use that’s more sustainable, Chimaras says. “Mostly we want to disperse people from climbing on the same 10 things that can be found on Mountain Project, which has a heavy impact,” Chimaras says. “There’s a lot of climbing to do in Joe’s Valley.”

The Problems With Being Popular: Yosemite National Park, California 

With a rich history of climbing and big walls accessible by a brief hike, Yosemite may be the quintessential American climbing destination. According to the National Park Service’s visitation statistics, the national park saw more than 4 million visitors in 2018, and Yosemite Valley has an infrastructure designed to handle a large stream of all user types. Other public lands like Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas or National Forest have some protections in place, but usually less infrastructure for users compared to a national park. Bathrooms, parking lots, educational signage, and trails in Yosemite are well established, and regulations are strictly enforced by a team of rangers and park employees. But despite the fact that Yosemite is home to thousands of routes spread across almost 750,000 acres, former Yosemite Climbing Ranger Eric Bissell, who has worked in the park for the last eight years, says that certain big wall trade routes ebb and flow in popularity, often funneling a large number of climbers to one specific swath of rock or another. Problems with traffic on routes, fixed ropes, cracks filled with urine, and rockfall from parties above have increased, he says.

Similar issues have arisen with bouldering, which creates a unique type of impact, Bissell says.“The way boulderers establish themselves at a bouldering area is different than a team of two at the base of a route,” he says. “Generally they arrive with a lot of stuff after a short walk, hang on the ground during the day and spread out the landing and hanging zones.” That can lead to bouldering areas experiencing expanding footprints, where vegetation has been trampled in a larger radius.

Bissell says that while the park’s climbing team addresses day to day issues, the implementation of a climbing management plan has been elusive. Access Fund Policy Director Murdock agrees. “A [Yosemite climbing management] plan has been proposed for a long time, but the park has been kicking it down the road. There’s no schedule to release it,” Murdock says. “Often the idea [to create a climbing management plan] is raised, especially at a federal agency, but then it stalls out due to funding, interest, staff attrition—all that can sideline development of a climbing management plan.”

Meanwhile on the ground, the Yosemite Climbing Stewardship program, which is funded by a Yosemite Conservancy grant, helps climbing rangers and volunteer climber stewards “educate people on and off the walls about climbing-related topics,” according to the group’s website. For example, the Yosemite Facelift is an annual cleanup weekend organized by the Yosemite Climbing Association that brings hundreds of volunteers to the park to pick up trash, build trails and work on special projects to support sustainable climbing. During his time at the park, Bissell saw the climbing management team grow from one climbing ranger to five climbing rangers and five Climber Steward volunteers by 2018. That climbing team puts on about a dozen projects a year, where volunteers show up to help with things like trail impact mitigation and trash cleanup.