Leave No Trace Climbing Ethics

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Two rock climbers climbing a rock face.

Climbing ethics are important because climbers are visitors and guests on someone else's land. Whether on public or private land, climbing areas are shared with fellow climbers and often by other types of users. The continued access to climbing areas is a fragile thing.

Know Climbing Issues

Each and every climber represents the climbing community. You need to know and follow the Leave No Trace Seven Principles (© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org) plus any rules specific to your favorite climbing areas. If one climber does things that are outside the parameters of common courteous practices, we all start losing our rights to use these areas.

The biggest issues in the climbing world today include:

  • Bolting practices.
  • Climbing area maintenance.
  • Climber relations with other users in shared-use areas.
  • Climber relations with land managers.
  • Continued access to public venues.

Talk to your fellow climbers about what's going on. Do some research online. And get involved.

Know Your Climbing Area

Some of the questions you should be asking:

  • Where is the access? Is there a designated trail to the climbing area? Is it on public or private land? Where can I park my car? Get information from online sources, guidebooks, the local climbing shops or your climbing buddies.
  • What is the color of the rock? Climbers are just one user of an area, so consider your visual impact. The color of the area's rock will influence what color chalk you use, as unsightly chalk marks detract from the visual experience of the next user. Rock color will also influence the color of your clothing and even your rope.
  • What is the site's climbing ethic? Research whether or not there are site-specific guidelines about climbing free, using removable protection or leaving marks on rocks.
  • Are there seasonal wildlife closures? Some climbing areas are closed periodically to protect nesting birds or other local wildlife. Find this out before you drive to the site.
  • What about vegetation? Climbing has an impact on the plants and soils at the bottom and top of a climb, as well as on cliff-dwelling plants. The Access Fund identifies 6 zones impacted by a typical climb (see illustration below). Please minimize your impact on vegetation at all times but be aware of site-specific issues as well.

Reduce Your Impact

Leave No Trace is a philosophy that encourages you to make as little impact as possible while enjoying your outdoor activities. A common saying is, "Take only photos, leave only footprints." However, even footprints should be minimized.

The Access Fund's 6 zones of a climbing area:

  1. The approach
  2. Staging area
  3. The climb
  4. Summit
  5. The descent
  6. Camping or bivouac

Always practice the Leave No Trace Seven Principles so you can minimize erosion to the land, reduce damage to vegetation, avoid negative impacts to wildlife and help to preserve the solitude (noise is pollution, too).

an illustration of the six zones of a climbing area

Zone 1: The Approach

This is where you park your vehicle, grab your gear and start walking to the climb's staging area.

Leave No Trace actions:

  • Carpool to the trail to save both fuel and parking spaces.
  • Avoid use during peak times.
  • Keep the group size small.
  • Walk single file.
  • Use existing trails and don't trample vegetation.
  • Do not cut switchbacks.
  • Walk lightly.
  • Stay away from sensitive areas.
  • Walk through mud, not around it, to avoid widening the path.
  • Volunteer to do trail improvements—use wood chips, soil or gravel to help minimize damage to large sites.

Zone 2: Staging Area

This is where you put on your climbing gear and get ready to climb, have something to eat, discuss the route, look at strategies and take a potty break before starting. The easier the access, the more a staging area gets used, but even more remote areas are impacted, too.

Leave No Trace actions:

  • Make sure the staging area is large enough for everyone.
  • Do not trample vegetation.
  • Keep the noise down.
  • Walk lightly.
  • Pick up all lunch scraps.
  • Properly take care of human waste.

Zone 3: The Climb

This is why you are here—the ascent. Rocks are hard and durable, but they do naturally erode. With climbers scampering over them, pieces will break off and erode even faster, especially soft rocks such as sandstone.

While on the route, climbers can dislodge organic matter from cracks. Climbing shoes, ropes and your hands can damage plants, too.

Leave No Trace actions:

  • Avoid cliff edges, cracks and ledges that are prone to erosion.
  • Use a chalk bag and keep it close to you to prevent spills.
  • Use as little chalk as possible, and use a color that is compatible with the rocks.
  • If some chalk does spill, try to clean it up.
  • If possible, avoid using trees for anchors.
  • When using a tree is necessary, avoid harming the tree's bark by using a sling and carabiner to run the rope through, instead of wrapping a rope around a tree.
  • Be careful where you place your hands to avoid wildlife. Bird nests can be in cliff faces, and other animals use them for shelter, too.
  • If taking a new route, try not to leave a noticeable path. Avoid vegetation and areas that need "cleaning."
  • Use earth-toned webbing.
  • Place bolts or pitons properly for a less impacted route.
  • Use removable protection whenever possible.

Zone 4: The Summit

This is the goal—reaching the top. Vegetation at the summit can be especially fragile because of its exposure and thin soil.

Leave No Trace actions:

  • Leave behind what you find there; don't take any souvenirs except pictures.
  • Take what you brought with you, including human waste.
  • Walk lightly.

Zone 5: The Descent

Descents include walking, down-climbing, rappelling or any combination thereof.

Leave No Trace actions:

  • Make sure the staging area is large enough for everyone.
  • Leave behind what you find; don't take any souvenirs except pictures.
  • Take what you brought with you, including human waste.
  • Walk lightly.

Tip: If vegetation is fragile on the cliff edge, consider fixing anchors below the summit. The anchors let climbers rappel down instead of going over the cliff edge for the descent path.

Zone 6: Camping or Bivouac

If you have to travel a bit to reach your favorite climbing areas, it's likely you will be camping before and/or after the climb.

Leave No Trace actions:

  • Use designated camping areas—don't make new ones. Camp at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.
  • Be careful not to spill food during preparation. Pick it up if you do.
  • Don't bury uneaten food; animals will dig it up. Pack it out.
  • Store food securely when away from camp.
  • Pack out all garbage.
  • Avoid building fires. Use a backpacking stove instead.
  • Cook on rock, gravel or snow instead of on vegetated areas.
  • Pick up what others may have left behind.

Decomposition Rates
Paper2-4 weeks
Banana peel2-5 weeks
Cotton glove3-5 months
Wool sock1 year
Cigarette butt2-5 years
Rubber boot sole50-80 years
Tin can100 years
Aluminum can200-500 years
Plastic 6-pack ring400-500 years

Tip: Take part in the Access Fund's Adopt-a-Crag day held each September. This program brings climbers together with local land managers and landowners for conservation and stewardship. See the Access Fund website for details.

Cleaning the Route

A new climbing route will most likely require some "cleaning." Cleaning a route means clearing loose rocks and removing moss, lichen or debris from foot and handholds to make the climb safer. While necessary for climbing safety, cleaning should be kept to a minimum.

Where there are no records of a climb, there is likely to be more impact from climbers making their own routes. So whenever possible, be sure to input your data into new-route logs to help other climbers and to reduce the impact.

Tip: Before cleaning a new route, consider if the route will be used again and the cleaning is justifiable.

Practice Good Hygiene

You may think of this as a personal thing, but we all need to consider our bathroom etiquette. Human waste is a problem in popular camping and climbing areas, especially on multi-pitch and big-wall climbs.

For camp or staging areas, check beforehand for site-specific information. If there is an established toilet at the camp or staging area, use it—especially before you start your climb.

In most places it is acceptable to pee on the ground, but go 200 feet away from water sources, the trail and campsites. Try to go on mineral soil or rock so vegetation is not harmed. There is salt in urine, and the salt can attract animals that could damage the vegetation more.

One rule applies everywhere: Don't pee in cracks. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it's better to pee out on the open faces on rock. Your pee dries faster out on a rock face. Consider, too, that rainwater rarely gets into cracks to wash it out. This can lead to real stinky climbs. And who would want to stick their hands in those cracks, anyway?

When nature calls for a "No. 2," you can use a cathole (dug hole) 6-8 inches deep, and cover it with dirt when finished. Put a rock on top to deter animals from digging it up. When on the climb or in snow, pack it out. Some climbing areas have waste bags available. Otherwise you can buy waste bags and containers or bring your own.

Some waste bags have zip-style closures in a double-bag system with a special blend of polymers to break the waste down and turn it into a deodorized gel. This also makes it carrying easier. The bags are safe for landfills and can be dropped in the trash.

Any toilet paper and hygiene products should be placed in a sealable bag and packed out. IF you are in an area where fire is permitted, toilet paper can be burned. But be very careful, don't start any forest fires! Make sure all embers are thoroughly extinguished.

On climbs that can take several days, some climbers use a sealed, plastic container, clip it on with a carabiner and carry it behind them.

Tip: When on snow, let the waste freeze first and then bag it.

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Get Involved

Founded in 1991, the Access Fund has become the most influential advocacy group for climbers nationwide. They are one of the pioneers for what is happening in climbing and maintaining the ethics of climbing. If you're serious about climbing, consider joining this or other grassroots climbing organizations.

To learn more about leaving no trace or getting involved, go to the Leave No Trace website.

Another popular resource is the American Alpine Club Web site.

FAQs on Climbing Ethics

Q: Isn't it better to use colorful gear and wear bright clothing so I can be seen?

A: If you are alone in the wilderness, it is usually a good idea to be seen. Climbers, however, are usually not alone. If an accident were to happen, your climbing partners would be there to help. So, strive to blend in more.

Q: What is "removable pro?"

A: This is short for removable climbing protection, such as Friends, cams, nuts and stoppers. A piece of pro is wedged or placed into the rock, and it is usually easy to retrieve.

Q: What is the difference between a piton and a bolt?

A: A piton is a small metal spike that is hammered into a crack and left for subsequent climbers to use. Once the only form of climbing protection available, it should be used these days only when no other form of protection is available. A bolt is a small metal anchor that is drilled into a wall where there are no cracks or other types of protection. It is also a fixed anchor for use by many climbers. The use of drills to place new bolts is no longer permitted in many climbing areas.

Q: Why is it better to use a removable pro versus a piton?

A: Removable pro leaves little or no trace of usage. It is less likely to damage rocks. Pitons and bolts generally offer greater safety and convenience to climbers, but their permanence and, in some areas, their density have negative effects on scenic and aesthetic values.

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