Climbing and the Environment: Strange Bedfellows?

Some years ago, an eminent Norwegian mountain guide led an expedition on the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, a region which has become synonymous with the Mountain Training School program.  The conduct of this expedition was less than favourable for the pristine landscape, resulting in the abandonment of climbing detritus including food, trash and human waste. In an area as remote and persistently underused as the Ice Cap, it proves an easy task to correctly identify the traffic in the region and ergo the source of any misdeeds. As a professional who makes his living in wilderness areas, it would seem logical and indeed personally desirable to ensure that these areas remain as such. However, this laissez-faire attitude toward the stewardship of wilderness areas is by no means an isolated occurrence. One only needs to cast their mind back to the last crag they visited to recall the visual impact of rubbish, graffiti or dog shit. As outdoorspeople, we should be able to collectively agree that this is unacceptable. And yet, it occurs. Are we undeserving beneficiaries of wilderness areas?

Historical impact on wilderness areas can be traced by the formation of the Leave No Trace movement. In the early 1900’s, the prevailing attitude was that of a man-versus-wilderness perspective, a carry-over of the heady pioneering days of colonial America and Australia. The end of the Second World War saw an influx in numbers of outdoor recreationalists, the upshot of which was that the practices of previous generations were no longer sustainable within the decreasing wilderness areas. Thus the LNT principals were born, guidelines within which people could enjoy outdoor pursuits without needless damage to the environment and detraction from the wilderness experience which many had come to value.

This movement is as applicable to mountaineers and rock climbers as it is to hikers and campers. The emphasis is on preserving our parks in as natural a state as is possible while still facilitating their use. Climbers have attracted an inordinate amount of flak through their particular use of natural areas, despite the fact that hikers and general visitors have a significantly greater impact upon the area and its infrastructure, both in a collective and individual sense. Historically speaking, the practices of both these groups were largely detrimental, though modern times have seen a monumental shift in attitudes and implementation of these activities.

This shift, largely driven by the climbing community itself, has seen a progression toward clean climbing. That is to say that the emphasis has trended away from Aid climbing, where climbers needed to hammer pitons into virgin rock, toward Free climbing using non-destructive forms of protection such as cams and nuts. This was driven simultaneously by an appreciation of outdoor ethics as well as a progression of climbing standards that hinged on improved skills and better gear. These ethics extend to modification of the rock itself, with the practices of chipping, cracking or gluing additional holds having been rejected as unacceptable route setting.  Despite the continuing access issues that arise with the use of available cliffs, it could largely be said that climbers care immensely for such areas and contribute to their maintenance and well-being. This is partially out of self-interest but also borne of a spiritual connection with such locations. I’ll make mention here of the impassioned involvement of the climbers at my local crag, Kangaroo Point in Brisbane, where the climbing community has been directly involved with the maintenance, cleaning and safety of the local cliff. This would have never been achieved without an invested, fervent group of users who have taken ownership of the local facilities.

It has often been argued that sport climbing places unnecessary man-made additions to an otherwise pristine rock face in the form of bolts and anchors. I would argue that these are of minimum consequence to the overall aesthetic of a crag, especially given the fact that most areas have strict regulations in regard to the placement of new hardware and are therefore subject to a process of endorsement. Of the 4 million visitors to Yosemite National Park each year, I doubt that a few bolts would detract from splendour of thousands of tons of granite looming large over the valley. Those who do see these additions up close and personal are no doubt grateful for their existence. And whilst speaking of regulatory authorities, it is by their guidance that we can assuage any fear of the impact upon biologically fragile flora and fauna that may exist within the shadow of the crags. To say that a few bolts and anchors are not an acceptable addition to a natural feature is to say that a certain niche of outdoor users is less valuable and creditable than another. Trails commonly used by hikers have arguably more visual and environmental impact than bolted routes, yet are perceived as commonplace and are a mainstay of National Parks the world over. Each pursuit has its own individual merit and should be treated as such.

Another high profile example of environmental impact on wilderness areas has been seen in the commercialisation of big mountains. Given the difficulty of doing pretty much anything in the rarefied atmosphere of the world’s tallest peaks, accumulation of climbing debris has become the status quo in some regions. Everest has been estimated to be burdened with over 50 tonnes of garbage and more than 200 corpses (The Economist), not to mention the ubiquitous caches of human waste. The recent move toward more sustainable use of the peak is once again being driven by the local authorities with input by the climbing community. In 2011, the Everest Summiteers Association removed 8 tonnes of trash from the peak and its surrounding trails. The Nepalese government has tightened sanctions upon climbers, levying a $4000 refundable deposit for the full removal of all gear and trash, and more recently on the removal of 8kgs of additional trash per user. Enforcement of these laws has been typically rife with inefficiency, though it is a step in the right direction for a country lacking the facilities of more developed nations. Denali, for example, has been better maintained by virtue of enforcement by a professional ranger service with a personal investment in the park. Whilst we’re not yet out of the woods on this issue, the tide has clearly turned and it’s no longer acceptable to turn the world’s highest peaks into the world’s highest rubbish dumps.

With improved regulation, heightened awareness and the advent of LNT ethics, the impact of recreational use in wilderness areas has been decreased in both visible and imperceptible ways. But, as discussed in earlier, there are still problems to be addressed. It is not enough to place our unerring faith in the powers-that-be in the vain hope that each and every problem will be inevitably solved. Even if these authorities have the will and the resolve to act in the most environmentally responsible manner, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. As land users, we each have a personal responsibility also.

In order to continue climbing in an environmentally responsible manner, we need to act and make decisions within our local environment and personal sphere of influence. I briefly mentioned the stellar contribution by the climbing community at my home crag. Most regions have similar grassroots organisation behind them, relying on volunteers for the thankless but vital tasks of trail maintenance, litter removal and waterway protection and cleaning. If you consistently enjoy the fruits of a particular area, consider giving something back, even if only once a year. Individually, our efforts are small, but collectively they begin to add up. In my time here at Red Rock Canyon, I’ve started taking at least one piece of trash away from each crag I visit. If everyone did the same, it would all be gone within days and we’d have our community to thank for the task.

There are other small measures we can take as individuals and expedition groups. Acting with greater consideration in terms of the amount of packaging that accompanies the purchase of rations is important if you’ve ever seen the refuse from a 5 week, 10 man expedition. Looking after your gear is also environmentally beneficial. The more you protect and maintain your personal equipment, the less often you need to replace it at the expense of non-renewable resources and energy. This comes with the added benefit of reducing your risk of death… always a bit of a trump card. Patching and repairs are much more efficient than straight-out replacements, such as resoling your sad, beaten climbing shoes. That way you get to keep those comfy old slippers at a fraction of the cost and overall environmental impact.

At the risk of seeming trite, the Leave No Trace principals form our best, most consistent method of ensuring sustainable land use. Some of the LNT principals are commonsense, others less obvious. That said, they are all fairly simple guidelines that have become the gold standard by which outdoor recreationalists should abide whenever possible. If you’re new to an area or to the outdoors in general, be sure to do a little research before you leave. Here is one of those rare circumstances in which ignorance is not bliss.

At home and in the wild, your decisions ultimately come down to your own personal circumstances and moral compass. As climbers, our lifestyle is inextricably linked with the natural world and it behoves us to continue our stewardship of wilderness areas in the years to come, both for ourselves and for others. Happy climbing, and keep up the good work!

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in April 2015

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?