Can Climbers Find a Higher Ground?

As climbing’s popularity grows, so do its challenges.

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Any longtime climber who’s gone outdoors recently will tell you that climbing is having a moment. Once the hobby of hard-core outdoors people, climbing is reaching for new heights in the mainstream. Free soloist Alex Honnold has become a household name; actor Jason Momoa is producing a climbing competition show with his friend, pro climber Chris Sharma. During the pandemic, climbing boomed alongside other outdoor recreation, which is great for socially distanced exercise but not so great for some climbing spots that are at risk of being loved to death.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

I witnessed this myself on a recent bouldering trip in Joshua Tree. The parking lot was packed, and there were crowds formed around the more popular boulder problems. More people meant more gear sprawling into the bushes. It also meant walking between boulders on unofficial social trails that quickly damage the exposed desert terrain.

With the growth of climbing, a slew of existing issues has been amplified, like how to educate new climbers on minimizing their outdoor impact, how to incorporate Indigenous perspectives in land access, and ways to make the community more inclusive for climbers of color. If the newly expanded climbing community figures out how to address these and other concerns, we’ll all benefit. If we don’t, climbing may become more fractious, its impact on the environment worse.

Access Fund, a Boulder, Colorado–based organization dedicated to conserving climbing areas and public lands, reported shatteringly high usage of public lands for climbing in 2020. This includes Lover’s Leap, a popular granite climbing area outside Tahoe with over 180 routes. The area was already suffering from a lack of trail infrastructure, only made worse with the increased traffic that could irrevocably destroy the land.

Overuse is one of the biggest threats to climbing areas today. In April and May 2020, public land in Wyoming saw a 160 percent increase in visitation over a five-year average. From March 2020 to March 2021, recreational use of public land in Colorado increased by 40 percent.

“We think it’s a good problem to have in many ways, more people interested in getting out,” says Erik Murdock, vice president of policy and government affairs at Access Fund. “However, when you have more people, there’s more erosion, more impact. In the upcoming decade, we need to focus on how we approach climbing because we can’t approach it like we did 30 years ago. It just won’t work.”

In addition to raising its environmental awareness, Murdock says, the climbing community needs to think about social issues that intersect with the sport, like equitable access and Indigenous rights. “It’s up to the climbing community to familiarize ourselves more with these issues,” he says.

The climbing community now looks very different from the way it did during the golden age of Yosemite in the 1960s, when climbers were part of a largely white male counterculture scene. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard described those early climbers as “dirtbags,” since they lived mostly for climbing and the outdoors. The name became a badge of honor, but also limited the idea of who climbers could be.

Affinity climbing groups like Indigenous Womxn Climb and Brown Girls Climb are shouldering much of this cultural and social responsibility of opening up the climbing community, placing diversity at the forefront of their missions.

Indigenous Womxn Climb, a virtual and in-person community, focuses on unpacking power, privilege, and colonization in outdoor spaces while supporting Indigenous youth climbing groups. Similarly, the mission of Brown Girls Climb, which grew out of meetups in Washington, D.C., and Denver, is to create mentorship and access, as well as share and redistribute resources and celebrate representation in the outdoors.

“I’ve had conversations with other climbers around fear about what crag spaces will look like as numbers increase,” says Kadisha Aburub, a local leader for Brown Girls Climb in Los Angeles. “There’s a sense that [long-term climbers] have a claim to the sport and spaces, so they see the larger numbers of climbers as a disturbance to the environment.

“My response to those fears is that we just need more education and organizations that care about these spaces, and leaders that are willing to talk about it,” Aburub continues. “I don’t think we should shy away from increasing access to the sport because of the effects on crag spaces. We can offer resources to help the community learn how to respect and acknowledge the land that we’re on with just a little more education.”

I’m personally filled with excitement and awe to be part of the climbing community. My identity as a climber goes far beyond myself, as I was reminded of during that same outdoor bouldering trip to Joshua Tree. The healing experience of being in nature is universal. Time outdoors shows me that we as individuals are insignificant but in no way inconsequential. Climbing may be going through growing pains, but this moment presents an opportunity. We can transform the community into something more inclusive and sustainable for all climbers—and for the crags we climb.•

Francesca Jimenez is a writer based in Los Angeles.
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