Conservation Versus Safety: The Debate

Have you ever wondered why someone doesn’t just make a route safer by drilling in another bolt? Or why some routes are mixed sport and trad? And why in particular climbing areas, white chalk is not allowed? Why do other climbers at the crag give you side-eye or a death stare when you turn on your tunes?

These and other climbing ethics have their origins in environmental conservation and stewardship. Many of these ethics are almost as old as the sport itself because nature enthusiasts were the ones who opened the world’s first climbing areas. As the sport gained popularity, their ethics clashed with other climbers with a different philosophy. The latter looked upon the mountains as a playground for enjoyment.

As long as they were able to go up mountains never climbed before, they had no qualms over hammering in pitons and fixing permanent bolts. They did not have any intent to compromise between enjoying their sport and respecting Native American traditions.

The most famous clash on this issue was between Warren Harding and Royal Robbins, America’s first climbing superstars. After Harding ascended the Dawn Wall fixing hundreds of permanent bolts, Robbins armed himself with a hammer and chisel to ascend the route and chop those bolts off. Robbins believed that anyone could eventually climb anything with fixed bolts and ropes. Thus, bolting not only scarred mountain faces, but it was almost like a cowardly act that took adventure away from the sport.

Several decades later, climbing stewards continue to adhere to Robbins’s ethics. Namely, these ethics are not to drill when a route can be climbed with trad gear, and not to change a route by adding permanent protective gear after the route has been set. Bolt chopping continues today and ethics rules have since expanded along with learning more about climbing’s environmental impacts.

This ever-expanding agenda has left many climbers (even environmentally-conscious ones) scratching their heads. After all, it’s not like climbing areas come with an instruction manual and annotations of the dos and don’ts of outdoor adventuring. Moreover, even if we are conservationists at heart, there is a sound argument to be made for prioritizing human safety over a bolter’s vision of a climb. And, if we were to adhere to the Leave No Trace principle, should we even be climbing at all? On that same token, if John Muir could ascend Cathedral Peak in just a pair of hiking boots, wouldn’t it be hypocritical for environmental “purists” not to do the same?

This Debate Will Not Matter If We Fail To Act

Rock Climbing

If we continue matching up the points and counterpoints between climbing conservation ethics and the right to enjoyment, we will find sound arguments on both sides. But these quibbles pale in comparison to the sheer fact that our climbing places are disappearing due to human development and consumption.

Our insatiable need for water and energy to run our homes, buildings, cars, computers, and phones has placed stress on the environment in the form of mining, fracking, mountain topping, urban sprawl, and climate change. As such, human consumption has driven the expanding development of federal lands, even threatening sacred places like Bears Ears National Monument.

What You Can Do

Rock Climbing

No matter what side of the wall you fall on—bolt vs. no bolt, chalk vs. no chalk, boombox vs. birdsong—all of us who love the sport have a stake in keeping our crags from utter destruction.

Due to the pace of human consumption and development, it’s no longer enough just to pick up your trash, keep to the trails, and pay your taxes. Rather, environmental stewards like Access Fund, American Alpine Club, and Sierra Club have pressed for stakeholders like us to take further action. With the current state of politics and the environment, they recommend we do the following:

Donate. By donating money to environmental groups, you’re directly helping to protect climbing areas through land acquisition and trail maintenance efforts. You’re also lending climbers a voice in Congress through these groups’ lobbying and policy work.

Call your congressional representatives. Can you imagine if you got thousands of voicemails over one issue day after day? What would you give to make it go away? Calling representatives is one of the most effective advocacy tools. If you’re new to this, check out Access Fund’s tips for effectively talking to your congressional representatives.

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Everything we do leaves an impact on the environment, from the infrastructure we build to power our phones to the plastic wrappers that end up in the ocean. In practicing the three Rs, we mitigate that impact by eliminating waste, as well as any need to develop land for obtaining raw materials for energy and goods. Of the three Rs, reducing consumption is by far the most important. As they say, the best way to reduce waste is not to create it.

We at Butora seek to help to better the sport while also respecting and preserving its heritage and sacred places.