Editor's Note

Posted on: September 1, 2007

[Illustration] Jeremy Collins

Climbing Grows Up

"Ground-up trad climbers, rap bolters, sparse bolters, heavy bolters—we got it all!"


Hannah North (see Page 15) should know. A prolific first ascensionist at Idaho's Castle Rocks State Park, she's had a chance to watch the area's route development from its inception. So has Brad Shilling, the local climbing ranger, who laughs that, "Some [Castles new routers] would bolt anything that doesn't move." Other Castle Rocks activists seek to create old-school trad or outright X routes.

Given such divergent styles, one might expect the evolution of a place like Castle Rocks to be contentious, if not outright combative. Instead, a collaborative atmosphere has prevailed, not only among the various route developers with their disparate approaches, but between climbers and park administrators as well. Since 2003, this cooperation has resulted in the opening of the country's greatest new climbing playground. And much of its creation has been made possible by the climbing management plan, hammered out by climbing activists and land managers alike.

Management plans have been in the climbing press lately, often in inflammatory terms. In May 2006, climbers greeted with outrage the stringent plan instituted two days after Dean Potter's notorious Delicate Arch solo. (Arches National Park insists the ban on new fixed anchors and on slacklining had nothing to do with the incident.) But ironically, the backlash against the Delicate Arch affair has resulted in a unique chance for dialogue between Arches' land managers and climbers—and the possibility of less restrictions in the future.

Soon after Potter's climb, local climbing activists and Access Fund members began meeting with the Park officials in an effort toward reconciliation. As we go to press, Arches is in the process of creating a new climbing management plan, one for which the Park has requested input from climbers. Sam Lightner Jr., Arches Task Force Coordinator for the Access Fund, underscores the opportunity: "[The new climbing management plan] could be great for us or it could be our demise: the key is how we help them make it."

Such collaborations mark a coming of age for climbers: at last, American land managers regard us as a viable user group capable of helping administer the country's natural resources. Conversations similar to those in Castles and Arches are taking place across America. This March, the Bureau of Land Management issued a memorandum recognizing that "climbing is a legitimate and appropriate use of BLM Wilderness Areas. Climbing, including the use of fixed anchors, has a history that predates the Wilderness Act." Whether a permit is required for new fixed anchors and what specific rules might govern their placement has been left up to the local agencies, which may create their own climbing and wilderness management plans "with the aid of public involvement and collaboration." Both the Forest Service and the National Park Service are likely watching how this memo is implemented in places like Nevada's Red Rocks as they consider their own policies.

One common theme, stated by several land managers and climbers, is the importance of addressing the concerns of those who will be most affected, for if the communities don't recognize the plans as legitimate, the agreements will be ignored, and illegal bolting and other provocative acts will result—as the Delicate Arch ascent did—in threats to all climbers' access. Each community and each climbing area are different. As Red Rocks pioneer Joanne Urioste argues, the laws must reflect the "dynamism" within that evolving diversity. Castle Rocks lends itself to both traditional and bolt-protected lines, favoring an approach that allows room for a multiplicity of styles. At Red Rocks, Las Vegas' sprawl is ever encroaching. There, the BLM managers and some of their climbing counterparts are looking at creative (and potentially controversial) ways to prohibit a corresponding overdevelopment of Wilderness Area cliffs. At Arches, formations like Delicate Arch represent national icons. Permitting a coexistence of the climbers who want to ascend the park's walls and towers and of other user groups who come to see its natural wonders may be the paramount issue.

Marko Prezelj ("Based on a True Story," Page 74) contends that divergent experiences and viewpoints are a central part of the climbing experience: all lines on all cliffs and mountains play out in entirely dissimilar, internal variations, based on the subjectivities of each climber. What's important is to find the baseline values within this polyphony. For if we can't find an underlying accord, we run the risk that other, louder, voices will speak for us.

No matter where we climb, many of us are—or will soon be—facing management plans at our home crags. And while they might appear at first to be intrusive bureaucratic devices, if we can help shape their outcome they may ultimately slow or halt the diminishment of our wild lands and our climbing liberties. In a post-modern America, "wilderness," as Red Rocks climber Larry DeAngelo puts it, has become "an artificial construct," protected by laws and determined by our choices and acts. While climbing will always retain elements of counterculture, our days of adolescent rebellion are over. We must grow up if we are to participate in the legislation of our freedoms in the years to come.

As DeAngelo describes it, engaging in the management plans may feel like finding ourselves on some "long runout," heading into uncertain terrain in which success or failure could alter our future. But not engaging might have worse consequences. As Access Fund Policy Director Jason Keith insists, "You can't win if you don't play."

At Alpinist, we're also evolving, as our readers will have noticed over the last two issues. Some of these changes are a function of a magazine celebrating its five-year anniversary: recognizing that a formulaic approach is the quickest path to creative demise, we've had fun coming up with new departments, such as Full Value, Local Hero, Escape Route and The Sharp End, that allow us to bring a fresh outlook to our celebration of the climbing life. Others are made possible by the renovated alpinist.com: we've retired Climbing Notes because we can now report breaking news in a more timely fashion in our NewsWire reports online. The Alpinist Film Festival, which in three years has grown into a gala affair in our home of Jackson, Wyoming, is growing, too: we invite you to join us in January 2008 for what has rapidly become the most dynamic celebration of the adventure lifestyle in North America. In short, while Alpinist Magazine will continue to be the cornerstone of our family, alpinist.com and The Alpinist Film Festival will let us bring you the climbing life in expanded formats. And stay tuned: we're just getting started.

—The Editors

Here at Alpinist, our small editorial staff works hard to create in-depth stories that are thoughtfully edited, thoroughly fact-checked and beautifully designed. Please consider supporting our efforts by subscribing.