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Two proposals threaten America’s rock climbing

Policy proposals are now being considered by the National Park Service (NPS) and US Forest Service (USFS) that threaten to fundamentally change the way rock climbing is managed. A comment period for these proposals has recently been extended to January 30. It is important that climbers make our presence known and kindly share our perspectives to help non-climbing land managers better understand what we do and how we do it, especially when it comes to climbing in wilderness areas.

These bolts, some old, some new, enabled the author to set up a comfortable bivy during a solo ascent of Crack in the Cosmic Egg on Mt. Moroni in Zion National Park last February. The following afternoon, these same bolts facilitated a rappel just before a heavy snowstorm arrived. [Photo] Derek Franz

The situation is urgent enough that Access Fund and the American Alpine Club (AAC) have been mobilizing for the past year and a half, after decades of work leading up to this point. Their efforts resulted in Protecting America’s Rock Climbing Act (PARC Act) and an amendment to America’s Outdoor Recreation Act (AORA), both of which are briefly worded and use near-identical language. The bill and amendment would secure a legal foot hold for climbing by recognizing that fixed anchors are appropriate, thus preserving the status quo policy that considers fixed anchors allowable yet regulated to protect wilderness resource impacts. The PARC Act and AORA have bipartisan support, but that is far from enough.

That’s why Access Fund and the AAC hosted a webinar last night, January 11, to explain the nuances of the situation and what is at stake. Two hundred, seventy-five people attended. Access Fund’s Interim Executive Director Erik Murdock and Senior Policy Advisor Jason Keith presented the issues, while AAC Vice President Nina Williams moderated. There was also a surprise guest appearance by Armando Menocal, a founding member of Access Fund, whose work in climbing advocacy in the 1980s and ’90s has continued to influence government policy today. Menocal is credited for coining the term “fixed anchors,” referring to any material that is left behind to facilitate a climber’s ascent or descent, or rescue. Bolts are fixed anchors, of course, but slings around trees, cams, nuts—any equipment left behind—may be considered a “fixed anchor,” Murdock stressed.

Under the NPS and USFS policy proposals, fixed anchors would be prohibited in designated wilderness and every existing piece of fixed protection in wilderness would be subject to review. In addition to submitting formal applications to replace old anchors or add new ones, climbers would have to justify any fixed anchors on existing routes, including iconic routes like the Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite or routes on the Diamond of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. This represents a 180-degree shift in how administrators have interpreted the Wilderness Act since 1964 with regard to climbing, because the new proposals would, for the first time, classify fixed anchors as “installations,” which the Wilderness Act explicitly prohibits unless they are cleared by a review process. Installations have traditionally been infrastructure such as bridges and fences. But if either of the proposals is adopted, potentially any small piece of climbing equipment left behind would be classified as a prohibited installation.

If fixed anchors come to be viewed by policymakers as prohibited installations, a climber will have layers of red tape to overcome for each piece of gear left behind: a formal proposal that anticipates specifically where it will be installed and why it will be necessary, then a minimum requirement analysis (MRA) that involves multiple steps. Climbers, cavers and canyoneers—anyone who has ever needed to leave some type of anchor material behind—would need to “look into a crystal ball,” Keith said, and anticipate exactly where they would need to leave a fixed anchor, submit a proposal for review, and then each component of the anchor would be assessed according the MRA.

These mandated MRAs would be “a very subjective process carried out by land managers who may not climb,” Keith said.

The wording of the proposals would have land managers consider: is this route similar to the one next to it? What is the minimum number of anchors necessary for an appropriate rock climbing experience? If there is one route to the top of a cliff, why must climbers have multiple routes that ultimately take them to the same place?

The NPS and USFS proposals amount to a one-size-fits-all approach, Keith said. For decades, climbing has been managed according to the needs of specific areas, such as raptor habitat, archaeological sites or other sensitive environmental resources, but is otherwise presumed to be a legal and appropriate activity. The new approach would be the opposite, with climbing fixed anchors viewed as being fundamentally prohibited.

Since 2013, NPS Director’s Order #41 has provided guidelines for regulating climbing in national parks and wilderness, such as the ban against using power drills in wilderness areas. D.O. #41 even asserts that “the NPS recognizes that climbing is a legitimate and appropriate use of wilderness.” But it is not a law. That’s why it is important to encourage Congress to pass legislation like the PARC Act or AORA.

During the webinar, Murdock quoted a statement from an op-ed by former US Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) that was published on The last November. Udall wrote:

As the primary sponsor of the Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness and Indian Peaks Wilderness Expansion Act, I want to be absolutely clear: Nothing in those bills was intended to restrict sustainable and appropriate Wilderness climbing practices or prohibit the judicious and conditional placement of fixed anchors—many of which existed before the bills’ passage. I used fixed anchors to climb in these areas, and I want future climbers to safely experience profound adventures and thereby become Wilderness advocates themselves.

Williams emphasized that in order to move forward, climbers need to build trust with these government agencies. When sharing our comments, we should be sincere and assume the best intentions, rather than lashing out in anger.

“There has historically been friction between climbers and the administration,” she said. “But we are at a point where it’s not so much a battle as much as two groups trying to achieve goals that are similar in value but different in execution and different in the trust that we … are … willing to put in each other. How much can climbers trust the federal administration; how much can the administration trust the climbers to self-regulate?”

Keith emphasized that Access Fund’s efforts are not a scheme “to find some exception for a new, novel prohibited use.”

“A real fundamental piece here is that we need to reserve in-the-moment safety decisions for climbers,” he said. “We need to make sure that climbers have the authority and are not going to be disincentivized to protect themselves. That doesn’t mean that they can abuse these emergency exceptions or other elements…. We should make sure that climbers are the ones that have the judgment in the moment, and the authorization to place safe anchors or replace existing ones.”

When submitting comments to the NPS and USFS portals, Keith recommended that people include their personal stories. “Talk about how these new policies would affect your experience,” he said. That will also bring something unique to your comments that the agencies would give serious consideration to.”

An overview of the key points and links to the respective portals for submitting comments can be found at Access Fund’s website here.

For more on this topic, see my Sharp End editorial from Alpinist 83, titled “Climbing in Wilderness.”

—Derek Franz, Alpinist editor-in-chief

The author up high on Crack in the Cosmic Egg in Zion National Park, February 2023, just a few hours before rappelling the route in a building snowstorm. Fixed anchors were necessary for his descent and escape from the storm. [Photo] Derek Franz
The morning after the previous photo was taken. The author was grateful to have made it down off the wall just as darkness fell and the first snowflakes started to fly. The relatively quick escape would not have been possible without the use of fixed anchors. [Photo] Derek Franz