I have been up in the high country quite a bit recently and have been considering what it is that makes alpine bouldering different from bouldering in the lowlands or the gym. Clearly above all it is the magnificence of the surroundings, their relative inaccessibility and the presence of powerful natural forces, sublime even, that have created the playground upon which we climb. Other famous bouldering areas in the US such as Bishop, Hueco, etc., in the end lack this fundamental characteristic of an austere and almost alien distance from civilization and culture. In a word they are closer to wilderness.
Sadly this sense of wilderness is a fragile presence, one easily displaced by signs of human activity. Is it possible to respect these vital characteristicsof the alpine setting, those ultimately untamed and untamable aspects that make the high country so desirable? Here are some points for discussion.
1. Leave No Trace
This means an obsessive effort to erase any sign of human presence among the boulders. These signs include:
Chalk: A good ethical norm is to always leave the boulders free of tickmarks, excessive concentrations of chalk on holds, and chalk spills. Chalk is a tool and should be used as such, sparingly and appropriately. Do not chalk footholds, ever. Nothing in terms of letters, numbers, etc ever should be marked on a boulder. Never use pof, ever.
Trash and Litter: This should be no-brainer. Pick it all up, including anything you see on the way in and out and put it in the small plastic bag you brought for the purpose. Tape does not just disappear by itself and scraps of food are harmful to wildlife. Chalk spills are litter. See pad-stashing, below
Erosion of Landings: There is little question that the marks left by bouldering on rock are miniscule in comparison to the footprint left on the vicinity of the boulders. The two primary problems are the "Halo of Death" and terracing landings. The halo effect is created by the traffic around the base of boulders and the presence of belongings thrown on the ground, smothering and crushing plant life and creating conditions that promote erosion. Crashpads are particularly effective in this regard, but so are clothes, shoes, etc. They all affect the base negatively, however unintentionally. Therefore leave your stuff on bare rock whenever possible, step on bare rock whenever possible, and be very selective about where crashpads are placed. Never throw a crashpad unless you are absolutely certain it will land quietly on a bare rock surface.
Alteration of Landings: Landscaping or terracing is the practice of making flatter safer landings at the base of problems. This is something that has gained in popularity with the rise of alpine bouldering and its talus-filled surroundings. It seems like a judgment call at best and certainly one that should be done in conjunction with land managers at least. Unilateral landscaping on a big scale has run into trouble in the past in many settings. It may be better to toprope a line and headpoint it with a bunch of pads. Is landscaping any different than chipping? Food for thought.
Chipping and Brushing: Altering holds so you can climb a problem is called chipping. Generally speaking if you use anything besides your fingers and bodyweight to alter a hold, you are skating on thin ice and should seriously consider your motives. Glueing holds is unnecessary; if the hold breaks, it breaks. End of story. Brushing to remove lichen, dirt, etc., needs to be thought through carefully. It should be done with low-impact nylon if at all possible and kept to a minimum. If the problem is worthy, the subsequent traffic will clean it up. There is no sense in tearing out moss and lichen for mediocre problems. Using metal brushes on rock is generally speaking a very bad idea. Don’t do it.
Pad-stashing: This is a perennial hot button issue in bouldering, especially with the long approaches and altitude gains typical of alpine locations. Those huge talus caves are so convenient to store a few pads and save a lot of effort on the next visit, maybe providing the edge on the next project. If you are thinking about stashing, ask yourself if you really deserve the grade on the problem that you are trying. Stashing pads is bad for the environment, obviously shows human impact and visitation, and represents a me-first mentality foreign to the problem-solving attitude requisite for bouldering. In a nutshell it is cheating. If you find stashed pads, it is a judgment call as whether to use them. Whether to remove them is a personal choice. See litter, above. If say three people carry two pads each, that should be enough to cover most problems. Pack them in, pack them out.
Human waste: Empty yourself as much as possible before hitting the trail. Sh*tting in the woods even relatively distant from the boulders is no longer low-impact in today’s bouldering environment. If the matter is urgent, hike at least several hundred yards away and do it in an open spot where sun and rain will dissolve your mess quickly. Do not pee in caves or under steep overhangs. Again move well away from the site.
Noise: One of the most curious aspects of alpine bouldering is the desire to bring the sounds of civilization along. This can include loud conversation, shouting, and recorded music. I hike to get away from that not to hear more of it. If you need an iPod, wear the buds and leave the rest of us in peace. No amplified music can compare to the sound of the mountains. Silence is golden.
Noise is also one of the highest impacts on wildlife and shouting whether climbing or encouraging a climber upsets and alarms birds and other animals, causing them to abandon young or use precious energy evading an imagined foe. You are not Chris Sharma and you should know better. Consider it an extra challenge to avoid and count it like you would dabbing on a pad.
Clustering: Boulderers love to get together, no doubt about it. But when does it become more like a regular party and less like a climbing party. In larger numbers, boulderers get sloppy, voice rise, litter is left for others, lowest-common-denominator conduct becomes the norm. The talus in Chaos or Evan for example is not a backyard patio, it is a beautiful and rare spot, unlike any other in the world. Treat it more like a church and less like a bar.
Spray: Related to noise but a bit different, spray is going on about how great a climbing area is and not troubling to emphasize the need for minimal impact. It includes making videos or shooting photographs showing problems climbed with stashed pads, climbers hiking in with just daypacks obviously using stashed pads, and problems with obviously groomed landings. Articles and blog posts should be similarly aware of this need for environmental awareness. Publicizing public lands bouldering is not necessarily the issue but discussing it without a responsible mention of low-impact conduct and Leave No Trace ethics is not helpful. Boulders are not like a terrain park at a snowboarding area.
Dogs: Don’t bring them to bouldering areas ever, just don’t. Unless you are the owner of the perfect dog and can guarantee your dog will never bark loudly, chase wildlife, sh*t near the boulders, maul other climbers, steal other people’s food, dig holes, fight with other dogs, run through fragile vegetation chasing sticks etc., you have no business bringing a dog to a bouldering area.
These are the main areas in which I see room for improvement in climber conduct. Constructive suggestions are welcome.