Thursday, July 15, 2010

Alpine Bouldering Ethics

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.

2. Conduct
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.


Doug Lipinski said...

Nice post and mostly good thoughts. I especially agree with you on the noise aspect. I think large groups are guilty of this much more often than not and if you're ever a part of a large group out bouldering you should routinely ask yourself if the group is being too loud.

Not sure I age completely about the spray aspect though. At least to me, this seems much more subjective than some of the other issues you hit on.

Blackford said...

Great point on the dogs issue. Why must people always insist on having there dogs at the crag?

climbingislove said...

Couldn't agree more and I hope you'll continue to harp on this point: don't stash your pads. Land managers don't like it and this issue is going to bite climbers in the ass in the future if we don't shape up.

As an aside, that's some brilliant Colorado hogwash to refer to something like 'unequaled wilderness bouldering.' Come on now. You ought to get out more. And when you do, leave that video camera at home (leave no trace, digital or otherwise).

Peter Beal said...

How about unsurpassed then? Can't make promises about the video though. I would love to get out more but I have other commitments that interfere. That's one reason I prefer to see relatively unspoiled terrain.

Anonymous said...

"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."

You know what would put your priorities and perspective back in line with reality?

Go do a wall. A little suffering and inconvenience would do wonders for you. Because the diatribe that quote is taken from is some of the strangest stuff about climbing rocks ever written. You need to get out the bubble in the worst way.

sd said...

I stopped reading this mindless dribble after it said "don't chalk footholds". Do you know how many millions of gallons of oil are now in the ocean after the BP screw up. I think chalk on foot holds is the least of our problems in this world.

Peter Beal said...

Hi Anon. Thanks for the recommendation about wall climbing. Get right on that, except I have other responsibilities. Can you actually tell me how you find a "diatribe" in arguing for Leave No Trace in wilderness alpine areas? Because if I took a lazy me-first attitude to big wall climbing, I would be kicked out of the Valley ASAP.

To SD, that's "drivel". To me, climbers spraying their presence all over alpine bouldering areas is a micro-version of the same problem as BP.

For anyone else annoyed by this post, please think of some real arguments, not non sequiturs, misleading analogies, and pathetic insults. Seriously.

Anonymous said...

"Can you actually tell me how you find a "diatribe" in arguing for Leave No Trace in wilderness alpine areas?Because if I took a lazy me-first attitude to big wall climbing, I would be kicked out of the Valley ASAP."

Actually wall climbers are told to carry out their own solid human waste, which I'm not hearing you recommend and which would Leave No Trace far more effectively than anything you recommend. Also the "no spray" advice coming from a spray-centric website such as this rings a little hollow.

If crash pads, jumping off, spotters, and landscaped landings are so impactful to the base of the boulders, maybe it's time to think about top-roping?

Anonymous said...

Glad to see a prominent bouldering blogger giving voice to these issues. Thanks!

Peter Beal said...

Dear Anon, when the NPS recommends that climbers carry wagbags, ala Indian Creek, etc, then I will say sure. I don't think climber crap is really an issue right now, so I will stick with what is.

Re: toproping, I wrote in regard to landscaping, "It may be better to toprope a line and headpoint it with a bunch of pads." Maybe you missed that part. However, pads are a long-recognized and legitimate aspect of bouldering, especially on bare talus. If extensive landscaping at the base is the new norm, it sneaked by me. Many problems would be impossible to toprope due to angle and proximity to the base. When pads are overused and misused, that's where the problem starts.

As far as "spray-centric" maybe you can provide specific examples of environmentally insensitive spray on my site.I didn't say no spray, just more thoughtful spray.

I also wanted to add in response to the "go climb a wall" comment; come do the upper chaos hike a few times with 2 pads plus gear (it comes in around 40 pounds)only to fail on a 10 foot problem. Suffering and inconvenience? I think there's enough of that already.

Anonymous said...

"...come do the upper chaos hike a few times with 2 pads plus gear (it comes in around 40 pounds) only to fail on a 10 foot problem. ..."

haha you should see the hikes we do in the Valley just to get to the good swimming holes - up Cathedral Gully and down the other side to Bridelveil Creek, if your approaches were anything like that you'd leave the pads behind, trust me

and 40 pounds of gear to work a 10' boulder problem? people do Nose in a day with less than half that much weight, what a friggin I said you need some out-of-bubble perspective

Peter Beal said...

ooooh, the Nose in a day. Now I feel reallly small and weak. Come on up to RMNP and see if you can get anything remotely hard.

Pads versus swimming holes? Anon, you are ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

this whole conversation took a pretty ridiculous turn

Peter Beal said...

Do discussions like this ever turn out differently?

JP Williams said...


Anonymous said...

kissing the bees nest....nice work peter. I think a lot of us (regardless of discipline) would like to ignore our impact. And Yosemite certainly isn't pristine and climbers continually benefit from other climbers gear...e.g. east ledges descent, heart ledges.

Maybe we shouldn't cast it as an issue of ethics, but rather style. Chalk everywhere, ticked footholds, it's just J.V.(See Lama, Mammut) You won't go to hell for it. You won't burn a hole in the ozone layer by stashing a pad, but really think about it -- is it really that hard to carry a pad a few miles. And tick marks seem to be just that -- nervous ticks.

FC said...

thoughtful post peter. nice to see someone working through the nature/society contradictions inherent in climbing by addressing - you know - actual practices. though i have to admit i enjoyed the 'my dad can beat up your dad' comment thread far more than the actual post. i'm a bit of a sucker for tough guy interweb banter.

Anonymous said...

"Yosemite certainly isn't pristine and climbers continually benefit from other climbers gear...e.g. east ledges descent, heart ledges."

The issue isn't fixed gear though. And there is ton of alpine bouldering in the Yosemite high country and throughout the Sierras, and I've never heard of anyone stashing pads.

Also, referring to the "Come on up to RMNP and see if you can get anything remotely hard" comment, I had to laugh at the bubble-icious comment from Carlo Traversi in the latest issue of Climbing, saying he never did anything harder than V10 in California, but within days of arrival in CO he was doing V12's and 13's. Riiight...

Anonymous said...

How is a stashed pad all that different than fixed gear? It's a piece of gear that one climber leaves behind to facilitate future ascents/descents.

If you want to turn it into Rado/Cali thing, go for it. That's a totally new interesting topic that hasn't been beaten to death.

Peter brought up some reasonable points with his post. The bizarre thing is that you sound like you agree with him for the most just wanted to bag on him.


Nietzshce said...

Hey Peter,
There seems to be some confusion about ethics and rules at Evans and the Park (Lincoln Lake included?). Is there some place where RMNP or the Evans ranger state some standards for bouldering conduct? Is this all word of mouth? I think it might go much further than what amounts to personal choice (which is what blogs normally discuss).


Peter Beal said...

I am planning on following up my discussion about this with Jamie when I am back in CO. My impression is that these issues are currently interpreted on an as-needed basis by the land managers. If climbers present a fait accompli of new trails and developed landings, then it is very difficult to undo that presence without a comprehensive reactive (and expensive) response. So unless things are really out of hand, boulderers are left alone.

I am particularly concerned about wilderness area activities as these are most directly affected by legal definitions.

Nietzshce said...

I agree that boulderers are for the most part left alone (in the early stages of development of an area). But can we really not foresee the same thing happening to Lincoln Lake as happened to Evans. I think it is borderline ridiculous to assume that this "new area" has "new ethics." I'm not sure that jemerson is the best person to be talking to (although he should be talked to) when taking some preemption about new areas. Ethics on an "as need" basis are well... what gets us into trouble in the first place.



Peter Beal said...

Agreed that there should be higher standard out there but it is up to climbers to live up to it. Land managers have a tough enough time staying on top of things as it is. Whether the new book will change the situation for the worse is an open question.

Nietzshce said...

My reference is not to the new book being published. I am all for information being disseminated to the general public in whatever fashion. I'm referring to my own conversations with him.

That said, I'm no suggesting a necessarily "higher ethic." All I'm saying is that climbers need to work more closely with land managers. I'm all for building small sheds to hold crash pads. Other user-groups get accommodations from land managers specifically for the reason that they a.) pay some fees and b.) work more closely with land managers through representative groups.

The point being is just that it seems climbers are bent on not working with groups and not raising a little cash to help keep the areas the way they want them. I just wish more climbers with more influence felt the same.


Peter Beal said...

Tom, agreed 100%. Instead of recognizing the reality of climbing on public lands and the impact of poor behavior, climbers pretend it doesn't happen or that they are the only ones who visit and see it.

Personally I would be in favor of having a pad registration and storage system where for say 50 bucks you can store pads in a provided spot for a season. It makes perfect sense for a place like Chaos Canyon. The problem is that I can't see how it would be secure without locks and keys and stuff.

Anonymous said...

Peter, Tom, don't forget that I talked about all of these issues, in depth, with the rangers at RMNP for almost 2 hours, and I also talked with the ranger at Mt. Evans, Ralph Brandt, for about the same amount of time. Peter, the information they shared with me about how they want to see bouldering done at their respective areas and their thoughts on how it is currently done will be central to our discussion.

Peter Beal said...

Jamie, thanks for adding that point. I don't think anyone doubts that you have done your homework here. Looking forward to discussing things soon.

Nietzshce said...

By "our" discussion are you talking about the guidebook or this forum?

In regards to the information that you got from the rangers (and that which you posted on your site) I guess I didn't hear anything that I didn't already know (pad stashing, trails, trash etc...). That's not to say it wasn't worthy and overall helpful to the greater community.

Unfortunately, my comments about Lincoln Lake and "preemption" I don't think are addressed sufficiently.

Furthermore, I find it odd that you have not included Lincoln Lake and a few other areas in your book due to "access" and "impact" concerns while also stating that you know of no access issues at Lincoln Lake (specifically). I am referring to the comments that you made on your July 5th post on your blog. (Perhaps clarification is all that is needed). I may be reading to much into this, but when rangers ask to not include a section I assume it is for reasons of impact and where impact is an issue so is access.

I would also be interested if you put forth any ideas that might lead to sustainable (and secure) land use in the future in an attempt to meet needs of climbers and land managers alike rather than the cat and mouse game that usually goes on.

Thanks for your input.

Nietzshce said...

Isn't leaving your pad under a talus roof already risking having it taken out? The only people interested in hiking out (additional) pads are people who take the access issues in these sensitive areas seriously. Plus I don't think "stealing pads" (from such a receptacle) is really going to take off. I mean I guess the point would be to have a pad and to climb in alpine areas. The people who would put their pads in a receptacle obviously climb in these areas a lot and you would be risking quite a confrontation in my opinion (especially since the party using the pad would be in the wrong). That said, I don't think locks would be a necessity.