Ski-Style Climbing Resorts and the Future of Climbing Access

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The privately owned Sky Top crag at New York's Shawangunk Ridge, where a day of climbing can cost upwards of $400. Photo: E Chu/Flickr; CC BY 2.0

The privately owned Sky Top crag at New York's Shawangunk Ridge, where a day of climbing can cost upwards of $400. Photo: E Chu/Flickr; CC BY 2.0

Imagine your local crag surrounded by a fence. Inside, the sport routes have been secured with fixed gear. The moderate routes have permanent toprope anchors, like the kind you'd find in a gym. There are changing rooms and a cafe-bar with hot espresso, cold beer, and overpriced pizza.

At the rental stand, a standard rack can be borrowed for $20 a day, complete with a guarantee that each piece has never been dropped, and inspected by an expert every evening. A short drive away, there are hotels with hot tubs to sooth sore muscles and a craft brewery for “après-climb” socializing.

In a sport where the difference between a developed and un-developed area can be the presence of an outhouse, it's easy to dismiss the idea of climbing crags that look like ski resorts. But, with climbing’s popularity on the rise, could pay-access crags and climbing resorts be in the future? Maybe.

According to a report from the Physical Activity Council, more people than ever are climbing in North America. Participation is growing at an unprecedented rate. Of the 170,019 new climbers that took up the sport between 2007 and 2015, nearly 150,000 started in the last year.

According to Climbing Business Journal, this growth is behind a booming indoor climbing industry. 40 new U.S. climbing gyms opened in 2015 alone, and at least 36 are expected to open in 2016. With this growth is coming money, big money. Described in Outside magazine as “investment offers [that] seem to be falling from the sky”, the bull climbing market is best exemplified by the nearly $49 million sale of New York’s Brooklyn Boulders to North Castle Partners, the fitness financiers behind names like Atkins and Jenny Craig.

But, with all this indoor climbing growth, what’s happening at the cliff?

While 170,019 people started climbing between 2007-2015, that only accounts for indoor climbing, sport climbing, and bouldering, three disciplines the researchers count together. During that same period, over 500,000 people took up trad climbing, ice climbing, and mountaineering, also counted in a group. While this doesn’t tell us exactly how many more people are at the crags, it clearly shows that more people aren’t just climbing, but more and more people are climbing outside.

“There’s more people in the outdoors,” explains Brady Robinson, Executive Director of the Access Fund. “Even if everybody is on their perfectly best behaviour, there are going to be impacts, physical impacts and social impacts…especially if these climbing areas aren’t ready for the crowds.”

To Robinson, it’s mathematically simple: more people climbing outside means more impact of the areas we climb in. Places that previously saw 20 people in a weekend, are now dealing with hundreds of climbers. That means parking areas might need to be leveled, trails formally maintained, and toilets might need to be installed where they weren’t needed before.

The Access Fund has also seen a shift in their role when it comes to supporting the climbing community.

“If we see access issues on the rise, it’s really the rise of this idea that climbing areas need to be managed,” Robinson explains, citing the Jefferson County Climbing Management Guide as an example of this new reality. Covering Cathedral Spires, the Dome, Clear Creek Canyon, Mt. Lindo and North Table Mountain in Colorado’s Front Range, the plan was designed specifically to prepare for the anticipated impacts of climbings rising popularity on the mountains.

“When we met with the people responsible for managing parks and open space in Jefferson County [they told us] ‘We’ve taken a look at how the sport has grown in the last couple of years, and when we look at the population projections for the Front Range it’s really alarming. We know if we don’t do something now it’s going to be bad; we’re going to have negative outcomes.'”

Plans like the kind in Jefferson County are few and far between. More often that not, the impacts of increased use are dealt with after the fact.

Case-in-point, the Roadside Crag in the Red River Gorge. At 9:02 a.m. on Tuesday May 24, 2011, the Roadside Crag was closed. The announcement came via a post on redriverclimbing.com from Grant Stephens, a local developer who worked to acquired the land for climbers in 2004. It read:

“There were over 35 cars in the parking lot on Saturday and Sunday. Every route had multiple parties on or waiting for them. There were dogs digging deep holes, hammocks in trees, people pissing wherever they wanted, and the already severely eroded areas continue to be decimated. The Preserve aka Roadside, cannot sustain that much traffic.”

It took four years, but in 2015 the area re-opened as the Graining Fork Nature Preserve. Limited access now requires climbers to acquire a permit through the preserve’s website. While there isn’t a set cost for these permits, donations are strongly suggested. On Mountain Project, the access description urges climbers to “consider that people routinely pay upwards of $10 for a movie at the theatre and that only lasts two hours. Here, climbers get access to amazing routes for an entire day for $5 or $10 per person.”

The idea that climbers should pay some sort of access fee isn’t new. National parks and some state parks have charged access fees for decades to help cover operating costs. Crags on private land, like Crawdad Canyon in Utah and Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Arkansas, also charge modest day use fees. As long as these fees are reasonable, and the money raised from fees is going to maintain facilities and services used by climbers, Robinson argues that the fees can make sense.

“We, as climbers and people who recreate in the outdoors, have to acknowledge that sometimes recreation fees or user fees are going to be part of the picture…it’s a by-product of our growing sport.”

But, what happens when the fees are more than a few dollars a day? The Gunks is one of the most iconic climbing area on the eastern seaboard. Today, much of the climbing is managed by the Mohonk Preserve, a non-profit that charges $17 a day for access. While this is a fairly steep fee compared to the less than $10 a day cost at most crags on private land, it could be a lot higher.

According to area guidebooks, climbing in the Gunks started around 1935 on the Trapps cliffs. At that time, almost all of the land was owned by the Mohonk Mountain House, a historic resort hotel built in the late 19th century by twin brothers Albert and Alfred Smiley. Much of the land we now call the Gunks was granted to the Mohonk Preserve by the Smiley family during the 1960s, including the Trapps cliffs. But, one area called Sky Top has remained on hotel property.

“If I could wave my magic wand and provide access to any crag I wanted, [Sky Top] would be on the short list,” Robinsons said.

For years, climbers had access to Sky Top, putting up a number of classic routes and test pieces of the day. Then, in 1988, the Mohonk Mountain House closed the cliff to climbers. The crag remind closed for nearly 20 years, opening again in 2007, but this time with a caveat—to climb at Sky Top, one had to be a guest of the Mountain House and was required to hire one of their guides. The combined costs could be over $800 a day.

“We want to ensure that safety is of the utmost importance and that our guests are following best climbing practices, which are ensured by the accompaniment of a guide,” explains Alee Desiderio, Recreation Administrative Assistant at the Mohonk Mountain House.

Today, the restrictions on climbing have been slightly relaxed, offering access to day guests and clients directly booking with the Mountain House’s guiding service, Alpine Endeavours. The steep cost of a day at Sky Top (~$400 for a full day for one person) still makes it’s an unlikely destination for climbers. That might be why, as Desiderio explains, most of the climbers they see on their trips have “little to no experience.” While the high costs and limited access make it easy to vilify the Mountain House, that can can be a bit of a cop-out.

“A private landowner can basically do whatever the hell they want and we can’t really complain about it on the grounds of fairness,” Robinson explains. “[Landowners] can charge whatever they want for access, whether or not there’s a market for it."

It may not sit well with climbers, but by all accounts, there is a market for the kind of climbing experience that the Mohonk Mountain House provides at Sky Top. And, with climbing’s booming popularity, there is a real risk that those climbers who can afford to pay a premium could dictate access.

Right now, access fees like those at Sky Top are the exception and not the rule. With more and more people climbing, some of those people will be willing to pay for a climbing experience with no waits, no crowds, and no one sleeping in their car in the parking lot. If that potential market lines up with the kind of money being pumped into the indoor climbing industry, it’s not hard to imagine crags with higher costs and more restricted access. After-all, turning a mountain into a ski resort requires lifts, chalets, and millions of dollars, but the difference between an open and a private crag can be as minor as the presence of a gate, a fence, and if the landowner is feeling really ambitious, some fixed draws and a few locks.

Even so, the idea that climbing areas could look like ski resorts is still speculative fiction. Today, it's more pressing that the community wrap it’s head around the impact that our sport's current and projected growth will have on climbing areas. If we don’t, climbers could be facing a lot more restrictions, closures, and rising access fees in the short term, and more existential challenges to the spirit of climbing further down the road.