LEAVING THE SMALLEST DESERT TRACE POSSIBLE
Partway up P1 of Community Pillar (5.8+), in Pine Creek Canyon, Red Rock, my partner looked down, cringing. It was time for his morning constitutional, and his look told me he wouldn’t make it through the next 700 vertical feet. I lowered him and handed him the TP. He soon returned carrying a very full Ziploc. A few hours later, we were back on the ground, packing out his overloaded poop sack.
I’d expected my friend to bury the evidence and use the bag for the TP, but this prodigy set the bar higher. His diligence made me realize the “rules” need to be better defined for desert climbing environments, like Red Rock, Zion, Joshua Tree, and the greater Moab area.
The techniques listed below might be inconvenient. They might even require planning. But if all you cared about was climbing, you could certainly get more routes done at the gym. You come to the desert to climb in an unparalleled setting, so do your part to keep it beautiful.
To begin, two general reminders. First is trash — pack out everything, even if you didn’t pack it in; it’s easy to carry a plastic grocery bag for this purpose. Second, don’t be rude: the desert is a sublimely quiet place, a quality many climbers savor. Travel in small groups and refrain from screaming.
Crust in the Dust
The desert is complex and fragile: just two or three people walking across the landscape can leave a mark that takes several years to mend. In severely impacted areas, damage lasts decades.
Although you can’t usually see it, a thin layer of cryptobiotic crust (when thick, it’s a lumpy, black area) comprised of cyanobacteria, algae, and lichens lives in the soil’s first few centimeters. Crypto prevents the loose, sandy soil from eroding as rapidly as it would, for example, in washes or at construction sites; it holds the soil together, creating suitable plant habitat.
Shortcutting any trail — official or a climber spur — can permanently damage the desert ecosystem. This is probably the biggest impact that desert climbers can have, and land managers know it. So track down the right trail. Just because it doesn’t beeline to the route doesn’t mean it’s not correct. Double-check the guidebook (or Internet) for approach and descent information. If you have multiple options, stick to the most hardened path. Walking on rocks is an excellent choice, but never walk on anything you suspect is crypto. If there’s no trail at all, your group should spread out to avoid impact.
•No. 1: To pee at the crag, step at least 100 feet away from the rock and go out in the open. Climbers tend to seek secluded spots, but these develop a nasty bouquet. Remember: pee not on plants, but on rocks (or if you can’t find a rock, on sandy, gravelly, plant-free soil). Plants “breathe” through their leaves: peeing on them does not equal watering them, though it will make them more appetizing to salt-deprived animals. •No. 2: The best way to deal with pooping while climbing is not to do it. Go before the day starts — use the pit toilets at the road, trailhead, or campsite. The next best option is to bring a Wag Bag (a commercial version of the Ziploc method). The least desirable method is the cat hole, because sandy desert soil does not contain the organic matter or bacteria to break down poop. If you must dig, excavate four to six inches in a sunny place, far from water, washes, routes, and boulder problems. (Note: a special place in hell is reserved for those who leave TP. Instead, reuse the Ziploc TP bag to pack it out.)
Install fixed anchors with local regulations and ethics in mind. Use quality stainless-steel equipment, at least 3/8” in diameter. Buy rock-colored hardware or camouflage it ahead of time with spray paint. If you must leave webbing, use the tan-colored stuff available at desert climbing shops — and remove two pieces for every one you add to prevent an unsightly tat mess. A small belay knife (watch the rope!) makes this job quick and easy.
Sandstone (the medium at many desert areas) is very fragile: it’s porous, and absorbing moisture weakens it. Give your route at least 24 hours — longer during an extended damp period — to dry. Otherwise, your project will get a lot harder when the crux holds snap off. Be careful when removing stuck nuts and cams. If you can’t get your widget out without permanently altering the rock, leave it. Rappelling, hauling, and toproping have worn ugly grooves in popular routes like Sheer Lunacy (V 5.8 C2), in Zion National Park. Direct the rope away from edges, or pad the lip with rope protectors, a pack, or an extra jacket.
As for erosion to the insides and lips of popular sandstone jam cracks, it seems little can be done. Some folks argue that removing your hand and re-inserting it with each jam, as opposed to just sliding it up, is better, but this has a minimal mitigating effect. Still, it’s worth trying.
Leave Poochie at Home
Simply put: don’t bring Fido — even a tied-up dog can wreak havoc on plant life or soil at the cliff, and his mere presence stresses native animals already locked in a struggle to survive. (Dogs are related to desert predators like coyotes and foxes, and other animals can’t distinguish between Fluffy and a coyote.) Also, pet waste has all the disposal problems of human poop. Public lands have rules regarding pets, so read them before bringing Rex to the crag.
Bernadette Regan is a bio-science technician focussing on climbing impacts. Ian McEleney is a guide and Leave No Trace trainer. After years living out of a pickup truck, they now work and play in Joshua Tree National Park.
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