Freedom of the Hills Isn’t So Free Anymore

Climbers face increased regulation. Here’s what we can do about it.

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Before I was a climber, I was a skateboarder. I loved the freedom you got from a simple plank of wood with four urethane wheels, and I connected to that precise feeling upon finding climbing. Now, 33 years later, I continue to climb for the same reasons: exploration, possibility, the lure of some new, singular experience. Like skating, climbing has long attracted the restless souls, the roamers and vagabonds, the haters of rules. For decades, ours was a fringe sport, and you were mostly by yourself at the rocks and could do whatever you wanted.

This has all changed. Sport climbing then gyms made climbing more accessible, and as our numbers swelled, land managers took more notice. Climbing continues to grow both indoors and out—the latter especially during the pandemic. My observations of ever-busier crags in Colorado and in my travels seem to confirm this, as does the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2021 Special Report: The New Outdoor Participant (COVID and Beyond), which notes that 7 percent of new participants who started or resumed outdoor activities since the pandemic’s onset chose outdoor climbing. Meanwhile, outdoor visitations have exploded across all user groups. For example, while national parks saw a pandemic dip in 2020, to 237.1 million visits from 327.5 million in 2019, Yellowstone saw visits in April 2021 clock in 40 percent higher than in the same month in 2019, and Grand Teton saw an increase of 48 percent. Land managers, predictably, are overwhelmed ….

The recent wave of regulations, says the AF’s Chris Winter, is “a trend in land management.”

In recent months, three major climbing areas—Yosemite National Park, Eldorado Canyon State Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP)—have seen or are poised to see regulations that impact climbers, either directly or indirectly. In the Valley, the NPS deemed that as of May 21 this year, anyone doing an overnight wall needed a Wilderness Climbing Permit, part of a pilot program to, per their website, “help rangers better understand use patterns on big walls.” In Eldorado, a draft management plan proposed a timed entry/reservation system (since 2010, the park has seen user numbers double to nearly 530,000). And, in RMNP, a reservation system enacted in 2020 to limit visitors during COVID has been carried forward.

The Valley story is complicated. One big-wall veteran, Paul Gagner, who climbed the El Cap route Native Son this year, posted in Facebook’s BigWalls Forum that when he asked a ranger the purpose of the pilot program, the ranger, wrote Gagner, said that climbers “could not police themselves, and that the park service had to hire a mule train to take hundreds of pounds of trash off the top of El Cap.” Much of this stems, it seems, from free climbers working routes top-down, and their summit camps and gear caches. And in Eldo, climbers represent only 12 percent of peak-season overall visitors, but may pay the price for the park’s popularity in terms of no longer being able to climb spontaneously. Meanwhile, in RMNP, the reservation system for the Bear Lake Road corridor, the access to innumerable climbing objectives, now starts at 5 a.m. and runs till 6 p.m.—and slots have gone quickly.

Also read: The Upside of Climbing Permits, and Why They Are Here To Stay

I worry about these developments—regulations can spread like wildfire. For perspective, I spoke with Chris Winter, the Access Fund’s (AF’s) executive director. “Public lands in general are seeing a lot more visitor use across the board—true for climbers, mountain bikers, hikers. As climbers we have to deal with that—we’re part of it,” he said. Winter made a good point: To land managers, climbers are just another user group, despite our intimate interaction with the landscape or any nostalgia we hold for the freedom of the sport’s halcyon days. From the AF’s perspective, this recent wave of regulations is, said Winter, “definitely a trend in land management,” adding that Yosemite is an important test case.

The good news, he said, is that climbers are mostly seen favorably by land managers overall. We pick up, do anchor-replacement work, and chip in with trail and clean-up days. To keep those relationships strong and ideally avoid cumbersome regulations, Winter urged us to consciously lessen our impact. “We need to think about that not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it will protect our access over the long term,” he said. “It’s things like traveling in smaller groups, avoiding crowded places at the busiest times, working with the Access Fund and local climbing organizations to partner with land managers on sustainable trails and human waste management.” From one perspective, a future of ever-more-crowded, ever-more-regulated crags seems grim. But the alternative—not getting involved and hoping it all works out somehow—is grimmer yet.

Concluded Winter, “We need climbers to step up and become partners with land managers to do the hard work.”

Also read: New Regulation in China Erases First Ascents