11/4/13 – In early October 2013, professional climber Joe Kinder cut down two juniper trees, one alive and one dead, in Tahoe, California, sparking a violent backlash toward the professional climber from the community. Following the incident, Kinder received death threats, hate messages, and antagonizing phone calls from complete strangers. Now, almost a month later, Kinder discusses the aftermath of the situation.
In July 2012, Tahoe locals took him to a new cliff in the Tahoe area where he climbed Tree Beard (5.12c), which Kinder describes as the one of the best 5.12c’s he had done in his life. Kinder realized the potential for developing new routes on the granite wall, and returned to get to work. While developing a new route, Kinder had to lower through a 10-foot-tall, 10-inch-thick tree, which stood by another dead tree at the base of the route. Kinder realized the safety threat the trees could pose to climbers. He left the crag torn, thinking of the trees but also about the granite he calls, “one of the best crags in the U.S., no doubt.”
He came back in the first week of October with friend Ethan Pringle and Pringle’s girlfriend. Kinder made the decision to cut the trees down to provide the safest route possible, having never been told that they were juniper trees, which are illegal to remove. Junipers are spread across Tahoe and are known for their ability to thrive on little water, their incredibly long life span (they live hundreds of years), and their rich history in Native American cultures.
When Kinder told local climber Chris Doyle about the new line he had developed, he anticipated Doyle would be excited about the route. When Doyle responded with anger about removing the trees, Kinder knew he had made a serious mistake. California climber Bernie LaForest posted a picture, taken by Doyle, of the destroyed tree in front of Kinder’s new route on Instagram, placing the blame on Kinder and Pringle and publicly issuing their telephone numbers. A few hours later, LaForest removed the picture.
“The juniper cut down by Joe Kinder with accomplice Ethan Pringle. I wonder what Muir would think of the progression of our sport. Let these guys know how you feel. Maybe it will make a difference in the future. This tree has been growing here before most of our families came to the continent,” LaForest said in his Instagram post.
Kinder later clarified that he took the trees away from the route to bury them, out of respect for the area, and LaForest uncovered the tree and dragged it up the mountain for the picture.
Immediately, the climbing public directed a heat wave of criticism and anger toward Kinder. Thought LaForest took the post down, someone had already taken a screenshot and uploaded it for the wide and vocal SuperTopo audience. In no time at all, the controversy went viral.
Climbing reached out to LaForest to understand his perspective of Kinder’s actions and the violent response following his post. “I’m really distraught at the brutality displayed toward Joe and in no way do I condone this sort of response,” LaForest said. “His actions were irresponsible, ignorant, and selfish, but not intentionally malicious. He is sincere in his apology, and has shown this sincerity and humility in conversation.”
LaForest commented on the importance of the issue to him, as a local climber, “The cutting of these two trees isn’t going to cripple the planet, but when do you, as an individual, take a stand? I feel that as a professional athlete, especially in sports that are so married to the outside world, it’s your obligation to not only push the progression of the sport but more importantly be a steward to the places that you do your business.”
Kinder made his first public statement on his blog on October 20, explaining the situation and deeply apologizing for his mistake. “I want to make no mistake that this was a regrettable error on my part. I am deeply apologetic about what I did. I was wrong. I F’d up. And I’m very sorry.”
Kinder also clarified that his friends (including Pringle) were not involved; he was the only one who removed the trees. While Kinder understands the consequences of his actions, Kinder has also reiterated that his intentions behind removing the trees were positive and for the safety of the climbing community. “The danger factor was a serious concern of mine,” Kinder told Climbing. “After realizing this cliff would be a crag of very high-grade routes, it was something that I assumed was the right thing to do. This tree was in a dangerous spot, as there was a hard part near the ground, and you would fall into it.”
Though the controversy has begun to settle in the headlines, Kinder is unsure of whether or not people have cooled down. Kinder is currently taking time away with his friends and family for reflection. “I am very upset. I have disappointed many people in the climbing community. This was a major incident in my life and will take a long time to heal from as well as grow from. My biggest goal now is to form this into something positive,” Kinder said.
As part of his reflection, Kinder wants to share the most important thing he’s learned in the aftermath. “It’s important to remember that we are visitors. Our tiny footsteps add up to have an effect. I am taking this time now to understand this more and hope that my actions can carry over into someone else’s understanding of this,” Kinder said.
In order to clear the air with climbing community, Kinder wants to acknowledge the public accusation of his denial of his actions when the story first came out; he describes this accusation as a misunderstanding. “The ‘denial’ topic was a funny one,” Kinder said. “After the photo was posted on Instagram, I was bombarded with calls, messages, and texts all from California numbers or No I.D… I was in ultra-defense mode as I was scared for my life and well-being. I played it off the same way I played off all the other calls. I was passive, polite, and vague.”
To begin compensating for his mistake, Kinder has made donations to the Access Fund, Sierra Nevada Alliance, and Leave No Trace. He has also confirmed that he will be doing community service work in the Tahoe region.
For now, Kinder will remain with friends and family, carefully figuring out how to best proceed with his status in the climbing community. He stresses the importance of remaining positive and acknowledges that “This will take time.”