Recap: The Access Fund’s “Climbing on Sacred Land” Panel

Photo: Darrin Reay

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Thinking of climbing on or near Native American rock art? Just don’t…

On Tuesday evening, the Access Fund hosted the webinar Climbing on Sacred Land to discuss the intersection of Native American rock (petroglyphs and pictographs) with rock climbing. The panel was convened in light of recent events near Moab, Utah, on the Sunshine Slabs north of Arches National Park.

Here, a climber from Colorado Springs, Colorado, Richard Gilbert, had established a trio of 5.3 sport climbs up through a panel of petroglyphs—dating, said the guidebook author Stewart Green, from “the Fremont culture, a pre-Columbian Native American culture that inhabited Utah and parts of Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada between 2,000 and 700 years ago.” While the routes were since removed and the holes patched, a furor quickly erupted online, and Gilbert, who has been forthcoming and contrite about his actions, even received death threats.

The panel on Tuesday brought together the Native American climbers Ashleigh Thompson, a PhD candidate in anthropology and expert in indigenous archaeology at the University of Arizona; Angelo Baca, a doctoral student in anthropology at New York University and the cultural resources coordinator for the Utah Diné Bikéyah; and Skye Kolealani Razon-Olds, a native Hawaiian and the founder and director of Kānaka Climbers. Also in attendance were Gilbert; Chris Schulte, a pro climber and board member of the Friends of Indian Creek; and Chris Winter, the executive director of the Access Fund, serving as moderator.

Basically, the tl;dr takeaway for climbers and first ascentionists is that now—as ever—climbs should not be established on or near Native American rock art or sacred sites, nor should you do established routes on or near rock art or sacred sites, even if the climbs are on public land—BLM, National Forest, etc. This shows basic common sense as well as respect for the original inhabitants of North America, and the sites that remain sacred to their heritage, history, and culture.

The hour-long discussion can be seen below—use the password SacredLand2021 to view the video.

The Access Fund also offered the following resources, for those wanting to learn more:

Here a few actionable tips from webinar panelist Ashleigh Thompson, on how to recreate respectfully and responsibly on Indigenous lands.

  • Research restrictions on outdoor recreation before going to the land you intend to recreate.
  • Investigate local Tribal protocols.
  • Know whose land you’re on, use Indigenous place name/s, and share them!
  • Think twice before using Indigenous-themed names, jokes, and comments.
  • Practice good stewardship.
  • Appoint and recommend Indigenous employees, speakers, etc. in your line of work in the outdoors.
  • Support Indigenous activism! #LandBack #ProtectTheSacred #NoDAPL #ProtectOakFlat #BearsEars
  • Hire Native guides and buy Native (tribally-owned gas stations, jewelry stands, etc.).
As we wrap up, we’d like to share a few more resources with you:

A sad act of vandalism…

Meanwhile, in related news, parties unknown vandalized Birthing Rock in Kane Creek Canyon, Utah, Monday night or Tuesday morning, defacing the ancient petroglyphs with a penis and obscene words, as well as the phrase “white power.” Len Necefer, a Navajo climber, professor in the Indian Studies Program at ASU, and the CEO of Natives Outdoors—and who, with Krista Karlson, wrote about the Chiricahua Apache’s violent eviction from Cochise Stronghold for this magazine—posted a half-hour video on Instagram, below, that brilliantly explicates the larger historical context of this and similar vandalisms.

Film: How Matt Cornell Free Soloed One of America’s Classic Hard Mixed Routes

"The Nutcracker" explores the mental challenges of solo climbing and the tactics Cornell used to help him send the route.