Carved for Attention: Why the Tradition of Carving Desert Plaques is Outdated

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A former plaque below Luxury Liner aka Supercrack of the Desert (5.10) in Indian Creek, Utah. It has reportedly since been smashed.Ryan Grimm/Flickr; CC BY-ND 2.0

While scrolling through new routes on Instagram using #firstascent, one photo caught my eye: a large, glaring eyeball and the words “Super Cool FA 5.12” (name changed) were etched a half-inch deep into sandstone. This thing was a work of art. Each letter looked laser cut and the eye had a red iris painted around a black pupil. The image was scrawled across a two-foot long chunk of stone at the route’s base.

Leaving plaques like this one has been a tradition among some desert first ascentionists since the 1980s. Prolific Indian Creek climber Steve Hong started carving them to inform folks of route grades and names after other teams climbed part of the way up his routes and mistakenly claimed first ascents. The tradition has since spread across the desert. Some support it, while others call it graffiti.

I thought on it for a while. If these carvings were etched into the wall they’d be graffiti, but they’re not. They’re done on small rocks at the base. But what if it was done on a boulder? Would it be graffiti then?

I decided that it didn’t matter how big the rock was. Carving and, in the case of the Instagram photo, painting on stone in nature is graffiti. I shared the photo with my Instagram followers and held a small, informal poll. Most people agreed with me. I handful that didn’t sent me messages. I challenged them to try to change my mind. Below are some of the reasons people used to justify these plaques

“Dude come on it’s a tradition.”

Ah, tradition… holding back progress for millennia. American philosopher Professor Bernard Rollin put it best when he said, “Immorality sanctified by tradition is still immorality.” Now let’s move on to the stronger arguments.

“It’s so cool when you find an old, forgotten plaque. There’s historical value there!”

How cool is it to find an old plaque carved by an ancient desert climbing hero under a long forgotten route? No, really, I don’t actually know. The only ones I’ve encountered around Indian Creek were fairly new. I can’t help but think that if notable climbers hadn’t done it back in the ’80s, then the practice wouldn’t be accepted by anyone today.

I’m sure stumbling across an old, forgotten plaque in some far-off canyon is thrilling and special. That still doesn’t justify carving new plaques today.

“Petroglyphs aren’t graffiti right? Just give plaques some time!”

Yes, they are both just markings on a wall, I suppose. Petroglyphs (carved into stone) and pictographs (drawn on stone) are generally considered worthy of their existence and even protection, so why not climbing plaques too? To answer that question, I think we need to consider how insignificant our sport is in the broader scope of human existence. The scrawlings of a modern climber pale in comparison to the cultural, anthropological, and scientific value of petroglyphs made by ancient humans. I know climbing in the desert can feel like the greatest thing in the world, but we need to zoom out and remember that climbers aren’t the only—or most-historically significant—people who have walked the desert.

For example, the Freemont peoples who inhabited much of Utah roughly 2,000 years ago left behind ancient carvings that are some of the only clues we have to learn more about their lives. The value of their carvings is immense. If folks of the distant future want to know about climbing culture in the 20th and 21st centuries, all they’ll have to do is search the computer implanted in their brains. They’ll get more photos, videos, and holograms of our rad sends than anyone could ever need.

This image of a Native American feeding a campfire is carved into the sandstone cliffside of Sentinel Butte, North Dakota. It’s a petroglyph, right? It was actually done in the 1930s by county worker J. Clayton Russell. So, is it a petroglyph or graffiti? What if it was carved in 2020?Matthew Eckelberg

“They do less damage to the natural view shed than bolts!”

This last argument packs a strong punch. Yeah, I can’t deny that drilling holes and adding foreign material to a clean rock face is a big impact. That said, it’s not like hanging a painting on an otherwise blank wall or, in the case of plaques, on the floor leaning up against a blank wall. Bolts are difficult to spot even from up close. When was the last time you belayed a newer climber who couldn’t find the bolts to save his life? They’re nearly invisible from a distance. Ever hear a tourist on the Devils Tower Trail ponder about the shiny rings up on the rock? I haven’t. The true distinction between bolts and plaques, though, is purpose.

A well-placed bolt has a purpose. It may offer safe passage through an otherwise unprotectable face, or it could be the only reliable way to get off a route. What purpose does a plaque serve in modern times? It appears to be there to inform climbers about the route, but I don’t buy it. If one really wants to inform, why not Mountain Project and guidebooks? These are far better ways of communicating info compared to carving a gaudy plaque and leaving it in the desert for other user groups to see and scoff at. More often than not these days, the true purpose is to highlight someone’s radical route. It puts a pretty bell on their new five star insta-classic in hopes of drawing attention to their amazing feat. This is ego.

“Plaques create less of an impact than sharing routes digitally.”

This is the strongest argument I’ve seen, and the only one that’s caused me to consider making a plaque myself. Some ecosystems can’t accommodate throngs of climbers. To mitigate impact, they should not be published online. In these cases, A physical sign may be the only way to get information to those who may stumble upon the area. However, this is a very specific instance and makes sense only if there’s no information about the area anywhere else. The photo of your carving on Instagram or Mountain Project doesn’t count and the secret is already out about Indian Creek.

“Plaques are far from the biggest impact left by new routing.”

Speaking as an avid first ascentionist, I’ll admit that opening a new route is far from Leave No Trace. We trundle death blocks and literal tons of pebbles. We create trails, but often only to serve climbers. We establish fun routes for everyone to enjoy, but they can lead to overuse and erosion. Developers make a bigger impact on wild places than most climbers. Because of this, studious first ascentionists take care to reduce their impact as much as possible. Carved and painted stone plaques make all climbers appear unaware of our impact in the eyes of other user groups, environmentalists, and land managers.

While it’s impossible to climb without leaving some kind of trace—whether foot to trail or foot to gas pedal—that doesn’t mean we should leave behind graffiti.

“We’ll just have to disagree.”

Well, that’s OK. Or is it? I could imagine having to defend our role as stewards if plaques were brought up during the fight to protect a climbing area, like those in Bears Ears. What if land managers stumbled across something they regarded as climber graffiti and it sway them to close a crag? We need to move on from carving plaques for routes before they come back to bite us. Let’s leave the practice of emulating in the past to help preserve our future.

None of the naysayers were able to change my mind. So, I reached out to the man himself, Mr. Steve Hong, to see if he had any guiding thoughts on the subject. He didn’t seem too worried about the impact, citing more concern with the effect that trash, guidebooks, and video spray have had on a once much quieter Indian Creek. “If someone thinks [the plaques] are annoying they can toss ’em down the talus slope. But I suspect those people need to chill out.”

An ice bath does sound kinda nice.

Dakota Walz spends many of his days (and nights) working in an ambulance, serving the burbs north of Denver. His recent travel-adventure book is called Everything I Loved More.

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