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For the Love of Climbing: Does Leave No Trace Exist in Climbing?

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A busy—as in very busy—day at the Monkey Bar Boulder, Las Vegas, Nevada.Jarrod Keller

Despite our best intentions, we climbers aren’t exactly a low-impact user group. We wear down approach trails, causing erosion and runoff that impact wildlife and plants. We drop backpacks and ropes at staging areas, unintentionally killing vegetation. We make noise that drives animals away. We sling trees with webbing, wearing through the bark. And we leave behind chalk that can stain the rock.

As a staggering number of climbers transitions from gyms to the outdoors, our community has been struggling to uphold the low-impact ethics we do practice. According to the Climbing Business Journal, 50 new gyms opened in the United States in 2018, with the gym industry growing a whopping 12 percent—both record high numbers. This shift means that overcrowding and impact are no longer emerging issues, but are pressing.

Most climbers of my own and earlier generations live by low-impact principles, having come to the sport from an outdoor background. We veterans work, when possible, to educate the newbies. It can be as simple as leading by example—picking up micro-trash throughout the day invites onlookers to contemplate why and perhaps challenges them to do the same. However, gym-bred climbers might not be as aware. These days, the large groups that take over the cliffs—largely younger ones (Millennials and Generation Z), though not always—can seem oblivious to the environment they’re creating when they lay siege to a popular climb, play psychedelic electronic grooves, string hammocks in staging areas, or allow unruly dogs to run around, this based on my own observations from busy Front Range, Colorado, crags and popular destinations like Ten Sleep, Wyoming.

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has established seven key principles for lovers of the outdoors, asking that recreationalists research their destination, use existing campsites and trails, properly dispose of human waste, pack everything out and leave what you find, minimize campfire impact, respect wildlife, and be respectful of all people. The LNT framework has incentivized many climbers to go above and beyond, from picking up trash between burns to painting bolts to match the rock to voluntarily not geotagging crags to reduce visitation. Interestingly, white chalk has even been banned in several areas, including Garden of the Gods and Red Rock Canyon Open Space in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Land managers there also ask that climbers leave only anchor webbing that matches the stone.

However, while taking care of the cliffs is a good start, we climbers often fail to consider our impact outside the crags, on the larger planet. Truly minimizing our footprint will come down to leading environmentally responsible lifestyles 24/7: As climate change poses a fundamental threat to the places we love and non-renewable resources are depleted, we should examine our consumption choices with greater care.

So don’t just pack out your lunch scraps at the crag, but make a conscious effort to purchase only food you plan on eating. Only buy outdoor gear that’s necessary, and take good care of the gear you already own—and when you do purchase gear, research how those brands support the environment. Carpool to the crags to split emissions, and research the carbon impact of domestic and international climbing travel—travel is one of the largest sources of personal emissions we can counterpoise. Finally, keep in mind that something as seemingly insignificant as casting a vote will ultimately have a longer-lasting impact on the outdoors than picking up banana peels at the boulders.

“We think about Leave No Trace as a spectrum—practicing even a little Leave No Trace is good for the environment, and practicing a lot of it is outstanding,” says Leave No Trace’s Deputy Director Susy Alkaitis. “The bottom line is that outdoor impacts are cumulative. When people have a baseline understanding of Leave No Trace and can employ simple strategies to help protect the places they care about, the natural world is better off.” The aim of having these larger discussions is to encourage our community to be more impact conscious and mission driven, both at the cliffs and in our personal lives. We all have a huge stake in a better, more sustainable future.

Podcast producer and freelance writer Kathy Karlo ( lives for rock climbing, sharing doughnuts with strangers, and positive vibes. Climbing is mostly jumping for her, as she has a negative ape index.