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Does Climbing Matter?

A climbing advocate asks what climbing means given the context of the great environmental challenges of our time.

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

I. Our world is changing, and for climbers it’s impossible to ignore.

Burned up crags. Washed out roads. Ice climbs that no longer form. Increasingly strange and severe weather—driven by climate change—is already impacting our climbing experience, putting the places we recreate and the sport we love at risk. In 2021, the Red River Gorge endured historic flooding. Last summer, the Pacific Northwest experienced an unprecedented heatwave, with temperatures cresting 110 degrees. Millions of acres across the country burned as New Mexicans experienced the largest wildfire in their state’s history. And a major rockslide in Rocky Mountain National Park closed large sections of the world-renowned Chaos Canyon bouldering area, destroying a number of classic climbs.

These headline-grabbing events are the culmination of decades of environmental change. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wildfire season in the West has grown from 5 months to more than 7 months in duration over the past five decades. Some experts even reject the idea of “wildfire season” entirely, since megafires now occur in nearly every month of the year.

As summer turned to fall and then winter, a new problem emerged, as record snowfall closed roads and buried gateway communities in the Sierra Nevada. Climbing areas like Lovers Leap in California, which burned in 2021’s Caldor Fire, are now blanketed in snow and unequipped to deal with spring runoff. One local news station asked whether this snowfall was, “Tougher than the pandemic?” And in spite of the West’s above-average snowpack this year, the compounding problems of high temperatures, drought, and wildfires still threaten the wide-open western landscapes climbers love.

“One good year of snowpack can’t erase decades of climate impacts,” says Brendan Witt, western lands policy fellow at Western Resource Advocates. “It’s great for a lot of things but doesn’t stem the tide of the cumulative impacts of climate change.”

No matter where you live or love to climb, you’re seeing changes in climbing landscapes.

For western crags and boulder fields, record snowpack is creating new challenges. Flooding this spring in areas like Bishop, California and Indian Creek, Utah washed out roads and made it nearly impossible to access popular climbing areas. As this year’s snowpack begins to melt, other areas will see new impacts, too.

“No matter where you live or love to climb, you’re seeing changes in climbing landscapes,” says Access Fund Executive Director Chris Winter. “From worsening wildfires to dangerous rockfall to irreparable changes in ecosystems climbers love, these shifts mean real risks every time we head outside.”

II. Does Climbing Even Matter?

As we consider climbing within the context of these vast environmental challenges, it’s easy—and maybe even right—to feel small or insignificant. After all, can one packed-out poop really save a watershed? Or one well-routed trail? How about making it one move further on your project?

Climbers have debated this question around campfires for generations. It’s easy to write off this passion we have as selfish or obscure. “We’re not out there curing cancer,” rings the regular refrain. But climbing does have value. What we do—and how we do it—makes a difference.

The time we spend climbing connects us to nature and tunes us into the changes in the world around us, big and small. Visiting a place year in and year out gives us an appreciation for how landscapes change between years and seasons. We pay attention to variations in the landscapes and how we interact with them, responding to feedback in real-time in the same way we would on an intricate slab climb. All of this makes climbers ideal messengers, ready to sound the alarm on big environmental changes.

And climbing has wider benefits, too.

“Spending time outside is a chance to challenge yourself and discover who you are,” says Winter. “It’s a chance to recharge your batteries and get inspired for the work ahead: saving the planet and passing on something we’re proud of to the next generation.”

Accomplishing this work alone is nearly impossible. But climbers are part of a wider, interconnected community. We’re in this fight together, and together we can make a difference.

According to the 2019 Access Fund Climber Survey, climbers are well aware of threats to our climbing areas. Climate change ranked as one of climbers’ top three concerns for the future of our sport, alongside threats to public lands and climbers uneducated in responsible outdoor ethics. For an activity that involves a lot of staring at our fingertips, climbers are incredibly attuned to the world around us.

Wilfire season in Yosemite National park. Here Lower, Middle, and Upper Cathedral are blanketed by smoke. Photo: Jen Peng / Getty Images

III. Protecting Landscapes We Love in a Changing World

The truth is, the big environmental challenges we face aren’t far-off problems for future generations to solve. It’s up to us to tackle these issues head-on, right now.

Access Fund believes that climbing can make us, and the world around us, better. The experiences we have outside drive climbers to protect and conserve the beautiful places that make the climbing experience so special.

There’s no one way to solve these environmental challenges. But for climbers, there are meaningful actions we can take right now. Sometimes it means buying threatened climbing areas that are about to be sold off for resource extraction or development. Other times, it means rolling up our sleeves and working in the dirt to install recreation infrastructure that protects the surrounding environment and allows native species to thrive. And it means showing up in Washington, D.C. to protect public lands and advance climate action.

“When we talk about Access Fund’s work, we focus on three areas: protecting and conserving the land, fighting for sustainable access, and building a community of inspired advocates,” says Winter. “They all have to come together for climbing advocacy to succeed. And for many climbers, what inspires us to advocacy is time spent outside.”

It’s impossible to overstate the benefits of climbers and conservationists working together.

IV. What Do Climbers Add to the Conservation Movement?

Climbers are uniquely connected to very specific, vertical landscapes. That fact allows our community to play a critical role in advancing conservation, working to protect areas that might be overlooked by traditional conservation-minded organizations.

“Near my home in Chattanooga, climbers are bringing new energy to the long-standing effort to connect preserved areas in the Cumberland Plateau region,” says Access Fund vice president of programs & acquisitions Zachary Lesch-Huie. “Over and over, we’ve seen that climbers’ conservation priorities mesh seamlessly into the bigger-picture vision for how we protect these special places.”

As climbers lead the charge for conservation, communities around the country reap multiple benefits—from the ecological to the economic. And these efforts even bolster climate action. Conserving forests protects land, sequesters carbon, supports sustainable management, and contributes to the overall work of drawing down carbon and climate action.

The Appalachian mountains rise to form an incredible, interconnected landscape that runs from Alabama to Maine. They are a global hotbed for biodiversity, a massive carbon bank, and a critical landscape for climate resiliency—as well as home to innumerable climbing areas.

“It’s impossible to overstate the benefits of climbers and conservationists working together,” says Lesch-Huie. “Appalachian climbing areas are a cradle of climate resilience and biodiversity, in addition to being important resources for recreation and economic sustainability.”

Climbers’ work to protect areas in the Southern Appalachians—from the Red River Gorge to the mountains of western North Carolina to the Cumberland Plateau of Alabama and Tennessee—is proof that climbing and conservation go hand-in-hand. Saving these climbing areas and boulder fields preserves millions of acres of interconnected forestlands. And the benefits don’t stop there.

V. Harnessing Change for Good

Since 2020, it feels like we’re living in one neverending “unprecedented moment.” From Covid to the fight for racial justice to the very weather that shapes our lives, we are in an undeniable season of change. And change extends to some places you might not expect.

Across the country, rural economies are shifting. As the extractive industries that once sustained these areas decline, many communities see outdoor recreation as a new, sustainable economic driver. Climbers are a growing economic force and have the power to help these rural communities make the transition. In many small counties and towns, it’s an opportunity too good to ignore.

“For climbers, supporting rural economies isn’t some far-away concept or pie-in-the-sky ideal,” says Winter. “It’s about the health of communities—and the health of people in these communities. Those folks are as much a part of the climbing experience as the rock, or flora and fauna of where we spend time outside.”

Breaks Interstate Park, which straddles the Kentucky-Virginia state line is a perfect example of how climbers can lead an economic revolution. In the heart of an area once supported by coal production, local boosters now welcome visitors to “The Grand Canyon of the South.” And the park’s commitment to recreation is about more than branding.

Park leaders worked with Access Fund and the Central Appalachian Climber’s Coalition to develop the park for sustainable climbing access back in 2016. Together with park staff and other organizations, these groups created a plan that protects natural resources in the park while also providing access to incredible traditional and sport climbing routes on quality southern sandstone. Today, even the elk are thrilled—making an appearance in the area for the first time in more than a century.

“Over and over, we hear from coal country communities that they see the benefits of working with climbers,” says Lesch-Huie. “And climbers are more than happy to jump right in! Our team is always on the lookout for new and exciting opportunities to support the transition to a sustainable, outdoor-recreation-based economy.”

Out west, the same story unfolds as the connection between people and places fuels the creation of powerful pro-conservation alliances. In Utah, it helped protect the landscape we now know as Bears Ears National Monument. Following the lead of Tribes who have stewarded the area since time immemorial, climbers helped win critical protections that saved a sensitive landscape, recreational access, and unique cultural resources from oil and gas development.

“Tribes and conservation groups want to work with the human-powered outdoor recreation community, and especially with climbers,” says Winter. “We add an important perspective to these big conservation projects that makes all of us more effective.”

As climbers deepen their connection to these unique places, new opportunities come up as well.

VI. Climate Adaptation is not Climate Surrender

As a community, climbers are a hands-on bunch. We aren’t afraid to dig in the dirt or move big rocks. And right now, that’s one thing many climbing areas need—climbers willing to work restoring habitats, preserving biodiversity, providing fire mitigation, and preparing these places for a changing climate.

Because the fact is, climate change is already here and some changes can’t be undone. As climbers, we have to do all we can to prepare ourselves, our communities, and the places we love for changes big and small.

“There are so many great conservation organizations out there working to secure landscape-level protections for iconic places,” says Winter. “What makes Access Fund different is that we pair that advocacy with hands-on conservation work that helps to protect these areas in an era of rapid change.”

At Bears Ears National Monument, that partnership is on full display. Climbers played an important role in securing protections for the area as a National Monument and continue to support the Access Fund Climber Stewards’ presence in Indian Creek year after year.

“Indian Creek is an international destination, which means that our Creek Stewards have a chance to educate visitors about Leave No Trace Principles that protect the area’s fragile desert landscape and unique cultural resources, as well as to send those visitors home with knowledge that benefits their local crags,” says Lesch-Huie. “And with events like Work Week in the Creek, we’re able to complete projects that adapt the desert environment to our changing climate.

A wildfire isn’t a one-time event. Once a megafire comes through an area, its impacts can linger for decades.

VII. Rolling Up Our Sleeves to Protect Crags

Across the country, climbers are in a neverending race to adapt our favorite areas to a rapidly changing climate. This means better trails with hardened surfaces, stronger erosion control, and fire mitigation efforts that reduce the likelihood of an out-of-control fire. Because once an area is impacted by a major event like a wildfire, it has a long road back to health—as climbers who frequent Lovers Leap in California know all too well.

For years, Lover’s Leap deteriorated under an increase in climber traffic from areas like San Francisco, Sacramento, and South Lake Tahoe. But the lack of a formal trail system for climbing access led to an unstable system of access trails across the mountainside, trampling sensitive vegetation and causing severe erosion. Add in a wildfire like the one that tore through the area in 2021, and the results are catastrophic.

“A wildfire isn’t a one-time event,” says Western Resource Advocates’ Witt. “Once a megafire comes through an area, its impacts can linger for decades.”

Areas like Lovers Leap need the kind of hands-on stewardship that Access Fund’s Conservation Teams provide year in and year out, alongside dedicated volunteers. And this year, one of those teams is headed to Lovers Leap, where they will work to pick up the pieces from a tragic wildfire and restore this iconic climbing area to its former glory.

“Around the country, we need organizations fighting for landscape-level designations that protect areas from development and extraction working side-by-side with the folks who actively restore areas that already enjoy some level of protection,” Witt adds.

Access Fund is proud to do both.

VIII. A Winning Advocacy Record

One of the most impactful things we can do as a community is to tell our elected leaders to pass policies that protect vast landscapes, invest in climate resiliency, and cut carbon emissions.

Since 1991, Access Fund and its members have permanently protected more than four million acres of public lands across the United States. In 2019, climbers helped pass the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which designated nearly 2 million acres of new recreation, conservation, and Wilderness areas, as well as over 600 miles of Wild and Scenic River. Talk about a force of nature.

In 2022, Access Fund members helped pass America’s biggest investment in climate action ever: the Inflation Reduction Act. Passing the Inflation Reduction Act was the biggest step toward fighting climate change in American history. It invests billions of dollars in cutting pollution, environmental justice, wildfire mitigation, and agencies that manage public lands. But even with big investments, the bill wasn’t perfect.

“We’re making progress in the fight against climate change, but our work isn’t done,” says Winter. “Access Fund will keep fighting for climate action and for other priorities that didn’t make it into the Inflation Reduction Act, like the bipartisan Protecting America’s Rock Climbing Act, the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act, and the Civilian Climate Corps.”

Climbers are spread across the country, and represented by leaders from across the political spectrum. When we raise our voices, we can shape how those leaders approach the issues that matter to our community.

IX. Community Support is More Vital Than Ever

Climbing matters because it bonds us to the land and each other.

Climbers bring something unique to the outdoor recreation community and the fight to protect and conserve the land. Sometimes that means scouring a seemingly blank rock face in the neverending search for good footholds. Other times, the very act of climbing takes us to places that others can’t easily access, a reality that helped bring peregrine falcons back to El Capitan.

“Our approach to conservation makes climbers—and Access Fund itself—different,” says Winter. “Our work is about more than just protecting the places we climb. The connection between people and places is interwoven into everything we do. We’re fighting to protect our ability to experience these places together.”

Connections between climbers transcend nationality, geography, race, income, or politics. Our shared passion for climbing has the power to shape our very identity. And one way to honor the values that our community holds dear is to put them into action.

“The best way to avoid feeling overwhelmed is to take action,” says Witt. “In communities around the country, you can look out your back door and see that things are getting done—and if they’re not getting done, you have a chance to make them happen.”

The environmental challenges we face may be too big to tackle alone, but we can make progress if we face them together.

Each of us has a role to play in the climbing conservation movement. As Access Fund looks to the future, we’ll keep working to empower climbers with the tools they need to be effective advocates for the lands and sport we all love—whether that’s elevating their voices to lawmakers, connecting them to volunteer opportunities, providing training and grants for local access and conservation projects, or helping them minimize their environmental impacts.

Want to help? Donate to Access Fund here, sign up for action alerts here, or become a member here.