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Can You Call Dibs On a Pitch of Rock? The Ethics of Red-Tagging

Red-tagging designates a route as under construction/still unclimbed by its “owner.” The tag saves the route, and rubs people various ways.

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A friend and I bolted a project locally in an area where bolting is by permit only; it takes months, and much red tape, to install a new climb. The route took a few days of prep work but then we started trying it right away. Well, winter came, then we both got injured, then it was too hot. When I finally came back in the fall, I was ready (my friend had moved away), but it still took me a month to send. All that time, people kept asking “when the red tag is coming off,” even though there are thousands of other rock climbs around. So what is the “etiquette” on red tags—if someone is actively trying a project, doesn’t it seem rude to pressure them? 

—Bobson Dugnutt, Colorado 

Tying red cord or webbing through the first bolt on an undone project began in the mid-1980s—an outgrowth, likely, of Kurt Albert painting red circles under routes he was trying to free in the Frankenjura, Germany, then filling them in once he’d sent. But nowadays, it’s more figurative than literal. Today you can simply say your project is red tagged and expect everyone to keep their distance. It’s the equivalent of staking a claim, saying “this motherlode is mine”—though in both cases, you’re at the whims of nefarious claim-jumpers. 

Red-tagging designates a route as under construction and/or still unclimbed by its “owner.” The tag saves the route, much like you might lay a program on a theater seat to claim it. It’s the “claiming” that rubs people various ways. The claimer considers the route theirs because, as you noted, they put in time, work, and money, and believe they should have a reasonable (to unreasonable!) opportunity to climb it first. Being the first to do just about anything is a strong motivator—exhibit one: the exercise we went through to walk on the moon—and is one of the invisible forces that propel climbers to spend their free time finding, sussing, bolting, and scrubbing new routes. 

A red-tag saves the route, much like you might lay a program on a theater seat to claim it. 

Being first also means you get your name in the guidebook or on Mountain Project, a soft ego boost even if no one can recall who did what 10 years ago (an argument for naming the route after yourself: the Bachar/Yerian). FAers also have the unique pleasure of pushing into uncertain and uncharted territory, choreographing moves in what might qualify as deranged performance art.

Poaching a red-tagged project removes the meager “I’m first” benefits, and could, over time, theoretically bring route development to a grinding halt. Then, we’d all either have to pitch in and put up routes instead of the 11 people who currently do it nationwide, or run on the hamster wheel of the same, old established climbs. So while fairness says that whoever bolts a route should have it, believing you own piece of rock is silly, a construct as abstract as believing we own anything at all when we only borrow our possessions during our brief stay on this planet.

In your case, you took a year to send. That seems like a reasonable span, especially considering the onset of winter, injuries, and your partner moving. What’s unreasonable? Two years? Five? The convictions of the red-tagger should determine this, with exceptions. Exceptions are: The red-tagger can’t do the route or has abandoned it, yet still hasn’t removed the red tag. The bigger exception occurs when someone red-tags a slew of routes at once, hogging the resource. This tactic was common—and taken to its illogical extreme, of installing the first few bolts then red-tagging the first bolt, in order to claim a prospective line for later—when new crags were getting unearthed during climbing’s Great Land Grab (October 1984 through March 1999). But now that you have to walk farther to find virgin stone, we don’t see as much red tag “squatting.”

Finally, let’s take a moment and examine the motives of red tag poachers. This is easy because the motives are usually greed and ego—or maybe they’re so “elite” they’ve climbed everything else and are bored. The entitled poacher sees themself as the apex predator who can beat down weaker sorts. When they bag a red-tagged project, their actions say, “I’m better than you—suck it, ha!” This form of oneupmanship may feel great, much like downgrading someone’s route or problem. But at some point everyone will fall into low circumstances—someone steals your Sprinter, for example—and the tables get turned. Anticipate this. Abide by the law of the prophets: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” Gear Guru has spoken!