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Crusty Corner: Three Simple Tips to Be a Better Custodian of Crowded Cliffs

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Crusty Corner is a column written by Climbing Editor Matt Samet, a climber of 30 years. When he’s not at the gym or the rocks trying to stave off the inevitable performance decline of middle age, you can find him in his basement playing Xbox.

Smith Rock Oregon Crowded Rock Climbing Crag
As more climbers enter the sport, our climbing areas become more crowded, and it’s up to all of us to be better custodians of the cliffs.Benjamin Hollis/Flickr; CC BY 2.0

I’ve stopped keeping count of how many times it’s happened: A friend and I head out climbing early and get to the crag before everyone else, or to arrive with the first wave of climbers. I’m a father now, climbing for nearly three decades but with two young kids, and I need to get out and back home early if I’m to keep my weekly hall pass and not just be consigned to one-hanging “Red Tape” ad infinitum for what little remains of my productive years. Here on Colorado’s Front Range, there are many, many climbers, and if you climb on a weekend at a popular crag, it pays to leave early, especially if you have a specific route in mind. We have seen explosive growth in our sport in the past two decades, and high-quality, accessible crags near populated areas are busier than ever.

It’s cool then at the cliffs, and silent—just you, the rock, and the sky, and maybe a few circling swallows or a hawk. And then, suddenly, more and more people begin pouring in plunking their stuff down where your kit is already laid out, perhaps talking so loudly you can hardly communicate with your belayer, queuing up right below you with no concern for your belayer’s personal space or awareness of being in a potential rockfall drop zone, or doing the route right next to you that converges at the same anchors without asking about sharing.

Ugh. What do you do? Keep climbing? Bail to another cliff? Go around the corner to that zero-star guano-filled offwidth and hope no one follows you? Sell your climbing gear on eBay because Eff this S?

At the risk of sounding like a “Get off my lawn” cranky old coot, it wasn’t always this way. Back. In. The. Day. There were fewer of us—like way fewer of us. And those who did climb seemed to have a greater awareness of the space we took up and how to share that space in a respectful way. We all typically came from backpacking or wilderness-education or mountain clubs or other outdoor backgrounds, and had learned to embody low-impact practices. With more humans on the planet and with the rock-gym explosion, piping climbers straight from urban areas to the cliffs, the vibe has changed, though the need for courtesy is greater than ever precisely because of our swelling numbers and because good, accessible crags are a finite resource.

I’ve been climbing since 1987, and learned to climb in a sparsely populated desert state, New Mexico, which I’m now realizing conditioned me (read: spoiled me) to expect empty cliffs. Even at the now-popular Enchanted Tower near Datil, you were hard-pressed to see another party in the 1980s, when the first routes went in. During my and two friends’ first trip there, in 1988, we pulled into a deserted canyon amidst massive monsoon thunderstorms. Biblical winds and lashing rains tore at our tent all night while lightning flashed in the darkness and thunder boomed within the canyon walls. In the morning, the three of us woke to herds of slow grazing cows and to vacant cliffs. Water coursed down black streaks and dripped off the spire’s bulbous overhangs, which hung out over a steep hillside. There was no one around. The intimidation was palpable. As a strong August sun warmed the rock, the routes began to dry. We flung ourselves at the climbs, trying to figure out this “new” style of radically overhanging climbing having apprenticed solely on vertical 1980s tweakmaster slabs, blowing out our arms, struggling to keep our hips in, fumbling clips, grabbing draws, elbows lifting, logging airtime.

Now, this was climbing. Just three fools and the rock, trying to make it happen.

At its historical heart, climbing has always been a direct communion between humans and stone, between humankind and the mountains. Take the dawn of recorded climbing, in the Alps: the first climbers were scientists, headed to the heights to study the natural world above treeline, and to document the effects of the rarified air upon the human body. In the Golden Age of Alpinism, the race was on to “claim” the first ascent of each summit. As tools and techniques improved in the Alps and Eastern Alps, and spread to North America, climbers began to seek not only the summit but the most direct, difficult way to get there, often involving aid: the era of the “Direttissima” was born. In time, this was eclipsed by modern movements like clean climbing (not using pitons) and, concurrently, free climbing and bouldering. The 1980s saw the birth of sport climbing and gym/competition climbing, which bring us to where we are today: a sport in which the goal is not necessarily always direct communion with the mountains, but instead the pursuit of athleticism and/or recreation (“pleasure climbing”) in which the medium takes a backseat to movement.

Reimers Ranch Austin Texas Rock Climbing Cliff Crag
Climbers stream down the trail at Reimers Ranch near Austin, Texas, in numbers that would have been unheard just a decade or two ago.Trek Texas/Flickr; CC BY-SA 2.0

There is nothing wrong with this. I’m mostly a sport climber and I like pulling hard moves as much as the next guy. I love how climbing keeps my body strong. And I also dig going to the rock gym, where you’ll find me two-odd days a week doing what I can to stay in shape. And there’s nothing wrong with climbing with groups of friends, either. I do it, you do it—we all do it. The social aspect is a big part of our sport. This essay is not yet another critique of the “Gym Generation,” because we are all pretty much the Gym Generation at this point—anyone who climbs avidly will find him- or herself pulling plastic on a regular basis to stay in shape, and has therefore become a willing participant in the gym economy. And we are all contributing to crowding—when you or I or “they” are at a crowded cliff, we are part of the reason the cliff is crowded. We contribute to that sum total of humanity. Instead, I’d like to offer a handful of simple suggestions for all of us, veterans and newcomers alike, to both alleviate crag crowding and/or make the experience as pleasant as possible at a busy cliff. In other words, to bring more focus back to the experience and to the medium.

1. Spread Out

First off, don’t park like some bald, midlife-crisis Porsche-driving asshole who takes up 1.5 spaces at the grocery store so nobody can get near his car and scratch the paint. Carpool, park small, park smart, and park so that as many climbers as possible can fit into the lot.

Once at the crag, if you see other climbers already on a route, the considerate thing to do is to not have your entire group set up right on top of them. This has happened to us more than once. I hate it. It’s annoying and moreover unsafe, both for the climbers who are already there and may experience trouble communicating as a result of the noise and commotion, and for the newly arrived climbers on the ground who are now directly in the path of rockfall or dropped climbing gear.

If you show up at a busy cliff, and there are more than two of you, then spread out to minimize your presence. It’s all good and fine to cluster up at the gym and make plans for where you’re going for tapas after some Epic Sendage, but the same sort of pack behavior at the crags, where there is often limited space at the base of the cliff, is a hindrance to others who are trying to either rack up or squeeze past on the approach trail. This holds true for actually climbing: eight people gang-toproping two or three routes in one area is effectively a takeover of that sector, a “Keep Out” sign to other climbers even if that’s not your intent. But four parties of two spread out across various routes on the cliff still keeps climbing opportunities open for others. Yes, it can be tempting to hog all the four-star routes for you and your crew, but it’s not thoughtful. Consider how you’d feel, wanting to get on one of those climbs, if you came upon another group doing the same. Also, pull your rope if it’s hung on a popular route others might want to try—route-camping with a perma-TR on a classic at a crowded crag gums up the route for others who might want to lead it, and is especially déclassé if nobody is actively using the rope. It’s like you’ve parked a semi-trailer full of bricks in the HOV lane on the highway during rush hour, to keep others from using the lane till you are ready to drive home.

2. Listen, and Be Quiet

Climbing outside can be an amazing sensory experience. There are sounds at the cliffs we do not encounter anywhere else on this planet, from the way the wind hisses around an arête to the roar of a river bouncing off the rock to the calls and songs of the birds that inhabit the walls and the ether. If you take a moment to tune in, you may just get to experience the sort of tranquility our sport’s early pioneers found more readily in a less populous world. Yeah, the rock gym is loud with its piped-in music, shirtless dig-me grunters, and ten million different simultaneous conversations. But that’s the gym. The crags are different, or at least should be. Do more listening than spraying, and you may just find the cliffs exacting changes within you at a deeper level.

On a related note, music at the crags sucks, unequivocally—leave the iPhone speakers at home. By way of an anecdote, a friend was at Monkey Traverse, a popular area on Flagstaff Mountain, Colorado, one summer evening and the “doofiest high school couple ever” showed up and started playing music and bouldering. At one point, the girl asked everyone else at the crag if they had any song requests, and one of the older guys said, “How bout the crickets?”

So, how ‘bout those crickets?

3. Observe, Yourself and Others

This goes back to taking it all in with your senses, but also to being a keen student of both the crag environment and human behavior. In other words, when you get to a cliff, take a moment to evaluate a few fundamentals:

  • What is a good, safe staging area away from other climbers, so you’re not either directly below them or in their hair, or so your gear doesn’t get mixed in with theirs? Are you taking care not to be in the path of rockfall knocked down by climbers, especially at chossy cliffs like Rifle or Maple, or are you taking care not to knock rocks down from your staging area onto the trail or other crags below?
  • Is this staging are creating new impact, say by you putting your pack down on a patch of grass? If so, find a spot that climbers have already used.
  • Take a second to consider the presence you and your friends are creating. (See tip No. 1.) Are you showing up in a friendly, low-key fashion, or are you leaping onto the stage with a loud, bullying, unfriendly, or oblivious presence? As you take in others climbing, how would you categorize their behavior? Are they doing something that annoys you, but that you might not have considered you’re doing yourself, like screaming epithets every time they punt at the crux? Are you smoking (tobacco or weed) at a cliff with close quarters or a capstone roof, forcing others who might not want to, to inhale your effluvia? If you have a “crag pet” with you, is it leashed as appropriate and/or well behaved? How about kids? Many crags have dangerous/exposed base areas that might not be appropriate for dogs or children, who’d probably be much happier and safer at home. Hold yourself to the same standards to which you’d hold others, and it may just inspire them to improve their behavior, too.
  • Finally, look for any objective hazards like dropoffs below belay areas, possible rockfall zones, etc. and take appropriate precautions not to get hurt. This one’s your responsibility: figure it out. Don’t be a dumbass. Gravity kills.

Read more Crusty Corner.

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