On a recent trip to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, I witnessed a gaggle of climbers swarming around two popular 5.9 warm-ups at the Military Wall. The cliff base was trashed: Branches had been torn from nearby trees, roots were exposed and trampled, and cigarette butts littered the soil. A dog tore through the underbrush — pausing sporadically to dig large holes — his master too busy chatting to take note.
Though many of our favorite sport crags, like the Red, are getting hammered from overuse, the following suggestions will help you be part of the solution, not the problem.
Trickledown information. Before touching drill to stone, contact the landowner and get permission, ensuring that there are no concerns over access and parking. If access is suspect then you shouldn’t be climbing there. If bolting is prohibited, don’t tempt fate by establishing a new line.
Blockhead syndrome. Nothing provokes landholders more than crowded cliffs, over-stuffed parking lots, and dirtbags who shortcut day-use fees. Ever arrive at a wall and find 10 people clustered around one or two routes? Instead of joining the herd, migrate to a different route — you’ll have solitude and you’ll help limit damage to the cragging environment. If a parking lot is full, head to a different wall; don’t pull into non-spots and create problems. Also, regardless of your financial circumstances, remember that climbing isn’t always free — ante up and honor all user fees.
Pack it out. If you bring something to a crag, then carry it out, even biodegradable items like banana peels. Remember, it’s good karma to pick up others’ garbage, so always carry a small trash sack with you. If there is an outhouse, use it. Barring this, make sure you bury feces away from water drainages and trails, and burn or carry out your toilet paper. Agent Orange. Regardless of how inconvenient a tree may be, never destroy vegetation. If your rope runs through a bush, flip the cord; if there’s a tree blocking the base of a route, have your belayer gently bend the branches back while you climb through.
Pooch patrol. Everybody loves Lassie, but nothing’s more distracting than the fracas caused by scrapping dogs. Canines have a knack for digging, fighting, and leaving unsightly messes. Unless you’re prepared to leash Fido and clean up after him, leave him at home. Squatter’s rights. Don’t camp near the crag, and never build fire rings or bonfires. These impacts are intensified with each subsequent visit — later parties are more likely to camp at an area with a fire ring, perceiving it as an “official” campsite.
Activism and stewardship. Join the Access Fund (www.accessfund.org) and support your local climbers’ coalition. Listen to their ideas: Find out who the key players are in the land-management game and how to best donate your time. Landholders respond better to organized climbers who negotiate legally and unilaterally.