Climbing & Leave No Trace Ethics

Climbing & Leave No Trace Ethics

  • Posted by Kaleigh
  • On April 27, 2020
  • Comments

Being a part of the climbing community means different things to different people. For some, it’s about training and sending. For others, it’s about promoting inclusivity. For many, it’s about the friendships fostered while sharing a rope and putting their life in someone else’s hands. While we appreciate these perspectives, we also think that climbers have a responsibility to be stewards of the places they visit.

When venturing out of the gym and to fields of boulders or towering cliffs, it’s important to remember that we leave a trace. Even if we’re climbing on natural gear or not using chalk to tick beta, our mark is made no matter where we go or how lightly we tread.

Climbers are for sure not the only individuals responsible for respectful treatment of the environment. You name the activity – hiking, backpacking, skiing, trail running – and we’ll argue that all those who venture outside have a role to play.

This is why The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics exists. This national organization “protects the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly.” The organization and its seven major Leave No Trace (LNT) principles are endorsed and supported by the National Park Service and brands you most likely know and love such as REI, Subaru and Clif Bar, among others.

The initial seven LNT principles are:

« Plan ahead and prepare
« Travel and camp on durable surfaces
« Dispose of waste properly « Leave what you find
« Minimize campfire impacts
« Respect wildlife
« Be considerate of other visitors

To address the ever-growing social media generation, the Center for Outdoor Ethics introduced four new principles a few years ago:

« Tag (aka geotag) thoughtfully
« Be mindful of what your images portray
« Give back to the places you love
« Encourage and inspire Leave No Trace practices in social media posts

These principles are not black and white rules when heading out into nature, but are commonly practiced “guidelines” by outdoor recreationists on how to properly behave and exercise good judgement when in the great outdoors.

How can we apply Leave No Trace ethics to climbing?

Great question, glad you asked! For starters, planning ahead and preparing is crucial to any sort of adventure outside. Packing enough food, water, extra layers and a first aid kit is a good way to be prepared for the unknown. Plus, planning for which crags and pebbles (and back-up rocks) you’ll visit is a good way to maximize your time outside. And it’s wise to tell a friend or family member your game plan, especially when heading into the alpine. This person could very well be your lifeline should something go awry.

Many trails leading to and from climbing areas were thoughtfully crafted by a volunteer or professional trail crew. Respecting this hard work by staying only on these paths ensures we leave minimal impact when in the outdoors. Vegetation – especially high-elevation flora – is sensitive. Refraining from stepping on these plants will ensure the longevity of our natural areas.

Souvenirs are great and all, but the less we take away from nature the better. We all head outside for the same general reasons: mental and physical rejuvenation, beauty and quiet. Bringing home pieces of rock or the environment you’re visiting detracts from the quality of a place for other visitors, and is even illegal in some places. So, stay out of trouble and respect other’s nature experiences by simply leaving what you find.

Cracking a cold one around a fire is one of the greatest rewards after a long day getting the beat down from our favorite routes and problems. But fires can have detrimental impacts on the land (do we really have to dive deep into wildfires?!). Some land owners don’t even allow fires on their property, and in some cases, they’re not allowed. It’s important to know the rules of the place you’re visiting (by planning and preparing ahead of time!) whether you’re camping near crags, boulders or at high elevations. And properly disposing of your waste after a weekend climbing/camping trip helps maintain the environment’s cleanliness.

Climbing areas around the country are usually closed at some point during the calendar year to respect the breeding of peregrine falcons and other animals. Staying away from the cliffs during closure periods permits positive relationships with land-holding stakeholders. Besides, the rock will always be there.

Respecting fellow humans is just as important as respecting wildlife when visiting climbing areas. Blasting music from a Bluetooth speaker at a crowded crag is a fantastic way to get into a good-old-fashioned argument. Plus, loud music can inhibit climbers from hearing each other on the wall, which can make a huge difference when someone is yelling “take” or “ready to lower” to their belayer below. Additionally, some locales cater to more than just climbers. For example, the Wasatch’s Ferguson Canyon has some grade-A sandbags on fun granite, but runners and dog-walkers frequently hit the canyon’s trails. Loud music, unnecessary shouting and unleashed pets can all contribute to someone else’s low-quality experience in the outdoors, even if they’re not tied in to a rope.

To dive deep on the “unmentionables” … just remember: Everyone poops! If you’re simply cragging, head several hundred feet away from the wall, dig a hole at least 6 inches deep and let ‘er rip. Bury leaves or pinecones with it, and cover the hole. If you use TP, pack it out!

If you’re on a multipitch and you absolutely cannot keep everything inside, you’ll want a wag bag. You may even have to do your business while at a hanging belay. This is just another part of climbing, and all the legends have had to do it at one point or another. So, welcome to the club. If #1 is calling your name, then whatever you do, do NOT pee on the route. In the end, go when you can and where it’s most comfortable, but raining down on a route is just downright inconsiderate to the parties following you, and it’s just plain gross.

Other ways we can apply LNT principles to climbing are by not stealing fixed gear on a route; letting a faster party climb through on a multi-pitch; leaving behind slings for natural anchors that most closely match the color of the rock you’re climbing on; bringing a trash bag and wag bag so you can carry out what you carry in; bringing a chalk brush so you can clean away your tick marks as well as carrying your gear in a bag or some sort of container so as not to yard sale and take away space from other climbers or user groups.

We’re familiar with the seven main LNT principles, but we’ve never heard of the social media guidelines. Can you tell us more about that?

Social media has continued to be a powerful tool in spreading the word about “undiscovered” locations or hidden-gem-communities, whether purposely by tourism agencies and advertising companies or inadvertently through location tagging by social media users. So, in 2018, The Center for Outdoor Ethics tacked on the four social media guidelines.

The age-old saying rings true: A picture is worth a thousand words. When climbers share images of their proj or outta-this-world campsite, it’s important to remember the type of message that could be perceived by the photograph. Does the picture make it look like you’re sleeping out in an unpermitted location? Does tagging the image’s location give away exact coordinates to a sensitive area that cannot immediately handle thousands of new footsteps, or to an area that doesn’t yet have an official trail network?

Being a responsible climber doesn’t stop when you’re indoors. Thinking about how LNT principles apply to your shared images and social media posts when recapping your rad climbing trip is just as important as being mindful of LNT ethics when outside.

So, why should we care?

Think back on the last time you climbed in the Wasatch or beyond…

Did you pick up all of your wrappers and trash? Did you clean up after your dog? Did you properly plan and prepare for your big day in the alpine? Were you cognizant of your music’s volume while blasting tunes at the base of the crag? Did you properly extinguish your campfire? Did you omit the exact location of your campsite or climb from your Instagram post?

It’s important to remember that when heading outdoors we are guests in someone else’s home. If you wouldn’t make the same action in a stranger’s house, then chances are you shouldn’t act that way outside, either. Unlike the climbing gym, nature does not have enough people on staff to monitor respectful use of the land (shout-out front desk staff!).

But we know that climbing is full of paradoxes. “Clean climbing” was born out of a distaste for nailing pins into cracks even though many of Yosemite’s “most classic” climbs are only made possible to free climb thanks to scars made in the past. Even today, bolts are chopped off routes where natural gear could be placed and disputes over bolting practices – like that in Ten Sleep – still regularly erupt.

If it’s difficult to comprehend a climber’s impact on the environment, at least understand that our actions as a community are directly related to our climbing access. Countless routes and boulders are on private property, not public. But thanks to negotiations with property owners by organizations and advocacy groups like the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, we’re granted access to crags and pebbles. If we don’t follow LNT guidelines and we’re disrespectful of other land users and the environment itself, the entire community’s privilege of climbing in these areas can easily be taken away. And these acts are usually precedents that send shockwaves across the globe when other land managers decide if they want climbers on their property or not.

So, next time you’re headed to your proj or waking up at the crack of dawn to get a head start on your long approach, please keep in mind the impact you have as an individual of the climbing community. Know that your actions do matter and that, for better or worse, you can make a difference. If you happen to share a crag with a group of climbers who may not be educated in outdoor ethics, politely share LNT guidelines with them and help them understand what they could do better. Because there are too-few full-time monitors of the natural world (shout-out park rangers!), it’s up to us to self-police and look out for one another. The great outdoors and real rock are meant to be enjoyed. But please do so responsibly.