If you've ever sat back in El Capitan Meadow in Yosemite National Park to watch climbers ascending that massive granite wall from which the meadow takes its name, odds are you've never noticed the "hundreds" of fixed anchors climbers have over the years drilled into that monolith. And yet, they're there.
At Rocky Mountain National Park, another park popular with climbers, the Lumpy Ridge area is rife with bolt anchors, and throughout the entire park there very possibly are thousands of such anchors dotting popular climbing routes, according to park officials. At Grand Teton National Park, another climbing Mecca, officials estimate that there are "untold numbers of fixed anchors exist in the Teton Range."
An update to National Park Service's approach to wilderness management (attached) could prevent similar collections of fixed anchors from appearing in other units of the National Park System. However, the climbing community is hoping to soften the draft directive, in part owing to the feasibility of implementing it.
We'll get to that in a minute. But first, let's take a look at what is generating the controversy. At issue is a small section of an update to Director's Order 41, Wilderness Stewardship, that would ban fixed anchors in official wilderness, and potential wilderness, found in the parks.
"Clean climbing" techniques should be the norm in wilderness. This involves the use of temporary equipment and anchors that can be placed and removed without altering the environment (e.g. slings, cams, nuts, chocks, and stoppers).
"That section is really the lightning rod," said Garry Oye, the Park Service's chief of wilderness stewardship and recreation management.
“I think there is sensitivity about the federal government or the Park Service dictating what is clearly a traditional use of public lands, climbing. People appear to be concerned that they would have to ask for an authorization prior to placing a fixed anchor in the wilderness," Mr. Oye said last week from his Washington office. “It comes down to not wanting to ask anybody for an authorization. It’s a, 'Hey, if I'm out there climbing and I want to place a bolt, I want to be able to do that and I don’t want to get a ticket.'”
Officials at the Access Fund, a "national advocacy organization that keeps U.S. climbing areas open and conserves the climbing environment," are concerned about the revisions to Director's Order 41 that pertain to "clean climbing" because, while the Park Service is open to fixed anchors being used in some circumstances, the new policy would require permits for their placement.
Fixed anchors are not easily attached to rock walls. In officially designated wilderness, climbers must resort to hand drills to sink a 2- to 3-inch hole, perhaps three-eighths of an inch wide, into the rock. Then they insert expansion bolts into these holes to which they can affix their ropes. Outside of wilderness areas, power drills are more typically employed to create the holes.
Despite the hundreds, or more, of these anchors in El Capitan, and the thousands throughout Rocky Mountain, fixed anchors are not sunk into climbing routes with wild abandon, according to Jason Keith, the policy director for the Access Fund. More often climbers resort to removable anchors -- cams, expanders, chocks, stoppers, and the like.
“The vast majority of climbing does not need fixed anchors and they’re not used. It’s just that they’re required in some very key instances. Most climbing is as you described, using removable anchors," he said during a phone conversation from his Moab, Utah, office.
"But in the cases where you need to, for example, descend off a summit, where there are no features that would allow removable anchors, and then during ascents, (fixed anchors come into play). Typically, when you’re trying to follow features of the cliff that allow for removable anchors, it’s the sections either in between the crack systems, or at the end of a rope lengthy, where you’d need to set up belays," explained Mr. Keith. "Sometimes there’s not the opportunity for using removable anchors in those cases.”
The problem with the proposed changes to Director's Order 41, he said, is the requirement to obtain a permit before placing a fixed anchor. That could be tricky, say, if you're working a route and you're two-thirds of the way to top and discover that you need an anchor to move on, he said.
"It’s sort of intrinsic to wilderness climbing that you just don’t know what you’re going to find, especially if you’re doing the first ascent. So it’s difficult to forecast, ‘Well, I might need three anchors in this 500-foot section' or something like that. You just don’t know until you get there," noted Mr. Keith.
“And then there’s also sort of the emergency application of this whole thing, too. Actually, there’s three things," he said. "There are the emergency needs that sometimes arise, and that’s very rare. There’s the replacement and the maintenance of existing fixed anchors, and even sometimes even removal of them if they’re in a sensitive area like a sensitive bird nest is close by, or something like that.
“And then there’s the placement of new fixed anchors for the establishments of new climbs. Or new climbs or descents off of summits.”
Mr. Keith said his group is open to some changes in the regulations, but believes they should be addressed on a park-by-park basis, not as a blanket mandate across the park system.
"The most iconic climbing areas in the country are in Park Service-designated wilderness, so most of Yosemite Park, for example, all of El Capitan, all of the big features in the (Yosemite) valley, Half Dome, then other parks, like most of Zion Canyon, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, big parts of Joshua tree, the list goes on and on and on," he said.
“Most of those parks are (officially designated wilderness). Some of them have varying degrees. But what I’m saying is all of the big climbing walls, and much of the really classic climbing areas, already are within designated wilderness," continued Mr. Keith. "If it only affected Yosemite Park, it would be a really huge deal.”
A more reasonable approach, he said, would be to allow individual parks develop regulations that took into consideration such things as sensitive resources, nesting birds, and other visitor uses.
“They could say, for example, the left side of El Capitan has been screened for other sensitive resource concerns and so long as you follow these standards -- they should be rare, there shouldn’t be any bolt intensive, like sport climb -- then you don’t need to come in for a specific permit every time you want to do this," suggested Mr. Keith. "But, the right side there are some nesting birds, whatever, maybe there’s a trail close by, we consider this a more sensitive zone, so we want you to apply on a case-by-case basis, and we’ve agreed that that’s a sensible way of doing it.”
Back in Washington, Mr. Oye said the climbing community in the past has been "very progressive in working (with the Park Service) to address particular resource issues."
“There’s a lot of that kind of cooperation in the development of climbing management strategies at the local level. We are clearly advocating local dialogue and local plans to be completed," he said.
Arches National Park currently is developing a climbing management plan for its landscape, and Joshua Tree National Park long has had a climbing plan, noted Mr. Oye. Still, whenever talk of regulations in parks comes up, regardless of the user group involved, there's often some pushback from some group, he said.
"I just think that there’s a perception that 'the government will stand in my way of enjoying my public lands.' It’s a tough thing," said Mr. Oye. "There’s clearly people on extreme ends. Wilderness advocates are vary clear that they don’t want any changes or impacts to the wilderness, and some members of the climbing community don’t recognize the wilderness designation as anything special, and in between are the rest of us.”