Best Rock Climbing Ethics and Practices
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We climb for countless and diverse reasons, but there is one commonality: We enjoy being outdoors, up on belay ledges with the birds, away from the daily grind of society. No rules, nobody telling us what to do … right? Climbing does, however, have unwritten rules. We have ethical dos and don’ts and environmental paradigms.
The climbing community was once a small, esoteric group, free to do as they pleased because the general public brushed them off as a bunch of crazies. Not anymore. With the significant growth of climbing gyms and celebrity climbers during the past decade, the mainstream has noticed our impacts. So have the land managers. It’s hard to maintain order when the community is growing so rapidly. Our sport is at a critical juncture—whatever your preferred style of climbing, preserving access to crags and maintaining order are paramount.
What we do individually reflects on climbers as a group. If Joe Public or Big Brother Land Manager sees you leave your tape scraps at the crag or cut down the shrub growing at the base of your favorite boulder problem, he thinks all climbers do that. If you bring your speakers to a crag and piss off the squirrels and climbers around you, it ruins the solace everyone traveled there to enjoy. We need to lead by example and educate our ranks if we want to continue to enjoy our current level of freedom and maintain the quiet calm of outdoor climbing.
Sharing the Crag. Be courteous and considerate, especially to any non- climbers in the area. Many crags double as public parks; local climbers work hard to build a trusting relationship with municipal government—complaints can jeopardize access.
Music. Don’t play loud music at the crag. Nobody wants to hear stroke-inducing electronica as you snap up your stretchy pants. It’s bad form to play music that other climbers can hear—if you need to up your psyche, use headphones.
Drones. Unfortunately, anyone hoping to find celebrity on YouTube, or a snap a new profile pic for Facebook can purchase a whirligig. Drones are loud, difficult to control, and irritate other climbers. If the crag is completely empty, have at it, but don’t launch if you have company.
Booty. Many climbers’ trad racks are a magpie’s assortment of reclaimed gear. It’s tempting to assume that any pro left on a climb is fair game to spirit away, but not so. Fixed draws, rap rings, permanent anchors, fixed pro, and other hardware placed on a climb is for the use of all. If a piece of fixed gear is ready for retirement and dangerous to other climbers, take it down and notify the land manager, or the local climbers’ coalition. If you see several quickdraws on a climb, it’s a sign that someone is “projecting” the climb—that’s their gear, which you can use on your way up and down, but leave it be. However, if you find a single carabiner or a quickdraw dangling above the first bolt, a climber probably bailed, and that sucker is yours. On gear routes, any pro stuck in a crack, or abandoned because of inclement weather, is fair game. However, keep in mind that some routes have fixed gear—don’t ever take permanent pro unless you know a climber bailed and left it.
Hangdogging. At many crags, weekend-level traffic is now the midweek norm, and on the weekends there are often queues beneath routes. Be respectful to others waiting to get on the suffer-haul you’re climbing. If you’re part of a large group, let other people get a burn in-between your and your friends’ sends. If you are projecting the route, do so when no one else is waiting to climb. If the line is simply above your level, don’t hangdog and work the holds for an hour—lower, let someone else go, then try again later.
Drugs and Alcohol: Don’t bring them to the crag. There could be children around, plus it’s dangerous to hold a climber’s life in your palms when you’re seeing fractals and giggling. If you’re drinking and get injured on a climb, it’s everyone else’s job to rescue your soggy self.
Language and Volume: This is a difficult one; so really, just cuss quietly. In general, keep the volume down so that everyone can enjoy. If involuntary pterodactyl-shrieks escape your gob halfway through a crux, that’s fine—but there’s no need to split your belayer’s eardrums on every move.
Multipitch: Long ascents can bring out bad moods and egos—let faster parties pass if it’s safe to do so. If you happen to be the faster party, make sure you don’t compromise the slower team’s line, gear, or safety in any way. If a party is below you, be especially careful not to knock rocks off; if you do, yell “Rock!”
Play It as It Lies: Leave established climbs as they are—don’t add bolts or fixed gear without consulting the first ascensionist.
The basic rule: Leave it as you found it, or cleaner. This practice is called “Leave No Trace.” Here are a few guidelines:
- Pack out your trash, including tape, candy-bar wrappers and cigarette butts.
- Do not alter rock—i.e., don’t chip holds, glue broken bits back on, or put in additional fixed anchors.
- Stick to established trails.
- Respect any restrictions, such as those on motorized drills and fixed anchors, and closures due to bird nesting.
- Use a nylon-bristled brush to clean off chalk build-up. Do not use a wire brush, which can scour away the rock itself.
- Brush off your “tickmarks,” those white lines of chalk may help you quickly locate holds, but are eyesores to everyone else.
- Practice minimum-impact camping: Use gas stoves (no wood fires); avoid fragile alpine tundra; bury human waste; don’t camp close to streams or lakes.
- Minimize chalk use, particularly on dark-colored stone. In some areas, rock-colored chalk is the only type allowed.
- Camouflage fixed gear to blend into the rock.
- Do not throw anything off a route.
- Don’t sling trees if you don’t have to.
- Park only in designated spots.
- Don’t clear brush unless you have permission from the local manager.
- Don’t smoke if you are in a dry environment.
MINIMUM IMPACT BOULDERING
Bouldering is becoming the most popular form of climbing as the gym population continues to boom. It’s important to limit impacts, such as killing vegetation, soil compaction and erosion at the base of boulders, tick marks and chalk buildup, damage to archaeological sites, proliferation of trails, impacts to wildlife and their movements, and proper sanitation and trash removal. Here are a few ways to leave bouldering areas as pristine as possible.
Gym Vs. Crag. Ethics are especially important now that many indoor climbers are venturing outside. The gym is great: a huge air-conditioned hangar in which you can climb 20 routes in a night, style problems in banana-cambered shoes, and simply enjoy climbing hard on soft mats (and if you’re from Boulder, drink IPAs on tap). Because so many climbers start in the gym, lots of nature-newbies don’t realize that the crag is an entirely different vibe. Treat the outdoor gym like a library.
Build a Terrace Out Of Pads. While it was cool to scrape out strip mines in your childhood sandbox, moving earth is not appropriate at boulders. Instead of constructing terraces on steep slopes to cushion your landing, build a temporary platform of pads. Stack and overlap doubled-up pads at the base of the problem, then drape an open pad or two on top to build a level landing zone.
Encourage Vegetation Out Of The Way. Leave the saws and pruning shears at home and bring some duct tape or string instead. Flexible shrubs and small trees or tree limbs can be temporarily taped or tied out of the way to enlarge a landing zone. Layer a rag or T-shirt under the string/tape to protect the stalk, and don’t bend fragile plants past their breaking point.
Remove Your Chalk. With a toothbrush and water. You don’t have to leave a boulder looking like a chalked-up version of some graffiti-riddled subway car. Tick marks are like trash: clean them up even if they aren’t yours.
Leave No Trace. Be a crunchy, minimum-impact hippy! After your session, check the environs for trash (yours or others’) and spread a few handfuls of pine needles, rocks, leaves, twigs, mud, etc., over the landing area to restore a natural look. Wads of tape, cigarette butts and energy-bar wrappers are not local flora.
Be Few. Limit your group size and “zone of impact” around boulders. Keep your gear together and, where possible, place it on hard surfaces.
Show Respect. Never boulder on, or near, cultural resources such as pictographs, petroglyphs, milling surfaces and historical structures. Regulations for government lands usually prohibit climbing within 50 to 150 feet of cultural resources. It is your responsibility to know the rules.
Feature Image: Chalk is an essential ingredient for bouldering, but caked-on it is unsightly, especially to non-climbers. When you are finished with a bouldering session, brush off your chalk, and especially remove any “tick marks,” those chalk lines drawn on the rock to direct your hands and feet to the holds. Also, organize an annual clean-up at your boulders. Pick up trash and wash all the chalk off; a pump-up lawn sprayer works great.