Monday, July 2, 2012

Ethics - Introduction to Outdoor Climbing Ethics

Aubrey Wingo
By Aubrey Wingo

Alright Crimp Chronicles followers, it’s time for another issue of Climbing Ethics. In this particular segment, we are going to venture away from Aiguille and the ethics in our own gyms, or any indoor climbing gym. We are going to travel to an outdoor climbing location, and you can pick whatever climbing area is special to you. The ethics are typically the same.

Much of this article will circle around the idea of Leave No Trace. The main difference about climbing in a gym and climbing outside is not only the location, but the fact that, unlike a gym, no one is there at closing time picking up trash and sweeping up. Now, I would like to think that everyone in a climbing gym is not leaving empty cans and remnants of taped fingers around everywhere to be cleaned up, however, and I know this because I obviously work at a climbing gym, it happens and we clean it up. Other than volunteer groups and environmentally-minded climbers, no one is picking up the garbage every night. An ethical climber at the crag must have awareness, knowledge, and personal responsibility.

The rest of this article will brush us up on previously mentioned topics of ethics that we also practice indoors, as well as other common courtesies to your crag and to your fellow climber.

Before the Crag

Planning the Trip - Being knowledgeable about your climbing area will help prepare you for whatever camping and parking situation you may face. Before you arrive, you should already know rules and allowances, where to park, etc. to make sure that you not only have a flawless trip, but you also won’t disrespect any rules of the area, and you won’t look like an idiot. Try to carpool as much as possible and travel in small groups. The less amount of impact on the land at one time better. This also leaves less of a chance for any kind of pollution: trash, sound, and emissions.

Walking the Trails - On your approach to the boulder or crag, you are going to be carrying a bit of gear and you must be careful while walking through narrow trails. Unless you are part of a volunteer groups managing trail access, you shouldn’t be clearing any vegetation to widen the trail. Back in college, at Horse Pens 40 one of my fellow club members decided to bring a machete for the pure joy of hacking at trees. If I recall, the owner was notified and asked the climber to drop his weapon with his hand on his holster. In other words, its not a great idea. All climbers on the approach should walk in a single file line unless it is clearly wide enough to walk side by side. And always walk through mud and not around it as this creates unnecessary widening of the trail. Lastly, only walk on the trail; trampling vegetation is destructive and frowned upon.

Camping - Different areas will have different rules for camping but there are some universal rules that every climber must follow. Always camp in designated areas; just because an area looks better to you, or maybe can provide more shelter doesn’t mean that its the best option for the environment. Fires can only be made if the conditions are correct. You can easily check on the bulletin board at the crag, or on the area’s parks and recreations websites to make sure that it is not too dry for burning fires. If you are allowed to make a fire, make sure you are using a dedicated area that is the least destructive towards the area and avoid building fires that char the surrounding rocks. For cooking purposes, it is best to pack a camping or backpacking stove than making a fire. Anything that you cook must be completely cleaned up with all uneaten food packed away. Leaving food out not only leaves you at risk of attracting animals while you are camping, but you also leave it open for those animals to come back when other climbers are camping there. And of course, pick up everything that you brought, and pick up after others as well.

At the Crag

Dogs - Everyone wants an awesome crag dog, like this one, but that is not always the case. Regardless, I understand that you love your dog and your dog is very “well behaved”, but your fellow climber might not agree. Dogs should be leashed at all times. Wandering dogs get into other people’s food, step all over their gear, and can generally a nuisance. And that’s even if you are lucky enough to climb at an area that even allows dogs! Climbers with dogs should always carry baggies to be prepared to pick up after doggy business. A common misconception is that dog poop is biodegradable, and it just fits into nature when in reality (and straight from the Leave No Trace website), “Dog poop creates high levels of nitrogen in the soil, killing off native plants that often yield to tougher invasive weeds.” If you can, keep the canine at the crib. But if you must, make sure to follow crag rules and don’t let them run wild.

Chalk - The debate surrounding chalk has been an ongoing debacle for decades. The use of chalk in climbing is thanks to John Gill, who introduced gymnastics chalk to the sport in the 1960s, which was huge for the climbing world, especially for the bouldering community, where poor friction limited a climber from sending. However, their are some that believe that chalk is unnecessary, only making rock unsightly and believe its use is damaging to the rock over time. In reality, chalk is a useful commodity in some situations, such as bouldering at Horse Pens 40 or Fontainebleau. But at the same time, chalk can be a placebo effect; the climber assumes that the reason they are popping off holds is because they don’t have enough chalk on their hands so they lather up until they look like they’ve been baking cookies. This can potentially provide quite the opposite effect to what the climber wants. Chalk should simply be used for getting your skin prepared for climbing for the initial drying on the moisture and oils of your skin and it should be used sparingly. But won’t the rain just wash off the chalk? Not in all cases. Any cliff overhang or any place where rainwater isn’t going to easily reach won’t be properly washed off. The final words on chalk are: Use as little chalk as possible and clean up spilled chalk the best you can to keep you climbing strong while keeping the boulders looking beautiful.

Brushing and Tickmarks - Almost corresponding to the Chalk section of this article, brushing and tickmarks play heavily into the common courtesies between you, the crag and your fellow climber. At a popular crag, many people will climb a particular boulder problem or route over and over again. With the chalk build up (but remember, this is minimal because we are using chalk sparingly) and general sweat and grimy, the holds are going to get worse. Like our indoor ethics articles, if a climber has taken the effort to brush a boulder problem, that climber should get first dibs on climbing as they have put in the work. On rope, it is a little more difficult to brush your next climb. Here’s a story for you: I was climbing at the Red River Gorge and there happened to have been tons of people at this particular wall. A woman was climbing this particular route and she fell several times and proceeded to yell at us on the ground about how we should have brushed the route on the way back down and that ruined her send. Now, at first I shared the thought of every other climber that, “What a jerk!”, but in looking back, this was a near vertical wall. It wouldn’t take too much effort for a climber to go back and brush some of the slimier holds. So if you can, take the time to help out the next climber by giving it a quick brush over.

Tickmarks are small marks on the wall made in chalk to help a climber to see where the next hold is, or where they need to remember to put their foot. Tickmarks should be avoided as much as possible as they can leave permanent marks on the wall (and don’t tell me that you can just brush it off because you can still see a mark!) and if they need to be used, make them as small as possible. Instead of taking a block of chalk and drawing a line, I will just dunk my finger in some loose chalk and make a little dot. It is much easier to brush off. Also, if you happen to see tickmarks left behind, take the time to brush them off yourself.

Crash Pads - At Aiguille and other climbing gyms, we can rely on squishy padded floors, shredded tires, and maybe a crash pad or two to protect us from our bouldering bails. However, outside, that protection needs to be provided by the climber. Crash pads are essential for climbing outside and climbers need to not only know how to properly use them but know when to move them, where to place them, and to know to have many of them! When you are planning for a trip, if you have four people in your car, and you only have one crash pad, you better find another one. This is lack of planning and leaves you limited on what you can climb. So the more pads, the better. When you’re outside and you come up to a boulder where there are already a few people, you have a couple of options; either go to a different boulder not to crowd up the area, or you can approach them and ask permission to join them. Now, it’s not like those current climbers own that time on the boulder, but normally, they will already have crash pads out and you’re going to need permission to use those. Most of the time, it’s not a big deal at all and climbers should welcome and share the boulders and who knows? You might find some unknown beta! If a climber approaches you and your crew, asks to throw down some more pads and join you, tell them to jump right in. With pads, do be careful in where you are laying them down as you do not want to crush any native flora.

Leaving the Crag

Picking Up Everything - Everything that you brought into a crag with you, you take out with you. Anything that you didn’t come with, should be left there. We are privileged to climb and hike and visit these areas and a lot of climbers don’t realize how fragile the land is. People commonly think that banana peels, human waste, and other forms of garbage are natural materials in the environment and will naturally decompose. Banana peels take weeks to completely decompose and attract and cause animals to dig. And human waste? See the next topic below. Smokers need to pick up and carry out all their cigarette butts, and should pick up others’ butts along the trail and crag too.

Good Hygiene - As for human waste, if you can go before you hike out, do it. Otherwise the proper disposal method is taking it with you. If it’s just number one, you should always go on a nice flat rock in the sun so it doesn’t disturb vegetation by attracting animals or won’t stink up the crag because it can’t evaporate. But number 2, like dog poop, contains materials that can disturb the soil and this must be carried out in waste bags along with toilet paper.

Leave the Souvenirs - Leave the rocks and the flowers behind. Don’t take any part of a route like a name tag to remember and celebrate your sends. These things are here for a reason and disturb the nature scenery of the area. Climbers should take only pictures and memories if they didn’t bring it in to begin with.

There is still so much to go over about outdoor ethics, along with Leave No Trace practices. For resources to study up more on topics that I have discussed, visit some of the following websites for more information.

Leave No Trace -
Access Fund -
REI’s Learning Section -

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  1. Excellent guidelines. Last week we packed out someones water bottle, map of the park, empty weed bag, and cig butt. They should have read your article!

    1. Hi Markie! Thanks for doing your fair share of clean up! And that's my hope that people will open their eyes a little and use their heads. We have the opportunity to set an example.

  2. Great article! These are some good ideas for someone heading to the crag for the first time as well as for folks that head out every weekend to "brush-up" on!!!

    1. Thanks Karsten! From the most experienced to the new, everyone needs a nice reminder on how privileged we are to climb on these amazing features and how to respect what is there and what others have done!

  3. Nice and interesting articles, Thank you Aubrey for sharing on this with us!

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  4. Hi. Great post..
    I featured it on my Facebook page and as a link in a blog post.
    Hope thats ok?