Monday, August 6, 2012

Ethics - Outdoor Ethics While Rope Climbing

By Aubrey Wingo

In my previous article, Introduction to Outdoor Ethics, we focused on generic but extremely important topics such as Leave No Trace, chalk use, camping and walking through trails. This article will concentrate on ethical practices while visiting areas specific to sport and traditional climbing. With the use of more critical protection and what some would consider a greater-risk aspect of the sport of rock climbing, there are issues which surround roped climbing that deserve greater attention and education. While some of these topics might overlap with previous ethics articles that I have written, they are worth repeating and clarifying in particular situations.

These are topics that suggest how to prepare for your climbing experience.

Become Educated - Before you travel anywhere to climb, you should be on your computer or reading your guidebook to catch up on the rules and restrictions of the climbing area. There are seasons when areas are closed, or where areas are closed due to poor rock condition and are deemed unsafe. Some areas don’t allow dogs, and some don’t allow chalk. By making yourself more educated, you become prepared. Even the most experienced climber, who has been to that crag a million times should be reading up on the current regulations and conditions as situations can change from day to day. You will also need to know where to camp, as most crags do not allow camping at the base of walls or areas.

Pack What You Need, And Then Bring It Back - This is a clever way of saying just because you don’t need or want it, doesn’t mean you can leave it. All climbers should be prepared with enough food and water for your entire day. Nobody is going to be super excited to save you when you’re passing out from malnutrition or dehydration. For all these gear needs, all the trash, gear, and even poop, needs to make its way out of the crag. Also, in reference to above paragraph, becoming educated on the area will allow you to know how long of a day you’ll be planning with hiking in and hiking out, so you will be able to pack your food and water appropriately. You will discover how many draws you need, or how long of a rope needs to be used to even what shoes to wear depending on the terrain! Just make sure to leave no trace!

While Climbing
These are topics that suggest proper climbing ethics while at the wall itself.

Your Situation - Ever been to the Undertow Wall in the Motherlode at the Red River Gorge Well, I have and when the conditions are right, it is paaaacked! The Access Fund states that you should avoid areas during peak days to prevent as much impact as possible but for us Florida climbers trying to get out to climb, we don’t always have a choice. When climbing in an area with other climbers, it’s best to be aware of YOUR situation.  What I mean by this is asking yourself a few questions:

1. Where are your belongings and is it in the way?
2. Is this area too crowded and is it that important for you to climb here (can you come back later)? 
3. Are you invading someone else’s climbing experience by being here?

Your personal belongings should not be near the belay stations where belayers can trip or ropes can get caught up on gear.  Place your stuff away from the wall but not on any vegetation or hanging on any trees. A nice sandy flat area or flat rock surface will keep your gear from killing plantlife, bugging anyone, or just rolling away. Your gear should not be blocking any trail entrances or pathways to prevent people from easily walking through. When areas are crowded this task can become more difficult. You don’t want to just pile your things on top of or right next to someone else’s they might not enjoy you jumping into your climbing bubble. It is up to you to decide whether it is best to move on to a less crowded wall, or if you are really psyched on getting on that 12b, coming back to it later when it isn’t as populated. Also, some people do enjoy to have a peaceful climbing day. If you are traveling a group of climbers, the nice couple at the wall might not enjoy the added noise. Yes, to an extent depending on the area, the climbing is for everyone, but respect your fellow climber and ask them if it is okay to share the wall with them if you are worried about disturbing them.

Monopolizing the Wall - If the wall has multiple climbers working routes, you want to make sure not to monopolize the wall. If you are with a group, and two climbers are waiting to get on the same route, let them jump into your rotation so they are not just waiting for everyone to get finished. If you are working something hard, don’t hangdog or sit in your harness for an extended period of time; its not very fun for your belayer, and no one wants to sit around waiting for you to finish groveling your way to the top. If you have just finished your climb, make sure to pull your rope as soon as you untie as not to tie up the climb for someone else. Top roping is acceptable in certain situations, but this also hogs up the draws and can prevent someone from climbing a particular route. In summation, be efficient in your climbing and cleaning and be aware of those around you. You wouldn’t want to wait around on someone, so don’t do it to them.

Top Roping and Lowering - When you are uncomfortable leading a route or are working the beta of a harder route, top roping is a way to climb through without the potential risk of taking a whip. In a gym, we have the convenience of already having the ropes on their anchors for your enjoyment. However, outside you do not get this luxury and you will be required to set up your own anchors. One of the biggest no no’s in the climbing world is top roping or lowering directly through fixed gear, which are bolted by fellow climbers and enthusiasts. The act of the rope running over this fixed anchor creates an extreme amount of wear over time. You might think, “Oh well, it’s just me top roping it. That won’t do any damage.” Okay, now think of the thousands of climbers that year who thought the exact same thing. On easier routes and popular climbs, this can be a huge concern. Some areas will have posted policies on their website or in their guidebook about lowering from fixed anchors but the less impact we create, the longer this gear lasts.This gear was placed by someone that cares about you, so let’s show that we care about them. Also, don’t set up your top ropes for later and move on to a different climb.Not only are you leaving your gear unattended, but you are preventing someone from getting on that route if you’re not around.

If you are unaware how to set up top rope anchors and want to learn, please contact our Climbing Director, Dean at

Brushing and Chalk - Yes yes, I know you’ve read about this before but because it is so important, you can hear about it again (if you’re skipping over this, you’re just lazy). It is always important to use minimal amounts of chalk on climbs. Not only does it make the rock unsightly but some have theorized that chalk will absorb and deteriorate the rock over time. Use chalk balls as often as possible to prevent spillage, and if you do spill, do your best to clean it up. If you decide to make tickmarks, just make sure to make them small and brush them off when you are finished. It is very courteous to brush routes on your descents, whether it be your project or your warm up. Climbers will come up to the route and crush thanks to your contribution. Doesn’t that make you feel good? Moving on! (See that wasn’t so painful...)

Climbing with Familiars - When you are climbing outside, especially on a rope, you should be climbing with people that you know and know their skills and capabilities in climbing. By climbing with someone that you are not familiar with, you are putting yourself at great risk. Your climbing partner knows how you climb, where you clip, your body movement, signals and how you communicate. Not only are you better able to communicate with a belayer that you know, but you are also going to climb more confidently because of your trust in your belayer and know he or she is capable of catching you. Your choice in who you climb with is just as important as choosing what gear to use and what route to climb. If you don’t have the option of a climbing partner, your best bet is to hire a guide who is certified and knowledgeable of climbing skill and the surrounding areas.

Choose your Role/Voicing your Ethics - We at Aiguille are very fortunate to have a knowledgeable staff who prides themselves on risk management and risk prevention. Whenever I am in the gym, on and off the clock, I am always looking around at climbers’ belay techniques, knots, harnesses, and what have you. However, when I am out at another gym, or out at a crag, I have to choose my role. Nobody likes a know-it-all, but everyone likes someone who is helpful. When you are with your party, a proper climbing procedure requires checking each other’s knots, belay setups, harness doubled backs, and other crucial risk checks. But what are you supposed to do if you see someone else at the crag and they are doing something risky, or didn’t double back their harness; what is the responsibility you have to step in and say something? This is your choice and your choice alone. Clearly if someone is in immediate danger of hurting themselves or someone else, I’m sure that person wouldn’t mind the fact that you just saved their life. But would you go up to a belayer and say, “Hey, you’re not belaying correctly.” You look like a jerk. People have been taught in many different fashions and as much as you have a responsibility towards climbing ethics and risk management, most of all, this is a personal responsibility on them and their climbing partner. If you do feel the need to approach another climber about doing something wrong, be courteous and encouraging for a positive response.

Access Fund also makes a statement towards voicing your opinion towards rule breaking in accordance to the area that you are climbing in: “Respect the rules and speak up when other climbers don’t.”

There are a bunch of other ethics that we can talk about when it comes to roped climbing, and I would love to hear your thoughts. I will be writing an upcoming article later this year on ethics in onsights, flashes, and first ascents to break down the questions on that. Feel free to comment and question below. We have a great article next month but it’s a secret so stay tuned!


Access Fund Website and Vertical Times Newsletter -
The Obed: A Climber’s Guide to the Wild and Scenic
by Kelly Brown
REI’s Expert Advice -
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  1. Awesome post, Aubrey! I think the ethics of outdoor climbing (both bouldering and rope) is something that really needs to become a much more prominent topic of conversation amongst Floridian climbers. So many new folks come in, and only have experience in the gym - which is a whole different ball game.

    I can't even begin to count the amount of novice climbers I've seen out on their first outdoor trips, totally breaking every common sense rule of climbing courtesy/land stewardship. Yelling all over the crag, leaving trash, letting pets dig holes and piss everywhere, and generally not understanding the importance of taking care of the crag while climbing. This is a GREAT article that should be a must-read for any climber before their first trip outside. Hell, every climber should read this and brush up on their outdoor do's and dont's.

    1. Thanks for reading Katie! It drives me bananas to see things that should only be common sense!