Forest Service pulls anchor ban out of thin air

  • ANCHORED: Climbing on a high rock face in Colorado

    Jeff Achey photo

My skin still tingles when I recall our helplessness as the sound of thunder and flash of lightning struck our senses simultaneously. My rock-climbing partner and I had just reached the summit of a long, remote climb in California's High Sierras, when a fast-moving thunderstorm broke over us.

I yelled to my partner to start climbing down and gripped the rope that would hold her if she fell. A short way down the back side, the mountain became less steep, and we started to scramble toward the bottom, unroped and unanchored.

But we hadn't counted on the hail. In moments, our escape route was buried in slippery ball bearings. My metal climbing gear buzzed as I put a nylon loop around a rock jammed in a crack. We fed our rope through the sling, then rappelled, lowering ourselves to safety from the persistent lightning strikes.

That narrow escape was six years ago. Today, the experience would be considered a federal crime: Out of necessity, we had left the nylon sling around the chockstone, and now the U.S. Forest Service says we defiled the wilderness.

In June, the agency announced that rock climbers can no longer use "permanent, fixed anchors" in any national forest area designated as wilderness. Touted as environmental protection, the ban was actually more like an attack on the wilderness system. It hit the climbing community like a falling rock.

Specifically, the new rule prohibits bolts, pitons, small wedges of metal and nylon slings. Climbers use these tools to rope or "tie in" to the rock in case of a fall, or for emergency retreats like mine in the Sierra. The Forest Service says the ban will "stop the growing proliferation of artificial installations on climbing routes in wilderness."

This sounds reasonable, except that the rate of "proliferation" is glacial. In wilderness areas, climbers must do everything by hand, placing bolts with a hammer and hand-held drill bit. This is a very laborious process. Bolts are placed as seldom as possible in virtually all wilderness areas, and only if there is no place to use a retrievable anchor.

The anchor ban comes out of a novel re-interpretation of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which defines wilderness as an area where "the imprint of man's work (is) substantially unnoticeable," and which "has outstanding opportunities for ... a primitive and unconfined type of recreation."

Fixed anchors may be "imprints of man's work," but as any climber who has clambered around a rock face searching for one will tell you, they are certainly "substantially unnoticeable." And climbing is the archetypal example of "primitive and unconfined recreation."

So the agency based its new interpretation on the following sentence of the Act: "There shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such (wilderness) area."

The Forest Service says a fixed anchor is a "structure or installation." But is a 3/8-inch metal bolt or 1-inch nylon webbing really the equivalent of a road, a truck, a motorboat or an airplane?

The Forest Service claims that climbing anchors "cause cracks and other damage to the rock" and "can affect cliff-dwelling birds, moss and lichen, and other flora and fauna." An occasional rappel sling or bolt damages moss, lichen, birds, and rock itself? There is no evidence - scientific, visual, or even suggested - to support this assertion. In Arizona's Granite Mountain Wilderness, for instance, the agency found that bolts and slings had not harmed the wilderness character.

Ironically, the bolt ban itself could turn out to be the cause of environmental damage. Thirty years ago climbers voluntarily stopped driving pitons into and out of cracks because we learned that the practice damaged the rock. The agency's new decision now encourages a retreat to the repeated placement and removal of anchors.

What do the leading environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the National Parks and Conservation Association say about climbing anchors in wilderness? These organizations all say that climbing should be managed to the same high standards as other accepted uses of wilderness. They say the Wilderness Act does not prohibit climbing anchors.

This is exactly the position advocated by most climbers, but rejected by the Forest Service in favor of a legalistic ban as heavy as a meat ax.

Armando Menocal is a founder of the Access Fund, the largest national climbers' organization, which works to preserve climbing areas and keep them open. He lives in Wilson, Wyoming.