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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.