In mid-May, the print and electronic media in Salt Lake City, Utah, reported the first ascent of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. Delicate Arch is one of the most revered and recognized features in Utah, and if any natural feature deserves to be called an icon, it's Delicate Arch. But on a recent Sunday morning, a rock climber hiked the one-and-a-half-mile trail from Wolfe Ranch and began the first of several ascents. He brought a High Definition video camera to capture the moment and even carried the camera with him up the arch. He established photo points and staged his climb over and over, just to be sure he got all the camera angles he needed.
Salt Lake media received news of the climb from the Patagonia outdoor clothing store in Salt Lake City, and advised them that HighDef video of the dramatic first ascent was available. The store representative also provided the climber's contact information for interview, and the media, always looking for good "visuals," came running. The climb was featured on Salt Lake television stations and made the Salt Lake Tribune.
The climb should also have been illegal. It had been illegal for decades, but when the National Park Service took the teeth out of its climbing regulations in 1988, this kind of stunt was bound to occur. Four years ago, the agency's then-group superintendent, Jerry Banta, called the Arches Park policy the weakest he had ever seen. The climber may have read the regulations as well: The wording only said that named arches "may be closed" by the superintendent. They were not, and so a bureaucratic misstep allowed the climb to occur.
Reaction to the ascent has been mixed. FOX13 News interviewed a sales person at a Moab climbing shop who had nothing but praise for the man and his achievement, adding, "He deserves our respect." Arches Superintendent Laura Joss was not impressed and told the Tribune, "I'm very sorry to see someone do this to Utah's most visible icon." She strengthened Arches' climbing policy the next day by banning climbing on all named arches.
The climber was interviewed by FOX13, and there he talked about "cherishing the moment" and being "close to Nature." He said he viewed the arch with "great reverence." His name is Dean Potter and he is known among his peers as a world-class climber. I Googled Mr. Potter and found his footprints all over the Web. He is best known for the speed with which he scales rock walls. His speed climb up a particularly difficult route on El Capitan in Yosemite is chronicled in an Outside magazine story. He did it in 3 hours and 24 minutes. Not much time for spiritual connections and cherishing the moments on that ascent, eh Dean?
Potter is also a paid "climbing ambassador" for the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, who, we now know, leaked their representative's feat in the first place. However, as his climb draws unwanted publicity, Patagonia is fast distancing itself from Potter's dubious accomplishment. Whether the company knew in advance of Potter's plans is unknown, since its public relations department in California refuses to answer questions.
I have to wonder: Is there anything off-limits to a climber like Dean Potter? To paraphrase the great David Brower, who was also a world-class climber, would Potter feel the need to scale the Sistine Chapel to pay tribute to the ceiling? When they finally build the Freedom Tower in New York, will he feel compelled to scale its 1,776 feet in order to honor the 3,000 who died on Sept. 11? Should he climb the Washington Monument to pay homage to the father of our country? Is there anything so tasteless and inappropriate that it might give a stunt climber second thoughts?
Increasingly, this is what a wilderness experience has become. It's not about solitude or quiet and peace. Solitude is actually a legal component of wilderness as it was written into law by Congress in 1964.
The problem with solitude is that it's not an easily marketed commodity. Potter's stunt is not an isolated incident and reflects a growing recreational culture that lives for speed, not serenity. In 2006, these kinds of experiences have little or nothing to do with the beauty of the land or any spiritual connection with it. This was just another adrenaline ride in an outdoor jungle gym, taped in HighDef, perhaps to sell some more outdoor gear, and for self-glorification at a later date, just to make sure the ego ride never ends.
Jim Stiles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is the editor of the Canyon Country Zephyr in Moab, Utah.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.