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Know the West

Climbing bolts in wilderness: An attack on the counterattacks

  Dear HCN,

Climbing certainly touched a sensitive nerve with some readers (HCN, 9/14/98). The reactions (I should say counterattacks) brought forth complaints ranging far from fixed anchors to mountain bikes and hang gliders and even to garbage and toilet paper. Most of the writers lectured climbers for not sharing their, presumably, better wilderness ethic. One saw fixed anchors as the product of a new, "fun-hog" generation of climbers. The charges against climbing included the impacts of over-use and the harassment of eagles, which "it took nonclimbers to point out."

Neither I nor other climbers take a back seat to others in defense of wilderness. The vertical wilderness we seek doesn't have manufactured, dug, or even dynamited "installations' such as trails, bridges, signs and designated campsites. Climbers don't want the amenities which our critics rely on to exist in wilderness. One hundred feet of any trail in wilderness has displayed, damaged and disgorged more rock and soil than all of the fixed anchors in all of the wilderness areas in America.

I'm proud that climbers follow in the steps of past climbers, which include John Muir, Robert Marshall and David Brower. It was David Brower who placed the first climbing bolt on the ascent of Ship Rock in 1938. That ascent also reflects two critical facts missed by all of the writers.

Ship Rock is an exemplar of wilderness climbing: long, committing routes on a big, remote mountain subject to variable, unpredictable weather. Rarely can such climbs be done without at least some fixed anchors, even if only for descent or escape. Fixed anchors merely allow climbers to experience the often wild and always unpredictable vertical wilderness. Hand-placed bolts, pitons and nylon slings don't bring the mountains down to the level of a tame, controlled or necessarily safe experience. Fixed anchors just give you a chance to attempt such difficult climbs. And almost every peak that meets that criteria in America is in a wilderness area.

Second, the technique and equipment of hand-placed pitons, bolts and slings haven't changed since David placed the first bolt. This isn't about new technology, new impacts or a new generation of climbers. Most of the anchors at stake have been in place for decades and were placed in classic, traditional mountaineering style. And this points out the most common mistake in this entire debate. In the words of one of the writers, "the Forest Service's anchor ban is a reaction to what has become known as "sport" climbing." Wrong. It doesn't affect sport climbing. Sport climbing areas are developed only where power drills are used, not in wilderness areas. That's why it is the traditionalist, conservationist, even, if you like, "older" climbers that are fighting the Forest Service ban.

Like all recreation, climbing has adverse impacts, and for that reason we organize cleanups, build trails to prevent soil erosion and work to protect wildlife. The Access Fund has a full-time biologist on its staff who works solely on helping land managers protect nesting raptors. I don't know of a public-land manager who doesn't acknowledge that climbers are their best helpers in discovering and protecting raptors.

Our basic position on fixed anchors is, in the words of the Sierra Club, that "climbing, including the use of fixed anchors, should be subject to the same strict management standards as other recreational activities to ensure preservation of the wilderness character of these lands." The Forest Service hasn't banned garbage, erosion, nor even hammering bolts and pitons (if hammered back out). It has declared that all fixed anchors in all circumstances are illegal, even if it's only a rappel sling at the top of a 3,000-foot peak. Period.

Armando Menocal

Wilson, Wyoming