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“Earth Day, Every Day” Climbers Discuss Access & Stewardship Issues

“Every Day Should Be Adopt-a-Crag Day,

Every Day Should Be Earth Day”

-Kurt Smith

As Earth Day rolls around again, we at ClimbingGear.com and RockCreek.com have been pondering the meaning of this holiday and how we might celebrate. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with two awesome climbers who have dedicated a good part of their life to climbers’ access and education, and a very helpful phrase came up in our discussions: “Every day should be Adopt-a-Crag Day; Every day should be Earth Day.”

Kurt Smith, who provided this nugget of wisdom, has just come off a three-year access education tour for The Access Fund. Kurt tackled numerous early ascents in and around Yosemite, and opened up new routes there, at Joshua Tree, Clear Creek Canyon, El Potrero Chico, Mexico, and other areas. He is currently the technical sales rep for Montrail’s new rock shoe line and has his own guide service in the New River Gorge, West Virginia. Chad Wykle, of Chattanooga, TN, is a sales rep for Marmot and Chaco Sandals and co-founder of the Triple Crown Bouldering Series with Jim Horton. We spent some time reflecting on the meaning of Earth Day and the state of climbing as a sport today.

Our discussions always came back to two central facts. First, climbing is fun, and because it is fun, it is growing in popularity. Second, since so many people are coming to the sport, tension has developed between climbers and landowners, creating access issues that affect the entire community. Both of these facts can be positive if climbers willingly come together as a user group and truly make every day Earth Day. Climbing has grown enormously since Yvon Chouinard started making his own pitons out of his climbing van. Climbing gear has grown more sophisticated and yet more accessible and affordable than ever. What started as an extreme niche has become a widely enjoyed sport among young and old alike.

With the added popularity and relative simplicity of bouldering, climbing as a whole has increased in popularity and public visibility. As Wykle phrases it, “by [the 1980’s and 90’s] climbing had grown enough that you couldn’t hide it as a user group anymore.”

The sport has been through some growing pains, and many of the problems have centered on access issues. The Southeast has a wealth of beautiful rock for climbing and bouldering, but historically climbers’ access to these areas has been tenuous at best. Many of the best routes in the Southeast in the past had been put up on privately owned land. Climbers had obtained access by trespassing quietly.

Wykle gives a great breakdown of the challenges facing climbers in the Southeast: “It’s really a question of public versus private,” he explains. Unlike the West, where many of the best climbing areas are publicly-owned park lands, the Southeast has “so much available, awesome land for mountain biking, rock climbing, and hiking, but most of it is closed because of the landowner’s fears, the legal stigma, liability issues.”

As climbing became more popular, tensions with landowners over parking, litter, human waste, noise, and climbers’ attitudes caused many of the best crags and bouldering fields to close. “No Trespassing” signs became a commonplace.

In recent years, efforts have been more focused and groups like the Access Fund have given climbers the resources and legal advice necessary to obtain access. One of Wykle’s greatest successes came with the opening of the Little Rock City bouldering area on Montlake Golf Club’s property. (Read more about this victory in an interview with Wykle and Jim Horton.) Climbing areas close when climbers trespass and refuse to ask permission to climb, are not sensitive to parking issues, or leave behind trash. Climbing areas open when climbers are willing to come together, ask for permission first, and maintain the relationship with the landowners by living up to their part of the agreement.

Kurt Smith spent three years on the road making this point clear to climbers, and in the process harassing them into joining the Access Fund. His three-year “Kickin’ Access” tour raised just over $100,000 for the organization’s efforts. “Every day should be Adopt-a-Crag,” Smith says, referring to the Access Fund’s program for periodic maintenance of climbing areas. “I still see lots of cigarette butts, Red Bull cans, Cliff Bar wrappers, and it’s unfortunate…It should be obvious to pick up your trash.”

Smith, an excellent communicator, will get up in your face if he has to. He educates the climbing community like a hard-core Smoky the Bear. He tells climbers, to use his own words, that “you can either climb in the gym for the rest of your life, or you can have actual crags outside,” but the choice is ultimately yours, Smith says. You can almost see Smith saying, “Only you can prevent crag closures!” The message has made it through to many climbers, and the fruits of Smith’s work can be seen at Little Rock City outside Chattanooga, TN.

Access to this incredible climbing area came after Chad Wykle contacted Henry and Kelly Luken, the landowners, and worked with them to ensure them that legal liability and bad stewardship on the part of the climbing community would not be an issue. Since the area opened, it has become a model of cooperation.

The Southeastern Climbers’ Coalition regulates access to the property through an online signup system that limits access to 30 climbers and 15 parking passes each day. In signing up for a parking pass, the climbers also sign a liability waiver, which gives the landowners protection from lawsuits.

In return for the access, climbers give back to the golf club through trail days and maintenance of the bouldering field. “It’s definitely a symbiotic relationship” between climbers and landowners, Chad explains. The golf club has even opened their clubhouse to climbers who want to buy a beer or a snack. The invitation has created the unlikely juxtaposition of chalky young climbers enjoying a cold draught with gray-haired golfers. They get along well and seem to enjoy the irony.

Recently, climbers have begun to realize that private development and landowners’ prerogatives can close their favorite climbing area or destroy it permanently. Yet Smith’s message still bears repeating: “Every day should be Adopt-a-Crag day, every day should be Earth Day.” Organizations such as The Access Fund and the Southeastern Climbers’ Coalition continue to work hard to prevent closures.

Rock/Creek Outfitters (the brick-and-mortar store behind RockCreek.com and ClimbingGear.com) supports climber education efforts, makes regular cash contributions to both of these organizations, and has just given a $3000 cooperative grant with Chaco Sandals to further access in the Southeast. $1500 went to the SCC for trail work at the Tennessee Wall in Prentice-Cooper State Forest. Another $1500 went to the Lula Lake Land Trust, home of the High Point climbing area, which has been closed in the past, but will open this summer. Rock/Creek also donated another $2500 from Patagonia’s 1% for the Planet program. The grant will help rebuild an access bridge destroyed in last summer’s storms.

While we can’t all donate this kind of money to access, we can all celebrate Earth Day by volunteering, getting outside, and cleaning up after ourselves. We can all look at each day as Earth Day.

-Mark McKnight

[email protected]

-Thanks to Justin Eiseman for all photos.
To learn more about climbing in the Southeast, check out these sites:

Rock/Creek

Triple Crown Bouldering Series

New River Mountain Guides

Southeastern Climbing Coalition

The Access Fund

Prentice-Cooper State Forest

Lula Lake Land Trust