TNB: Five Things Every Gym Climber Must Know About Climbing Outside

TNB: Five Things Every Gym Climber Must Know About Climbing Outside

By Jeff Jackson
The author, with a new awareness of access issues, climbing outside Carbondale, Colorado.

I got an interesting e-mail yesterday from Brady Robinson, the Executive Director of the Access Fund, which he began by writing: “The explosion of climbing gyms is both the greatest current threat to climbing access and the greatest opportunity for climbing community engagement. We see an education gap around behavior, ethics and stewardship and plan to do everything we can to address it. And we could really use your help.”

Brady’s statement that gym climbing was a threat to access was something I’d heard bandied about, usually by balding climbers who prefer trad and have never been in a gym—climbers like me. I just assumed that newbies were charging out there without a proper knowledge of anchors and redundancy and breaking themselves to pieces and getting pissed off and suing landowners and causing trouble that way. But after reading Brady’s letter, which introduced the ROCK Project, an initiative the AF recently launched to “activate positive social norms for climbers (especially gym climbers aspiring to climb outside),” I started to see that I might be mistaken.

In his letter, Brady introduced Travis Herbert, the newly hired Access Fund (AF) education director and invited RI to ask him some questions. I asked him if the AF was going to educate gym climbers so that they could safely transition from gym to crag but Travis said they weren’t going to address safety at all. He explained that most of the problems with gym climbers are social/educational issues.

“First off, gym climbers are not the problem,” he said. “The reality of climbing in 2014 is that many people new to the sport are accessing climbing through gyms. Some will go on to climb outside, some won’t. The moment we as a climbing community point blame at one segment of our community, we all lose out …

“The Access Fund has its finger on the pulse of issues and behaviors that are impacting our climbing areas and putting our crags and boulders at risk. Here are three issues we hear about often at AF that have a negative ecological and social impact.”

1) Social trails—These are informal trails created when users cut trail to create a short cut. Users may not know where the established/official trail is located, or they follow their group without knowing they are cutting trail or causing a negative impact. Social trails that veer through culturally sensitive areas are especially impactful and on the radar of land managers.

2) Over padding or poor pad placement—How much padding is too much? Where should I place my pads? Over padding and poor pad placement crushes sensitive vegetation and may expand soil erosion at the base of boulders.

3) Overcrowding—It is fun to go climbing with your friends, but maybe rolling in 20 deep to the crag is worth a second thought. Consider ways to reduce group size, keep noise levels down and manage your sprawl. Not keeping a low profile can raise alarms with land managers and negatively impact the experience of other users.

Made sense. I’d seen all these behaviors at Hueco Tanks, and not only by gym climbers, but by experienced climbers, too. People who probably knew better than to bring a huge posse to Dragonfly and stack 10 pads over a lechugilla. I then asked Travis to give me five ways gym climbers can more effectively transition to climbing outside. He wrote:

1) Seek out a mentor who has their climbing skills and minimum impact behaviors dialed. Sometimes we pay for mentorship through coaches or guides, other times they happen naturally through creating relationships with other climbers at the gym, gear shops or through climbing friends.

2) Get the low down of the places you want to climb outside so you can keep a low profile when you climb there. What are the sensitive issues of the area? Are there closures? Where do I go to the bathroom, park and camp? Is this an appropriate place to bring my dog or should I leave her at home?

3) Be mindful. It’s a buzzword, I know, but many of us roll through our routines and just don’t think about how our behaviors might have a negative impact. We are on automatic. Practicing minimum impact behaviors takes time and effort. If each of us committed to being more aware of how we impact climbing areas and consider ways to minimize our footprint at the crag or boulders, it would go a long way to embedding these behaviors into the culture of climbing.

4) Respect other users. I feel like the word “respect” sometimes gets a bad rap, but often it is the foundation of positive relationships and community. Basically, be kind to others and assume positive intent. Treat other users as you would want to be treated. The golden rule works … practice it.

5) Be an upstander, not a bystander—Steer others toward minimum impact behaviors at the crag. Don’t be afraid to speak up when you see someone doing something that threatens access. They might not know that their behavior impacts the climbing area they’re enjoying.

After reading Travis’ list I was struck by the fact that these solutions are so basic. Be aware. Be responsible. Be nice. And I can see now that his statement that gym climbers aren’t the problem wasn’t political subterfuge, because as the sport continues to grow and more and more people are rubbing up against nature and each other and landowners and land managers, we’re all—gym climbers and old tradsters alike—going to need to learn to behave ourselves.

For more info on the AF ROCK project click here.

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