Mountains don’t need hardware

By Dana Johnson

We humans want the most out of life, so why shouldn’t we push to get more of what we want?

That’s what some rock climbers must be thinking. They want to enter designated Wilderness in order to drill permanent anchors into wilderness rock faces, turning these wild places into sport-climbing walls.

When the Wilderness Act became law in 1964, it put wildlife and wild lands first, decreeing that these special places should be left alone as much as possible. This unusual approach codified humility, arguing that some wild places, rich in wildlife and natural beauty, needed as much protection as possible.

So far, the Act protects less than 3% of what Congress called “untrammeled” public land in the Lower 48. These are unique places free of roads and vehicles and most manmade intrusions that afflict the rest of America. 

The Wilderness Act also prohibits “installations,” but to get around this, a group called the Access Fund has persuaded friends in Congress to introduce a bill that would, in effect, amend the Wilderness Act. 

Introduced by Rep. John Curtis, a Republican from the anti-environmental delegation of Utah, and co-sponsored by Democrat Joe Neguse from Colorado, the “Protect America’s Rock Climbing Act” (PARC Act) has been promoted as bi-partisan. 

Yet over 40 conservation groups, from small grassroots greens to large national organizations, have written Congress to oppose the bill. Wilderness is not about human convenience, they say, it’s about safeguarding the tiny pockets of wild landscape we’ve allowed to remain.

The PARC Act directs federal agencies to recognize the legal use of fixed anchors in Wilderness, a backdoor approach to statutory amendment that even the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior oppose.

In a hearing on the bill, the Forest Service stated that “creating new definitions for allowable uses in wilderness areas, as (the PARC Act) would do, has the practical effect of amending the Wilderness Act. (It) could have serious and harmful consequences for the management of wilderness areas across the nation.”

Beyond the permanent visual evidence of human development, fixed anchors would attract more climbers looking for bolted routes and concentrate use in sensitive habitats. That impact is harmful enough, but the bill also sends a loud message: Recreation interests are more important than preserving the small bit of Wilderness we have left. 

What’s coming next is clear. Some mountain bikers, led by the Sustainable Trails Coalition, have introduced legislation to exempt mountain bikes from the prohibition on mechanized travel in Wilderness. 

Then there are the trail runners who want exemptions from the ban on commercial trail racing. Drone pilots and hang-gliders also want their forms of aircraft exempted. 

What’s confounding is that climbing is already allowed in Wilderness. This bill is simply about using fixed bolts to climb as opposed to using removable protection. That’s apparently confusing to some people. 

An article in the Salt Lake Tribune went so far as to wrongly state that, “a ban on anchors would be tantamount to a ban on climbing in wilderness areas.” 

But now, even some climbers are pushing back. The Montana writer George Ochenski, known for his decades of first ascents in Wilderness, calls the Tribune’s position “Total bullsh*t.” In an e-mail, he said bolting routes “bring ‘sport climbing’ into the wilderness when it belongs in the gym or on non-wilderness rocks.” 

For decades, many climbers have advocated for a marriage of climbing and wilderness ethics. In Chouinard Equipment’s first catalog, Patagonia founder and legendary climber Yvon Chouinard called for an ethic of “clean climbing” that comes from “the exercise of moral restraint and individual responsibility.”

We don’t like to think of recreation as consumptive, but it consumes the diminishing resource of space. And protected space is in short supply as stressors on the natural world increase. With every “user group” demand, the refuge for wild animals grows smaller. Meanwhile, a startling number of our animal counterparts have faded into extinction.

As someone who loves trail running, I understand the allure of wedding a love of wild places with the love of adventure and sport. But I’ve also come to see that that the flip side of freedom is restraint, and Wilderness needs our restraint more than ever.

Dana Johnson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She is a staff attorney and policy director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness nonprofit.

A female mountain climber pulling herself up a climb. Image credit steele2123 via Istock Photo

This column was published in the following newspapers:

06/12/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
06/12/2023 Adventure Journal CA
06/12/2023 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
06/12/2023 Park Record Park City UT
06/12/2023 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
06/12/2023 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
06/12/2023 Sherwood Gazette Portland OR
06/12/2023 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
06/13/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
06/13/2023 Rock Springs Rocket Miner Rock Springs WY
06/12/2023 Four Points Press Garryowen MT
06/13/2023 Mountain Journal Bozeman MT
06/14/2023 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
06/12/2023 Glendive Ranger Review Glendive MT
06/14/2023 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
06/15/2023 Camus-Washougal Post Record Camus WA
06/15/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
06/14/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
06/15/2023 Montana Standard Butte MT
06/14/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
06/16/2023 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
06/17/2023 Herald-Journal Logan UT
06/17/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
06/16/2023 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
06/18/2023 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
06/17/2023 Missoulian Missoula Montana
06/17/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
06/17/2023 Tucson Star Tucson AZ
06/17/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
06/17/2023 Durango Herald Durango CO
06/17/2023 Durango Telegraph Durango CO
06/17/2023 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
06/17/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
06/17/2023 Pueblo Chieftain Pueblo CO
06/16/2023 Taos News Taos NM
06/15/2023 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
06/16/2023 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
06/19/2023 Helena Independent Record Helena MT
06/20/2023 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
06/22/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
06/22/2023 Laramie Boomerang Laramie WY
07/01/2023 Aspen Times Aspen CO
07/03/2023 Canyon Courier Courier Co
07/03/2023 Jeffco Transcript Jefferson County CO
07/03/2023 Arvada Press Arvada Co
07/03/2023 The Golden Transcript Golden Co
07/04/2023 Delta County Independent Delta CO
06/30/2023 Sierra Nevada Ally Carson City NV
07/02/2023 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
08/23/2023 Wallowa County Chieftain Enterprise OR
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Sherri Gronli
10 months ago

Well written. I’m with you 100%. Access Fund should be ashamed of themselves. Sustainable climbing? NOT!. Am tired of the many of people who recreate who have a sense of entitlement and that rules are for other people. They don’t even follow basic trail etiquette. Have had many run-ins with mountain bikers when I’m hiking or riding my horse.

Rick Freimuth
10 months ago

Thank you for Dana Johnson’s informative article. Access Fund is totally blowing it. Don’t forget, their corporate sponsers, among many, like REI and Black Diamond, are complicit. Bolts have no place in designated wilderness. The placement method is destructive and ugly once in place. Chouinard Equipment, after their first catalog, was the premier commercial climbing equipment supplier promoting the clean climbing ethic. Black Diamond, Chouinard’s “successor”, is on the wrong side on this debate. As with politics outdoor sports is regressing to a “give me what I want” attitude. George Ochenski is spot on with his comments. If you can’t climb in the wilderness without pre-placed, relatively permanent protection, stay in the gym or climb in your urban backyard. I think I’d change this article’s title to Wilderness Mountains Don’t Need Hardware. Don’t get me going on mountain bikes in designated wilderness. I’m proud of the USFS and the DOI in their resistance to allowing bolting in the wilderness.

Larry Campbell
10 months ago

The Access Fund is all about excess fun. There’s plenty of climbing to be done without bolting Wilderness. Access to restraint seems to be unavailable to the Access Fund.

I Agree with this 100% – “Summer is the season of inferior sledding” – Inuit proverb
10 months ago

[…] Mountains don’t need hardware […]

Fred
10 months ago

If 3% of “untrammelled” land is protected, then 97% is not. Bolt and bike and race there.

I was almost killed by a mountain biker riding illegally on the PCT once. It is no different from banning drag racing on city streets.

Jerry
10 months ago

This is frankly a bit silly to get all worked up about. There are already few bolts in wilderness areas and there will be few more. That said, they should be put in by hand without a power drill. With all the user groups scrambling for access for their own version of human power – mt bikes in particular, I find the pissing match over a few bolts a waste of time. No one is going to put up sport routes by hand in wilderness areas.

Alex Brown
10 months ago

I read this article in the Aspen Daily News originally. Dana, I think we both know this short article leaves out a lot of details. First, “Sport climbing” would hardly flourish in wilderness under the proposed change. The proposal does not exempt bolting activities from the ‘non mechanized use’ clause, meaning all bolt holes would have to be hand drilled. I don’t know anyone who is willing to hand drill entire routes rather than just belay anchors and key, far and few between mid route protections that are otherwise hazardous.

The purpose of the proposed changes is largely to allow bolted rappel anchors on highly trafficked routes to increase safety. Do you know what the current alternative is? giant rat nests of left behind cordage. Certainly 2 bolts every 100′ is less visually offensive and encroaching than 30′ of multicolored and damaged nylon cord at every rap station where wrapping a rock or tree isn’t possible (most). I believe the AAC reported 3 deaths due to the failure of tat anchors last year, including one high profile one on the popular wolf’s head in the wind river range. Would 10 bolts over thousands of SF of granite really be such a loss to wilderness, compared to the dozens of miles of trail, signage, and obvious tent sites within that same view shed?

Also, if you did the research on Chouinard’s original anti bolt stance and the access fund I would think it’s only fair to mention that he did eventually come around and became one of their primary donors? Did you know bolting in public lands predates the wilderness act, making it a grandfathered use unlike gliding and biking? Did you know that pitons, which predate bolting and generally are allowed in wilderness with some nuance around removal, are more destructive to natural features than a 3/8″ bolt hole?

Lastly, the few and far between bolts that currently exist in designated wilderness (such as the majority of yosemite’s trade routes including el cap above a certain elevation) are way less symptomatic of human encroachment than, say, the thousands of miles of trails and hundreds of signs in designated wilderness across the country. I may be a climber but I am much more successfully and profoundly an ultra long distance backpacker, and I think we both know its self serving to say trails and conventional accoutrements of pedestrian access are fine but the most minor of concessions to another use group are over the line.

If the purpose of wilderness should be, in your opinion, to protect “wildlife and wild lands first” as you say, why don’t we make accessing designated wilderness illegal and deconstruct or rewild all trails, campsites, signage, legacy structures, and other evidences of human existence?

Adam
10 months ago

Thank you for writing this. I recently found bolts at one of my favorite wilderness waterfalls only a foot from the lip and Acadia national park was also recently bolted. We need to stop this over bolting trend and preserve wilderness. I’m a fan of trad, but even banning climbing in some places may be responsible to preserve them.

Chris
10 months ago

Adam, can you please clarify where and when you believe “Acadia national park was recently bolted.” My family has owned a cottage on Mt. Desert Island for 60 years, and I have been climbing there for over 20 years. Climbing, including the placement of new fixed anchors, is carefully managed by the National Park Service, and climbers must obtain approval from NPS before placing new fixed anchors. I don’t believe there has been any significant new bolting in Acadia.

By the way, there is no wilderness in Acadia, and this opinion piece is full of errors.

Eric N
9 months ago

Weirdly biased and sensationalistic. It’s unfortunate that the author doesn’t understand the details of what she’s talking about. There are very few actual climbers who would support bolting a sport route in a wilderness area. The reality is that some of them would like to use a hand-powered drill to place a minimal number of bolts for safety purposes. “Anchor” bolts are installed to allow for belaying and rappelling, not to make it easier to ascend. I don’t practice this type of climbing nor am I defending it, but the writer’s ignorance isn’t helping to clarify this issue. WOTR has gone full propaganda mode, I guess, like all the other media.

Cody Hackman Hood
9 months ago

Fixed anchors for climbing goes back far beyond the wilderness act of 1964 and has continued in wilderness areas since that time. Climbers are some of the greatest stewards of land preservation and keeping the wilderness wild. The statement that climbers are now regularly “turning wild places into sport climbing walls” is absurd. Any of you know how much effort it is to place a bolt with a hand drill? Have any of you been offended by seeing a bolt on a cliff in the wilderness? By moving to ban the addition/replacement of bolts you move to erase the routes and efforts of our greatest wilderness protectors like Yvon Chounaird and Doug Tompkins. Comparing this to biking, hang gliding or having commercial events in the wilderness is also absurd. The level of impact is not remotely the same.

Dave Marston
9 months ago

I’ve seen a lot of climbers nit-picking over the term “sport climbing” and arguing, oddly, that the Access Fund isn’t trying to get sport climbing in Wilderness.(Access Fund is not funded currently by Patagonia or Chouinard) But the PARC Act is incredibly short and easy to read. It explicitly “recognizes the appropriateness of the allowable activities in paragraph (2)” in designated Wilderness. Paragraph (2) refers to: “(A) recreational climbing; (B) the placement, use, and maintenance of fixed anchors; and (C) the use of other equipment necessary for recreational climbing.” Sport climbing, by definition, relies on fixed anchors for the climb.

Moreover, stating an intention to or past act of installing a fixed anchor, without a permit (director’s order 41), in Wilderness is illegal.

Erik Murdock
9 months ago
Reply to  Dave Marston

David,
You are an ideologue who is publishing false information. Fixed anchors are legal in Wilderness right now. The NPS, DOI, Dept. of Ag, and the entire House Natural Resources Committee (and anyone who is familiar with this issue) disagrees with your factual error and misunderstanding of the issue. We can debate whether you want fixed anchors to be “illegal” in the future, but we cannot debate the facts about current policy and law. As a publisher (who got his job through nepotism), you should be ashamed of yourself for peddling propaganda. High Country News wrote this about Ed Marsten, He was also a commercial developer of Paonia’s two-block downtown and a fierce opponent of anyone — no matter how well funded and powerful — who used political influence to try to close off access to wilderness.” In the end, your shameful propaganda did not work. On June 21st, the House Natural Resources Committee unanimously voted to accept an amendment to the PARC Act that ensures that fixed anchors remain appropriate in Wilderness (in accordance with the Wilderness Act and other current policies), and that the bill will not be misinterpreted as a revision to the Wilderness Act (the concern of Dana in her factually incorrect opinion piece). This amendment was supported by staunch wilderness defenders and was not opposed by the US Forest Service or the National Park Service. Hopefully the bill will become law this year. Please stop misinforming the public and using your father’s platform to spread propaganda.

Dave Marston
9 months ago
Reply to  Erik Murdock

Erik Murdoch, my father, Ed and I both spell our name with an “o” — Marston.

Thanks for the comment.

Erik Murdock
9 months ago
Reply to  Dave Marston

Thanks for finding the one and only error in my comment (a typo). Cheers, Erik

Julia Geisler
9 months ago

Over the last several weeks, an opinion piece written by Writers on the Range columnist Dana Johnson, titled “Mountains Don’t Need Hardware,” has appeared in various newspapers across the Intermountain West, including The Park Record. Unfortunately, Johnson’s piece paints a distorted and, at times, outright false picture of rock climbing anchors in federally designated Wilderness areas. Here, I’d like to set the record straight about why these anchors are indeed necessary and why the organization I represent, Salt Lake Climbers Alliance (SLCA), is pursuing legislation to maintain climbing in Utah and beyond, both for now and for generations to come.  This op-ed has been submitted to our local papers in the Wasatch.

To bring non-climbers out there up to speed, fixed anchors, often referred to as bolts, are used by rock climbers for safe ascension and descension in technical vertical terrain. Rock climbing anchors have legally existed within federally designated Wilderness areas for decades, and in many cases, were placed there long before the Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964.

Of note is the Little Cottonwood Canyon Climbing Area Historic District which has been determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and includes routes put up in the 1960s by the Alpenbock Club. Hundreds of people climb these routes, which depend on fixed anchors, every year. Little Cottonwood has, in fact, become a training ground for Olympic athletes like Utah native Nathanial Coleman. Along with Little Cottonwood, the list of established rock climbing destinations located within Wasatch Mountains’ Wilderness areas, most of which are in view of the Wasatch Front urban interface, goes on to include Big Cottonwood Canyon, Ferguson Canyon, Lone Peak, and American Fork Canyon. All told, it is estimated that 30 percent of climbing in the Wasatch is within Wilderness situated just minutes from Salt Lake City. That’s hundreds of long-established routes with necessary fixed anchors that have been around for decades, much of which are made up of non-stainless hardware that, if not replaced, will corrode, rust, and fail under human weight. The Salt Lake Climbers Alliance contends that maintaining existing climbing resources, even those located within Wilderness, is a matter of public safety.

This standpoint not only runs counter to Johnson’s outdated opinion that fixed anchors do not belong in Wilderness, but to the National Park Service’s (NPS) stance on the issue as well. Recently, the NPS moved to prohibit fixed anchors in Wilderness areas across the nation. This would set a dangerous precedent for other federal agencies to follow suit, essentially prohibiting climbing in Wilderness. 

Now is the time to finally move away from arguing about whether or not climbing belongs in Wilderness and towards common sense climbing area management, as outlined within Protect America’s Rock Climbing Act (H.R. 1380). This bi-partisan bill, co-sponsored by Representatives John Curtis (R-Utah) and Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), would bring consistency to how climbing areas within designated Wilderness are managed by: 

  • requiring the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to issue national guidance on management of climbing within Wilderness areas;
  • clarifying that climbing, including sustainable placement, use, and maintenance of fixed anchors, are appropriate uses within Wilderness areas; 
  • preserving the existing authority of land management agencies to regulate climbing to ensure it protects Wilderness characteristics, natural resources, and cultural values; and
  • providing means for public participation in decisions impacting climbing in Wilderness.

Andrew Bisharat, publisher of Evening Sends, succinctly framed the importance of maintaining climbing anchors within Wilderness areas in his piece “Breaking the Wilderness Bell Jar.” “This abstract conception of ‘Wilderness’ forever preserved under the bell jar of strong federal regulations need not be incompatible with responsibly regulated adventure sports like rock climbing, which leverage trails and, yes, bolts,” Bisharat wrote. “This is not to say that there shouldn’t be some areas of Wilderness that are entirely free of human presence. There should be. But let’s start standing behind the truth that climbing is relatively contained and quite low-impact, and whatever environmental costs are accrued through climbing infrastructure, these costs are absolutely worth the gains in spiritual flourishing and well-being that climbing delivers.” ” 

Utah, as well as much of the Western U.S., is blessed with world-class rock climbing, from roadside crags to alpine summits, much of which has existed within Wilderness areas for decades. With an exponentially growing climbing community, people will continue to climb these established routes for years to come. But if the National Park Service fails to establish a climbing management plan and continues to pursue its fixed-anchor ban in Wilderness, there will unfortunately be accidents and deaths as anchors age and ultimately fail. The time has come for both the federal government and naysayers like Johnson to acknowledge the reality that rock climbing bolts are a legitimate and useful part of the Wilderness experience.

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4 months ago

[…] Wilderness Watch coverage director Dana Johnson printed a simplistic, ill-informed op-ed titled “Mountains Don’t Want {Hardware}” by way of the syndicated column Writers on the Vary final June, I wasn’t too involved till I […]

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