COLORADO SPRINGS — On a cold Saturday morning in Garden of the Gods, a bit too early for tourists, Bosier Parsons passes out homemade breakfast burritos to a group of volunteers.
The founder and president of the Pikes Peak Climbers Alliance, Parsons organized a group of 10 people to repair the eroded trail to Rainbow Bridge.
On the shady side of North Gateway Rock, Colorado Springs climbers dig holes, set rock steps, and fill water runnels with dirt supplied by the city-owned park. Each of the six-odd steps takes an hour to build, and is made using hand tools and local rock. Big stones are used to form the actual steps, while smaller ones are crushed beneath to help with stability and drainage.
The PPCA is one of 130 local climbing stewardship organizations nationwide dedicated to mitigating the impact climbers have on the places they play and working with local governments to keep areas open. Many of the groups, including the PPCA, receive some financial support for their work from the Access Fund, a national policy and stewardship group working to protect climbing access in the United States.
Zachary Lesch-Huie, national affiliate director for the Access Fund, says working with local groups is crucial to the mission of preserving access nationwide.
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“Our job ultimately is to support local climbers and local climbing organizations, and support the priorities and issues that are important to them,” he says. “We have an idea of what those are, and our regional staff especially, but ultimately the local community is going to say this is what’s important.”
Over the last few decades, the number of climbers in the United States has skyrocketed, and with them, their impact on popular crags. While the Access Fund lobbies to keep climbing areas open, they also take on local mitigation projects. Each climbing area is different in terms of durability and use, and local climbers often are the most knowledgeable about what those areas need.
In Garden of the Gods, soft dirt and stone require an especially light touch. Trails erode quickly and bolts that climbers use as protection and anchors leave big scars on the sandstone if they are improperly placed. Parsons founded the PPCA in 2013, after a climber added several bolts to classic Garden of the Gods routes, some prized for their dangerous character. The bolts were quickly chopped by other locals, but Parsons feared the situation could devolve.
“You get into these bolting war scenarios. That’s the kind of stuff where when it gets back to city officials, they look at us as a user group and say ‘What’s the problem with these people?’ Before I knew it I was hearing rumblings of lawyers and liability discussions, and whether they should allow people to climb at the Garden,” Parsons says. “That’s what really got me off the bench.”
In talks with the city, Parsons realized climbers were the only user group at Garden of the Gods that lacked a representative organization. After 20 years of climbing in Colorado Springs, he wanted to do more to give back, and created the PPCA to try to help climbers deal with local government as a united group rather than an assortment of individuals.
He says Colorado Springs has supported their work in city parks. Now the PPCA does hardware replacement in city parks and hosts four to six trail work days a year.
“We got a group together and started getting people involved,” Parsons says. “Getting the Access Fund involved to help us figure things out.” The PPCA now asks climbers to petition them before placing new bolts, helping prevent controversy before it starts, and making sure that new hardware is placed properly by experienced climbers. Beyond damaging rock, improperly placed bolts can fail and lead to serious injury.
“That rock is so soft, you don’t want just anyone doing hardware work when they don’t have experience doing it,” Parsons says. “You can really damage the rock.”
While national land management issues the Access Fund works on, like preventing oil and gas leasing in Bears Ears National Monument (which would affect rock climbing in Indian Creek and other Moab-area crags) get more headline attention, Lesch-Hulie says most of the group’s work is at a local level.
“It’s really a national movement, and it’s gotten big,” he says. “A couple years ago, when Access Fund started out, you could count the number on your hand.”
Part of the Access Fund’s work is helping local climbers with good intentions build sustainable organizations that can be passed down to a younger generation.
Beyond the land and climbing, locals often understand local government best, and can use that knowledge to work on collaborative solutions.
In Garden of the Gods, for example, the city doesn’t want hardware replacement going on during the summer tourist season, and the PPCA knows the glue required for bolting won’t set during the freezing winter. Coming to a compromise, they do all of their hardware work on weekdays in the shoulder seasons.
While local climbing organizations handle work on the ground, the Access Fund also lobbies at a national level to keep options open for local climbers. One of their earliest fights was over a proposed ban on fixed anchors on all National Forest land, which would have essentially closed many climbing areas across the country where bolts are necessary to climb safely.
Areas like Turkey Rocks northwest of Colorado Springs, where the PPCA does trailwork, are on Forest Service land, and without fixed hardware, a number of classic routes would go unclimbed.
More recently, the Access Fund worked to add climbing provisions to a wide ranging public lands bill that added 1.3 million acres of wilderness to the United States, making sure climbing would still be possible in the protected areas.
“We worked closely with D.C. to make sure the new wilderness areas would protect the wilderness climbing experience,” says Access Fund Executive Director Chris Winter. “That paved the way for the outdoor recreation community and the conservation community to come together and advocate for that broader wilderness package.”
Winter, who believes the landscapes climbers interact with are as important as the climbs themselves, thinks that there is more room for collaboration between the climbing and conservation communities. He says he’s seeing increased impact on popular crags as the number of climbers increases. In response, he hopes to push local climbers to work together to proactively protect areas.
“Climbers can’t sit back and expect the land managers to do it for us,” Winters says. “We really have to step up and take responsibility.”
At Garden of the Gods, 10 climbers are doing just that. Olivia Chandrasekhar and Samantha Adrian, both in their early 20s, chose to spend a spring Saturday crushing rocks. David Lewis, a professional trail worker and seasonal Springs local, drove 350 miles from his trailworking job in Salt Lake City to help lead the work day. He drove back the next day.
Lewis says crusty old climbers sometimes grumble at him for making trails too easy, thinking it will bring more crowds. He tells them they’re already on their way.