This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
To bolt or not to bolt. That is the decades-long question in America’s wildest places.
Wilderness climbers from an elite league that seeded the modern environmental movement are once again fighting to protect their vertical explorations as federal land managers consider policies to ban fixed anchors in federally designated wilderness areas.
And depending on who you ask, the way fixed anchors are managed on the 2,200-foot walls of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is either a model or a battleground for wilderness bolting.
“As a wilderness climber I’m incredibly protective of the wilderness experience that I get to have high up on these walls. To have access to those walls in a reasonable and safe way requires bolts and it’s as simple as that,” said Madaleine Sorkin, one of the world’s top big wall climbers who has spent more than 20 years climbing in the Black Canyon.
That “reasonable and safe way” is particular to Sorkin and her ilk. Black Canyon climbers descend into the depths of the deepest gorge in the state and scale vertical, ancient granite walls. They place gear where they can, often using tenuous hooks that cling to slivers of granite, and they climb long stretches between safe anchors. They call it “committing and adventurous” in the same casual way they say “reasonable and safe.”
Those anchors have been regulated pretty well over the years in the Black Canyon. Climbers use hand drills to install new bolts on crack-less walls where removable gear, like cams and nuts, does not work. They work closely with the park’s experienced park rangers to manage a limited number of bolts. Black Canyon rules limit new bolts to 15 per year across all climbing routes in the park.
“The climbers are stewards of the routes in the Black and to take that away from us is really a lost opportunity,” said Sorkin, who replaced old bolts on the daunting Hallucinogen Wall last year and followed her labors with a one-day ascent of the nearly 2,000-foot route. “We are sensitive to using as few bolts as reasonable. As a collective body we are very discerning about where and when to place bolts in the Black. We do it in ways that respect the route and the rock.”
A new wilderness management plan for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison could change all that by classifying bolts and other fixed anchors on climbing routes as permanent installations that are not allowed in wilderness areas.
A similar plan unfolded last year at California’s Joshua Tree National Park, sparking a massive uproar from climbers. And now climbers say the Forest Service and National Park Service are ready to propose a national prohibition on bolts and a review of all fixed anchors in the wilderness. The classification of bolts as permanent installations that are largely banned in the 1964 Wilderness Act, or require lengthy federal review, has galvanized the climbing community anew.
The Access Fund this month called the potential policy banning fixed anchors “a war on wilderness climbing.”
The climbing lingo:
Bolting: Installing a permanent safety anchor – typically a stainless steel hanger and bolt with an expanding sleeve – in a drilled hole in a rock face.
Removable gear: Cams, chocks, hooks, nuts and hexes that climbers can insert into or onto rock features to protect against a long fall as they ascend.
Clean climbing: Ascending with removable gear and not installing permanent fixed anchors
In the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s 258-page draft environmental analysis of its wilderness and recreation management plan published earlier this year, park officials define fixed climbing anchors as installations, akin to pit toilets, that can “diminish” the quality and opportunities for “solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation in the inner canyon.”
The Black Canyon plan would allow new or replacement fixed anchors in parts of the canyon after review by park rangers — a federal process called a “minimum requirements analysis” — but not in the inner canyon’s “pristine wilderness subzone.” Replacing old bolts or adding new bolts will require written authorization or a special use permit from the park service.
“‘Clean climbing’ techniques should be the norm in wilderness and backcountry,” reads the Black Canyon management plan. “This involves the use of temporary equipment and anchors that can be placed and removed without altering the environment.”
The Black Canyon plan, followed by word that federal land managers were considering a national policy, confirmed fears among climbers that the fixed anchor prohibition in Joshua Tree could become the norm.
“I’m a bit surprised to see the new proposal to reinterpret the Wilderness Act to regard historic uses and longstanding recreation in our national parks and other federal lands to be considered fundamentally prohibited,” said Erik Murdock, the head of policy and government affairs for the Access Fund.
Climbers support wilderness
A century ago, wilderness climbers, with their hob-nailed boots and hemp ropes, seeded the modern environmental movement with awe-inspiring exploits on remote rock faces. Their fiery support of wild places helped stir support for national parks and, eventually, the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Climbers and their influential groups have supported major wilderness legislation in Colorado for decades. Longtime U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette has included language that specifically protects rock climbing and fixed anchors in her Colorado Wilderness Act, which she has proposed every year since 1999 to protect more than 700,000 acres as wilderness. The CORE Act also specifically mentions climbing.
“Imposing an unnecessary prohibition on climbing in the wilderness not only harms local economies and recreational experience and safety, it perhaps most importantly creates a serious obstacle to wilderness advocacy,” Murdock said. “A prohibition on fixed anchors in wilderness will make it very difficult for the climbing community to deliver full-throated support for wilderness initiatives. This is an existential question. A small minority of bureaucrats in D.C. are not understanding the far reaching implications and fast-acting repercussions of this type of policy.”
Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat, has joined Utah’s U.S. Rep. John Curtis, a Republican, with a bill that will fix the fixed-anchor debate. The lawmakers’ Protect America’s Rock Climbing Act, introduced in early March, directs the heads of the Forest Service and Interior Department to create a uniform policy and issue guidance for all of the country’s federal wilderness areas that allows “the placement, use and maintenance of fixed anchors” for climbing.
“By requiring additional agency guidance on climbing management, we are taking steps to protect our climbers and the spaces in which they recreate,” Neguse said in a statement.
This is not the first time federal land managers have considered a nationwide ban of fixed anchors in wilderness. The Forest Service in the late 1990s decided to prohibit the use of new bolts in about 40 of its roughly 400 wilderness areas.
Climbers protested that decision too, alongside a wilderness group that argued all fixed anchors should be removed. In 1999, the Forest Service gathered the 23-member Fixed Anchors in Wilderness Negotiated Rulemaking Advisory Committee. The group met four times and agreed that climbs with lots of anchors did not belong in wilderness but climbing management plans can allow “a small number of bolts.”
But the committee was unable to, ahem, fix the fixed-anchor row. The result has been an array of management policies, with some public land managers prohibiting bolts and some allowing limited use, with many management plans concentrating anchors near roads and campgrounds.
Jonathan Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service from 2009 to 2017, tried to solve the bolting brawl with an order in 2013 that gave park managers guidance on wilderness management. In Director’s Order 41, Jarvis noted that climbing “is a legitimate and appropriate use of wilderness” but called for it to be managed.
The order noted that the “occasional placement” of fixed anchors “does not necessarily impair the future enjoyment of wilderness or violate the Wilderness Act,” but it said, the use of fixed equipment in the wilderness should be rare. Jarvis called on park managers to craft climbing management policies within required Wilderness Stewardship Plans.
Most parks, like the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain and Black Canyon of the Gunnison, nest climbing management strategies inside wilderness and backcountry management plans.
Last year park managers at Joshua Tree began vetting a standalone climbing management plan through the National Environmental Policy Act. The desert park has more than 6,500 climbing routes and is an international destination for climbers. The Joshua Tree climbing management plan defined fixed anchors as installations, similar to structures like trailheads and pit toilets. The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits structures or installations in wilderness areas and more than three-quarters of Joshua Tree is wilderness.
Of the 3,050 comments the park received on its climbing management plan, more than 2,100 addressed fixed anchors in the wilderness. Most of those comments urged the park to allow bolts but under strict management.
The climbing community saw the Joshua Tree plan as a rejection of climbing in wilderness. And climbers are longtime allies of wilderness. Climbing groups like the American Alpine Club and the Access Fund supported the Director’s Order 41. Climbers accepted rigid management of bolts in wilderness. They approved prohibitions on power drills to install bolts in wilderness. They agreed with seasonal closures to protect raptor nests.
Climbing groups urged the Joshua Tree park managers to not prohibit bolts
While the climbing in national parks varies, from the big walls of Yosemite’s El Capitan to the desert of Joshua Tree to the exposed, daunting ascents from the depths of the Black Canyon, there is one commonality across most routes: they are inside wilderness. Wilderness is a big part of most national parks. Wilderness climbing is a specific niche in the climbing world —like bouldering and sport climbing — that emphasizes a light touch, with limited fixed hardware in the rock.
Still, wilderness climbing requires safety and about 90% of all the climbing routes in U.S. federal wilderness use some form of fixed protection, said Murdock with the Access Fund.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis was a U.S. Congressman when he co-sponsored legislation to designate nearly 250,000 acres as wilderness inside Rocky Mountain National Park. He also crafted legislation to increase Colorado’s wilderness areas, which eventually became part of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy Act. In November, he sent a letter to the heads of the Department of the Interior and Forest Service, saying that a national policy designating fixed anchors in wilderness as prohibited installations “would be a serious mistake.”
“I urge you to ensure that this does not happen,” said Polis, noting that the legislation that created the Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness and parts of the CORE Act “were developed and promoted under the long-standing system of classifying fixed anchors within wilderness areas and the proposed change would run counter to that legislative intent for many areas.”
Polis said requiring all fixed anchors in wilderness to undergo Park Service and Forest Service review is “wasteful and unnecessary” because those agencies already have the ability to manage climbing activity. He warned that prohibiting bolts could turn climbers, who he called “powerful allies,” away from supporting conservation proposals like the CORE Act.
“We should be doing everything we can right now to grow the coalition of champions for public lands,” Polis wrote. “In contrast, a new prohibition on fixed anchors in wilderness would jeopardize the safety of climbers, harm our recreation economy here in Colorado, establish unnecessary bureaucracy, and restrict access to some of the wildest places in America.”