For a few special months each year, conditions are perfect for my favorite type of rock climbing: alpine bouldering. From Rocky Mountain National Park to Mount Blue Sky, dedicated boulderers hike miles into the backcountry to test themselves on some of the nation’s hardest rock climbs, in some of its most incredible settings. These experiences are what brought me to Colorado in the first place, and they take place almost exclusively in designated federal wilderness areas, where sustainable, legal access to climbing is now under threat.
My parents, both climbers themselves, started me on my climbing journey. They emphasized the need to respect the places we spent time outside over how hard we climbed. As I grew older, I began competing on the indoor climbing circuit but always made time to get outside. Quality time outdoors is a key part of my climbing.
When it was time to decide where to attend college, Colorado’s Front Range was the obvious choice. This area boasts high-end academics, forward-thinking cultural institutions, and unbeatable climbing access in all four seasons. There’s no better place to be both a full-time professional climber and a full-time student. But the very qualities that make me proud to call Colorado “home” are in jeopardy.
From Lincoln Lake to Chaos Canyon, much of Colorado’s premier alpine bouldering is in federal wilderness. Climbing in these areas is a privilege that comes with certain responsibilities, and the climbing community takes these responsibilities seriously. It’s why we work collaboratively with land managers, host trail clean-ups, and advocate for public lands protections.
The long history of technical climbing in America means that rock climbing is considered a “legitimate use” of wilderness areas. This acknowledgment shapes federal policies and laws that support sustainable climbing access of all types, including the conditional placement, use, and maintenance of fixed anchors. These anchors are critical to the safe ascent and descent of big vertical terrain, and climbers have relied on them for more than a century.
Whether you rely on fixed anchors or not — and in bouldering, we rarely do — the way they are regulated is inherently connected to climbing’s status as a legitimate use of wilderness areas. If federal land managers continue down a path of banning fixed anchors in wilderness, as they have in Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, it will undermine appropriate access for our entire community. That’s why I’m thankful that Colorado’s own U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse have stepped up to support sustainable climbing access to designated wilderness areas.
☀ MORE IN OPINION
The Protecting America’s Rock Climbing Act and the climbing provisions of the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act each would protect Wilderness areas and ensure sustainable climbing access to those same areas. Both bills passed through committees in their respective chambers of Congress without opposition, and recent amendments addressed feedback from the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service. I encourage our federal leaders to support and pass these bills, and President Biden to sign them into law.
I didn’t walk into Vertical World with the intention of becoming a wilderness advocate. I was a kid who liked rock climbing and wanted to get better. But advocacy is the natural outgrowth of the time I’ve spent climbing outside in Colorado and around the world. And I’m not alone. The climbing community’s desire to tread lightly on the land and protect these special places runs deep.
Technical climbing in America began more than a century ago. So while the gear, clothing, and disciplines of climbing have evolved, today’s climbers are still driven by the same desire for adventure and appreciation for the natural environment. By protecting access to wilderness climbing opportunities, our federal leaders can solidify a whole new generation of wilderness advocates who will work to protect these places for generations to come.
Drew Ruana, of Golden, is a professional rock climber and a student at the Colorado School of Mines.
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