The Invisible Crags Initiative (ICI)



chain draws photo 2b








THE MISSION: The Invisible Crags Initiative (ICI) is an effort to minimize the visual impact of crag development in order to maintain access and preserve the beauty of our shared natural resources. Although visual impact is only one of many issues related to access, it is increasingly critical. As more climbers equip routes with fixed draws made of chain, cable or nylon, crags have become increasingly visible and this has caused access problems. Small crags with well camouflaged bolted routes can go without notice from land managers or the general public for years and then suddenly become a problematic access issue when someone sees ugly chains dangling from a cliff. As climbers, our perspective on chains, fixed draws and other visual impacts can be very different from those of land managers and the general public. Like one’s kids or pets, climbers can have such a close relationship with them that we can have a hard time seeing them the way other people do. Unfortunately, like some dogs and children, chains and fixed draws are extremely obnoxious to many people.

While complete invisibility may be impossible, reducing the visual impact of development to the point where non-climbing land managers and hikers do not have visceral, outraged objections is achievable. That reduction requires compromises.  Those compromises are necessary to preserve access.


  1. Help climbers understand just how ugly and offensive fixed draws and other visual clutter on cliffs can be to the general public, other climbers and land managers. An abandoned beer can in the woods is ugly and offensive because it speaks to a reckless disregard for our shared resources and an insensitivity to the beauty of the area. You see that beer can and it makes you a little bit sad and a little bit angry at the same time. While you don’t like seeing that can out in the woods, worse than the visual impact are the feelings it generates about the people responsible for its careless abandonment. Chains and fixed draws can be even more problematic. It does not matter if they left up all year, all season or just for a few weeks. They can be a high and visible blight on an otherwise stunning cliff face in a dramatic setting.  For hikers, sometimes getting to a place with big views that include some cliffs can be the high-point of a long day and seeing that view marred with what look like industrial, permanent intrusions can be depressing.  In terms of emotional impact, however, the way those bolts and chains look can be less significant than the message they send. They say “we climbers don’t care about your experience out here, we don’t care about whether or not this is a shared resource, we don’t care about anything more than making things convenient for us to send these routes.” It feels like a betrayal.  It feels like a group of people who you thought were on the same side as you in terms of loving the outdoors and being willing to make some sacrifices and compromises to preserve it have abandoned those ideals for the sake of making a selfish little climbing game more convenient.  An  angry response is understandable. That anger motivates people to do what they have to to see areas closed to climbing.  This sort of emotional, gut level negative reaction is not limited to non-climbers.  For example, sometime around 1989 or 1990 I was in Hueco Tanks and confronted a climber about the very visible draws he was leaving on a very visible route looming over the front bouldering area.  There had already been tension over climber activities and there was a published set of guidelines prohibiting leaving  visible gear anywhere on routes.  That prohibition was consistent with the feelings of the majority of climbers at the time, which supported minimizing impact of all kinds.  The climber told me that “we” had decided that leaving draws was OK for some routes.   It is difficult to explain just how disappointing, infuriating and obnoxious his position was to me at the time.  His “we” meant a small group of his friends that were working 13s, not the climbing community.  I thought “we” should include me and all the other climbers who were willing to make compromises regarding convenience in order to minimize visual impact and preserve access.  His statement and his position felt like a deep betrayal of the idea that there was a climbing community that was capable of self regulation and self restraint in order to preserve access.   I have had that same experience many times since. I have seen many areas closed.   When those people who have some sort of leadership position in the climbing community because they are developing routes and doing the hardest climbs use that position as leverage to defend doing things that can’t be accepted as general practices on all routes, they endanger the unity of the climbing community as well as access.   It is time for the climbing community to reject the hypocrisy inherent in the idea that it is acceptable to have different standards regarding visual impact based on differences in the difficulty of a route.
  2. End the “debate” within the climbing community about whether or not fixed draws and chains are acceptable. They are convenient, not necessary. The threat they pose to access outweighs their convenience. The false “debate” continues, in part, because it is the climbers who are establishing routes and doing harder climbs who are installing and using fixed draws and chains. The climbing community has afforded those individuals what may be an inappropriate degree of deference because we do appreciate their efforts and respect their accomplishments.
  3. Encourage climbers to do everything they can to make crags invisible. This site provides information about a number of specific tools and techniques for accomplishing this. Making crags invisible does not mean giving up routes. It does mean making some compromises and a willingness to accept that getting draws on and off steeper routes will be more inconvenient than just leaving fixed ones in place. Climbers should feel supported in their efforts to clean up crags despite the grief they might get from local  climbers who are only concerned with keeping their convenient draws and chains to remain in place. Every climbers should feel that they are actually and meaningfully a part of a community. Everyone should understand that their membership in that community brings both benefits (such as being able to get help from other climbers if they get hurt or need some information on a route) and responsibilities (such as doing what they can to keep their route development or route use practices from endangering access). One of the important aspects of the transition from being in a gym to climbing outside on shared public lands is the difference in control and ownership. The gym is owned by someone else. As a consumer you might have some say in changing the way it is run, but you have no real ownership. In contrast, on shared public lands, every climber, even those who have never drilled a single bolt, should feel that they have some say in how things are done. They should each feel that they have a real ownership interest in those shared resources generally, but more critically over what they are participating in as climbers. The gym mentality can translate into a passive attitude towards route development and route use practices. If most climbers who just climb routes that have been developed by others and who don’t climb hard enough to ever consider leaving draws on a route think that they have neither the right nor the duty to comment on the actions of those who are developing routes or using them in ways that might cause problems, there is no functional community. Without a functional community, there is no chance of self policing. Each individual climber should feel empowered to speak out, take actions and challenge others about actions that seem problematic.
  4. Encourage the climbing industry to sponsor climbers and route developers who are working to reduce visual impact. As consumers we can let the industry know that we do not believe that the climber doing the hardest route is necessarily the best climber or the one we most admire. We can let them know that we care more about whether their sponsored climber is respecting the land and helping preserve access than sending a new 5.15.  An effort to minimize visual impact should be the norm for all crags.


  1. Camouflage: Obviously. Every hanger should be painted to match the surrounding stone. Shiny hangers that glint in the sun are unacceptable. This also means using the lowest profile option for fixed protection. While what can be used in different areas varies, glue-ins with surfaces that will take paint are a great low visibility option. See the tools and techniques section for specifics.
  2. Reduce the number of bolts: The number of bolts should be minimized. Fewer bolts means less visual impact overall. Fewer bolts means it is easier to keep up with redoing the camouflage paint on necessary bolts as it wears off. Where there are options for natural protection that is solid and easy to place, don’t place a bolt or remove existing ones. This is one of the important compromises that has to be made to preserve access. Even climbers who are focused on high end sport routes need to get into the habit of bringing a small rack of trad gear. While it is not true for every area or every type of rock, there are many sport routes that have sections of moderate climbing with natural protection options that make bolts unnecessary. Again, this isn’t to say that bolts are inappropriate through crux sections or where the natural protection is questionable or non-existent, only that in those sections of a climb where there are reasonable natural protection options, there shouldn’t be any bolts.  The climbing community has to disavow the idea that sport climbing is a distinct pursuit that requires bolt only climbs.  Even routes with extremely hard sections that require some bolts may have easier sections that can and should be protected with natural gear if possible.
  3. Eliminate fixed draws: Perhaps the most important compromise we have to make as climbers for the sake of reducing visual impact is giving up the convenience of fixed draws (whether chains, cable or nylon). This means we have to be willing to do the work necessary to get draws on and off of routes every time we climb, even when the route is very steep. While there are various ways of mitigating the inconvenience, we acknowledge that nothing is as nice or easy as having the draws in place when you show up to climb. Even using the best tools and techniques for placing and removing draws, taking the time to do so may mean you don’t get to do as many pitches in a day. However, given the access issues that have been caused by the visual impact of fixed draws, we believe this is a necessary compromise.  We have to draw a clear, bright line about this.  Fixed draws can’t be tolerated on some routes just because they are harder or more difficult to clean.
  4. The first 35 feet: We need to pay special attention to the first thirty feet or so as this is often the most visible portion of a route. If the first thirty feet is not especially steep, the first bolt should be placed high (20 feet up) with the expectation that it will be clipped with a long, extendable clip stick. Camouflaging and options other than bolts should be more intensively pursued for these sections.
  5. End of Route Anchors: Chains are easy and convenient. Unfortunately, chains are visible in a way that fat rap hangers are not.   A pair of glue-ins can also serve as a low profile anchor from which you can rap, but because some may be tempted to lower through them, rather than rap, which wears grooves into them, you have to leave a couple of quick links on each of them.  A couple of quick links are less visible than a long chain.   When I am out hunting down “secret” areas, it is usually the chains I see first with the binoculars, regardless of whether of not they are camouflaged, because their straight vertical outline stands out from the natural formations.  Chains at anchors are not as serious a priority as fixed draws, but we should move towards avoiding them and only using low profile, rap only hangers.   Of course you can put some quick draws on such rap only anchors for top roping and send attempts, but then you have to set up a rappel when finished.   An exception to this as a general practice can be made for steep routes where cleaning draws needs to be done while lowering, rather than rappelling.  Those routes should be equipped with anchors that you can lower through.

Carry a big stick: An extendable stick clip can be used for placing and removing draws on bolts pretty high up, depending on the stick construction and the skill of the user. Pacing and removing draws up to 25 feet high with a stick clip is easy. Higher is possible. Yes, a big stick can be cumbersome and some people just don’t like them. Too bad. This is an easy compromise we need to make. They are better than endangering access. Many routes can be entirely set up and cleaned with a big stick.

Be creative with your stick clip: For example, a strategy that works at some crags and on some routes involves climbing the first and easier portion of a route with a long string attached to a stick clip on the ground. Once below the start of the steeper, hard section you go in straight and haul up the stick in order to place draws through the crux section. That being done, you can lower. You have done half the route as a warm up and now there are draws on all the bolts, facilitating your send attempt.

Carry a little stick too: A collapsible stick clip that you can carry on your harness allows you to go bolt to bolt, aid your way through the difficult sections and put draws on the bolts before trying to send. Again, this can be hard work. It can be inconvenient. It is a necessary compromise. Placing the draws by doing some aid on the way up can be a warm up itself, although, admittedly, it is not much fun.

Create moderate routes for the purpose of reaching the anchors of harder routes. A moderate, fun routes that enable you to reach the anchors of harder routes can serve as a warm up and allow you to lower down (not rappel) the harder route, placing draws as you go. While such routes are not always an option, try to put one together if you can. In addition, an easy traverse route or continuation of the moderate access route can allow you to go from the anchor of one hard route to another. Even if such a route is contrived,  silly or otherwise less than ideal, it can be useful. Do what it takes to establish them, without making them more visible than other routes.

If you are a sport only climber developing routes, ask someone with traditional skills and a rack to look for protection options in the moderate sections that you might not notice. This is pretty simple. Don’t place bolts where natural protection is solid and reasonably easy to place. Don’t place a bolt near a solid gear placement on moderate terrain.

Drill holes and leave them empty for the use of removable bolts on sections of a route where the climbing makes placing that kind of protection reasonable. Yes, current options for removable bolts suck. However, even the currently available products can be utilized in places where falls are less likely and getting them stuck not so much of a problem. If the first 30 feet of a route is not as hard as the crux sections, leave nothing but some holes, which are much less visible than bolts. NOTE: Much better removable bolts are in development and should be available soon. One of these is essentially a pair of rails with four little offset curved surface cams that fit the inside of a drilled hole perfectly. It is designed to provide full strength protection as well as being easy to both remove and place with one hand. It does require a larger than normal hole, but even these larger holes are less visible than any bolt. It has a sleeve/collar that protects the outer edges of the hole from damage if it holds a fall. Another removable device being developed involves a full strength steel shaft that is placed into a primary 3/8 inch hole and a second much smaller hole about six inches away that allows the device to be locked into place so that it has decent pull out strength without any sort of internal camming or sliding nut action. Although this device will not be useful on steeper rock, it is simple and may be a reasonable option for many placements.


MORE CONTROVERSIAL POSSIBILITIES: We are not advocating any of these at this point, just raising them for purposes of discussion and debate. Every climber should be willing to participate in debate over such issues. Additionally, it may be that it is simply not possible that the climbers who are bringing a gym mentality to outdoor crags will not be willing to even consider a causation of their draw fixing practices unless there are some alternative methods for reducing the inconvenience of hanging draws before a send attempt.

Limited hold enhancement for the purpose of eliminating the argument that fixed draws are necessary for some routes: Some routes are argued to require fixed draws. Rather than creating routes that require fixed draws, visual impact would be reduced by enhancing certain clipping holds so that it would not be unreasonable to expect climbers to place their own draws. The overall difficulty of the route is thereby kept consistent. The absence of the fixed draws would be more of a gain in terms of actual visual impact that makes crags ugly and which threatens access than the loss associated with making some minor hold modifications. The only people who would ever notice the clipping hold modifications would be the people who climb those routes. Other climbers as well as non-climbers would be sparred the hideous intrusion of fixed draws hanging from cliffs. If this is objectionable because it seems like better climbers will be able to hang their own draws without hold modification some day, then it would be better to do the work necessary to hang the draws before trying to send the route. Any route can be top-roped to clean the draws, even if doing so is inconvenient and can involve some hanging and hard work.

Placing (and leaving) a few more bolts than might be necessary for a safe send for purposes of making it easier to get draws in place before trying to send a route: A few extra bolts left in place between the necessary bolts for climbing a route safely can make it easier to get draws in place for an attempted send. While those extra bolts are not ideal, they have less visual impact than fixed draws.

Limited hold enhancement for the purpose of establishing a route to access anchors on hard climbs: A moderate route that allows you to reach the anchors of harder routes can be so useful that it may be worth enhancing some holds in order to make such a route possible. While we certainly do not think it is acceptable to modify or create holds on routes in general for the purpose of making them easier to climb, it may be a necessary compromise in some situations. Although modified holds are offensive to most climbers, it is worth recognizing that such modifications are invisible to non-climbers. If their limited use can help reduce the visual impact of a crag overall by providing a way to get to an anchor and place draws on harder routes, so that those draws do not become permanent and unsightly fixtures, they may represent a reasonable compromise for the sake of access.

Limited gear placement enhancement: When the most visible parts of a route could be protected with removable gear if the placements options were only a little better, it may be worth enhancing some of them so that they will make a solid cam or nut placement. Such enhancements are invisible to non-climbers.  Three 1/2 inch holes right next to each other, lined up horizontally and then cleaned up a little to eliminate the spikes between the holes creates a perfect pocket for a .3 x4.