THE INVISIBLE CRAGS INITIATIVE (ICI)
WE CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS:
THE MISSION: The Invisible Crags Initiative (ICI) is an Arizona registered non-profit. It represents a long term effort to minimize the visual impact of climbing crags 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 or leve project draws in place for months, crags have become increasingly visible. As they come to look more like indoor gyms, both climbers and non-climbers have raised objections. The situation is starting to cause access problems. A crag with well camouflaged bolted routes can go without notice from land managers or the general public for years and then suddenly become subject to potential closure when someone sees ugly chains dangling from a cliff. As climbers, our perspective on fixed draws, long term project 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 their draws and the convenience they bring that they can have difficulty seeing them the way other people do. Unfortunately, like some dogs and children, chains, fixed draws and long term project draws are extremely obnoxious to many people.
While complete invisibility may be impossible, reducing the visual impact of climbing crags 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.
- 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. Fixed draws and long term project 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 an outing 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. In the early stages of popular climbing in the U.S, climbers thought of themselves as stewards of the environment. They saw themselves as leaders among those who visited back county areas in the effort to minimize impact and protect those areas. Now, however, environmental groups increasingly see climbers as a selfish user group that is unwilling to exercise basic efforts to minimize their impact by doing such things as removing draws when they are not using them. Crags with a collection of fun, steep routes with fixed draws attract a lot of climbers and the beaten down vegetation and terrain around those places can become pretty ugly.
- End the “debate” within the climbing community about whether or not fixed draws, chains and long term project draws 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.
- 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 them 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 a part of the larger climbing 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 placed 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 the crags they are using 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.
- 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.
CONCRETE STEPS TOWARDS MAKING A CRAG INVISIBLE
- 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.
- 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 do not require bolts. 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, especially in non-crux sections. 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 through those crux sections may have easier sections that can and should be protected with natural gear if possible.
- Eliminate fixed draws and don’t leave project draws up for weeks: 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 and long term project draws. 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 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. Fixed draws can’t be tolerated on some routes just because they are harder or more difficult to clean.
- 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 (15-20 feet up) with the expectation that it will be clipped with a long, extendable clip stick (except in places where the beginning of the route is so steep as to require lower bolts). Camouflaging and options other than bolts should be more intensively pursued for these sections.
- 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 contours of the cliff. 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 or hangars with just a couple of quick links which are lower profile than long chains. Of course steep routes where cleaning the draws needs to be done while lowering or seconding the route, rather than rappelling will continue to be equipped with anchors that can be used for lowering.
- TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES TO FACILITATE CRAG INVISIBILITY
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 difficult, but not imossible. 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 involves a little 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 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.
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 extra bolts are not ideal, they have less visual impact than fixed draws.
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 or creating a few from scratch so that they will make a solid cam placement. Such enhancements are invisible from the ground. Three half inch holes lined up horizontally with the ridges between them chiseled out form a perfect pocket for a Camalot .3 x4. That slot also works with several other types of small cams. Smaller drill bits can be used to create slots for sliding nuts. Two larger holes can be used to create a placement for a small tricam. While it is true that some of these drilled protection slots can be used as holds, the same is true for bolts. Also, while the cable on a cam may end up kinked if you fall on it in one of the horizontal placements, we are making these placements only on the easier sections of routes where falls are unlikely. The crag we are developing as a demonstration for this approach has a number of routes with an initial 40 or 50 feet of lower angle rock followed by 20 or 25 feet that is much steeper. On routes where the upper crux section is 5.11 or 12, the lower sections are 5.9 or 5.10 and we are using drilled protection pockets only the those lower parts with bolts through the upper parts. Placing fewer bolts means you can afford to place better bolts. There will be less work involved in replacing them when that eventually becomes necessary and it will be is easier to keep up with refreshing the camouflage on the hangars.