[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 83, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 83 for all the goodness!–Ed.]
I CAN STILL feel the friction of Half Dome’s smooth slabs under my bare feet as I neared the summit one evening in October 2008. It was one of the most sacred moments of my life. I’d just scampered up Snake Dike, a 5.7 friction route that follows a curving vine of rose-hued dikes for thousands of feet up the west face, wearing only a small green rucksack, climbing shoes and a chalk bag. When the angle and difficulties eased, I removed my tight shoes and climbed the remaining 1,000 feet barefoot, relishing the connection I felt with the rock. I wasn’t ready for it to end when I neared the top. I had never touched the dome until that day, and with the amber glow of the sunlight at my back, I paused to slowly kneel and kiss Tisayac. Once on top I thought long and hard about down climbing the way I’d come instead of descending the Cables Route on the opposite side. How enchanting would it feel to know that I’d climbed up and down without using any of the fixed hardware anchored to the rock? But it would be dark soon and a storm was blowing in. I descended the cables, feeling that doing otherwise would be hubris.
Although I had free soloed the route, the truth is that my ascent did rely on fixed hardware: I wouldn’t have gone there were it not for maps made by those who came before and left an incipient line of bolts in the blank rock for me to follow. Snake Dike was a walk-up compared to many other climbs I’ve done, yet it stands out as one of the most special experiences in my forty years of living. If the bolts and other fixed anchors had not existed or were not permitted in the park, I never would have had that day.
The majority of climbers I’ve met do not seek to “conquer,” as our antiquated wartime literature and the contemporary mainstream articles written by non-climbers often suggest. We seek to experience the cold and heat, the doubt, fear and humility–the full spectrum of all that comes with being a speck on a wall, exposed to the elements, clinging to the earth by our fingers, toes and wits, often far away from outside help. We seek to harmonize with our surroundings as we engage with them in “a uniquely intimate, three-dimensional way,” as Maury Birdwell recently explained over email.
It is never lightly that we reach for the drill and hammer or leave gear behind. But these practices have often been a necessary part of technical climbing throughout history.
And yet, after nearly sixty years of precedent allowing the use of fixed anchors in wilderness areas, one particular group–Wilderness Watch, based in Missoula, Montana–is leading the charge to have bolts and other fixed anchors classified as illegal installations. And, even more worrisome to leaders with Access Fund and the American Alpine Club, they’re gaining traction with agency leaders in Washington, D.C.
“A plain reading of the Wilderness Act prohibits the use of fixed anchors in wilderness under the Act’s ban on ‘installations,'” Wilderness Watch claims on its website. “While some permanent installations may predate wilderness designation, that doesn’t mean they can be actively maintained after designation, and it certainly doesn’t mean new installations can result.” In other words, Wilderness Watch would have all forms of fixed hardware that provide protection, passage and belay/rappel anchors on big walls like El Capitan (Tu-Tok-A- Nu-La)–hardware that every single climber who has ever climbed El Cap has relied on for safety–officially regarded as illegal installations.
Even Alex Honnold, who famously free climbed the Big Stone without a rope in 2017, did so only after years of rehearsing the moves with the aid of ropes and bolts. Let’s also not forget the Free Dawn Wall, perhaps the hardest big-wall free climb on the planet in terms of sustained technical difficulty, which Tommy Caldwell pieced together after years of exploring the face and hand drilling and replacing bolts on occasion. Suffice to say, Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La is so tall and sheer that even the most advanced climbers in the world using the most advanced gear and techniques still haven’t found a way to ascend its walls without using at least a few pieces of fixed gear.
Though the threat of prohibition on fixed anchors has been simmering since at least the 1990s, the issue has been kicked into high gear in recent years. In February 2022, Joshua Tree National Park shared a prospective climbing management plan that defined fixed anchors as “installations.” Weeks later the AAC submitted a letter to park officials expressing concerns that the plan indicated a 180-degree shift in the park’s understanding of the Wilderness Act. (Access Fund spearheaded a coalition that began submitting comments opposing Joshua Tree National Park’s prospective climbing management plan in June 2021. The coalition submitted more comments in March 2022 as well.) A year after Joshua Tree made waves, an article by Jason Blevins for the Colorado Sun reported that a similar plan was being considered for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. That’s when Erik Murdock, who became Access Fund’s interim executive director last July, became very worried: two national parks were moving forward with ill-informed policies that could set precedents for the rest of the country if they were to be adopted. Access Fund and the AAC started rousing members of Congress to take action.
The Protect America’s Rock Climbing Act (PARC Act) was introduced in the House on March 7 and amended in June. The bipartisan bill stipulates: “the Secretary concerned shall issue guidance on climbing management in designated wilderness areas that recognizes the appropriateness of … recreational climbing; the placement, use, and maintenance of fixed anchors; and the use of other equipment necessary for recreational climbing.” The current text of the bill was taken from an amendment to America’s Outdoor Recreation Act (AORA) that was introduced by Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) in May.
Wilderness Watch predicts that legalizing anchors will open the doors to the types of development we see at roadside sport crags and strain the agencies managing the lands. They present the situation as though climbing is not already taking place on these lands, or that management tools are not already being implemented, such as the big-wall permit system that was made permanent in Yosemite this summer after a two-year trial. Furthermore, the US Department of the Interior Director’s Order #41 issued in 2013 states: “The NPS recognizes that climbing is a legitimate and appropriate use of wilderness.” But, as Wilderness Watch points out, the order is “not a binding law or regulation” and “can be changed at any time.” In other words climbing’s place within the law is not, shall we say, fixed.
When Wilderness Watch policy director Dana Johnson published a simplistic, ill-informed op-ed titled “Mountains Don’t Need Hardware” through the syndicated column Writers on the Range last June, I wasn’t too concerned until I saw people’s sympathetic reactions.
Birdwell, a lawyer who participated in first ascents of 5.12+ routes on Mt. Hooker in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, emailed:
Just a few years ago I would have [said] that the PARC Act seems superfluous in a system that is already working. But recent management plan drafts have shown 1) the misunderstanding of fixed anchors and their implementation by management personnel, and 2) the need to streamline a uniform understanding and allowance of these critical, minimally impactful tools. Climbers engage with the landscape in a uniquely intimate, three-dimensional way, our use is both historically and formally valid, and the need to protect it has become starkly clear.
I emailed Wilderness Watch asking if anyone on their staff had any climbing experience that they could talk about. They didn’t. Ultimately I was forwarded to a man who did a lot of snow and ice climbing in the 1970s, including some big mountains in Alaska. He didn’t want to be quoted, but said he mostly agreed with a recent opinion by Mike Browning that was published in Colorado’s Vail Daily on July 15. In it, Browning mentions bagging the Seven Summits and “all the Colorado 14ers and 500 other peaks around the world,” before asserting that bolts unequivocally violate the Wilderness Act.
“Climbers–including me–look at sheer rock walls and want to climb them,” Browning writes. “But must we always get what we want just because we want it? Can we not set aside 3% of our lands for true wilderness experiences?” The people who write these opinions never mention that those lands contain some of the best climbing on Earth. (And I wonder, how many ladders, fixed ropes and oxygen bottles did Browning use in his quest for the Seven Summits while flying around the world?)
“It’s unfortunate that fixed anchors have become a litmus test for wilderness lovers,” says Murdock. “Climbers identify themselves as environmentalists and founders of wilderness.”
For now it seems we climbers are mostly on our own in this fight.
And as we talk about how we want to see our precious lands managed, we would do well to remember the Indigenous groups that have been marginalized and all but forgotten since they were forced off these same coveted lands.
“The Wilderness Act was so misinformed on the part of the tribes,” says Len Necefer, CEO of Natives Outdoors and a member of the Navajo (Dine) Nation. Necefer is also a climber, biker and all-around adventurer. But in general, “climbing isn’t something that Natives do,” he says. And there are still festering wounds from clashes between climbers and tribes, such as climbers flouting tribal wishes to respect sacred formations, and there have even been bitter lawsuits. “It totally makes sense to be able to safely rappel in national parks,” Necefer says. “There does need to be clear guidance on wilderness lands. But it will be an impediment if past history between climbers and tribes isn’t addressed.”
Right now the bigger picture for the tribes is that they finally have a presidential administration that is prioritizing their interests on federal lands, Necefer says. “Tribes aren’t a ‘stakeholder’ in the same way that climbers are,” he clarifies. “Tribes are a rights-holder.”
It seems so many of us are adrift with no promise of security as we navigate a strange future. There is so much we agree on and yet can’t agree on. What brings me solace in a mad world are experiences like that day on top of Tisayac, when I can be a speck on the wall with the earth at my feet for a few fleeting moments.
[This story has been updated since its publication in Alpinist 83 to clarify that the coalition led by Access Fund had submitted comments opposing Joshua Tree National Park’s prospective climbing management plan as early as June 2021, and that the current language of the PARC Act originated with Hickenlooper’s amendment to AORA. The PARC Act was introduced by Rep. John Curtiss (R-UT) and cosponsored by Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO.) and Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-NM). Alpinist regrets the errors.]