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This story first appeared in the “Wired” section of Alpinist 58–Summer 2017.

NIAGARA ESCARPMENT, ONTARIO. A canopy of trees shaded the dark, dripping wall. Seeds drifted down from the branches above. Some found their way onto ledges on the cliff face. Others, nudged by the breeze, landed in a pocket of stone, kept cool by a patch of moss. On an adjacent cliff, Kathryn Kuntz searched for a route through the smooth, weathered limestone that separated her and the next anchor.

Kuntz grew up in a city, where, she jokes, she thought that nature was something you found on “a golf course.” When she began climbing, the community opened up a world of knowledge to her about the outdoors. Climbers knew the names of birds, herbs and flowers; they seemed to have a deeper connection to the place than some of the other recreationalists who breezed by on the trails did.

But conservationists perceived climbing as a threat to the fragile, vertical ecology. In 1988 scientists found an ancient cedar forest–a rare, pre-settlement holdout–growing on the crest and face of the cliffs. Clearing plants and soil from cracks and ledges, a practice ironically referred to as “gardening,” often accompanies climbers’ development of new routes. Since climbers began venturing up the escarpment in the early 1950s, first ascensionists had unknowingly destroyed trees more than 300 years old. Now reports circulated about ongoing studies that blamed climbers for devastating impacts on snail populations, as well as on lichens, moss and other vulnerable plant life. A total climbing ban seemed imminent.

One of the oldest eastern white cedars on the cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment. This tree germinated in the year 1134, making it 883 years old today. Climbers likely trimmed the branches on its northern side to make way for a climbing route in 1992. At the time of the photograph, two living branches on the south side of the tree were keeping it alive, though scientists haven't been back to survey whether it survives today. [Photo] Peter Kelly

One of the oldest eastern white cedars on the cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment. This tree germinated in the year 1134, making it 883 years old today. Climbers likely trimmed the branches on its northern side to make way for a climbing route in 1992. At the time of the photograph, two living branches on the south side of the tree were keeping it alive, though scientists haven’t been back to survey whether it survives today. [Photo] Peter Kelly

Kuntz, however, wasn’t convinced that climbers were wholly to blame. As she studied the scientific research, she noticed what she thought was a substantial, methodological error. In the spring of 2000, she went to the University of Guelph to meet with Dr. Doug Larson, the director of the Cliff Ecology Research Group, whose lab had published a number of studies linking climbing activity to vegetation disruption. Fresh from completing her undergraduate thesis on biodiversity conservation, Kuntz told Larson: “All your research is wrong.”

Larson glanced at her over the rim of his glasses. “All right,” he said. “Let’s prove it.”

Stories of conflicts between climbers and conservationists abound. In 1999 a Science article noted, “Researchers venturing onto remote bluffs find them to be oases of diversity, but rock climbers are taking out species even as scientists discover them.” But Access Fund Executive Director Brady Robinson believes that climbers are essential to the future of conservation. “As climbers have more and more contact with wild places…the more visceral and intense their experience is, the more likely they are to dedicate their time, and lives, to protect these places,” he tells me.

Though the pursuits of climbers and scientists often appear to diverge today, they were once profoundly linked. At the end of the eighteenth century in the New World, mountain ranges served as borders to the growth of both empire and scientific knowledge. In trekking to the heights, explorers carried thermometers and barometers. They observed and catalogued trees, plants and flowers, adding to the awareness of potential resources for expanding imperial powers. Their notes on the features of the terrain, including soil consistency and slope, assisted prospective settlers on the American frontier in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Some of these explorers practiced what came to be known as “Humboldtian science,” an approach that scholar Laura Dassow Walls summarizes with the tenets, “Explore, Collect, Measure, Connect.” Based on his acute field studies, Humboldt attempted to weave together grand, arching theories about patterns that governed the earth. Descriptions of nature, Humboldt wrote in his 1845 treatise Cosmos, should be scientifically accurate “without being deprived thereby of the vivifying breath of imagination.” An accomplished mountaineer himself, Humboldt became famous for achieving the altitude record for his era on Chimborazo (19,286′) in 1802. Though he lamented that the climb resulted in little useful data, the record stood for another thirty years.

The lineage of mountain literature continues from Humboldt through the canon of American nature writers, including Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Thoreau believed that people didn’t have to venture far to encounter the wild–there were enough mysteries in the succession of plants and the behavior of animals in the woods and hills surrounding his home in Concord, Massachusetts. On occasion, however, he wandered farther afield. Thoreau’s notes on plant life atop New Hampshire’s Mt. Monadnock take up several pages of his 1858 journal. During his hike up the mountain, he paused to admire the tough, sunbaked lichens that grew on “the steepest and most exposed parts of the high rocks alone…where you would think it most difficult for them to cling.” At the summit, Thoreau found himself thinking, oddly, of the beach. Both landscapes, he remarked, “depend for their sublimity on solitude and dreariness. In both cases we feel the presence of some vast, titanic power.”

For Thoreau, the wild was a powerful “tonic” to an increasingly industrialized society: one possessed by manufacturing and aspirations for wealth and power. Fellow mountain explorer John Muir also worried that the swift growth of the American empire would soon consume the wilderness. “Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded,” Muir had said, writing in defense of the doomed Hetch Hetchey valley. The American Humboldt, as Walls describes him, Muir undertook his first major expedition in 1867, walking over a thousand miles from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico. His intent was to survey plant life as a botanist. Two years later, Muir climbed unroped up a steep, knobby slab of rock to stand atop Cathedral Peak, one of several first ascents he made in the High Sierra. Soon afterward, he devoted himself to the study of geology, and his firsthand observations in the mountains led to advances in glaciology.

Humboldtians such as Thoreau and Muir wrote extensively against the specialization of knowledge, which increasingly fractured the study of nature into individual fields. Practitioners of Humboldtian science believed that isolated observations in the laboratory, from numbering cells under a microscope to counting stamens on a flower, contributed to a mechanized vision of the wild. “The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry…not a fossil earth, but a living earth,” Thoreau wrote in Walden. Accurate measurements and careful observations were vital, so long as they combined with long treks in the mountains, direct studies of soil in the field, and knowledge of when the first migrating birds returned in the spring.

Thoreau and Muir are not primarily seen as scientists today, but as philosophers or nature writers. As specialized scientific pursuits rose in prestige at the end of the nineteenth century, more criticism of the generalist approach emerged. Without methodical laboratory analysis, British scientist William Thomson stated in 1885, natural history was “merely looking at external beauties.” In the meantime, climbing began to emerge as a pursuit for its own sake, as more and more people headed into the steep terrain of the vertical wild.

In both climbing and science, innovative equipment has led to places once thought beyond the scope of possibility. Carabiners and nylon ropes helped climbers access increasingly difficult walls, while more sophisticated microscopes brought scientists ever closer to the smallest units of microbial life. Yet as Thoreau had warned, a mechanistic view of nature risked turning the environment into something to be consumed and abused for personal enjoyment or for profit.

DR. DOUG LARSON at the University of Guelph made his career studying the physiology of lichens. Though he became a global authority on the subject by the mid-1980s, the school administration warned him that his funding would end if he didn’t find ways to interest more donors. “People don’t care what happens to rock scum,” he tells me over the phone. As the closure of his lab loomed, Larson looked for ways to transfer his work to another field. He soon wrote a grant to study the physical ecology of the Niagara Escarpment. With those resources, he created the first lab ever devoted to cliff studies.

Alex and Kathryn Folkl (nee Kuntz) at Rattlesnake Point, Ontario. After serving as her advisor in the Cliff Ecology Research Group, Dr. Doug Larson of officiated at Kathryn and Alex's wedding in 2008. [Photo] Courtesy of Kathryn Folkl

Alex and Kathryn Folkl (nee Kuntz) at Rattlesnake Point, Ontario. After serving as her advisor in the Cliff Ecology Research Group, Dr. Doug Larson of officiated at Kathryn and Alex’s wedding in 2008. [Photo] Courtesy of Kathryn Folkl

In 1988 Larson’s Cliff Ecology Research Group made an important discovery on the Niagara Escarpment. Limestone buttresses line up for miles in this unique vertical ecosystem, where white cedars twist their way out from the cliffs. The trees, Larson noticed, bore a striking resemblance to krummholz, the gnarled dwarf trees found in high alpine environments. The research team initially assumed that European settlers had cleared most all old-growth woods in the Toronto area. But the cliffs formed a refuge habitat for an ancient, vertical forest. Some trees had germinated over a thousand years ago.

In their first published paper on the effects of climbing in 1997, Larson and his co-author Peter Kelly noted major disturbances to the cliff vegetation. Their survey sites showed that on climbed faces, nearly a quarter of the ancient eastern white cedars had suffered catastrophic damage: limbs cut, bark worn down to tissue, chainsawed stumps protruding from cracks where once a tree had been. Larson commented in 2002, “When some people think of rock climbing, they’re thinking it’s part of nature, but in fact what we’ve shown is that they’re destroying the very thing they’re climbing to see.”

The perception of cliffs as liminal zones, as borders and edges between other places, Larson theorized, long prevented ecologists from viewing them as distinct realms in their own right. Climbers, too, might imagine that the plant life on vertical walls is abundant elsewhere, when in fact, cliff faces act as sanctuaries for ancient and rare species. Because, historically, they have been difficult to access, cliffs are one of the few sites free from the disturbances that come with human intervention in a landscape, including animal grazing and controlled burns. In region by region, as mountaineers reached the tops of the highest peaks, they had transferred their exploratory fervor from untouched summits to pristine vertical walls. The places where humans seemingly couldn’t go got smaller and smaller. As rock climbing increased in popularity, conservationists worried that the climbers were trampling vital evidence on understudied cliffs around the world.

DR. RICHARD KNIGHT, a professor of wildlife conservation and a climber, began studying climber impacts in the late 1990s. Over email, he tells me he became interested in the subject because he was worried that both “climbers and land managers didn’t seem concerned about the rights that cliffs have.” With Richard Camp, a fellow scientist and climber, Knight surveyed cliffs at Joshua Tree National Park for plant and animal life. On routes with even moderate climbing activity, they found cracks that once provided plants with a refuge from the arid desert floor had been scrubbed clean, the soil removed. Native woodpeckers, hummingbirds and warblers appeared at unclimbed cliffs, but they were absent at popular crags where, instead, invasive species–often better suited to adapt to new habitats–thrived.

In a 1998 paper in Conservation Biology, Knight and Camp recommended that land managers educate climbers about their impact on the native biodiversity at cliffs. “By using the authority of the resource,” they reasoned, “land-management agencies may see increased compliance by concerned recreationists.” More and more, conservation would depend on closing the gap between science and climbing.

AS CONCERN for cliff vegetation grew, some climbing management plans recommended drilling bolted anchors in lieu of using trees. But the additional bolts rankled some traditionalist climbers. In the 1972 Chouinard Equipment catalogue, Doug Robinson’s essay, “The Whole Natural Art of Protection,” had outlined the clean climbing ethics many practitioners still follow today, advocating for the use of removable protection, including hexes and nuts, but also bushes and trees, over fixed hardware. In the same booklet, Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost declared that a dramatic increase in the numbers of climbers had resulted in a “deterioration of the climbing environment” that hurt both “the physical aspect of the mountains and the moral integrity of the climbers.”

“Clean climbing” did not mean avoiding impacts to vegetation. While rock scars from hammered pitons troubled Robinson, he described other traces of human passage as more acceptable, including “a runner-smooth ring at the base of trees and a few bleached patches where lichen had been worn off.” Tools may still be required, he added, for “cleaning dirt, weeds or moss from prospective nut cracks.” Yet, Robinson’s prescriptions were more guidelines than rules. “I have no problem, in theory, with bolting to protect trees,” Robinson wrote in a recent email. At a well-frequented single-pitch crag, where clifftop trees have succumbed to wear and tear, he would prefer to see a two-bolt anchor–instead of climbers going back another thirty feet “to find a tree to abuse.” But on multipitch climbs in the vast Sierra, the damage to the rock from bolting, he explained, would outlast the natural life cycle of any individual fir or pine: “I cannot get too excited about a few trees and lichens and cliff plants that have the misfortune to be on popular routes. Bolt next to ’em if it makes you feel better, though I will feel a tinge of sadness for the metallic intrusion as I clip them.”

Peter Clark conducts research at the New River Gorge. [Photo] Gabe Dewitt

Peter Clark conducts research at the New River Gorge. [Photo] Gabe Dewitt

Peter Clark, a research scientist with Cliff Ecology Environmental Consultants, has noted the repercussions of rigid anti-fixed-gear ethics at crowded cliffs across New England. At areas such as Rose Ledge, climbers regularly wrap slings and webbing around trees. As the friction abrades the bark, it exposes the delicate phloem–the living tissue that carries energy from leaves to roots. Compounding this harm, the constant shuffling of climbers while they maneuver about to build such anchors, compacts and erodes the soil, leaving the roots exposed. Even partial damage to bark or roots can lead to a tree’s death. As a result of intense climber traffic, trees across the cliff edge have died back, leaving the area “fundamentally denuded.” At the New River Gorge, where Clark conducted research for his master’s thesis, bolts are often positioned a few feet below the top of the cliff. There, he found “functionally no disturbance” to trees or topsoil directly above the route.

On the other hand, the convenience of bolted anchors can also increase a route’s popularity, thereby augmenting impacts at the base of climbs. Strewn packs and rope bags bruise tender ground cover, and belayers stumble into shrubs, snapping branches underfoot. The cliff base soon becomes a ribbon of dirt and dust.

Finding a balance, Clark says, may be hard.

OVER THE LAST TWENTY YEARS, motivation for cliff studies has increasingly come from climbers themselves. In 2002, after Kathryn Kuntz petitioned Dr. Larson to join the research group at Guelph, he became her advisor. Kuntz went to work surveying cliff sites on the Niagara Escarpment. She hired Alex Folkl, her climbing partner, to dangle her off the edge while she scraped samples of lichen and moss from the limestone face. Satchels of specimens dangled from her harness as she relayed notes to Alex through a walkie-talkie.

Kuntz’s critique of previous studies on the Niagara Escarpment was that they failed to account for the microtopography–the numerous crevices, pockets and ledges–that made cliffs attractive to climbers in the first place. In her analysis, Kuntz noted that biodiversity levels on climbed cliffs matched those on pristine cliffs with near-identical rock faces. Climbers were most likely to develop new bolted lines in the 5.10+ to 5.14 range on steep, wind-scoured walls already inhospitable to mosses, lichens and leafy plants. These climbs, Kuntz found, had little to no impact on the variety of plant life scattered about the cliff.

As route development on the escarpment favored more technical, athletic movement, first ascensionists were less likely to need to dig soil and green stems out from pockets and crevices in the rock. By the time of her study, more than a decade had passed since scientists first reported the vast age of the forest on the rocks. Before that announcement, climbers and other visitors had assumed that the trees were mere garden-variety cedars–the same as those in every nursery and backyard around town. Destruction of the ancient cedars ceased, Kuntz observed, when climbers became aware that the Niagara Escarpment was home to this rare forest. She published her findings, with Larson as co-author, in Conservation Biology in 2006. Three scientists I interviewed for this article stated that Kuntz’s site selection method set a new standard for reliable impact measurement. In the process, she had confirmed that conservation biologists could benefit from viewing cliff habitats through a climber’s eyes. This study, however, didn’t lead to more conclusiveness about climbing impacts on cliff biodiversity. More terrain remained to explore.

LAST YEAR, in the journal Biological Conservation, ecology professor and rock climber Andrea Holzschuh summarized and compared all the climbing impact studies available on major research databases–from the first paper in 1995 to the latest in 2015. Of the sixteen studies, two focused on birds; fourteen focused on cliff vegetation. Of those fourteen, four studies were located on the Niagara Escarpment; three in the Jura Mountains; two in Illinois; one in both the Franconian Jura and Swabian Alb; one across three sites in Minnesota; and one each in the New River Gorge, Joshua Tree National Park and the north shore of Lake Superior.

The studied sites represent merely a fraction of crags worldwide. And only three of them, Holzschuh found, met the methodological criteria (accounting for rock face microtopography) outlined in Kathryn Kuntz and Doug Larson’s 2006 report. The remainder, Holzschuh wrote, contained “potential selection bias.” The data was inconclusive. One study discovered that when climbers visited certain new areas, they increased the genetic diversity of lichens growing on the rock faces. Another found the opposite effect. One study on the threatened shadowy goldenrod revealed that climbers had trampled or snapped more than half the flowers scattered about a crag. Another found that, by gardening crevices on alpine walls, climbers had actually helped disperse the seeds of a rare, ancient plant along the base of the cliff, where the talus was now spotted with tiny, new evergreen hummocks.

As climbing continues to grow in popularity, conservationists and land managers “urgently require a scientific basis” for their climbing management plans, Holzschuh concluded. Ecologist and climber Michael Tessler, who has researched climber impacts at the Shawangunks, agrees. But finding funding remains an obstacle. “For most of us, these studies are side projects, not our main research goal,” Tessler explains. “There aren’t a lot of resources to do this kind of work.” Lack of resources isn’t the only impediment. “You have to be interested in the organisms,” Tessler says. Varieties of mosses and lichens are hard to identify, and perhaps harder for the average nature enthusiast to appreciate than the delicate flowers of orchids, or the massive trunks of ancient redwood trees. Tessler adds, “You also have to have the rope skills. To find that combination of people is really rare.”

Larson hopes that climbers can lead the way when it comes to conservation management. “People who climb on rock are seeing habitats and organisms that have done their best to protect themselves from danger, forever,” he says. “If we humans can’t protect these sanctuaries from us…if we can’t figure out how to enjoy a place without hurting it, what chance does the rest of the landscape have?”

LOGAN CANYON, UTAH. Waves of limestone emerge from ripples of green. A few plants, barely the size of a finger, appear in pockets and crevices scattered about the cliffs. The petite, purple-flowered Maguire primrose is endemic to the canyon: it grows nowhere else in the world. But the canyon is also home to over 700 climbing routes, immensely popular with residents in the nearby college town.

In the early 2000s, land managers had threatened to prohibit climbing because of concerns about the threatened primrose species. Several climbers thought that both they and the primrose could peacefully coexist on the walls, and they volunteered to assist with botanical surveys in the canyon. From 2008 to 2009, they found that primrose populations survived, even when located near popular bolted routes. Because of the flower’s limited range and habitat, de-listing it as a federally protected species does not seem possible. But land managers are no longer threatening to close down the entire area to climbing. In partnership with climber naturalists and the Access Fund, the Forest Service has begun the initial scoping phase for a climbing management plan in order to allow the pursuit to continue sustainably.

IN THE EARLY HISTORY of mountaineering, when exploration and science were closely linked, much of the knowledge that adventurers gained served the expansion of colonial empires. Aided by the growth of industrial agriculture and energy extraction, entire forests and prairies, plants and animals have gone extinct in the wake of such conquests. But Humboldtians such as Thoreau never gave up hope that the union of science and imagination, merged from vigilant observation and undisciplined awe, would lead to an integrated theory of nature–one that didn’t separate humans from the environment, but that showed how they were profoundly, irrevocably linked.

Maguire primrose, a threatened species in Logan Canyon, Utah. Guidebook author Casey Hyer says, If you go to a wall where the primrose is growing, you just admire it. It adds to the ambiance, he says. [Photo] Casey Hyer

Maguire primrose, a threatened species in Logan Canyon, Utah. Guidebook author Casey Hyer says, “If you go to a wall where the primrose is growing, you just admire it. It adds to the ambiance,” he says. [Photo] Casey Hyer

On cliffs around the world, climbers have the potential to advance this kind of knowledge. From edge to edge, pocket to pocket, we chart meticulous observations of the landscape as we experience the face of the earth a few feet at a time. Yet how often do we hesitate before we pull a tuft of dirt or moss from a crevice, or scrape a layer of lichen from a ledge? In American Rock, Don Mellor writes, “I fear, sometimes, that in the frenzied quest for high-end difficulty ratings, we risk seeing our places as simple means to an end.” Tales of individual achievement, or even self-discovery, may depict the landscape as a mere backdrop–a resource for material or aesthetic enjoyment–rather than as an environment rich with a multitude of creatures and plant life. Communities driven by self-involvement, as Thoreau cautioned, will eventually put the land and, by extension, themselves, at risk.

At the end of the day, along the escarpment, as the outlines of ledges and pockets disappear into the rock, we would do well to remember that climbers are not the only ones seeking refuge on the mountains and cliffs.

This story first appeared in the “Wired” section of Alpinist 58–Summer 2017. Subscribe today or order your own copy at the store.