Increased traffic on climbing routes puts maintenance responsibility on local climbers

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Anchor maintenance technicians working on replacing antiquated fixed hardware in the Wasatch, photo by Bree Robles of Salt Lake Climbers Alliance

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Ever since COVID swept the globe in early 2020, quarantine-fatigued individuals have been taking to the outdoors to avoid cabin fever. But even after the world began to open up again, people didn’t call it quits on their new outdoor interests. Because of this, public lands across the nation have seen dramatic increases in use, some up to 300%, according to The Access Fund, a nationwide organization focused on climbing area access.

In Utah, where our beautiful public lands are a tremendous asset and draw to tourists and new residents alike, we’ve seen scores of locals picking up new hobbies, and climbing is among the most popular. But with the increase in public land use comes wear and tear, too. Obvious effects like garbage and human waste presence are plaguing the outdoors, but slower-acting dangers like erosion and equipment degradation are also being exacerbated by increased traffic. And for climbing – which isn’t recognized as an official activity by the Forest Service – the negative effects of increased recreation traffic can be dangerous.

“Here along the Wasatch Front, we have U.S. Forest Service land as well as private properties that are open for climbing access and all of them have seen an increase in traffic,” says Julia Geisler, executive director of the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance. “Climbing areas aren’t set up to handle the use because they are not recognized by the Forest Service in terms of needing maintenance and that the activity is even there, with climbing management plans and whatnot.”

Because the Forest Service does not acknowledge climbing areas, no resources are deployed for upkeep of essential safety features like bolts and anchors, which secure the climbing ropes to the rock. Because there are no formal government entities overseeing safety checks on existing equipment, the responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of local organizations like SLCA.

“Climbing anchors are kind of like trails, they need to be maintained for people to continue to use them. They get corroded over time and so a lot of these anchors that were put up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s are starting to see that wear,” Geisler says. “We’re trying to be preemptive with replacing them.”

Since 2014, SLCA has been working to replace old climbing hardware with new, stainless steel bolts and anchors that should last for generations to come. They’ve established a team of expert, paid bolt replacers who have been working to assess, fix, and replace unreliable anchor and bolt hardware on local climbing routes. So far, they have replaced nearly 3,000 anchors since 2014.

But aging equipment isn’t the only effect of increased public lands access. Another issue that affects climbing destinations is erosion. According to Ty Tyler, Director of Stewardship at The Access Fund, climbing locations are susceptible to these types of effects because they were developed under the radar and are not designed for high-traffic use.

“When four to six people would go out to a climbing area over the weekend, there was very minimal impact, but since then the sport has grown, and now maybe a couple hundred people will go to the same site over the course of the weekend,” he says. “It wasn’t designed or built as a recreation site, so of course you see the impacts a lot more.”

SLCA also has a plan for this. Their Alpenbock Loop project, which they’ve been working on for the last decade, established a one-mile, multiuse trail in lower Little Cottonwood Canyon. This route services a plethora of popular climbs, and the creation of an established climb approach route helps to avoid erosion and loss of plant species from foot traffic.

Currently, SLCA is working to reroute the approach to climbing destinations at Lone Peak Cirque, which, according to Geisler, has six-foot trenches from erosion on one section of the trail. The project began this fall and should be complete by spring 2022, depending on weather.

As for the future of climbing, it doesn’t seem like traffic to these popular destinations will slow down anytime soon, especially with more and more people choosing the Wasatch Front as their new home.

“I don’t think we anticipate seeing a decline in the pressures on outdoor recreation,” says Marc Norman, CEO of USA Climbing, which is based in Salt Lake City. “When I talk to anyone that has moved to Utah and when I ask them why, I can’t remember the last time someone didn’t say because of the mountains and access to outdoor recreation.”

Geisler says that in the future, she hopes that outdoor climbing will become more organized, and therefore be eligible to receive maintenance-focused funding from government agencies. At some point down the road, she also anticipates there will be public transit – similar to the UTA Ski Bus – that is focused on servicing climbing destinations.

“Before you can encourage people to use these lands, you need to have parking and restrooms and trails and sustainable maintenance of the trails and of the fixed anchors in place,” she says. “That isn’t out there in a large scale yet.”

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