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Respecting the Climbing Environment


Whatever your preferred style of climbing, preserving access to the crags and mountains is paramount, and key to that is minimizing your impact.

We climb for infinite and diverse reasons, but if there is one commonality, it is that we enjoy being outdoors, up on belay ledges with the birds, away from the daily grind and grist of society. No rules, nobody telling us what to do.

If only it were that simple. Climbing does have its unwritten rules. We have rating systems, ethical dos and don’ts, and environmental paradigms—all too often contrived, arbitrary and individual.

Climbers once were a small, esoteric group, free to do as they pleased because they were brushed off by the general public as a bunch of crazies. Not anymore. With the significant growth of climbing during the past decade, the mainstream has noticed our impacts. So have the land managers. Our sport is at a critical juncture—whatever your preferred style of climbing, preserving access to the crags and mountains is paramount.

What we do individually reflects on climbers as a group. If Joe Public or Big Brother Land Manager sees you leave your tape scraps at the crag or decimate the sotol growing at the base of your favorite boulder problem, he thinks all climbers do that. We need to set a good example and educate our ranks if we want to continue to enjoy our current level of freedom.


When it comes to protecting the environment, most issues are self-evident. The basic rule: Leave it as you found it, or cleaner. Here are a few guidelines:

• Pack out your trash, including tape, candy-bar wrappers and cigarette butts.
• Do not alter rock—i.e., don’t chip holds or put in unnecessary fixed anchors.
• Stick to established trails.
• Do not play loud music or use profanity at the crags—you’re not alone.
• Respect any restrictions, such as those on motorized drills and fixed anchors, and closures due to raptor nesting.
• Don’t mark holds with “tick” marks, basically chalk lines that point to hard-to-see holds. Remembering where the holds are makes you a better climber and avoids unsightly chalk marks.
• Use a nylon-bristle brush to clean off chalk build-up. Do not use a wire brush, which can eat away the rock itself.
• Practice minimum-impact camping: Use gas stoves (no wood fires); avoid fragile alpine tundra; bury human waste; don’t camp close to streams or lakes.
• Minimize chalk use, particularly on dark-colored rock. In some areas, rock-colored chalk is the only type allowed.
• Camouflage fixed gear to blend into the rock.
• Do not throw anything off a route.


Things get grey quickly when discussing style, but a few definitions might help. For the lead climber, an on-sight ascent means you climb a route—with no prior knowledge of it—without falling and placing all the gear. On bolted sport routes, quickdraws are often left in place, and most climbers will concede an on-sight or redpoint if you succeed by clipping “draws” already on the bolts. A bouldering ascent can also be on-sight. Simple enough. If you have any information on a pitch or route, such as where some key handholds are, the crux sequence, or even that there’s a dyno on it, which can make a big difference or a little difference, and you climb it without falls, the ascent is called a flash, not an on-sight.

If you’ve fallen off a pitch, then go back and lead it, placing the gear on lead, you’ve redpointed the route. On gear routes, putting in the protection is often at least half the battle, so simply clipping preplaced gear makes the ascent much easier.

Etiquette is another topic worth mentioning. Be courteous and considerate, especially to any non-climbers in the area. On multipitch routes, let faster parties pass if safety is not compromised. If a party is below you, be especially careful not to knock rocks off; if you do, yell “Rock!”

Finally, a couple of ethical considerations. Leave established routes as they are; i.e., don’t add bolts or fixed gear without consulting the first ascentionist. And don’t chip or glue on holds anywhere—period.


With land managers clued in to the existence of bouldering, and as the bouldering population continues to boom, it’s time to start bouldering smart and limiting impacts, which include loss of vegetation, soil compaction and erosion at the base of boulders, visual impacts of increased chalk use and larger group sizes, damage to archaeological sites, proliferation of social trails, potential impacts to wildlife and their movements, sanitation and micro trash.

True, our presence at the rocks will invariably cause a few changes, but if you think (and act) green, your impact will be minimal. Here are a few ways to craftily use your pads and other non-permanent measures to leave bouldering areas as pristine as possible.

BUILD A TERRACE OUT OF PADS While it was cool to scrape out strip mines in your childhood sandbox, large-scale earth moving is not appropriate at the boulders. Avoid constructing elaborate terraces on steep slopes by building a temporary terrace of pads. Stack and overlap doubled-up pads as the base of your structure, then drape an open pad or two over this base. Though you may have to rebuild your structure after each fall, it will only enhance your bouldering karma. If you must move a rock, replace it to its original position before you leave.

ENCOURAGE VEGETATION OUT OF THE WAY Leave the saws and pruning shears at home and bring some duct tape or string instead. Flexible shrubs and small trees or tree limbs can be temporarily taped or tied out of the way to enlarge a landing zone, eradicating the need for more drastic measures. Layer a rag or T-shirt under the string/tape to protect the stalk, and don’t bend fragile plants past their breaking point.

REMOVE YOUR CHALK With a modern toothbrush and water you no longer have to leave a boulder looking like a chalked-up version of some graffiti-riddled NYC subway car. Tick marks are like trash: clean them up even if they aren’t yours. Carry a bit of extra water or a spritzer bottle and a nylon-bristle brush for this very purpose.

AVOID USING EXTRANEOUS SOCIAL TRAILS The classic but shopworn Flagstaff Mountain above Boulder is a prime example of a bouldering area that is being loved to death, replete with packed-earth landings and a heinous grid of social trails. Don’t be lazy! Stick to the most heavily used trails and avoid shortcuts between boulders. Walk on rock and sand when a trail isn’t available.

LEAVE NO TRACE Be a crunchy, minimum-impact hippy, brahemus! After sessioning a boulder, check the environs for trash (yours or others’) and spread a few liberal handfuls of pine needles, rocks, leaves, twigs, mud, etc., over the landing area to restore a natural look. Just remember that skankous tape wads, cigarette butts and energy-bar wrappers generally do not constitute local flora.

KNOW THE OWNER Research your visit: check guidebooks, websites and contact local climbers and land managers for information. Know who owns or manages the land. Abide by their regulations

LIVE AND LET LIVE Keep vegetation and lichen removal to a minimum. Consider leaving highly vegetated problems undone.

BE FEW Limit your group size and “zone of impact” around boulders. Keep your gear together and, where possible, place it on hard surfaces.

SHOW RESPECT Never boulder on, or near, cultural resources such as pictographs, petroglyphs, milling surfaces and historical structures. Regulations for government lands usually prohibit climbing within 50 to 150 feet of cultural resources. It is your responsibility to know the regulations.

THE NEW FRONTIER New areas warrant special care: be responsible for your first-ascent actions because others will follow. Publicizing a new area may dramatically increase visitor use; carefully consider the consequences of your decisions.

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