The ground might as well be smoldering.
In Rocklands, South Africa, the Hatchling boulder flares up from a limestone pedestal like a meteorite exploding upon impact. To see it is to expect fire and brimstone and deafening noise. But it sits there like a museum display, just one of the many king lines that defy gravity among the habanero and iron-streaked desert stones. Because of COVID-19, the whole thing might have come tumbling down.
David Naude and Tony Flynn launched the Save Rocklands initiative to help protect the area they care about. The majority of boulders are on private land owned by farmers or the governmental organization, Cape Nature. Since the 1990s, locals have relied on predominantly climber-based tourism to supplement their income, which accounts for up to 85% of their yearly earnings, according to Naude. During COVID-19, strict lockdown measures reduced visitation to the area that regularly sees nearly 4,000 climbers each year. Farmers were faced with a shortfall of cash and considered measures from slashing employee wages to cutting off electricity and selling their land, which would have effectively put a world class destination up for sale.
Rocklands became an international access issue. Climbers the world over rallied to the cause—none of the farms that took part in the campaign had to sell any of their property—demonstrating the good that can happen when advocacy and community engagement intersect.
This year, Access Fund’s (AF) annual Climbing Advocacy Conference is focused on addressing international access and development for the first time. The event’s theme is “A Global Perspective on Local Solutions.” The aim is to share best practices, challenges, and solutions from around the world for a sport that is rising in popularity, from Malawi to Albania to Lebanon.
“I like to think of [the conference] as a way to fill tool kits for climbing advocates to protect access,” says Jenna Winkler, the Programs Manager with AF. “The tools in those tool kits have expanded each year; we’ve had to offer new panels and new ideas to keep up with issues we are seeing.”
While AF’s mission is U.S.-focused, the organization has always been internationally-minded. Armando Menocal, one of the founders of the organization, later went on to help start Accesso Panam, the AF equivalent for South America, and was a major player in the development of climbing at Viñales, Cuba from the late 90s to early 2000s. As a recognized leader in advocacy and conservation, AF receives questions and requests for support from organizations around the world. They’ve experienced an uptick of inquiries in recent years. To help address the challenges organizations are facing globally, AF partnered with The Climbing Initiative (TCI), a Colorado-based nonprofit supporting climbing communities worldwide.
Rock-climbing development is uneven around the world. In countries like the U.S., France and Germany, climbing-related issues tend to focus on access and conservation for areas that have already been developed. In countries where climbing is just beginning, problems can begin before a bolt is installed or a boulder cleaned.
“In other places where climbing is totally new, like Palestine, or places where mountaineering is well known but climbing is not, like North Macedonia, we see specific challenges: communicating the value of climbing, getting government support, finding space for gyms, creating a system of guide certifications and safety, and developing necessary infrastructure, like a search-and-rescue team,” says Veronica Baker, the Executive Director of TCI.
TCI uses research, community engagement and partnerships with local organizations to help develop best practices for emerging climbing areas. Other internationally-minded non-profits have focused specifically on route development, like The Rock climbing Association for Development (RAD), or on particular regions, like Accesso Panam. There is not currently an organization that takes a holistic, global perspective on rock climbing development. TCI aims to fill the gap.
“We bring together organizations invested in the future of climbing,” says Baker.
The Climbing Advocacy Conference will highlight diverse voices from around the world. There are over 30 countries represented among participants and panelists, covering topics such as “Climbing as an Economic Force”, “Measuring Community Impact”, and “Educational Strategies for Low-Impact Climbing.” Community involvement is one issue in particular the AF and TCI are seeing both stateside and internationally.
“Being respectful and engaging with a community before accessing a climbing area can be vital. If you build those positive relationships and local buy you’re more likely to make your visit or access efforts a success from the beginning,” says Zachary Lesch-Huie, the National Affiliate Director at AF.
“In the U.S., we’re seeing more acknowledgement of the need to look beyond the crag. It’s still essential to do trail days, but if the community around our climbing areas doesn’t regard us as valuable parts of the community, that’s an issue.”
The benefits can be obvious in economic terms, as demonstrated in places like the New River Gorge (climbers contribute $12.1 million to the area each year), Joe’s Valley or Rocklands, but the sport can make a social impact as well.
“Climbing can engage and empower children in a way they don’t usually experience in school,” says Alejandro Medina Fuentes, the Community Outreach Coordinator of Escalando Fronteras, based in Monterrey, Mexico. The organization works with children from 6 to 16, helping youth to develop life skills and reduce risk factors such as drug addiction, alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, and school dropout. According to a 2019 report by The National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL), 51.5% of children and teens in Mexico live below the poverty line, and 55,000 minors dropped out of school between 2016 and 2017 in Nuevo León, the Mexican state where Monterrey is located, according to the local government.
“The inequality [they experience] occurs in [a variety of] aspects: They don’t have the same education as other (more privileged) Mexican kids, they don’t have the same time with their families because their parents spend more time working or commuting, and they are often exposed to the challenges of addiction within their environment from an early age,” Medina Fuentes says. Escalando Fronteras uses climbing and other interventions to help children develop meaningful skills. They have seen positive behavioral changes and a reduction in risky behaviors among the youth that participate in their activities.
“One of the mothers told me that her daughter, who is eight year old, when she used to encounter conflict with her siblings, she would start crying right away. She couldn’t handle the conflict. Some of the kids aren’t accustomed to telling their opinion or saying what they think. Part of this is about having agency, being able to raise your hand in class and ask your teacher a question,” says Medina Fuentes. “We have seen changes in the amount of personal confidence that the kids have, that they carry around in their lives, not only while climbing.”
By partnering with TCI, EF has developed tools to quantitatively evaluate and measure impact, including a 70-point questionnaire to track developments among the children and their families. They hope to share their knowledge with others, learn from fellow organizations, and perhaps motivate more community-based groups to form around the world. “Escalando Fronteras being a young organization and without a big budget, we may be able to help inspire other people to start their own organization,” says Medina Fuentes.
The Climbing Advocacy Conference is open to anyone who is passionate about the sport and it’s potential around the world. Registration is donation-based, and the event runs from Saturday, November 14 to Sunday, November 15, with a virtual showing of the Mountainfilm festival on Saturday evening. Over 400 people have signed up to learn and share with each other.
“The more connected our international community and stronger our relationships, the more we’ll be able to use the sport to make a positive impact,” says Baker.