We’ve all done it: turned an hour-long approach into three; lost the trail and bushwacked through unwelcoming terrain; topped out a climb and had an epic trying to find a way down in fading light; wasted time scrutinizing minute maps and wrongly coercing what we see in the low-resolution, insufficiently detailed diagram to match what we see before us; wondered whether or not we’ve reached the elusive “large boulder” where we are instructed to “pick up a faint trail.” I for one have spent countless irrational hours cursing everyone who has ever contributed to or commented on Mountain Project for not providing me with a sufficiently detailed approach or descent description. Realistically, we can’t expect guidebooks or Mountain Project contributers to provide extensive detail to avoid these frustrations, particularly in expansive climbing areas, but in the heat of the moment it beats blaming ourselves and our own ineptitude.
Fortunately, two climbers are putting in the hours to help you avoid such exasperation. “We go to climb, not waste time!” is the slogan for upcoming company Climb-On Maps. Built by climbers, this company is creating new resources to help climbers plan where to climb and how to get there. They claim, “Climb-On Maps pick up where guidebooks and Mountain Project leave off.”
Climb-On Maps is the brainchild of husband and wife team Stefani Dawn and Rick Momsen, who are based in Ogden, Utah. Momsen has nearly twenty-years experience with Geographic Information Systems (GIS, aka mapping) and Dawn has a Doctorate degree in Environmental Health Science. In 2016 then duo came up with the idea to create comprehensive, highly detailed terrain maps for climbing areas, complete with crag summary data, orientation photographs, approach and descent paths that don’t appear on regular maps, exposure warnings, trail difficulty ratings and environmental considerations, all on waterproof and tear-proof paper. Climb-On Maps are designed to compliment guidebooks in helping users plan their days and then navigate terrain as safely and quickly as possible.
To create these maps—very much a labor of love and a service to the climbing community—Dawn and Momsen have personally walked and GPS-tracked every trail featured in their maps. In total, the pair hiked over 1,800 miles and took thousands of photos and field notes to map Smith Rock in Oregon, Red Rocks in Nevada, Joshua Tree in California and City of Rocks in Idaho.
Their efforts to date have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated, with the team receiving plenty of positive feedback on their product and ideas. Further, their Kickstarter project, initiated last month to produce the map for Joshua Tree, reached its funding goal of $4,500 in only 36 hours.
Watch an introduction to Climb-On Maps in this short video:
Rock and Ice caught up with Dawn and Momsen to learn more.
Rock and Ice: So let’s begin with why you guys started this company?
Dawn: Working full-time and being employed by others you have limited time, you get weekends and two weeks vacation a year (if you’re lucky!). Being climbers we utilized that time for climbing trips, but losing a day tracking to the climb, or getting lost on the approach, I felt like my vacations were being stolen from me. When I quit my job [Stefani has a Doctorate degree in Environmental Health Science and held academic positions for nearly two decades] and took some time off and was like, “What’s next?” I approached Rick and asked him, “Hey, what would you think of doing this? Making maps, including climbing regions?”
Momsen: At that point I was in a transition with my previous jobs where I was looking for something different and getting a little burnt out as well, so climbing was perfect.
Dawn: We took our savings and have been living off that to do our mapping and produce the maps. Basically, it was case of, “Get an idea and make a lot of sacrifices and go for it!”
Rock and Ice: We can think of several extremely frustrating approach stories, do any experiences stand out for you guys that fuelled the fire to start this project?
Momsen: One of our friends went to climb Crimson Chrysalis in Red Rocks and spent a whole day searching for the climb. They were only there for a weekend and that was a whole day gone!
Dawn: It’s happened so many times to me that I’d have to sit and think about which one really stands out. It was pretty frequent. Not being able to go on a multi-pitch climb [after getting lost on the approach]. You get to the base and you look at the watch and you’re like, “Crap, if we start this climb now we’re going to be walking off in the dark.”
Rock and Ice: You hike every trail on your maps, which cover fairly expansive regions. How long did these mapping missions take you?
Dawn: The larger areas took several months per area. We were doing 12-hour days. We took a rest day about once every ten days.
Momsen: We’d laugh because our rest days were climbing! So we’d get a bit of climbing in.
Rock and Ice: It must have been hard being in these amazing climbing locations but spending your time walking to and from crags and not actually climbing.
Momsen: It was torture.
Dawn: Often we need to climb a route to accurately map the walk-off but often we’d backtrack the walk offs, which actually gave us the advantage of finding the best path. We’ve been up it and down it and found the best way.
I’m not a fan of exposure and I will do anything I can to avoid it. There are a number of places on the maps where we will indicate, “If you go this way you will minimize exposure.” Often that was me crawling through the bushes saying, “This way minimizes exposure!”
Rock and Ice: Can you tell me briefly how the information you collect is converted into a map?
Momsen: We use high-accuracy professional GPS units and then we take that data into open-source GIS software and clean it up…creating connecting lines and intersections with the clean and standardized data.
Dawn: When we collect the [GPS] data we also rate the difficulty, the class, the surface type [scree, boulders, sand, etc.] and we type in notes, too. These are the attributes that get imported [to make the map]. We are also taking photos that connect with the GPS data. Every photo we take we know exactly where it is on the trail.
Momsen: That’s very helpful, the photos give us that reference.
A difficult time consuming task is drawing all the rocks into the map. We use about four or five sources of satellite imagery and go back and forth between those to remove the distortion.
Then there’s vegetation. First thought was, “Well this [Red Rocks] is a desert there isn’t going to be much vegetation,” but that’s actually very useful as markers. Where there is vegetation and where there’s not is very valuable. I’m not drawing the vegetation in… that’s generated using infrared satellite imagery.
Dawn: Rick takes all of these sources of information and draws them into map.
Momsen: It takes at least five iterations to narrow down the data on the maps and make sure the design is correct.
Rock and Ice: How do you foresee future development? Will you two continue to do all the fieldwork?
Dawn: We have plans for additional areas. We have already mapped City of Rocks, Idaho, and are hoping to publish that. We have some other large areas in mind that we’re going to dig into and see if they are in need of a map. Obviously not every climbing area needs a map.
Right now we don’t have the resources to hire this out to people, but also, we would have to really, really, really train people very well to do any part of this. The reason is that you pretty much have to be there on the trail from the beginning and then on the computer at the end. We can’t have someone walk the trail and collect the data and then expect us to build a map. Having that experience from the beginning all the way to the end would require hiring someone full time who is experienced in map-making skills. We don’t have the resources to take on someone with [those skills].
Momsen: This is not a money-making endeavour!
Dawn: We are going on the road full time, starting next week.
Rock and Ice: What are you doing on the road? More mapping?
Momsen: It’ll be a promotional tour. We’re going to start at Red Rock Rendezvous. We’ve found that meeting people face-to-face has been best for us. Then we’ll head down to J-Tree and Southern California.
Rock and Ice: Tell us about the success of your Kickstarter and feedback you have received so far?
Dawn: We funded our goal in just 36 hours.
Momsen: That was a surprise.
Dawn: It was awesome! I guess the feedback we’ve gotten has been very positive. Sharing on Mountain Project and Reddit was scary, climbers can be…. well, there’s no holds barred. We’ve had positive feedback, which we’re really grateful for.
Momsen: We’ve had very few comments, only between five and ten, usually positive, before the thread trails off…no back-and-forth… we take that as a compliment.
Dawn: Overwhelmingly we have received positive feedback, but we also have taken constructive feedback to heart.
Last year we posted some early versions of map sections and invited input on colors, symbols, and other design features on Reddit and Mountain Project. We received excellent feedback from the community at that time and we made a lot of modifications based upon that feedback—including how to represent the trails (primary versus secondary, considering color blind distinction, use of vegetation for navigation, etc.). Doing that work early on and getting that input has helped make the product what it is now.
As people use the map, we take notes and will incorporate that feedback into later versions of the maps.
Rock and Ice: This is a real service to the climbing community, and judging by the response on Kickstarter many other people think it is, too. What difference do you think your maps will make to the climbing community in terms of safety, environmental preservation, etc.? Is environmental preservation and danger mitigation something you consider?
Dawn: We definitely wanted to incorporate those things.
Momsen: Stef has an environmental background and I have a non-academic background—more a personal hobby—in environmental restoration. Conservation and stewardship has always been a part of it. We wanted to note the areas of fragile ecology. We’ve also worked with the park departments [state, federal, and local organizations] to direct people where they should and shouldn’t go.
Dawn: We wanted their [the relative park departments’] input into the maps. They’ve been an integral part of the process. We didn’t want to put something on the map that they didn’t want people going to. In J-Tree, for example, they were really pleased we came to speak to them. They told us about their plan to restore damaged areas in the park. They showed us these locations and we incorporated them into the maps. We’ve also worked with the park service to tell [them], “This area is marked off but this is the ONLY path to this climb.” We’ve helped them become aware of climber traffic flow. Raising environmental awareness in climbers is really important to us.
Dawn: About safety, I am not a fan of exposure and something that really bothered me a lot was that I would go to do multi-pitch climbs but the guidebooks—now, I really appreciate the guidebooks, I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t—but on a walk off they would say, if anything at all, “A few fifth class steps.” A lot of them wouldn’t say anything at all. I often found the walks off to be terrifying. That’s why we wanted to let people know the exposure points and what the consequences were. This is difficult because it’s subjective, so there’s no way the map can make a decision for someone. In future maps I might need a “Stefani Approved Exposure” category, which would give people an idea that “Stefanie was okay with this” and they can gauge their own exposure comfort based on this!
Rock and Ice: Anything else you’d like to add or tell us about?
Momsen: One thing I want to call attention to is that our maps are not just about getting from here to there. Using these maps and the crag summaries as a planning tool is a key part of our maps. For example, at J-Tree we are consolidating five or six guidebooks and Mountain Project to create a more comprehensive group of statistics for the park.
Maybe you’re with a group and there’s an easy trad climber and moderate sport climber. Where can we go to make everyone happy? It’s all laid out for you on the map to give you that information about the crag, rather than going through each section of the guidebook. We find this is a great planning tool.
Dawn: Although we have covered an incredible amount of ground, we have not mapped every single possible approach or walk off. There are multiple reasons for this, including time and human limitations. There were days where we went deep into the canyons, many days in a row, and kept getting shut down, unable to find a successful approach, or the approach was too dangerous for us at that moment (say if we were very tired and it was the end of the day). We had to stop somewhere. But we will add on over time. For now though, the maps are quite comprehensive.