Colorado’s South Platte—with its slabby-but-classic runouts—has always been a place where a climber could find solitude and adventure. A wild area mostly in the Pike National Forest, it’s not far from the heavily populated Denver metro area, and yet it can feel like another world. The landscape is a jumble of granite spires and domes connected by miles of U.S. Forest Service roads. The camping has historically been primitive, free, and plentiful. Over the last decade or so, however, more and more folks have headed out to the South Platte.
Then came coronavirus.
The explosion of use this year drove the once lonely South Platte to the tipping point. The district ranger for the 45,000-acre area said that the increase in use this summer was equivalent to the growth over the last five years combined. The resulting degradation of the area, especially piles of garbage and human waste left at campsites, caused the Forest Service to announce in early October that it would convert its network of dispersed camping spots into designated, paid campsites.
Crushed by crowds
The astronomical increase in visitors to the South Platte is just one example of public lands getting crushed by crowds in 2020. Although the statistics are spotty and uneven, many land managers across the country reported significant increases.
“The COVID climbing boom—it’s real,” says Access Fund Stewardship Director Ty Tyler, who says he’s hearing from climbing rangers and other land managers across the country that parking lots, trails, and crags are busier than ever before. “I’m excited more people are out enjoying public land and outdoor spaces, but it does put a strain on the resources, and there’s pressure for land managers to respond.”
New regulations put in place to curb the impacts from this tidal wave of use—and to respond to the threat of spreading the coronavirus—are perhaps just a taste of what’s coming to climbing areas across the country. The climbing community, already growing at an astounding pace over the last decade, now needs to reckon with a spike in our numbers climbing outside, what that might mean for regulation of the public lands we climb on, and how we’re going to move forward.
“As our community grows and there are more people outside, it’s more important than ever that we stick together as a community,” says Access Fund Executive Director Chris Winter. “We have to be solution-oriented, and we have to work together to contribute to the future we want.”
Shattering Visitation Records at State Parks
— 300% increase at South Cumberland State Park in Tennessee, home to premier sandstone crags
— Wyoming saw a 160% increase in April and May over a five-year average
— Colorado saw a 40% increase March over March
New restrictions, old ideas
Even before COVID-19, cash-strapped land managers were struggling with how to mitigate the impacts of increased use of public lands—by climbers, but also by mountain bikers and others—as well as how to preserve a positive recreation experience in the face of increasing crowds.
One solution, of course, is more and better infrastructure: sustainably built trails, beefed-up belay bases, composting toilets at trailheads, and more parking. Access Fund sees infrastructure work as critical to managing the increase in outdoor climbing, and the organization’s professional trail crews work on projects across the country in partnership with volunteers and local agencies. There is plenty more infrastructure work to do, Tyler says, which could help spread out climber use. But he also acknowledges that, with the current growth in climbing, we can’t just build our way out of the problem.
Land managers have long considered policies that could attack the problem from the opposite side: limiting use instead of relying entirely on mitigating impact. Although proposals to limit access are often controversial, COVID-19 gave parks an opportunity to test-drive some of their ideas, with the goal of limiting exposure to the disease. If the regulations effectively limit use, climbers should expect that they will see more of them in the future, whether or not the pandemic fades away.
“Land managers have been thinking about ways to minimize crowding for decades,” says Access Fund Policy Director Erik Murdock. “Many parks had already completed carrying-capacity studies before the pandemic, and we’re beginning to see more plans to limit crowding, including the possibility of permits and timed entry.”
The timed-entry approach—in which a limited number of reservable tickets are offered for particular time slots throughout the day—was pulled out of theory and into practice this summer at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, as a response to the spread of coronavirus. The permit system didn’t affect most climbers’ ability to access the park’s famous alpine routes, because permits were not necessary until 6 a.m., hours after many climbers would have already started their approach. And accordingly, it also didn’t do much to limit crowds on some of the most sought-after objectives, including the Diamond, which anecdotally appears to have had its busiest season ever.
The permit system at Rocky Mountain National Park wound down in October, ending along with the park’s high season. But as one timed entry ends, another begins. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Nevada announced in mid-September that it would for the first time implement a nearly identical system for its own high season, which starts in the fall and runs through the spring. But, unlike in Rocky, the policy is not in direct response to COVID-19. Instead, the Bureau of Land Management noted that the system, which is permanent, would “improve visitor experience, address capacity issues during busy seasons, and improve human health and safety.”
“We’ve been looking for a solution for quite some time now with our capacity issues,” BLM spokesman John Asselin told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The reservation system at Red Rock will impact climbers differently than the one at Rocky. Though there is no shortage of long canyon routes that require most climbers to get an early start, there is also a huge amount of cragging relatively near the parking pullouts. The timed entry will require many sport climbers to plan further ahead.
Access Fund does not think that this or other systems to limit use are always a bad thing—climbers are among the people impacted by crowding, whether it’s trying to find a parking spot, seeing more trash, or being turned away at the entrance station when the area is already full. Some limits on use could improve the climbing experience for those who are able to get permits and help to protect the resource over the long term.
But Access Fund is concerned about how these systems get put in place, what they look like, and how they impact climbers.
“Simply saying we’re going to restrict access because it’s too crowded is not enough,” Winter says. “Land managers need to clearly communicate the conditions they are trying to create. These regulations can have disparate impacts and create equity issues, especially if people who already face barriers find it even harder to get out on public lands.”
Beyond carefully examining the possible unintended consequences of any kind of limitations, public agencies need to have a robust public process and engage with the user groups. Climbers must have a seat at the table for these discussions, and they must speak with a well-organized, unified voice that ensures new policies take into consideration the unique ways in which climbers move through the landscape.
Climbers need a unified voice
To be the most effective advocates for climbing access, now and in the aftermath of COVID-19, climbers have to come together, and they have to put their energy into fighting for public lands, not fighting each other. Anyone who’s bothered to read through social media comments and forum replies on climbing posts can figure out pretty quickly that there can be an ugly divide between an old guard of climbers hung up on how the sport used to be and a newer generation just discovering the magic of climbing outside. But Internet vitriol doesn’t lessen crowding or solve any of the problems that increased use creates.
“We can’t blame new climbers for wanting to share in the experiences we love,” Winter says. “We all need to be kind to each other at the crags. We feel the profound, transformative impact that climbing can have on our lives, and that experience doesn’t belong to us alone.”
That experience may be more important now than ever, as the whole country struggles to cope with a year of unprecedented challenges. You could even argue that climbing outside—which tends to keep us away, at least temporarily, from our screens and the compulsion to doom-scroll social media in the midst of a pandemic and fraught election year—is a perfect antidote to the chaos of 2020.
“Climbing is so good for us,” Winter says. “We connect with each other, and we connect with the land. It’s good for our physical and mental health.”
Winter sees the growth in climbing as not just healthy for individuals, but also as a positive for the future of public lands. “The growth of climbing is a good thing,” he says. “We have an opportunity to turn all these people into advocates for wild places, environmental conservation, and outdoor recreation.”
Making that happen will take work, and it starts, Winter says, with something deceptively simple: Being nice. That’s being friendly to folks in the parking lots, on the trails, and at the base, of course, but it’s also the act of mentoring new outdoor climbers in big and small ways.
New climbers are often unfamiliar with Leave No Trace ethics and how to protect the public land they’re using, but Tyler has found that the new climbers he’s interacted with at the crag want to know the right way to do things, and delivering that message with respect and kindness is welcomed.
“A lot of new climbers are eager for the guidance, honestly,” Tyler said. “For many, it’s their first time outdoors, and there’s no one to help them through.”
Tyler has found that connecting with new climbers at the crag and sharing some of the area’s ethos and history has benefits for him as well. New climbers are unbelievably stoked; it’s hard for some of that not to rub off.
Sharing the stoke, incidentally, can make the whole interaction of talking to new climbers about outdoor ethics a lot easier. Winter says he makes an effort to connect with people—in the parking lot, on the hike—to ask them what they’re up to and get excited with them about their objectives. Then later, when he sees someone doing something less than ideal from a stewardship point of view, he finds it easier to talk to them about it.
“If you step out a little bit first thing in the morning and engage with folks, it helps set the tone for the rest of the day,” he says.
These are small things, of course. But they add up, and with more and more climbers making more and more interaction all but unavoidable, it just may be the small things that make the difference between a community that accidentally ruins the places it loves and one that protects them.
“We have to come together to protect the future of climbing,” Winter says. “That means stepping up and using our voice, minimizing our impact each time we go out to climb, and being nice to each other.”