American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Why Access Fund Should "Get Real" on Climbing Regulation

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1991

Why Access Fund* Should “Get Real” on Climbing Regulation

Thomas Higgins

“…a crucial premise of the Access Committee (is): that there should be no regulation of climbing techniques, equipment or styles. Instead of supporting regulation, the Access Committee works to get climbers voluntarily to agree upon practices that prevent overbolting or degradation of the mountain environment … The Access Committee adamantly opposes regulation of climbing styles and equipment. That can mean no official prohibition of rap routes or motorized drilling ... We must continue to defend bolting where it is necessary to climb regardless of whether we dislike the style or even motives of the people putting up routes … We are, and see ourselves, as the ACLU shock troops for climbers. ”

—Armando Menocal, AAC Access Newsletter, Jan/Feb, 1990

A Proposition for the Access Fund. It is time for the Access Fund to reassess its position on the regulation of climbing. It is time to pause when:

A recent survey of Yosemite climbers reveals high percentages against certain bolting and climbing techniques which Armando Menocal says we must defend, like them or not.

A major supporter of and contributor to the Access Fund, Royal Robbins, concludes regulation may be preferable to the “degradation of Yosemite rock and the spirit of Yosemite climbing.” Land managers in more and more climbing areas are turning to the regulation of bolting and may be only a step away from more severe restrictions of climbing.

I presume the top priority for Access Fund is to preserve the freedom to climb. I suggest Access shock troops are losing sight of the goal in their position on the regulation of climbing, as well as on the bolting controversy in Yosemite and elsewhere. I suggest the currect position of Access Fund actually may be hurting rather than helping the cause of climbing. I suggest it should abandon its blanket prohibition against the regulation of climbing.

1. Access Comes Across as Environmental Anemia. Constantly taking stands against regulation leads down some shameful roads. For example, at a recent meeting of climbers at Joshua Tree National Monument, Access Fund representatives were unable to meld a consensus among climbers on the question of bolting on or near petroglyphs. The only consensus which emerged was on the principle of no climbing regulation. Access Fund may have gained some points with climbers wanting to climb on or near petroglyphs. However, Access Fund not only risks losing its supporters, but its credibility and bargaining position with land managers when it turns a blind eye to environmental protection in the name of climbing freedom. What land managers will pay attention to an organization so out of touch with today’s values as to be unable to support the protection of petroglyphs?

2. Access Limits its Field of Action. None of us like it, but sensible regulation is a fact of life, indoor or outdoor. By insisting climbing is beyond regulation, Access Fund can only stand back from the table and rant, as regulations get shaped, modified, abandoned, strengthened and made better or worse. By not acknowledging the need for and logic of regulation, it is hard for Access Fund to fight for reasonable approaches. How can Access Fund representatives be skilled negotiators on regulation if they are mostly shock troops?

3. Access Appears Self-Serving and Contradictory. Why is climbing unlike any other outdoor activity? Would Access Fund oppose regulations on snowmobiles, the beginning and end of hunting seasons, the number of fish which may be caught or the use of off-road vehicles? A bull-headed posture in the name of no regulation makes Access Fund look like the National Rifle Association of the climbing world: advocates for a point of view with blinders on when it comes to the possible need for regulation. Access Fund “preaches” no chipping or gluing on holds, as Menocal says in a recent Access Newsletter, no brightly colored slings or bolt hangers and no cutting of trails. Yet, it does not support official regulation of such things. Land managers have to ask themselves why is self-regulation in climbing preferred. What if even a small minority is unwilling to self-regulate? Doesn’t the Access Fund position encourage rather than discourage this minority?

4. Access Strategies Constitute Wishful Thinking about Consensus and Voluntary Agreements as Alternatives to Regulation. For resolving problems about how, when and where to bolt, Access Fund stresses consensus among climbers and voluntary compliance with agreements climbers themselves devise. Several years ago in an article in Ascent, “Tricksters and Traditionalists,” I argued for the same voluntary agreements among climbers to resolve conflicts in climbing styles. There are times and places for voluntary agreements supported by consensus, but in most areas the time has long passed.

Consensus building and voluntary agreements among climbers only make sense when a) the number of climbers is small, opinion leaders are held in high respect and peer pressure is pervasive and effective, b) climbing styles are an issue between the climbers alone and not between climbers and others enjoying the wilderness, and c) bolting technology and climbing styles generate new routes slowly and allow time to work out the rules of the game.

In fact, these conditions no longer exist. There are large numbers of climbers. There is no prevailing consensus about how to climb. Hikers and other users of climbing areas are taking action against climbing. Motorized drills make new routes too rapidly to allow debate and consensus to build.

The other problem with the voluntary approach is organizational. The approach might work if there were a national climbing organization empowered by climbers to devise and enforce voluntary agreements. Such organizations exist in science, industry and engineering. They set voluntary standards for television resolution, tire safety standards, computer-software compatibility and other matters important to the conduct of business. However, there is simply no analogous organization to do what the Access Fund claims should be done: arrive at and abide by consensus on rules of the road in climbing. Local access committees are temporary, ever changing, loose-knit groups granted no authority whatsoever by climbers to set the rules. By hanging its hat on a voluntary approach without a viable means to implement it, Access Fund engages in wishful thinking.

Conclusion. Overall, for reasons both practical and responsible, Access Fund should abandon its narrow and strident posture on the regulation of climbing behavior. Instead, it should take reasoned and realistic positions in the regulatory debate on climbing styles and access regulation, area by area and issue by issue.

Specifically, Access Fund should support prohibitions on a) motorized bolting where it (alone or in combination with rap bolting) leads to offensive proliferation of bolts and prevents a significant segment of the climbing community from climbing in its preferred style, e.g. ground up (Arguably, all these conditions exist not only in Yosemite, but in Joshua Tree and other areas.); b) climbing near or on petroglyphs; c) use of brightly colored slings and bolt hangers, chipping and gluing of holds; d) climbing which interferes with other outdoor users, such as climbing above trails or out of campgrounds; e) climbing which demonstrably interferes with wildlife habitats; f) climbing in Indian Reservations when and where bans exist.

Of course, at the same time, Access Fund should fight unreasonable and arbitrary regulation of climbing where land managers impose restrictions with little or no evidence of environmental damage or conflict with other wilderness uses.

What Access Fund does and the positions it takes are vital to the future of climbing. By taking the wrong path on regulation, Access Fund not only diminishes its effectiveness in regulatory debates but jeopardizes the future of climbing. Faced with growing pressure from other more influential and savvy interest groups, land managers may well turn to outright bans on climbing if they cannot effectively discuss or negotiate regulation with Access Fund.

Let’s call in the shock troops. Let’s stop the obstinate, unrealistic cry for no regulation anywhere, anytime. Let’s give up false hopes for pretend solutions. Let’s take the necessary stances on regulation when and where the issues call for it. Let’s “get real” on the regulation of climbing!

*Until December, 1990, Access Fund was a part of the American Alpine Club’s Access Committee. At that time, many of those who have been influential in the AAC Access Committee chose to separate Access Fund from the AAC Access Committee. It is now a separate entity. The American Alpine Club’s Access Committee continues to function as a part of the Club, but separate from Access Fund.

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