Touchstone Blog Archive
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
  Unsung Heros
New Area Developers:
The Unsung Heroes of the Climbing Community

Ever wonder where new routes and new climbing areas outside come from? Who finds them? Who does the trail building work? Who bolts them? Who establishes access with land owners?

All over the country there are a handful of dedicated, creative, and hard-working individuals who have invested time, money and energy into establishing routes and climbing areas for the rest of us. And they're largely under-appreciated. Over the years, climbers craving adventure, new routes, and wanting to make their contribution to climbing history, have gone out searching for new rock. Armed with aerial photographs, topo maps, rumors, or a well-seasoned sixth sense about where rocks outcrop, they have taken to the back roads and bushwhacked across unknown territory to find that elusive perfect piece of rock.

One out of a hundred times, they find something good. Even more rarely, they find a gem in the rough like Owen's River Gorge outside of Bishop, or Rifle Canyon in Colorado. Then they set about identifying and climbing the likely lines of ascent. Usually the easier and obvious lines go first. Then as word gets out and others start to check out the new find, more and more lines get filled in or boulder problems get done.

Putting up new routes or new boulder problems requires creativity, courage, perseverance, and stubbornness. Lots of routes, like the Nose on El Cap, defy attempt after attempt until someone with vision manages to top out. Many times the hard, cutting edge routes, like Scott Franklin's Scarface at Smith Rock in Oregon, require a new approach to training and radical innovations in climbing style or equipment. And many of those innovations cause controversy.

When Ron Kauk started putting up bolts on rappel on a few select routes in Yosemite in the 1980s, he was helping to push the whole sport into a new era. He was also alienating lots of more traditionally minded climbers who insist bolts should be set only on the ascent. Others have argued that it doesn’t matter whether the bolts go in on the way up or the way down.

Then there is the impact on the environment to consider. “Cleaning off” routes in order to make them safe and pleasant to climb often means clearing brush and trees where a route starts, breaking off loose rock to get to the solid parts, drilling bolt holes, and more. Sometimes these efforts mean making permanent changes to the rock. Setting a new route means striking a balance between altering the environment and creating new opportunities for climbers.

Chris Sharma's stunning routes all over the world have set the standards for difficulty for years. Since they were as hard or harder than any other routes in the world, he had no one to look to for a precedent or to break the ground. He had to find the resources -- the physical strength and the mental fortitude -- entirely within himself in order to do the route. And for every famous route like Mandala, or Realization, there are a hundred failed projects that remain unclimbed.

So on your next climbing trip, take time to read the first ascent credits in the guidebook, and reflect on the hours of hard work, the trail building, the negotiations with land managers, the expensive bolts, and the other thankless work that someone did to establish those climbs.

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