Human impact: How much is too much?
One of the joys of rock climbing is seeing the natural beauty of the surroundings. But often a new-route developer has felt the need to do some work to bring out what they think will be a beautiful, enjoyable climb. The question is: When do we cross the line from making improvements to doing damage?
In this short series we’ll look at a few practices that have evolved over the years. Today we’ll discuss cleaning.
On lots of cliffs a very good route was obviously there from the start, but in some places along the line there may have been loose rocks, lichen, crud, dirt, or even old appliances. As climbing became popular in this country, the standard practice became for the route developer to go ahead and clean those loose holds off, scrape some lichen, and excavate some dirt to get down to a clean, climbable line.
This practice is still widely accepted among climbers, but others see even modest cleaning as controversial at best. Some conservationists and conservative land managers see it almost as a kind of vandalism. If you are cleaning a route and are spotted by a land manager or a ranger unsympathetic to climbing, you’ll likely be fined. Or worse.
If you have climbed outside at all, it's almost certain that you have enjoyed the benefits of route cleaning. Instead of a muck-covered spelunking expedition, you had an enjoyable, clean, and aesthetic journey up the line. Some route developer knocked himself out, got covered with filth, and spent a lot of time hanging in his harness making that possible for you. If it weren't for these efforts, we'd have very little to climb on outside. Be grateful.
Even so, the line between cleaning and more destructive behavior can be a bit blurry. At Smith Rock in Oregon in the late 1980s, Scott Franklin used an ice axe to "clean" a large flake off the route leaving a huge, visible scar. Hence the name of the route: Scarface. But the cleaning produced several of the holds that are now used on the route.
We all need to be vigilant about our impact on the rock and the surroundings. Lots of climbing areas that have been used and abused by climbers have been closed to climbing. The resource is limited and the future of the sport depends upon our self-regulating our behavior at the cliff.