Bears Ears National Monument • Darren Smith removed the last of his climbing gear 100 feet above the ground on the red, sandstone walls near Ruin Crack in Battle of the Bulge, as Spencer Cone held a rope connected to a harness to leverage his friend back down the sheer cliff. People travel from all over the world to climb the roughly 1,500 routes on this stretch of Indian Creek in Bears Ears National Monument.
Modern climbers established routes here in the 1970s, but they weren’t the first to scale these cliffs. Ancestral Puebloan dwellings nestled in the red rock date back thousands of years. The proximity of a world-class climbing destination and sensitive cultural sites has been a recipe for tension between climbers, conservationists and the tribes whose ancestors made the area their home.
Activists and land managers are hoping that education can ease the tension.
At the base of the sheer cliffs in an information tent, Lauren Hebert and Johanna Cogan handed out free cups of coffee that came with advice. The pair work for the nonprofit Access Fund’s Climber Stewards Program, which sponsors Climber Coffee events to teach climbers about the cliffs they visit with the hope they follow the rules and learn to tread lightly.
The women have spent 10 weeks in Indian Creek and talked to approximately 1,200 climbers.
They talk about how to leave no trace and how to respect petroglyphs and archaeological sites. They tell climbers about the delicate cryptobiotic soils and the rare fossils found in the canyons. Climbers are warned to avoid breeding grounds for eagles and hawks.
The edge of ruins
Smith and Cone’s route is an example of how close permitted climbs can get to areas that are off-limits. Near their pitch is an ancient granary that climbers can’t visit. About 70-feet above that is the Ruin Crack route, where climbing isn’t allowed but where bolts driven high into the rock bear witness to the impact of the sport.
Visits to Indian Creek have more than doubled since 2016, according to Rachel Wootton, a public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Land Management in Monticello. The increased attention comes with more impact.
While dispersed campers and hikers make a mark on the delicate land, climbers can stumble into cultural sites hidden in the cliffsides. The local BLM office prohibits visitors from using climbing equipment to access ruins but not everyone follows the rules. And sometimes visitors leave scars in the rock, like when someone put bolts in a 1,000-year-old rock art panel north of Moab last year.
Climbers are a mixed bag of visitors, said Ty Tyler, stewardship program director for the Access Fund. They often travel long distances to climb Indian Creek and many of them do not know the rules and end up visiting cultural sites, sometimes by accident, he explained.
Education for climbers and other visitors who come to sensitive places like Indian Creek relies on principles developed by the Leave No Trace Center For Outdoor Ethics, a nonprofit which educates people about leaving minimal impact on any lands they visit.
Cone and Smith, who drove over two hours from Durango, Colo., know to avoid Ruin Crack. Cone says he supports the BLM decision to close some routes but knows that not all climbers respect the rules.
“There are people that go to the Navajo lands and try to poach some of the towers that are closed,” he said. “And you know, and that’s not cool, but it makes us look bad when they do that.”
On Native land
Following a series of accidents on the Shiprock butte near Four Corners in the 1970s, the nearby Navajo Nation banned climbing. Even so, some people still illegally climb on Navajo (Diné) lands, which span parts of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.
Some Indigenous land advocates, like Hopi elder Bucky Preston, oppose all rock climbing on ancestral lands, including Indian Creek. As a knowledge holder in his community, he says modern climbing offers no solution to the world but damages cultural sites.
Preston says that climbing in Indigenous cultures, like the Hopi people, is done for specific religious reasons and not associated with recreation.
“You know, these climbers, they need to really question themselves of why they really do it,” Preston said. “And what benefit do the communities, the cities, the place that they’re climbing, and the people, and the environment — all the things that are there — how do they benefit from it? How is it a benefit to climbing? I would like to know that.”
Climbers Aaron Mike and Len Necefer, who are both Navajo (Diné), often share their perspectives on climbing with the climbing community and the outdoor retailer industry.
Unlike Preston, they have a more liberal view of the sport but want climbers to use cultural sensitivity and respect the land’s tribal connections.
Mike, who works with the Access Fund as its Native Land Coordinator, developed his love for climbing in the Navajo Nation as a child and supports some climbing in the region.
“I think the goal is to try to have a little bit of an educational resource on the ground in these really high traffic areas,” Mike said.
Mike gets frustrated with fellow climbers who disrespect closed areas, partly because, as a Diné man, he understands the significance of the cultural history that is damaged in the process. He’s yet to climb the crags in Indian Creek for those reasons, though he may begin to, in part because of the work the Access Fund is doing.
Mike tells his fellow climbers to remember how the landscape is interconnected, pointing out the nesting sites of eagles and hawks.
“It’s the entire place that you’re at, those … plants, the animals, the monoliths, those are all our heritage like, literally, those are ancestors that’s who we have in our creation stories,” he said. “So conduct yourself knowing that.”
Thousands of years of climbing
Since time immemorial, climbing has existed in the Bears Ears region, as evidenced by a 100-foot-long yucca rope discovered on Cedar Mesa that was made over 700 years ago.
Although relatively few ropes have been found, Vaughn Hadenfeldt, a recently retired hiking guide in Bluff and board president of Friends of Cedar Mesa, said there is evidence that the ropes were used to haul building materials to cliff dwellings in Bears Ears.
In 2003, Hadenfeldt worked on a project for National Geographic with Eric Blinman, an archaeologist and current director of the New Mexico Office of Archeological Studies. Blinman created a replica rope capable of holding over 450 pounds when tested in a lab. Hadenfeldt even rappelled using one of the replicas.
“They had incredible weaving technology,” Hadenfeldt said of the people who lived in the cliffs in the area. “There is cordage everywhere and weaving in the yucca sandals they were making. So a rope is not out of anyone’s ability, but it would just take a lot of materials and a lot of time to make one.”
The inhabitants of the Bears Ears region historically rock climbed “out of necessity rather than leisure,” said Necefer, the founder and CEO of Natives Outdoors.
Necefer said the movement to protect Bears Ears as a national monument over the last decade — which was led by a coalition of five tribes with ancestral ties to the landscape — helped establish common ground between climbers and tribal governments.
“People [in the rock climbing community] were saying we have to stop looking at tribes as obstacles to the things that we want to do, but instead as partners,” Necefer said. “Bears Ears was unique in that because there were threats to climbers and there were threats to tribes from energy resource development. Any sort of factioning of that support would mean that it would be incredibly difficult for either of them to achieve their goals.”
Necefer, who holds a doctorate and is writing an academic paper on rock climbing and Bears Ears, said there can also be a lot of skepticism among Native communities about climbing. But that may also be beginning to change.
“For example, my family would say, ‘Well, climbing is something that white people do,’” he said. “That’s been something I haven’t heard as often lately. … Climbing provides a pathway in which Native folks and non-Native folks can connect to the landscape. I think some of those cultural shifts in understanding are happening on both sides of that equation.”
Zak Podmore contributed reporting to this article.