Rock climbing was born in wilderness, but does its hardware belong there?

Utah Rep. John Curtis’s bill seeks to resolve issue of fixed anchors in wilderness areas once and for all.

(Salt Lake Climbers Alliance) A climber uses special equipment to extract an old bolt on a climbing route on the Gate Buttress in Little Cottonwood Canyon. These bolts secure fixed anchors into the rock, but a debate is swirling over how they should be managed inside wilderness areas. New legislation by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, seeks to resolve the issue in favor of designating rock climbing as an acceptable use in wilderness.

Climbers from around the world come to Utah to scale the sheer granite walls in Lone Peak Cirque and American Fork Canyon, often relying on hangers bolted onto the rock to protect them from potentially life-ending falls. Many of the West’s most coveted rock climbing spots are in wilderness areas, such as those in the Wasatch Mountains, where “permanent improvements” and mechanical equipment are generally not allowed.

Do these prohibitions apply to fixed anchors, the hardware climbers drill or hammer into rock that lack features for placing removable protection? That question apparently has not been fully resolved and was recently reopened by the National Park Service, which is seeking to classify anchors as “prohibited installations” in two parks that are top climbing destinations.

That interpretation would result in a complicated approval process of installing new and maintaining existing anchors, according to Chris Winter, executive director of the Access Fund.

“It’s completely out of line with how we’ve all been moving forward collaboratively for the last 30 years,” Winter said. “It just generally means climbers could lose safe and sustainable access to so many incredible places around the country.”

In response to concerns like these, Utah’s Rep. John Curtis, a Republican, joined by Colorado Democrat Rep. Joe Neguse, introduced a bill to ensure rock climbing will always have a place in wilderness areas.

For Utah climbers, this is a big deal, according to Julia Geisler, executive director of the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance. She estimated that 30% of the climbing in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest occurs in wilderness, mainly the Lone Peak, Twin Peaks and Mount Olympus wilderness areas right outside Salt Lake City.

“Our hope is that this will clarify that the agencies will address maintenance and climbing area management,” Geisler said. “Instead of each agency interpreting it differently across the country, it’s climbing is allowed. Anchors are needed for climbing, and therefore you need to maintain them.”

Federal wilderness acts

The source of the friction can be found in the wording of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which prohibits permanent improvements in designated wilderness.

“There shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area,” the law states.

Metal hangers bolted into rock can reasonably be viewed as both “improvements” and “permanent.” The problem is a ban on anchors would be tantamount to a ban on climbing in wilderness areas, the very places that gave birth to American alpinism. Climbing and wilderness are inextricably linked in the history of outdoor recreation.

Curtis’s HR1380, dubbed Protect America’s Rock Climbing Act, or PARC, seeks to forge that link into law. It declares climbing and fixed anchors are allowable uses in wilderness areas, and directs the Interior and Agriculture departments, which oversee nearly all of the nation’s designated wilderness, to provide policy guidance to that effect to its land management agencies.

“Protecting access to our public lands is one of my biggest priorities in Congress, especially in Utah,” said Curtis, a former Provo mayor who grew up exploring the Wasatch. “It is vital that we allow the continued use of fixed anchors, which has been existing policy for decades, to ensure access and safety for climbers across federal lands.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. John Curtis at the Utah Republican Party election night party at the Hyatt Regency in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

When he drafted the Emery County land bill as a freshman member of Congress, Curtis was careful to identify climbing as an appropriate use in the 600,000 acres of Utah wilderness designated in 2019 in what became known as the Dingell Act, named for the late congressman John D. Dingell, Jr. of Michigan.

For decades, the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service have been overseeing climbing in wilderness, but without providing overarching guidance to managers on the ground. Policies have been set on a park-by-park or forest-by-forest basis.

In congressional testimony Tuesday, however, top federal officials said the Interior and Agriculture departments oppose the bill, saying it is both unnecessary and essentially amends the Wilderness Act, which could lead to unintended consequences. Both are in the process of formalizing plans for managing rock climbing, so passing legislation is premature, Mike Reynolds, the park service’s deputy director for congressional affairs told the House Federal Lands Subcommittee.

“Existing Department of Interior guidance allows climbing and provides for the placement of fixed anchors in designated wilderness in accordance with the Wilderness Act, and the department has no intention of changing that,” Reynolds said. “It is unclear whether HR1380, as drafted, achieves the goal of supporting recreational climbing and may actually have the opposite effect of imposing more significant administrative burdens and unnecessarily lengthening the permitting process.”

The Wilderness Society has not yet taken a position on the bill, although it endorses the use of fixed anchors in wilderness within reason.

“It’s like trails through wilderness. We support that ‚” said Paul Sanford, the society’s policy director. “The proliferation of sport climbing routes laddering up faces, that’s a problem.”

In a letter to the subcommittee, he asked that it pause action on Curtis’s bill until after the land management agencies complete their climbing plans.

“Waiting for the release of these agency policy statements would be preferable to advancing legislation that seeks to address issues that may not exist after the agencies’ policy statements have been released,” Sanford wrote.

Climbers advocate for the anchors

Climbing advocates became alarmed last year when the park service released an environmental assessment for wilderness management in Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a renowned climbing destination before its wilderness designation in 1976. The assessment determined anchors should be considered “installations,” regulated under the strict rules over what happens in wilderness.

Applied across the nation, such an interpretation of fixed anchors could severely limit aided climbing in wilderness, especially in Utah, advocates say.

Sport climbing, an arm of climbing dependent on bolted routes, took off in American Fork Canyon in the late 1980s, not long after much of the canyon was designated Lone Peak Wilderness area, and it has since become a world-class destination, with climbing spots carrying names like The Vortex, Appetizer Wall and Escape Buttress. Of the 500 distinct climbing routes that have been put up, 337 routes are inside wilderness, according to a 2017 policy memo Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, or SLCA, submitted to the national forest. These routes contain about 1,500 bolts.

These climbing areas are close to metropolitan areas and easily accessed by road, making them hugely popular. Equally renowned and accessible are walls at the mouths of Little and Big Cottonwood and Ferguson canyons. Even though they are close to the city and next to roads, most of these routes are inside wilderness.

Meanwhile, hundreds of bolts are in need of replacement after years of use and exposure to the elements. Some are, or soon will, be at risk of failure, putting climbers’ safety at risk if not replaced.

“You can’t maintain thousands of bolts with a hand drill. It’s unfeasible and it’s not the best method for the wilderness anyway, because you’re sitting there pounding on a hand drill for an hour versus maintaining these things with power drills,” Geisler said. “Is that the issue, or is the issue the bolt itself?”

For the past few years, SLCA has deployed a skilled crew to replace and maintain bolts, both inside and outside of wilderness, using money provided in part by the Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation. While power drills can be used outside wilderness, bolts inside wilderness can be placed using only hand-powered equipment, which requires a lot more time and effort.

Optimally, the bolts are stainless steel to minimize corrosion and are 3/8 inch in diameter and 2.25 inches long. Using a power drill, a hole for a bolt this size can be drilled in a minute. That same hole would take 30 to 60 minutes using a noisy hand-powered drill, depending on the hardness of the rock.

National policy guidance provided by Curtis’s bill would greatly help SLCA’s program to maintain these existing routes, according to Geisler.

“It’s not saying every forest is going to allow for bolted routes in wilderness. It’s saying that climbing has always been legal in wilderness. And for climbing to exist, we need fixed anchors and they need to be maintained,” Geisler said. “It doesn’t even say that they need to be maintained with a power drill. Each forest would have to go in and do a ‘minimum-tool analysis’, which we’ve been trying to do here in American Fork Canyon. But without the national guidance, these local districts aren’t going to act in wilderness.”