Etched in Stone

posted by dpm on 09/17/2012


No one makes climbing headlines for snagging the 274th ascent of the polished 5.11 at your local crag. It's doubtful you'll even get a high-five from a passerby. But what if you were the first one to climb the route? You'd get to name the route something cool and esoteric. Your name gets put in the guidebook below the description and you're forever remembered in a small way for your contribution. Not to mention, it's crazy fun to find something new and be the first to touch it. It's kind of like what Neil Armstrong felt...on a much smaller scale.

A climber's thirst for new routes is understandable. It's only human nature to want to be the first, and for a while the only, person to climb something. It's also human nature to want to read about these first ascents. They represent something new and fresh to aspire to. We read about new areas and hard first ascents all over the world. Just scrolling through the DPM headlines of the last few weeks is an indication, "Jonathan Siegrist: 5.14d First Ascent in Idaho," Hard New Routes for Fischhuber and Raether," "First Ascents of Free Routes on Baffin Island."Even if the story doesn't have the word 'first' somewhere in the headline, you can generally find it within: "First female ascent, first ascent by an 11-year old, first 5.14b for whoever."

For some, it might be easy to get carried away with the desire for a first and completely overlook one fact. Your first ascent will forever be a reflection on you. If it's a good route, you will be remembered in a positive light. If it's over-bolted, under-bolted, chipped, loose, or illegal, your name will forever be tarnished.

Ben Spannuth on his brilliant new route Doubloons (5.14). Photo: screen grab from "Abyss"

Today on DPM, two items headlined and both illustrated properly established first ascents. In the new movie "Abyss," we saw Ben Spannuth climb the first ascent of a beautiful arête on a free-standing tower at Mt. Evans, Colorado. Ben abided by the regulations of land managers and hand-drilled each bolt of the route. It would have been a lot faster and easier to use a power drill and it's likely he could have gotten away with it. I mean really, as long as he wasn't caught in the act, how could land managers ever prove that the holes were power-drilled? But in the interest of maintaining good relations and doing what is right, Ben went the extra mile and abided by the rules. His route looks phenomenal.

Jonathan Siegrist recently spent time at the Fins in Idaho and put up quite a few new lines. In his case, power drilling was perfectly legit and he established a handful of sport routes, including a new 5.14d. But when Jonathan encountered a crack that would accept natural protection, he put the drill aside and chose to climb it on gear. There was no law stating that he couldn't drill bolts next to the crack. That's where ethics come in. Jonathan embraced the nature of the route and ran it out on natural gear to produce one of the most challenging traditional routes in America. His route also looks incredible.

Jonathan Siegrist chose to plug gear on the FA of Enter the Dragon (5.14a). Photo: Ian Cavanaugh/

Delving into the ethics of how a route should be established would be shaking up a can of worms that's been open for forty-plus years and that is not within the scope of this article. But hopefully, one thing we can all agree on regarding the establishment of routes is that routes should be created within the parameters of the law; especially when the consequences of breaking those laws could result in restricted access for other climbers.

I was really disappointed in some members of our tribe after reading the following post by the Access Fund. Their post speaks for itself and sends an important message. Posted here verbatim from their website:

Egregious Wilderness Climbing Violations at Joshua Tree 

Within the pristine wilderness of Queen Mountain in Joshua Tree National Park sits a beautiful area called The Underground Chasm. Earlier this year, a climber noticed that the approach steps to Underground Chasm were chipped into the rock, and the routes also appeared to be “enhanced”.

Prior to 1998 there were no regulations for bolting in the Wilderness of Joshua Tree and as a result many ‘sporty’ routes appeared on Queen Mountain. However in 1998 the Park prohibited placing or replacing any bolts in Wilderness, pending a formal management policy. Now existing bolts may be replaced one-for-one and new bolts require a permit. A subsequent Park Service investigation of The Underground Chasm discovered hundreds of illegally placed bolts, fixed rope, burnt Joshua Trees, stashed camping and climbing gear, chipped steps and damage to other nearby trees and plants—all misdemeanors individually punishable by a mandatory court appearance and $5,000 fine.

The Friends of Joshua Tree and Access Fund have worked hard for decades to establish a positive relationship with the Park, and egregious wilderness violations like these jeopardize access to Joshua Tree Wilderness for all climbers.

Fortunately the Park reached out to the Access Fund and Friends of Joshua Tree for help instead of summarily closing the area to climbing. In June, representatives from the Access Fund and Friends of Joshua Tree toured the Underground Chasm with Park staff, then met with the Joshua Tree Superintendent to discuss how to respond. The discussion ranged from doing nothing, to removing all the illegally placed bolts and banning all climbing (and bouldering) within Joshua Tree Wilderness. Given the number of violations, clear connection to climbers, and budget challenges, removing all of the bolts and banning climbing in the area was an option that the Park seriously considered.

Luckily, the years of relationship building and stewardship that climbers have invested in Joshua Tree helped mitigate the situation, and the decision was made to: 1) Use the incident to educate climbers about proper wilderness ethics; 2) Evaluate the illegally established routes under the Park’s permit application protocol; and, 3) Only remove those routes that would not have been granted a permit. Thankfully, the illegal acts at the Underground Chasm will not (at least for now) affect climbing access. However, if such blatant violations continue, the Park will have to consider policy changes that could significantly reduce climbers’ access.

The Friends of Joshua Tree, Access Fund, and the Park are highlighting the Underground Chasm story this October at Climb Smart 2012. The Climb Smart program is a national climber awareness campaign designed to promote safe climbing and individual responsibility. Please join the festivities this October 19th through the 21st that kick off the Joshua Tree climbing season with three full days of clinics, guest athletes, climbing education, Park service projects, and multimedia presentations. For more information on Climb Smart 2012 visit

Click here to visit the Access Fund site and view some of the damage that's been done.

Thankfully we have the Access Fund and grassroots organizations around America to help clear the air when incidents like this occur. Please take the time to get educated on what is legal and acceptable before establishing a new route in any area. The future of our climbing freedom, and your personal legacy, depend on it.

Here's a couple of recent articles on the subject of route establishment that make for some interesting reading. Most discuss the ethical aspects of developing routes and have little to do with the above discretion at Joshua Tree.

Route development: the first rule of dig club. This is a must read article that will really get you thinking about the impact our routes have on the environment. Are the ends worth the means? Are you the type that couldn't kill a cow but would gladly eat a cheeseburger?

The ethics of development: Buried beneath the passive aggressive bickering of 'who did what first' at the boulders of Mt. Evans, you'll find some tidbits of wisdom. Take home point: respect each other's efforts.

Ethics-PUKE: Leave it to Bassforyourface to stir the pot with a simple screen grab taken from a bouldering video. The boulder problem in the photo was established recently in a National Park.

Not Happy Jam: Monique Forestier comments on some selfishness she encountered while playing the first ascent game.

The ethics of development: or is the FA dead?: Peter Beal's take on two of the aforementioned articles.

The climbing industry is growing, let's understand what that means: Gustavo Moser touches on the subject of new areas in a recent blog post regarding the increasing impacts of a growing community.  

Rock climbing ethics: a historical perspective: A brief history of the changing attitudes of route establishment.