Boulder’s congressman has jumped into the fight over a question rippling across the outdoors community: Should climbers be allowed to drill bolts into the sheer faces of wilderness mountains?
Rep. Joe Neguse is on the side of climbers. He co-sponsored a bill last week to block an expected move by the National Park Service and Forest Service to classify fixed climbing gear as an “installation,” which would effectively ban its use in designated wilderness. Fixed gear, used to make climbing safer, is usually a permanent metal bolt or anchor chains used when removable gear isn’t an option.
“Colorado’s natural areas are home to some world-renowned rock climbing locations,” Neguse said in a press release. “We are taking steps to protect our climbers and the spaces in which they recreate.”
Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, “installations” are illegal in federal wilderness areas, which span more than 100 million acres of land across the country and 3.5 million in Colorado. Wilderness areas can be found in national parks, national monuments and other places that are hot spots for rock climbing. (The use of fixed gear predates the wilderness designation.)
Classifying fixed gear as illegal is a subtle change in language — but substantially changes the status quo.
“It redefines the Wilderness Act, and what you can and cannot do in wilderness,” said Kate Beezley, executive director of the Boulder Climbing Community.
The heat has been picking up on this issue since 2013, when the National Park Service approved a new wilderness management plan. It was in this document that climbing was called out as having too much impact on wilderness, and should therefore be more tightly managed.
In particular, the park service cited the increase in climbing popularity and the traffic it brings, as new routes can create a need for more trails and have a sprawling impact on soils, plants and wildlife. It also said the use of permanently fixed protection can be an eyesore, though in many places bolts are painted to blend in with the rock.
“The NPS recognizes that the proliferation of fixed anchors and the associated impacts of new climbing route development present two of the greatest climbing-related threats to wilderness resources and the preservation of wilderness character,” the plan said.
That document is a policy guideline from park service leadership — it doesn’t go so far as to call fixed gear illegal.
But now, climbing advocates say they’re hearing rumblings that a new policy document will come out soon with this updated classification of fixed gear, which will make the issue fan out across the country.
So far, only Colorado’s Black Canyon has applied this potential new standard. In December 2022, the park’s superintendent signed an update to the climbing management plan that prohibits fixed gear for the first time anywhere. The new plan effectively lumps climbing in with other illegal activities like dirt biking, which require detailed assessments to permit.
Neguse’s bill would preempt the spread of this policy. It would affirm that climbing is allowed in wilderness areas — outlawing blanket prohibitions on fixed gear or designations as illegal “installations” — and would require any major decisions on climbing access to be made public and open to comment. Agencies could still manage climbing gear, through permits and other requirements.
Climbing advocacy groups like the Access Fund, which drove the legislation, and Boulder Climbing Community, which was consulted on it, worry a ban on fixed gear would make climbing less safe, and trigger a requirement to go through red tape to fix existing gear that is in need of replacement. They also argue it would potentially cause more environmental harm as routes would be more difficult to follow if there are fewer bolts and anchors — like there could soon be in Black Canyon.
The Black, as climbers call it, is one of Colorado’s most rugged climbing areas and includes the tallest vertical wall in the state at over 2,200 feet. As part of its updated plan, local park officials are slated to review all existing climbing routes to determine if any fixed gear should be removed based on the new guidelines, and notably, without the input of the climbing community. Some routes have a deep history and are a legacy to the sport, which doesn’t seem to be factored into the plan.
Climber Eric Vance said the park service doesn’t have the expertise to do this right on its own. Given the long history of climbers being seen as “dirtbags” and a nuisance to park rangers, the issue can get personal and subjective, and warrants input from climbers themselves.
“There probably are some routes that could be taken down because they’re garbage routes,” said Vance, a former climbing guide and science journalist who lives near Boulder. “But the thing is, the only way it would work is you’d have to require there to be a volunteer community group for feedback.”
“You need to set it up right so that it’s healthy and there’s trust,” he said. “Otherwise you’ll have people putting up bolts out of spite.”
Climbing a staple in wilderness areas
Governor Jared Polis, who has been working to expand Colorado Wilderness areas in places like Rocky Mountain National Park, where climbers send career-making routes, also doesn’t want to see fixed anchors outlawed in these world-class climbing spots.
In a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in November, Polis wrote that climbing is a staple in the wilderness areas he helped designate, and this prohibition would make existing fixed gear illegal unless an exception was made.
“The exception process is wasteful and unnecessary because federal agencies already have the authority to successfully manage sustainable climbing in Colorado Wilderness Areas,” he wrote.
But the park service has suggested it’s only enforcing what was always true.
Last summer, during the public comment period for the Black Canyon management plan update, the National Park Service said fixed gear fits squarely into the definition of an installation under the Wilderness Act. The law defines an installation as “anything made by humans that is not intended for human occupation and is left unattended or left behind when the installer leaves the wilderness.”
“Therefore, the National Park Service is not substantively changing policy guidelines through this planning process; rather, the National Park Service is applying these long-standing policies to provide a framework for analyzing which climbs are appropriate in wilderness,” the park service commented.
The Black Canyon changes came after a similar ban was attempted in updates to the management plan in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. There, management was the first to call fixed gear “installations” and illegal under the Wilderness Act. Loads of pushback, though, sent the new plan back into hiding.
In Boulder, climbers part of the solution
The idea of requiring approval to install fixed gear — or even prohibiting it in certain places – isn’t new. It’s the ratcheting up of policies that forgo community involvement that worries climbers.
In Boulder, climbers who want to establish a route in the Chautauqua area go through the Flatirons Climbing Coalition, which works with Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) to approve new routes with fixed gear. This is a unique model that is seen as successful, but operates on a fairly small scale with around 12 new routes to oversee each year.
“Lynn and I have been working on developing a new multi pitch route,” Digiulian said in an Instagram post. “It’s been a long process of scouting the line, getting approved to bolt the line (it’s a mix of trad and bolts) from the FCC (flatirons climbing coalition), and now finding days in winter that it’s warm enough to make some headway! The big days in the process will be worth it!”
Beezley noted that one thing to keep in mind is that Boulder OSMP is well-funded and therefore equipped to manage such programs. National parks on the other hand are underfunded, understaffed and underresourced.
“I can’t speak to what role that plays, but in every conversation we have, that’s an aspect,” she said. “We have the resources, the committee and oversight. We’re happy to be part of the solution.”