One of the biggest problems facing the climbing community today is the poor behavior of some climbers. Improper trail use, damaging rock faces, and crushing fragile vegetation can threaten climber access to outdoor climbing areas. Can education change behavior, ethics, and stewardship among climbers or are we doomed to a life of closed crags? Many people who love climbing have been discussing how to change climber behavior the past few years and their discussions resulted in the formation of the ROCK Project by Brooks-Range Mountaineering‘s partner the Access Fund.
The ROCK Project was created to promote positive behaviors among climbers, especially those who are transitioning from the gym to the outdoors. These climbers are often cited as the biggest threat to climbing’s future, because they can appear to be unfamiliar with the social and environmental intricacies of climbing outdoors. However, it is a mistake to blame only gym climbers for the damage and access problems happening at outdoor climbing areas. Pointing the finger only invites scapegoating, which divides our small climbing community.
The problem of damage to climbing areas is probably mostly due to increasing numbers of climbers as a whole. As more and more people go to climbing gyms, even more people are taking their newfound love of climbing to the outdoors. There are only so many outdoor climbing areas in the US and many of the popular ones are becoming overcrowded, over-trampled, and over-loved.
As it would be impossible to police all climbers’ behavior at all crags, one solution is to encourage climbers to want to do the right thing on their own. This is where climber education comes in. Sometimes “education” consists of just posting the rules. However, does simply posting laws change people’s behaviors, ethics, and their sense of stewardship? Probably not! Messages can encourage positive behaviors, and encourage visitors to internalize the rules, but management has to do more.
The reasons why people choose behaviors that may have negative ecological and social impacts vary depending upon their motivations. People may break a rule simply because they don’t know that it’s the rule. But often, rule breaking is more complicated than not knowing the rule. Some people feel justified breaking a rule when they see others breaking it too. Social trails are an example: One person goes that way, and the next person thinks it’s all right. It’s important that management removes or blocks the “social trail” to remove this cue for negative behavior.
Some people break a rule because they think the rule is stupid, or they don’t understand the negative consequences of breaking the rule. For example, boulderers might put their crash pads down without thinking about the vegetation that they are crushing while doing so. Informing visitors of the negative consequences of their behaviors can help change these behaviors.
Sometimes people break rules because they feel they have no alternative: They have to have a safe place to land. Management needs to provide reasonable alternatives for these climbers, such as “sacrifice” areas where the vegetation is already dead to put their pads.
Sometimes peer pressure to violate rules is an issue. Visitors egg each other on to go against the rules. This is a hard issue to deal with, but some have had success by encouraging these visitors to identify with management goals by having the climbers become “citizen stewards” of the land, and record instances of damage.
Finally, there will always be a small percentage of the population that will purposely violate rules – for fun, profit, or malice. The only effective tools here are direct management techniques such as law enforcement and fines.
Simply posting rules and calling that “climber education” doesn’t go far enough in encouraging climbers to change their behaviors, ethics, and stewardship. However, explaining the reasons behind the rules, removing evidence that rules have been broken, providing reasonable alternatives, and encouraging identification with management goals could go a long way toward improving climber stewardship and ensuring access to crags for many years.
Play safe out there!
Dr. Kevin, PhD, Brooks-Range Mountaineering Product Ambassador, Assistant Professor, Westfield State University and Rebecca Barry, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Arizona State University