Several climbing organizations and local trail crews have recently joined efforts with the Bureau of Land Management to rebuild two steep approach trails to popular climbing walls, one in Indian Creek National Monument and the other on Highway 128 across from Take-Out Beach near the river road.
“Social trails aren’t the best,” said J.B. Haab, trail leader, environmentalist and wilderness educator for the Front Range Climbing Stewards, as he worked to split large chunks of sandstone at Scarface Wall in Indian Creek. “They are aimed at quick access and often follow the path of the first few climbers to arrive in that area; someone not focused on sustainability might not hit a homerun the first time.”
Lisa Bryant from the BLM said, “The need for this project was recognized many years ago. BLM and Rocky Mountain Field Institute worked together in 2002 to inventory and prioritize project work on popular climbing areas and impacted dispersed camping areas. Scarface was the final of several projects which were identified and approved to address resource issues and recreation needs in the Indian Creek climbing area. Excessive social trailing in the area was resulting in soil erosion and trail washouts. Delineating a single trail and rehabilitating duplicative trails will aid soils and vegetation, which in turn improves habitat for wildlife.”
Access Fund, a non-profit, nationally accredited land trust and environmental advocacy group that works with state and federal legislators, climbing groups, tribes and local individuals to maintain access to much of the nation’s climbing destinations, outlined the need for action: “As our sport continues to grow in popularity, overcrowding is stressing our outdoor landscapes beyond their ability to recover naturally,” according to a statement from the organization.
The FRCS, composed of five professional trail builders, including Haab, came together as a “unique partnership” between Access Fund and the Boulder Climbing Community, a Colorado climbing organization that focuses on things such as bolt replacement and human waste management. Local climbing organization Friends of Indian Creek was also instrumental in helping with funding. “Even though we’re an organization from the outside, Indian Creek is a distinct destination for many, and with not a large population surrounding it, there’s an imbalance of visitors to locals. We want to do our part to make our sport and our lifestyle sustainable; we’re not expecting others to take care of our problems,” said Haab.
The FRCS also worked with Grand County’s Trail Mix to rebuild the trail to the popular climbing area known as The Cinema on Highway 128. The efforts was part of The Craggin’ Classic climbing festival, an event-filled weekend put on by the American Alpine Club that offered climbing clinics ranging from self-rescue to technique-building, in addition to preservation projects such as the one at The Cinema.
This year’s Craggin’ Classic organizer, Evan Clapper, who is both a local climbing guide and Grand County Council member, stressed that one of the most important things about the festival is conservation. “It’s not just about bringing more people here and supporting local businesses; it’s about advocacy, outdoor enthusiasm, education, and creating safe, competent, ethical climbers,” said Clapper.
While the projects were led by professional trail builders, the vast majority of physical labor at both the Cinema and Scarface climbing area, as well as many other climbing areas in Indian Creek, were done by high school or gap year students of High Mountain Institute, an accredited wilderness education college that teaches trail-building and conservation for optional college credits.
Forrest Peck, a gap year student from Eugene, Oregon who enrolled in HMI’s “Southwest to Patagonia” course for “the experience” said, “The best part about it is seeing our work come together, learning about desert ecology and making a change.”
The rebuild projects began in the spring and will continue through March of 2019. Haab said, “It’s not possible to accomplish the work needed in a single season.” In addition to erosion of sensitive soils, human waste is also a problem in remote recreation areas like climbing crags. Last fall, BLM introduced a new toilet in Bridger Jacks, one of the designated dispersed campgrounds in Indian Creek, to combat wastewater pollution, but dispelled rumors of a paved road. The BCC funds programs to stock disposable travel toilets at various crags.
Clapper, too, is an advocate for climbers being more responsible with their human waste. During the Adventure Film Portion of the Craggin’ Classic festival, while on stage, he yelled out a personal question to the guests regarding their day: “What did you do with your poop? Did you take it with you?” which inspired a unanimous cheer of “YEAH!” from the entire crowd.
Other types of pollution, such as visitors placing trash objects on the ground to communicate their whereabouts to friends in a cell-service-free location, has also started to wear on the Indian Creek community.
“The BLM provides the message board to help friends find each other while dispersed camping in the area. Leaving bottles or excess camping gear to mark a spot is littering and disrespectful to other users, and the BLM has to pack out this trash,” according to a statement from the agency. “The BLM encourages people to use the message board for communication. If that is not working, the BLM would welcome another solution or suggestion.”
New projects will need to be analyzed and approved through appropriate environmental reviews. A project at Meat Wall has been informally suggested and would be a good location due to its popularity, participants say. The next step is for someone to submit a proposal, and for the BLM to conduct appropriate analyses before making a final decision.
Maddie Logowitz of Trail Mix said some other future sites to improve “include building a trail at Ice Cream Parlor (Kane Creek) to connect the parking area to the crag, and building a trail out to Army of Darkness boulder at Big Bend.”