Sure, climbers have a bit of a reputation as narcissistic rock jocks, more interested in their next time out on the crags than real life commitments. But that stereotype is woefully wrong when it comes to the vast majority of those who have found something deeper up on the rock.
The Safety Crusader: Phil Powers
In 2011, Phil Powers—who has an extensive climbing, guiding and teaching resume and has been the Executive Director for the American Alpine Club (AAC) for the last decade—fell over 50 feet while climbing in Clear Creek Canyon due to misunderstood communication with his belayer. Despite serious injury, Powers recovered. But many who are injured under similar circumstances don’t make it. For years, even before his fall, Powers has been thinking about the need to standardize climbing safety practices. While some thread of familiarity can be found among the procedures, there are usually a number of differences between belay techniques, visual signals, verbal signals and other processes when climbing with a new partner.
Last February, Powers brought this idea to the board of the AAC and received overwhelming support in favor of heading up a curriculum to be used and taught across the country and even to an international standard. When he announced the idea at the annual AAC fundraiser he raised $84,000 in 15 minutes showing keen support from attendees of the event. Since then, Powers has been working to build support beyond the AAC for what he’s currently calling the Know the Ropes standard by building a team to include representatives from other organizations that have a stake in the climbing community including the Climbing Wall Association, the AMGA and others. “My biggest concern is that Know the Ropes does not get labeled as an AAC standard, but is developed by members of many organizations so everybody has ownership and provides support in getting the word out in the name of safe climbing.” Powers says.
With climbing growing the fastest at indoor gyms, Know the Ropes is being targeted towards single-pitch sport climbing to help give new and experienced climbers who are familiar with climbing in the gym a safety toolset for when they decide to head out onto real rock.
Powers, who wrote the NOLS climbing curriculum years ago, is still building the Know the Ropes advisory board this summer and hopes to start getting the collaborated best practices on paper in time to launch some pilot programs in rock gyms across the country by this fall. americanalpineclub.org
The Gatecrasher: Brady Robinson
It’s not a very sexy topic, but land ownership and public access policy is hugely important when it comes to where rock climbers can and cannot climb. Brady Robinson has been the Executive Director of The Access Fund for seven years and with his team he continues to fight the mind-numbing, detail-ridden, legal-entangled and absurdly-complex fight to preserve and allow rock climbers and other recreationalists access to public and private lands.
A major change and challenge includes how popular climbing has become and what the impact of more people getting out on the rock and ice for the areas where they are climbing. Core to the Access Fund’s beliefs are Stewardship and Conservation, which means that, as the numbers increase, climbers are educated on low-impact and Leave No Trace practices which encourage land managers and policy makers to be more willing to allow access. When climbers are good stewards of the land, Brady Robinson has a slightly easier job.
Along with the work on Capitol Hill for access to public lands, The Access Fund supports 87 local climbing organizations. Each year, through the fundraising efforts, the group is able to grant over $40,000 to local climbing organizations to use towards purchasing land, developing education programs and promoting other Access Fund core values.
The Access Fund has also launched a number of other initiatives including putting two people on the road full time to build climbing trails across the country and launching education programs around helping climbers make the transition from climbing in gyms to getting on real rock. Robinson is also on the board for Phil Powers’ Know the Ropes program.
The Access Fund splintered off from being a committee of the American Alpine Club in 1991 and in 2013 alone they have preserved 163 climbing areas and opened nine across the country. accessfund.org
Mr. Clean: Ken Yager
Sometimes inspiration comes in the form of a 2×4 smacked across the forehead. Ken Yager was first awed by El Cap in Yosemite when he was 13 years old. He spent years climbing and guiding and founded the Yosemite Climbing Association. The in 2004, he got smacked by the metaphorical 2×4 and decided to start the Yosemite Facelift campaign to clean up the park.
Yager recalls: “I was driving some folks through the park and talking about its natural beauty when I spotted piles of toilet paper littered around where people had taken care of business. It really disgusted me, and I knew we had to do something about it.” And it wasn’t just little scraps of toilet paper, bar wrappers and wayward plastic bottles that Yager targeted, he went after the big piles of construction debris, too. Starting with just a handful of volunteers, the Facelift crew was pulling upwards of a quarter-million pounds of trash and construction waste out of the park. One of the big ah-ha’s that came from this process was how contractors in the park have been leaving their construction trash in obscure places after a project and not cleaning up after themselves. Suffice it to say, the parks were a little embarrassed by this and have now cracked down on hiring and monitoring contractors to ensure they keep it tidy. Since then, the amount of trash hauled out by the Facelift has decreased as the stockpiles of trash have been removed.
These days, the cleanup is focused on simply removing the trash that accumulates in the park over a year. The popularity of the Facelift event continues to grow as does its mission. With more and more people involved, volunteers are getting into trail maintenance, invasive species removal and education. “Once a site is clean, it tends to stay clean. If there’s existing trash somewhere, people are more likely to not worry about littering,” Yager explains.
First and foremost though, Yager is a climber—a climber with a broader vision. He could have just focused on cleaning up the trash where climbers mostly congregate. Places like around their campsites, at the base of the routes where climbers drop trash from the wall (deliberately or inadvertently) or in the nooks and crannies high on the route. While Yager and a team of technically capable climbers do this amazing cleanup on the vertical (one such project is called “The Nose Wipe” [thecleanestline.com/2013/12/the-nose-wipe.html]), Ken knew it was important to show climbers cared about keeping the park, and really the whole world, clean of litter. This has broken down the tensions of yesteryear where climbers and park rangers were at odds with one another and has in many ways united them in the common goal of keeping the park in the best possible condition for climbers and all other visitors alike. “We’re all just people and we all love the park,” he says.
That simple goal has gotten bigger than Yager ever imagined: “We now have to raise about $35,000 to cover the costs of The Facelift. The little things add up fast like buying trash bags, litter tongs, gloves, renting tables and chairs, easels, markers and poster board for the signage, renting port-a-potties and more. Black Diamond is jumping in as a major sponsor for 2014 “Only $25K to go!” Last year there were over 2,000 volunteers providing over 3,000 work-days of labor. This doesn’t include the spontaneous volunteers that get inspired by the event and start picking up trash themselves. The event includes free camping for volunteers, evening entertainment programs and prize raffles. Ken is being contacted to help organize events like this around the country and world. His vision is to help educate today’s youth in being good stewards of the environment knowing that is the best investment for keeping the places where we love to play clean. yosemiteclimbing.org
—Cameron Martindell is Elevation Outdoors’ senior editor, EOTV creator and a freelance adventure correspondent contributing to Outside, Backpacker, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Adventure, Wired and others. Check out his own adventure blog at OffYonder.com.