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Skiing and Snowboarding : Climbing

New Park Service Policy Authorizes Fixed Anchors in Wilderness

With his signature, National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis on Monday answered a question that has plagued climbing access advocates as well as wilderness advocates for decades: can climbers place permanent anchors within wilderness areas inside National Parks? The answer is yes—with conditions. 

Well before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act of 1964, rock climbers were screwing anchors into rock faces in an attempt to set safe, repeatable routes. In the intervening half-century, tensions grew over the definition of a wilderness boundary. Many climbers argue that the occasional use of fixed anchors is needed for safe climbing. Wilderness advocates say fixed anchors conflict with both the intent and the letter of the Wilderness Act.

Each agency within the Department of the Interior manages its own wilderness areas, and climbers have long petitioned the National Park Service, which contains a number of climbing Mecca's, such as Yosemite and Zion, to clarify its position on the use of fixed anchors, such as bolts. The Director's Order #41, which Jarvis signed on Monday and which represents more than 6 years of policy development, evolving from the last sweeping NPS policy changes made in 2006, says: "The occasional placement of a fixed anchor for belay, rappel, or protection purposes does not necessarily impair the future enjoyment of wilderness or violate the Wilderness Act."

"We've been working on this issue for 20 years," says Jason Keith, senior policy advisor for the climbing advocacy group Access Fund. "We're very pleased this is finally out; it's a big deal for us."

But the final version of the Director's Order didn't give the Access Fund everything it wanted. The group petitioned the NPS to not require climbers to obtain authorization before placing new fixed anchors in wilderness areas, but that didn’t fly.

Garry Oye, chief of the Wilderness Stewardship Division at NPS, says he is aware that the Access Fund feels climbers should be able to decide whether an anchor should be placed, but that "we want the Superintendent of each park to be the one deciding whether a fixed anchor is done."

Keith argues that authorization is onerous, and that climbers would not set out to place more anchors than are called for to ensure safe climbing. As for negative impacts on natural or cultural resources, he argues that climbing is already prohibited in wilderness areas where these impacts are possible.

He says the authorization requirement is a significant concession, but that the final Director's Order also contains important assurances for climbing access. "We were willing to accept new restrictions so long as there was certainty that anchors would not be banned in various areas," he says. The new policy makes anchors allowable across the park system, which will overrule efforts by managers at specific parks from banning anchoring—something Keith claims has been done in the past at Canyonland, Arches, and Joshua Tree national parks.

The allowance of fixed anchors for climbing is just one of many management subjects covered in the Director's Order, and public lands advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has taken issue with many of them. PEER's executive director Jeff Ruch says the final version of the Director's Order is dangerously opaque. "While we're still reviewing the document, it's not clear how the line is drawn. It says 'fixed anchors should be rare.' That is a management term that does not have much rigor. Is it 'rare' in a particular park? Is it 'rare' park system-wide? This is vague guidance."

Oye counters that using the word rare is more fitting than setting numerical limits. "We are clearly communicating to the climbing community that we want you to be conservative [when it comes to placing anchors]."

But George Nickas, executive director of wilderness advocacy Wilderness Watch, says even rare anchors are too many. "The NPS has a policy that says wilderness visitors must accept wilderness on its own terms and I think that reflects the appropriate approach to wilderness stewardship," he says. "Humans want to change everything to benefit our particular interests at a given time. The Wilderness Act was a statement that we weren't going to do that. If you can't climb a mountain without fixed anchors, then you shouldn't climb that mountain."

Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk, who were widely praised for chopping bolts on Patagonia's iconic Cerro Torre, proved that there is a segment of the climbing community that also believes bolts can desecrate a mountain.

As for what comes next, Keith says many questions still remain, but they should be addressed quickly when the NPS releases its reference manual in the coming days. The biggest questions to be addressed, he says, are how the permit process is going to work, to what degree Access Fund and other climbing groups will be able to participate in the permitting process and how or whether they can influence the establishment of best practices the park system will use.

"We’re relieved they finally got it done," Keith says of the Director's Order. "All the hard questions will be raised at the park level. In the past, we felt there were land managers who acted on their own. We think this [policy] makes that less likely. We are encouraged. This is a huge milestone."

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Everest Veteran Alan Arnette on the Death of Climber Alexey Bolotov

Russian alpinist Alexey Bolotov died Tuesday, May 14 while attempting a new route on the Southwest Face of Everest. 

While details are still emerging, early reports have Bolotov and his partner Denis Urubko flying to the base of the Lhotse Face to begin their summit push. They had planned on six days to climb the new route and two for the descent.

Initial reports by Urubko said Bolotov was rappelling when his rope was cut by sharp rocks and fell 300 meters down a rock filled ravine. Later the Nepal Mountaineering Association said he was killed by a falling boulder on the Lhotse Face.

His body was found by their Sherpa who was at camp with them. He reportedly left camp at 3:00AM

The two highly experienced and respected climbers had spent several weeks preparing for their summit bid including climbing the Lhotse Face to establish their camp at 7000 meters. 

They were climbing in alpine style meaning they carried all their gear on the entire summit push. They were not using Sherpas or supplemental oxygen and were fixing their own ropes as they determined the new route.

In an earlier interview, they had said the new route would start at 6650 meters on a slope of 55 degrees. His body was found at 5600 meters.

The Southwest Face of Everest has only been climbed a few times. The first successful climb was led by Chris Bonington in 1975. In 1982 a Soviet expedition climbed the Face, and the last successful climb was by the late South Korean climber Park Young-Seok in 2009. 

Bolotov, 50, won mountaineering most coveted award, the Piolets d’Or in 1998 for his climb of Makulu’s West Face and again in 2004 for the first traverse of Jannu’s North Face. He had climbed Everest in 1998 and again in 2002 without supplemental oxygen. He was born in Dvurechensk village (Sverdlovsk region), Ural, and lived in Russia. He is survived by his wife and two children.

Stick with Outside for updates from climbers on the mountain.

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Taking Diversity to the Peaks

This spring marks two big anniversaries in the mountaineering world: 50 years since the first American team climbed Mount Everest, and 100 years since the first summit of Alaska’s Mount McKinley. As you’d expect, there are the usual commemorative expeditions hitting the ridgelines, among them Denali 2013, which aims to put five bloodline descendants of the mountain’s first climbers atop the 20,320-foot peak. But the one that could have the greatest impact will be looking forward, not back. This June, Expedition Denali, a collection of 12 teachers, wilderness instructors, and students, hopes to become the first African-American team to summit North America’s highest mountain. Their larger goal: to draw attention to the persistent lack of diversity in the outdoors—and to give rise to a new generation of wilderness advocates.

Efforts to improve minority participation outside are nothing new, but Expedition Denali’s focus on minting heroes is a first. As team member and veteran climber Stephen Shobe, 51, puts it, “It’s hard to get inspired about the outdoors when the population doesn’t look like you.”

Seventy-eight percent of Americans who participated in outdoor activities last year were white, with African-American kids at the bottom of the demographic heap—just 37 percent between the ages of 6 and 12 went hiking, biking, or fishing. It’s something Expedition Denali’s primary backer, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), has been working hard to improve. In 1994, the Lander, Wyoming, nonprofit devised a diversity program that has since doled out more than $1.5 million in scholarships to help get minority youth into its courses, which teach wilderness and leadership skills through extended adventure trips. “We work hard to recruit young people of color, but we still struggle,” says Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, who manages NOLS’s diversity program. “There are many barriers, including the lack of role models.” That’s where Expedition Denali comes in, and NOLS has budgeted nearly $250,000 for the group’s efforts.

“People are encouraged to participate in the outdoors through men­torship,” says Frank Hugel­meyer, president of the Outdoor Industry Association. “Those mentor chains are well established among America’s white population, but less so with minorities.”

For NOLS and other wilderness organizations, this isn’t just altruism; it’s part of a long-term strategy. In the next three decades, demographics experts estimate, people of color will make up the majority of the U.S. population. If NOLS wants to continue to thrive as a source of environmental and business leaders, it needs to attract more nonwhite participants—and staff. Currently, only two of NOLS’s 800 instructors are African-American.

Whether they summit or not, the members of Expedition Denali plan to embark on two-week speaking tours of historically black colleges, churches, and public schools. Team members will also lead kids on hiking, backpacking, and bouldering adventures, from California’s Sierras to Washington’s Cascade Mountains.

It’s easy to be skeptical about how much impact a climb like this can achieve, but Shobe insists that topping out on Denali is just the first step. “If the only suggestion of how to get more diversity outdoors is to summit a mountain, then I’d agree: What is one climb really going to do?” he says. “But our goal is more far reaching. Nothing like this is ever accomplished in a day.”

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A Turkish New Yorker Quietly Summits After Everest Brawl

Late last night I received an email from from Aydin Irmak, asking me to call him at a Nepalese cell number. "I summited May 10 with the fixing Sherpas," he said when I reached him. This was more than a little surprising.

You may recall that Irmak is better known as the Turkish New Yorker who last year attempted to climb Everest while hauling his touring bicycle with a porter's tumpline. Sagarmatha National Park officials ultimately scuttled that plan, but he did summit and was discovered "sleeping" on May 19 near the feature known as the Balcony by Thamserku Trekking Sherpa Pemba and his Israeli client Nadav Ben Yehuda. Irmak was widely criticized for attempting Everest with literally no mountaineering experience, and he suffered moderate frostbite that required months of treatment.

I had no idea he'd returned to the mountain, this time with Seven Summit Treks. Not only that, he claimed he'd befriended the fixing team which had been involved in the widely publicized skirmish at Camp II on May 1 and that they'd invited him to climb with them to the Summit. "I am a kind of a white Sherpa," explained Irmak.

Though Irmak gives the first impression of being a fabulist—the sort of wild-eyed guy you try to avoid making eye contact with on the street—his claims have more or less checked out in the past.

He said he was at Camp I during the Everest brawl and saw Simone Moro, Jon Griffith, and Ueli Steck come into camp on their way down—Steck bloodied after being hit with a rock. A short time later came the Sherpa team that was involved in the fight. They were worried that the government would send soldiers to arrest the three instigators.

"I said, look, if the government comes here, I'll tell them I fought with Simone, and I will fight again," says Irmak. "But everything is OK because Simone came out and said I apologize for this."

For more on the fight at the roof of the world, read our interview with Ueli Steck.

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