Expeditions: More Daunting than Everest, More Technical than a Yosemite Wall

Outside magazine, June 1994

Expeditions: More Daunting than Everest, More Technical than a Yosemite Wall

With increasing regulation looming, climbers scramble to negotiate with the federal government
By Douglas Gantenbein

They could never do this with backpackers or handicapped people," snarls Sam Davidson. "They'd be nuked. Obliterated."

Davidson, communications director of the Access Fund, a climbing advocacy group, is spitting nails over a National Park Service plan to bill Mount McKinley climbers $200 each, starting in 1995. Although less drastic than a $500 toll eyed as recently as January, the fee has Davidson and other mountaineers sounding as if a federal jackboot had crunched their fingers just as they were topping the 20,320-foot peak. "This is the first time individual users have been singled out to recoup all the costs for an activity in a national park," says Davidson. "Just because climbers are high-profile, that's no reason to dump on them."

But they are being dumped on, and not just at Denali National Park, the central Alaska preserve that contains McKinley. Elsewhere, federal land managers and environmental groups (led by the Wilderness Society) are pounding climbers over the use of fixed anchors in lands managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. The devices--metal bolts set in holes bored into the rock, often with power drills--are considered essential by many sport climbers, who favor difficult, sparsely cracked faces that don't offer many opportunities to place removable, lower-impact protection hardware. Even traditionalists sometimes use bolts to anchor dicey rappels, but to many environmental and climbing purists they're litter, the moral equivalent of beer cans. The dispute does matter, because curtailment of bolt use could make some climbs riskier and could lead to the erasure of many routes at such hallowed sites as Yosemite Valley. "A ban on bolting is, in some areas, a ban on climbing," says Charley Shimanski, executive director of the American Alpine Club.

Taken together, these developments have given climbers a scary glimpse of a future in which the public and Washington treat them as just another outdoor interest group to be managed and billed. And more than their wallets and methods are under attack--their feelings are hurt, too. Accustomed to constituting an elite, they're getting nipped at by flatlanders who've apparently confused them with snowmobilers and mountain bikers.

On top of it all is the realization that the sport's success is a big part of the problem. Some estimates have it that a half-million Americans regularly take to the mountains, coiled ropes in hand. Obviously, most don't cause expensive rescue episodes, pitch trash off Half Dome, or make pristine walls look like Frankenstein's neck. But enough apparently do that the public is starting to squawk.

"There's a growing sense," concedes Paul Minault, the Access Fund's national coordinator, "that there are so many of us swarming around that we really need to start managing our own house."

Unfortunately for climbers, others are doing the managing, and they don't seem easily dissuadable. The government's position is that Denali National Park's climbing and rescue program costs $600,000 a year and that it's time climbers ponied up part of it. "This is strictly a money issue," says Dick Martin, chief of resource and visitor protection for the Park Service and a member of the task force that wrote the fee proposal. The feds say there is ample precedent for such a cover charge. Boaters in Grand Canyon National Park, for instance, pay a fee of $75 per party. And for 20 years, campers in several parks have paid to set up their tents.

Davidson of the Access Fund insists that the Denali fee is a radical policy shift--a bald pay-for-rescue levy that singles out climbers because the public already thinks they're insane and won't care if they have to fork over a 10 percent gratuity on climbs that usually cost more than $2,000. Indeed, the idea for the fee first surfaced in late 1992, after news accounts of the grisly McKinley climbing season--the worst in history, with 11 deaths--led to complaints about the high cost of mountain rescue. These reverberated in Washington just as the budget-conscious Clinton administration came in. Led by Assistant Secretary of the Interior Bonnie Cohen, officials began working on ways to defuse the criticism, considering and rejecting several options--including large, refundable bond payments or mandatory insurance --before settling on a flat fee. Climbers first heard of the idea last summer and quickly started rallying the cramponed troops. Then in January, a public meeting led by Cohen drew a packed and angry house of 200 in Seattle. Shortly after the meeting the fee was lowered, but by then Interior was itself stubbornly digging in, characterizing the fee as a means to defray the "wider costs" of climbing on McKinley, including educating climbers and cleaning up the mess left by the thousand or so Americans and foreigners who attempt the mountain every year.

The whole thing left climbers feeling surly and spin-controlled. Still, their fight continues, most recently at a series of public meetings in Alaska and Washington State. Some of their arguments are more convincing than others. They note that the Park Service spends greater sums searching for lost hikers than it does fetching stranded mountaineers. (In Alaska, the most expensive search of the 1993 season--$200,000 total--involved a solo hiker who drowned while fording a stream in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.) But climbers are on shakier ground when they argue that the Park Service could cut costs at McKinley by bagging the high-altitude helicopter it leases every season for $175,000. Doing so, their hypothesis goes, would create a "safer" environment by making mountaineers more aware of their own tender skin. Such talk sounds noble in a warm meeting room, but as many climbers point out, the reality might prove different 18,000 feet up on the spine of McKinley's West Buttress. "If I get hurt on the mountain," admits Brian Okonek, a McKinley guide who is otherwise dismayed by the fee, "I'll be very happy to know that the system is there."

Despite the back-and-forth, the McKinley fee seems all but certain to go into effect, for reasons that have everything to do with what's politically practical. It's easy to draw a circle around the McKinley mountaineers; their presence is expensive, and they're a small, relatively cloutless interest group. "There is not a groundswell of public support for turning away the fee in-state," says a spokesman for Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. "People just don't have a lot of sympathy for climbers."

This impotence is being felt in the bolt feud, at the root of which is the 1964 Wilderness Act, which forbids defacing wilderness landscapes. At press time, the Park Service looked like it might meet climbers halfway and allow them to negotiate appropriate bolt use, site by site, with park superintendents. (This would still almost certainly mean regional bans and a forswearing of power drills.) The other three agencies that control wilderness areas reportedly don't feel as friendly. Despite almost constant pressure from the Access Fund, there is still a chance that Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas will sign regulations this summer banning bolts in 34 million acres of wilderness that his agency controls. Fish and Wildlife and the BLM may follow suit.

Even David Brower, the man credited with drilling the first bolt in North America--at New Mexico's Shiprock in the 1930s--has groused about the fact that 7,000 bolts have been placed in Yosemite. Their number, he says, "offends the mountain." Climbers, of course, have long thought they were communing with the mountain, not offending it, but now they're learning that others want to interfere with the relationship.

"It's like growing up," Minault says wistfully. "As a kid you get to do what you want, but when you reach adulthood you're bound by constraints. It's really starting to be that way with climbing."

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