On Friday, April 9, climbing guide Darrin Reay and a few friends went to the remote Sunshine Wall Slabs north of Utah’s Arches National Park for a weekend of climbing. When they arrived, they came across three newly bolted sport routes.
Reay started up one of the new lines, an easy 5.3. About 30 feet off the ground, though, he came face to face with the image of a warrior holding a spear etched into the agate. Reay realized he was climbing through an entire 20-by-30-foot panel of a few dozen Native petroglyphs.
“The route went straight through the whole thing,” Reay told Outside. After downclimbing and determining that the two nearby routes were also bolted through the petroglyph panel, Reay and his friends spent the weekend removing the bolts and documenting the damage.
“I thought about leaving them up for the sake of reporting them,” Reay told friend and climber Stewart Green, who posted about the incident on Facebook. “But I just couldn’t leave them up. It was my duty.” The petroglyphs, Green thought, appeared to be from the Fremont people, a pre-Columbian Native American culture that inhabited Utah and parts of surrounding states between 2,000 and 700 years ago. It’s unclear whether or not Green is correct, but similar petroglyphs attributed to the Fremont people have been documented in other areas nearby.
It didn’t take long to figure out the bolts’ origin. Reay and his friends found the routes posted on Mountain Project, a user-generated database of climbing routes, and traced the incident back to Richard Gilbert, a climber from Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Gilbert, a veteran of the Marines and a 15-year climber, has since come out publicly with an apology and a description of his actions, which he insists is “no excuse for the damage done.”
According to Gilbert, in late March he explored the unbolted wall in the Sunshine Slabs area and mistook a number of petroglyphs for graffiti, attributing what he assumed was vandalism to the wall’s proximity to a public campground. He decided it would be safe to develop routes up the wall. Later he added information about the new routes to Mountain Project, mentioning what he interpreted as graffiti in the description. (Those routes were eventually removed by an administrator to discourage climbing in the area.) It only took a few weeks for his mistake to catch the attention of the website’s dedicated community of climbers. Outrage quickly followed.
Gilbert’s story unfolded largely through conversations on Mountain Project’s forums, where he says he first realized his error. “On Sunday night, I saw a post on my route [at Sunshine Slabs] and it said, ‘Hey, this is not graffiti, these are petroglyphs.’ I was like, Oh my gosh, I completely messed this up, I’m going to fix it right now,” he said. He changed the route descriptions on Mountain Project to steer climbers away from the area, drove back to the wall to fill in the bolt holes, and left a sign to draw attention to the petroglyphs.
“It’s wrong. It shouldn’t have happened. It’s just poor education on my part, and I do take full responsibility,” Gilbert says.
He returned to the area on Monday, April 12, and met with authorities from the Moab Bureau of Land Management to report the incident in person. “I told him this was my mistake, and asked what do I have to do to make sure other people aren’t paying for my mistake,” he said. The BLM office opened an investigation after the meeting and previous calls to report the incident, Gilbert said. (The BLM office did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.) According to the National Park Service, rock art like this is federally protected, and damaging acts can lead to felony and/or misdemeanor charges, with penalties that can include up to a ten-year prison sentence and $100,000 in fines.
Meanwhile, conversations online about the incident turned to death threats against Gilbert and expressed anger over his actions, including many public posts on Mountain Project’s forums and direct messages and phone calls to him.
Green posted about the incident on Facebook this week, advocating for more awareness in the climbing community around cultural resources and Leave No Trace policies. “The fact is that we just can’t do whatever we want as climbers anymore,” he wrote, “unlike the Wild West days when I was a young climber and anything went.”
Similar situations have played out in popular climbing areas across the United States, including Hueco Tanks in Texas, Painted Bluff in Alabama, and Indian Creek in Utah, where routes have been removed and areas near rock-art sites have been closed.
Along with the apology both online and in an article from Climbing, Gilbert has acknowledged the work required to not only repair the physical damage but also the ties with Native communities after the damage. “I’m not the victim here,” he said. “I made a mistake, and I’ll pay for my mistake, but I think it’s also important to let the Native individuals have a voice and be heard now.”
Gilbert, Reay, and Green each expressed the importance this incident has had in teaching climbers the history of the sites they climb on and the need to prevent these problems in the future. “I want this to educate people on the outdoors as much as possible,” Reay said. “It’s been a passion of mine for a long time, and I don’t want to see these places and our access to public lands jeopardized because of a few people’s actions.”