The federal government says you can rock climb, but you just can’t use traditional techniques of setting anchors.
The National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service released draft climbing management directives late last year, proposing a major shift in the regulation of fixed climbing anchors within wilderness areas. Alaska has 57.5 million acres of designated federal wilderness area, and a large rock-climbing community.
These directives, which have sparked controversy among outdoor enthusiasts and climbing organizations, could render all fixed climbing anchors illegal until they are individually reviewed and approved by land management agencies. The public has until Jan. 30 to comment on the new proposals.
Under the proposals, the term “fixed anchors” includes all permanent or left-behind protection, including bolts, rap rings, slung trees, stuck nuts, and even snow pickets, such as those used by climbers on Alaska’s Mount Denali.
The directives categorize these anchors as “installations,” a designation historically used to describe objects like paved roads, fire towers, buildings, bridges, and landfills.
According to the 1964 Wilderness Act, installations are automatically prohibited within wilderness areas, but they can be permitted on a case-by-case basis through what is called a minimum requirement analysis.
Instead of assuming that fixed anchors are permitted, subject to approval, the directives presume that all anchors in wilderness areas are illegal, possibly even if they were installed before the Wilderness Act. The anchors would be subject to either removal or non-replacement until federal workers have resources to conduct a minimum requirement analysis, critics say. But the directive notes that existing anchors can remain until they are analyzed.
Historically and currently, specialized anchoring equipment and ropes are used while climbing to reduce the risk of a fall. The new directive, while it affirms that “climbing is a legitimate and appropriate use of wilderness” and that “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,” also says “the establishment of bolt-intensive face climbs is considered incompatible with wilderness preservation.” It has extensive verbiage that describes the bad aspects of anchors, and how using a drill to set an anchor disrupts the quiet solitude of the wilderness.
The Director’s Order 41 §7.2 also states that “fixed anchors or fixed equipment should be rare in wilderness” and that ‘“clean climbing” techniques should be the norm in wilderness. The directive indicates that climbing ice falls or rock faces in federal wilderness land may have to be done without setting anchors, which renders the sport too dangerous.
“This Reference Manual 41 directive clarifies that fixed anchors and fixed equipment (hereinafter referred to as ‘fixed anchors’) are a type of installation under §4(c) of the Wilderness Act, consistent with the definition of that term in Reference Manual 41 §3.1 as ‘anything made by humans that is not intended for human occupation and is left unattended or left behind when the installer leaves the wilderness.’ Fixed anchors fall into this definition because they are installed and remain in place long after the installer has left. Although fixed anchors may be small, there is no ‘de minimis’ exception to the Wilderness Act’s restriction on installations, and the combined impact of many fixed anchors in a single area or rock wall can have a significant effect on wilderness character. Therefore, fixed anchors constitute a prohibited use pursuant to the Wilderness Act §4(c) and may only be authorized if they are determined to be “necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of [The Wilderness Act]” through a minimum requirements analysis (MRA),” the new directive explains.
Read the National Park Service planning document and provide comments at this link.