Boulder Lightly

An Eco-Friendly, Low Impact Approach to Bouldering

By Aaron Gibson

The root of bouldering is you and the rock – it is about as natural and pure as rock climbing can get. And while it should be the genre of climbing that has the least impact, in practice the equipment, techniques, and ethics have created issues.

It’s not uncommon at popular bouldering destinations to find a horde of spotters crowded beneath a single climber shouting beta, shuffling pads, snapping pics, and wrangling dogs all at the same time. This may be the norm in some high-profile areas but in a wilderness setting there should be a different approach – one of minimizing our impact and protecting the natural environment.

By following a few simple pro-active guidelines we can enhance the culture of bouldering, protect natural areas, and reduce our impact. Here are some things to remember:

1. Walk softly.

Hiking to known boulder problems or exploring for “new” or “undiscovered” boulders is inherent to bouldering but carries its share of impacts. To minimize these, stick to established trails as much as possible and avoid creating social trails. If possible, travel on rock to avoid stepping on sensitive plants and soil.

2. Think “Low Profile.”

Not every visitor needs to know you are there and just sent your project. Don’t make a scene. Keep the noise and your visibility to a minimum.

One of the places where climbers are most noticeable is in the parking lot. Nothing feels better than to drop your pack and pad at the car at end of a long day of climbing. But it’s in the parking lot that things can get loud and crazy. Better to pack up and relocate the post-climb afterglow somewhere else – the car, a campsite, a restaurant. Don’t draw unnecessary attention to yourself and other climbers.

3. Keep the group size down.

These days bouldering tends to be more of a social scene than a solo scene. The most concentrated effects of bouldering occur on the ground around the boulders. Disperse the crowds and you will reduce the impact. Keep group sizes small – no more than 3 or 4 people. Groups create additional visible and auditory impacts that are not appropriate for a wilderness area. This goes back to keeping a low profile. If a few people are already climbing at a particular area – move to another area. Also, be aware of the size of group when on the trail and back at the parking lot – refer to #2.

4. Be exceedingly environmentally conscious.

Environmental consciousness is everything. In a wilderness setting it is especially important to limit your impact in every way possible.

Minimize chalk usage. Use a nylon bristle brush to clean chalk from holds. Close your chalk bags and chalk pots to avoid spilling chalk. And avoid using tic marks on holds – if you do use them scrub them off when you are done.

Pick up your trash: climbers tape, energy bar wrappers, water bottles, cigarette butts, and whatever else that managed to fall out of that hole in the bottom of your pack. You’ve heard it before you’ll hear it again – if you pack it in, pack it out. And even if you didn’t pack it in and you see it on the ground, pack it out! Better to leave the place cleaner than how you found it.

5. Find problems, don’t create them.

When you think you’ve discovered that perfect boulder problem keep these things in mind:

Keep the area surrounding the boulder as natural as it was before. Don’t dig out the base of problems. Do not push, pry, break or remove rock, dig up vegetation, or otherwise excavate the base of boulders for sit-down starts.

If extensive manual labor has to go into making a little bit of rock a boulder problem then consider the alternative option – WALK AWAY! It’s just a boulder problem. It takes more guts to let something be than to unearth something that creates a negative impact – both to the natural environment and to climbing access. Bouldering was never intended to be a destructive activity.

If you must clean a hold or two – do just that – clean “the hold” not the entire face. Don’t scrape, chip, scour, or overly clean the rock. The boulder problem does not need to be a shining path. Chipping, gluing, or enhancing of holds in any way is not acceptable. Under no circumstances is it okay. Don’t do it. Don’t even think about doing it.

6. Minimize pad usage. Pad safely but lightly.

It’s a fine line between maintaining a safe fall zone and protecting the ground beneath it. You may have visited other bouldering areas that look like dirt pits at the base of boulders – that’s because people typically overuse pads and don’t think about the impact they are causing.

First of all, limit the number of pads you carry out to an area. Ask the question, does everyone REALLY need to carry their own pad? Can you get away with using one pad and a spotter rather than four pads? Maybe you don’t need a pad at all.

When using pads, be conscious of where and how you place your pad. Pay attention to where you place your pad to avoid crushing vegetation. When moving a pad, pick it up off the ground rather than dragging it to reduce erosion. If possible, opt for durable surfaces like rock for pad placements instead of fragile surfaces like dirt and plant life.

7. Leave your dogs at home.

This is a sensitive one for climbers because we love our dogs. But sometimes we forget that our pets create an impact all their own – their impact is our impact. To avoid that issue altogether consider leaving your dog at home. They will still love you.

If you must bring them, keep him/her on a leash at all times. By doing so you ensure that they will not intimidate or harm wildlife. To further reduce impact, bring some “doggie bags” and clean up after your pet – the last thing another visitor wants to encounter is your dog’s feces.

8. Be respectful of other visitors and land-manager personnel.
Judgments are being made about climbers based on how we treat others. Be aware that your actions, attitude, tone, and personality are used to make assumptions about the entire population of climbers. Be polite. Be respectful. Be courteous. Don’t ruin it for the rest of us.

By pursuing a Boulder Lightly approach we will ensure that bouldering remains environmentally friendly, low impact, and sustainable.