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My Actions, My Responsibility, And My Mistake

 

When I was a little kid I was always rambunctious and running around the neighborhood. My dad used to always say, “Ok buddy, you are gonna learn the hard way”. Whether I was leaving the hose on and flooding the yard, eating too much candy, sneaking out and getting caught or constantly missing the bus… I learned the hard way. The Fall of 2013 is surely another one of these moments with a healthy dose of remorse and a painful lesson learned.

I have been putting up routes for over 6 years now. My mentors have included famous climbers and people from areas I frequently climb at. Putting up a new route is a creative process, which is why I love it. But like any creative process, there are many decisions to be made that influence the final outcome. Not all of those decisions are justifiable and not all are correct. My recent decision while new-routing has offered me one of the most intense learning experiences I have ever known.

To make a long story short, I was recently informed that I had done something wrong last month while establishing new routes at an underground crag in the Tahoe region of California. I cut down two trees. Not just any trees, either. Junipers.

I’d like to try to address and speak about the specifics of my actions, but in doing so, I want to make no mistake that this was a regrettable error on my part. I am deeply apologetic about what I did. I was wrong. I F’d up. And I’m very sorry. Now, I’m using my blog, my voice and my position in the climbing community to bring awareness to an important issue of route development in order to prevent people who may be as ignorant as I once was from doing this in the future.

Last July, my friends showed me a new cliff that utterly blew my mind. We climbed various warm-ups, and then jumped on “Tree Beard,” one of the best 5.12c’s I have ever done in my life. The route begins by climbing up a giant tree to reach the rock. I thought this was awesome as it immediately made for interesting experience. You clip fixed gear on its limbs while scampering up through the branches to reach the start of the rock climbing. Ultimately, you stand on the tip-top of the tree and transfer to the rock and continue up the wall.

Anyway, the climbing was really great, and I saw potential for other amazing routes on this granite wall. I come from New Hampshire and cut my teeth at Rumney, so I have an affinity for granite climbing and know how special they are.

I got in touch with Chris Doyle, a local climber who has established routes here. Chris, obviously is stoked and enthusiastic about this wall. Chris and I exchanged Facebook messages about the possibility for me to put up a route or two on this wall. Chris was supportive of that effort, and he even generously offered me one of his own projects to try as well. That felt really good, and having the green light from a local climber great.

This wall is one of the best USA crags, no doubt. I couldn’t stop thinking about the climbing here and how inspiring it was. About three weeks ago, I finally got the chance to establish a new route here.

I went out alone one day and made my way to the top of the wall—an extremely terrifying experience, to be honest. Putting up a new route is not just a lot of work, but risky in these ways that most climbers don’t normally think about. I rapped down, worked for hours and lowered to the ground.

I lowered through a tree that was blocking the start of a route. I pushed my way through the tree and got down to the ground. The tree was about 10 feet tall and 10 inches thick. A neighboring tree (below the route next to this) was smaller, dead, and in the same predicament.

My main goal when it comes to putting up a new route is: Will this climb be something high-quality, something safe and something that climbers will enjoy? I try to make decisions that answer those questions as best as possible.

This tree I lowered through was in a dangerous spot due to the fact that there was a difficult part on this route near the ground. Essentially, a fall from this lower section might have left a future climber injured: stabbed by tree limbs or worse. This was a serious concern of mine. I left the cliff thinking about that tree, not sure what to do.

I returned a week later with my friend of over 15 years Ethan Pringle, a local California climber. As Ethan and his girlfriend were warming up, I thought more about the tree making hazardous the start of this new route. Ethan didn’t know I was going to cut the Juniper down and wasn’t included in my decision or action. I decided to take the initiative and make the climb safe for the future climbers. As the developer of this route, I wanted to leave behind a resource for everybody, something that my climber folk could enjoy and not hurt themselves on. I spent about ten minutes and sawed them down.

That day was extremely fun. I got to climb with my old buddy. We tried the new project. We laughed and saw new potential along this amazing wall. We were stoked.

Ethan returned to the crag shortly thereafter and did the first ascent of my route (I don’t often red-tag projects). I was proud of him. Ethan said it was one of the best routes he had done in his life. This was satisfying to hear. It’s the greatest compliment that any route developer can receive.

Later that week, I was at Mount Clark with my friends. I received a message from Chris Doyle. I opened it giddily, thinking it would be some exciting news about more route development at this Tahoe-area cliff. Unfortunately, his message was a shocking note of concern over my tree removal.

I lost my breath. I felt faint. I responded immediately. Chris informed me that this was a precious, respected tree: a juniper, perhaps very old. Junipers are some of the most respected trees and they can survive for a very long time, upwards of a thousand years.

Hearing this I nearly died. I had no clue and I felt completely awful. I had really F—d up.

What followed—and perhaps rightly so—was a lot of angst and anger directed toward me—through climbing forums, through Instagram, and other social media channels. My phone number was posted publicly, and I received some heinous calls, threats and other messages of hate.

I understand that I am a high-profile sponsored climber, and so even though I am deeply embarrassed and ashamed from my actions, I also understand this reaction even if a lot of the outcry is made worse simply by my role in the climbing community.

My only hope now is that I can use my position, blog and voice to bring to light this issue of route development ethics, whether they are “grey” (like cleaning rock) or just downright wrong, like cutting down a precious tree. I hope that people who read this can share this message with people in the community and perhaps share it in a positive way.

This whole event has really hit me emotionally. I’ve been thinking long and hard about it lately and feel broken.

Dean Potter told me recently, ‘the Juniper will be happy to know you learned a major lesson … We are nature too, Joe, and everything is connected.”

It’s true. It’s kind of funny, but I also thought about that Dr. Seuss book, the Lorax. In it, the Once-ler cuts down all the trees, and there’s only the Lorax there to “speak for the trees.” The book ends with the word: “unless.” Meaning, unless someone says something and cares about the situation, then the situation won’t improve.

So, I hope this blog can be my version of “unless.” My attempt to make this wrong right is… speak to local climbers, land managers, and even a botanist friend for suggestions.

Again, I have learned something from this and I am extremely sorry for my actions. I hope that I have relayed that my heart was in the right place, but my actions were not correct. I hope that this message offers some pause and reflection for the future generations of climbers and route developers so that they don’t have to “learn the hard way” like me.

Thanks to the Tahoe climbing community, especially, and I look forward to climbing and hanging with you individually on a personal friendly level in the future.

  • Dave MacLeod - Good blog. You saw your mistake, held your hands up and learned. Everyone is party to precious trees and habitats getting chopped down to grow the food we buy (try googling ‘amazon destruction’ – 6 football fields per minute!). I doubt many people who have been critical of you even bother to wonder about the similar mistake they make every day. It’s out of sight, so out of mind.

  • Albert Font - Hello Joe!
    I just want to give you my support as you learned and accepted that was a wrong action to remove the tree. All of us commit errors as a human being that we are but no all of us can accept that they have commited it. I really thing what Dean Potter said to you: that tree will be happy that you and all the climbers have learned a lesson and the way you have reacted. See you in Catalunya!

  • Steven - How about planting a couple of Junipers? Not in exactly the same spot but nearby. Out of respect.

  • Roman Godfrey - Respect for Joe. I met him one time when I was younger, he’s the man. Joe’s not perfect, neither is anyone in this comment section. I think “Unacceptable” is due more punishment for his hatred than Joe is for his thoughtlessness. Also, it’s Jim Thornburg*, with a ‘u’, and you’re not him, “Unacceptable”.

  • Kenny - Unacceptable/Jim Thornburg/whinny cry baby/dried up grandpa, get off your horse! The amount of impact you have created your self over the last 30 years of climbing out weights any of Joe’s actions. Stop being a worthless hypocrite!

  • Donkey - Its just a freakin tree .. get over it people ..

  • Bubba - Joe, I read your blog regularly and post comments once and a while. It is funny how all the cool things you have done the work putting up routes garner five comments at most your apology generates tons of comments. I guess people love to hate thanks for giving them a forum for that….

  • chris eggert - What Todd Gordon said. To err is human. Chase your dreams, man. Just don’t cut down trees for routes. egghead

  • taylor - This was a big mistake for sure but as one climber to another I accept your apology. Everyone makes mistakes I have fucked up big time on multiple occasions, who has not? I still look up to you as an amazing climber, developer, and as someone who has put so much into the sport, far more than most climbers will ever give to our sport. So thanks for everything you have brought to our sport, you get me hyped to climb man! One thing I did find funny was in the DPM article they said Dean Potter replied and thanked him for “telling it how it is”… I suppose everyone already forgot about the rope scars on Delicate Arch left by who else Dean. If people can forget that they will forget this tree people fuck up bottom line. And for the record Dean is one of my favorite all time climbers ever I was just stating a fact.

  • Marcus - Joe
    Fact is – 99% of climbers are consumers of the efforts of the 1%. It’s so easy to bitch about the cleaning, bolt placement, staging/landings, what rock stays on the cliff and what leaves – without ever having to sit in that harness on top of the cliff looking down on virgin terrain. It’s difficult to really understand the decisions made during route construction without trying it. People either don’t care or don’t know difficult and dangerous this process can be. So I would side w the biologists and forestry people who have already commented – chalk it up to a lesson learned and move the f$&k on.

  • Kevin M. Dufresne - I know the point has been made, but the hypocrisy is so unbelievable it is laughable. Joe, don’t get down over this, you have done more for the climbing community than most I know. You never fail to come off as positive, welcoming, and approachable. the first reaction from Karen Lycett makes me sick to my stomach, you should be ashamed of yourself ma’am.

    -Kevin

  • david - Who nominated Dean Potter to be the spokesperson for the juniper? Dean Potter perhaps? Fitting. I find you selfish, short sighted, self serving, self promoting. Please do not take any solace in Dean Potter’s kind words. I believe the junipero wishes it were alive.

  • Paul Pospisil - to those of you that say a tree is just a tree Google ancient juniper and read.

  • aj - Don’t do it again and maybe inform others . glad you see that people care about things other than “stone”.

  • brb - Oh my god it was Juniper !!!

    Seriously, people get a life instead of wasting your time blaming others.

  • Outsider - @Adam re font. Command + (on Mac) or Control + in any browser is your friend. At least here the font isn’t black on white. That’s the worst for the eyes…

  • CM - TK mentioned earlier in hopes of the other issues going on in Tahoe will be met with such intensity as this little Juniper. I cannot agree more. These trees are wonderful, but cut Joe some god damn slack people. If you haters feel this strongly about the Tahoe environment, go protest the fisheries instead of sitting on your self-righteous asses. He messed up, he probably will again in some other way. Human nature sucks sometimes.

  • Noel Tupas - I am not surprised that you would receive support from people who are NOT local to the area in which you maliciously altered for the sake of what….ANOTHER route? Climbing in itself is already such a selfish pursuit and yet, here you had to take it one step further.

    The climbing community absolutely appreciates all the work you’ve put into creating such amazing route for current and future generations. THIS incident however is the one thing you’ll probably be remembered for the most.

    That route better be 5.16a…

  • blake - Man…people are gonna talk big on the internet, just let it run off of you like water. As an east coaster and a New Englander, trees are a plenty, and we cut the hell out of them! When I lived in Western MA we would warm up for Appetite for Destruction by taking turns chopping this tree (and then its accompanying stump) that was dead center of the fall zone. NEW ENGLAND STYLE.

    People out west are sensitive, so don’t let that stop you from new routing, ever. Hate you for cutting down a tree? Give me a break. That’s absurd.

    You apologized and outside from going door to door in the greater Tahoe area and kissing the feet of all the Juniper lovers out there, you’ve done everything in your power to atone.

    Let it go. Ignore all the negativity. Forget all the haters.

  • Michelle - Um, wow. Not a member of the climbing community and, seeing all of the hate spewed here, I would not want to be. Yes, he lied first. He was probably scared and ashamed.

    I assume you haters have never made a mistake. Glass houses much? You give a much worse name to your community than does Joe,

  • Deepsleeper - So what? they’re just trees. Who the hell cares?

  • Brian Waters - Joe,
    Thank you for the hard work putting up the route, and thank you for taking the initiative to make the route safer. I have nearly hit several trees in falls, and would not hesitate to remove one if it were a hazard. You did nothing wrong. The guy who started all this nonsense owes you a serious apology though.

  • slartibartfast - I think some people are forgetting that Joe was threatened with violence and possibly death. I’m pretty sure that many might consider lying at that point, too, especially if they hadn’t yet come to appreciate what they’d done.
    Obviously, it is incredibly important to care for our natural resources, but things must be kept in perspective and hypocrisy avoided. If climbing’s cardinal rule is to never change the landscape, especially if that landscape is some time in the making(such as with old-growth Juniper trees), then the biggest criminals in our sport’s history are Royal Robbins and other hammer swinging heros of the past. Exposed rock faces, every one of which has been longer in the making(by at least a power of ten)have been permanently altered by pin scars, to the extent that nearly every trad climber in the world carries specialty gear just to protect these scars.
    Do any of you who claim to “hate” Joe or are “disgusted” or “sick” over what happened ever drive alone in your car instead of riding a bike, or even a motorcycle, which will travel just as fast as your car while using much less gas even than a hybrid? Do you choose to drive your car in those situations because the alternative is too inconvenient or dangerous? Did you own a perfectly good Nalgene bottle, only to throw it out and buy a new one after learning that the BPA in it caused a SLIGHT increase in the POSSIBILITY of person harm?
    MOTHER EARTH IS CRYING AND IT’S YOUR FAULT!!!
    Seriously, it’s obvious that Joe did what he did with one priority in mind: safety. And, yes, convenience came into play as well; but it does for all of us, as well(see above).
    Some surfer friends were talking the other day about how often fights break out, and how visitors will get death threats from the locals when waves, by the very laws of nature and physics, are infinite. I said that that’s what I liked about climbing, that everybody was chill, that they helped each other out. It has come to my attention that I have made a liar out of myself. I must leave now to make a formal apology…
    Oh, Joe. You signed my crash pad at the RRG Roctrip in ’07. Colette was absolutely flabbergasted that I wanted her signature, too. I’ve always thought that was super cool.

  • Nils Davis - Joe, I put up Treebeard. I just now heard about this whole incident. Would you mind emailing me so we can talk? I don’t want to post my phone number.
    Thanks

  • John Maher - Joe, although I am sad about the tree and the lack of thought, I am so impressed with your apology and your effort to remedy the situation. I believe you’re making a positive difference now.

  • Dan - It takes balls to take responsibility and write something like this. Thank you for this post Joe and making it a learning experience for all. I met you this summer at SenderOne – your warmth, humble attitude, honestly, and pure positive stoke inspire me to be better person and climber. No worries brother – you’re a good man and we all make mistakes.

  • ClimberDuder - Joe, you’re the man through and through! All these haters are just TRYING to hate on something, don’t you worry, it means you’re doin’ it right, boi! Sorry that there are assholes in the climbing community – half of them are going to be gobbing out (acting like excited goblins) to climb at this new area you developed for them and possibly saved one of them from being injured and they would probably be saying “damn someone cut down that tree”.

    You da damn climbing jesus over here

  • Julien VdV - In Belgium we make alcohol with Junipers berry, so tasty! You should come in Belgium and have a drink! We also have Freyr the best crag in the universe!!!!!!

    (just another useless comment)

  • Jonny - “Unbelievably, more than 200,000 acres of rainforest are burned every day [in Ecuador, Brazil]”

    But lets get angry at Joe for one tree. Come on people, if you are really angry about tree destruction, maybe you should book a flight to Brazil and do something about it. Or are you picking on Joe because an isolated incident like this is low hanging fruit and gives you an opportunity to feel superior?

    Pretty sure that toilet paper you all wipe your ass with every day came from trees. Your house is built from trees. The paper you print on came from trees. Your car runs on dead dinosaurs. Your expensive trips to Disneyland come at the cost of our planet’s health.

    Pull the plank out of your own eye before you start screaming at someone like Joe. Arguably doing more for the environment than the collective keyboard militia screaming at him here.

  • Quick Chip - Thanks for sharing your information…it’s really helpful to me.

  • Help me decide - I found out about this whole mess when I found a crack in my local area that looks like a killer bouldering problem . Its a 18ft crack that is very unique for the area but has a dead tree at the base. Its not a juniper, i dont know what it is but its dead and I want to cut it down so i can climb this bad ass crack and make my local area better. Is this the wrong thing to do? in this area your allowed to have fires, fires fueled by local wood, so i dont think its bad but after reading this i get the feeling people will be uber butthurt if they ever found out i had to cut down a dead tree to make it a possible climb.
    thoughts?

  • Jothan - We’ve got to keep this in context. Cutting down that particular tree was wrong because of where and how it happened. I just hate to see this running into the slippery slope not being able to touch any tree or even bush in even something like trail work. There are, and will continue to be in the future, crags where something like this simply isn’t an issue. Yes, we need to be conscious of when it is but let’s keep that in context.

  • Joey Kinder - I cannot say what is the right thing for you to do, but you should ask around and seek proper info on who manages the land. I cut a tree down on National Forrest land and that was illegal without a permit. Ask local climbers, make a proper decision, and be smart making a move like this.

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