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.