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Educate For Access

Last week Brady Robinson of the Access Fund threw a suggestion my way:  Come attend a seminar in New York called, “Educate For Access”.  The concept for the conference is summarized below:

“As the popularity of climbing continues to increase and more climbers are frequenting outdoor climbing destinations, threats to climbing access, the environment, and visitor experience are on the rise. The onus is on all of us to limit climbing impacts and modify climber behaviors before they threaten access.

We believe that you can make a difference in this conversation, and we would like you to take part in our summit this fall. This two day Educate for Access: Strategies for Protecting Climbing Areas summit will bring together climbers and advocates who are on the front lines of climber interactions.”

-Access Fund

In light of my actions in Tahoe and the range of responses from the climbing community, I have been eager to create something positive.  One theme kept coming up over and over:  why aren’t ambassadors and pro climbers more proactive stewards?  I am not saying that all pros should speak extensively about climbing or developing responsibly, but there is really no conversation around this at all.  I have many pro-climber/ ambassador friends and a good number are not well-versed in the basic concepts.  Most climbers I know understand that you aren’t allowed to use a power-drill in Wilderness, don’t take a dump near water, and other tiny crag etiquette topics, but that’s as far as it goes.  We all just want to go climbing and until recently, this has been my approach.  Climbing, projects, and psyche. One of the things I have learned is there are reasons why we can go climbing in certain areas, and maintaining access requires conscious efforts by all users.

In some ways I am the wrong person to speak about this… I mean HELL, I thought I knew all the etiquette and general do’s and don’ts… but like most of my friends… I didn’t.  Maybe this whole experience makes me the right person.

The timing of this conference couldn’t have been better.

Returning to a structured learning environment was a little unnerving.  The last time I was in a classroom was my last week of college, and I would always squirm at the thought of sitting amongst people for hours on end. I bought a plane ticket at the last minute, rented a car, booked a hotel, and went.

Upstate New York showed fall at its peak.  The leaves are still bright, and the cool fall air smelled like home.  The conference was held right below the cliffs of the Gunks at the Mohonk Preserve.  There were about 45 attendees and I was among them as a student, which felt good.

My first thought sitting in my seat was “What else could I possibly learn about the climbing world?”  I figured I was educated in these regards and didn’t need to gain much additional knowledge.  Sure, I have made my share of screw-ups and learned from them.

I grew up in New England and started climbing in Rumney and the crags around North Conway, NH.  My friends and I were young and very excited climbers who would obsess over videos (VHS), magazines, and any outlets to the climbing world.  We studied it, talked about it, we knew everything in terms of what was going on with the forefront of climbing.  We communed in the gyms and made outing trips to the crags or boulders whenever we could.  There were no elders or mentors delivering “the rules” to us.  We simply winged it, and assumed we knew enough.  Screw-ups for us were stealing projects, not pulling a rope when we were done climbing, bad camping antics, parking like bone-heads, and other things that resorted in a smacking upside the head or being yelled at.  We screwed up along the way and learned from the climbers we respected.

With all of the gyms opening up in the USA and the growth of climbing, we are seeing a lot of new faces.  The biggest concern is that these climbers lack knowledge of proper outdoor etiquette.   The new breed is psyched, strong, inspired, exposed to media constantly, and statistically hailing from urban areas. Climbing is said to be the most accessible adventure sport.  Some will never go climbing outside and some will.   We can all agree that there is a huge difference in those experiences. Imagine yourself being educated in the climbing gym and then thrown onto El Cap for your first time climbing outside of the gym!  This is a huge leap in experience and knowledge that is only gained by being guided, mentored, or educated as much as possible beforehand.

I couldn’t help but identify, as I am no different from these climbers.  I came from the gym, have many of the same traits, but I have been at it for a while.  That being said, I never received the proper education, and that only means there are thousands like me and their numbers are growing.

There is a conversation happening at this point and I am proof that it needs to happen more often.

How do we inform the gym climber who is heading to the crag for the first time of they need to know, proper crag etiquette, and ethics of climbing outside as opposed to indoors?  There are very different rules and expectations in each venue, and this is the concern.  The Educate for Access conference focused on these topics from various viewpoints.  Over two 8-hour days of intense learning and presentations, I gained some very important insight.  Ten different presenters delivered talks on relevant subjects:

Jeff Poruncik of the Salt Lake Climber’s Alliance, “Why Climber Education”

Pete Ward of the Unified Bouldering Championships, “Climbing Audience”

Nate Furman and Cameron Pall from the Association Of Outdoor Recreation and Education and Green Mountain College, “Modes Of Education”

Kevin Tatsugawa of Westfield State University, “Behavior Modifications” 

Jane McFarland from Hueco Tanks, “History and the Current State”

Tim Keenan from the Gunks Climbers Coalition presented his latest video in the works in regards to “Gym To Crag”

Leave No Trace representatives.  “Reaching Our Younger Climbers”

Pete Guyre, Professional Climbing Guides Institute, “The Indoor to Outdoor Transition”

Thomas Ling from Caldwell College and Penny Riordan from Mid Atlantic Climbers as well as Josh Levin, “Reaching Our Young Climbers”

Linda Williamson and Ty Tyler from the Access Fund, “Education Priorities and Message Articulation”

One thing I took from this is that climbing is in a mode of growth.  The gym remains a common connection and acts as a valuable resource for friendship, motivation, communication, etc.  I have learned so much in the past week about climbers, the use of internet, social media, gyms, logistics, our duty as climbers, access, land managers, today’s youth, the future of climbing, the concern for where it’s all going, even myself, and how we all need to seek better understanding of the issues facing climbing and access.  These are different times, folks, and there are great aspects of it (more people are enjoying it, businesses are growing, it’s a healthy outlet, etc.) but the benefits don’t come without addressing the concerns.


How do we do it?  Well that is the question… it will depend on each venue, crag, area, state, person, ethics, and everything in-between.

This conference was an important first step for me to organize the million ideas flying around in my head.

A few interesting statistics/facts are as follows (these are just a few as I have a book filled with notes, no order of importance):

  1. In the USA alone 4,300 new waivers are filled out daily in gyms.
  2. Climbing is the most accessible “adventure sport”.
  3. Norm-Activation Theory – is Social norms (standards for behavior) dictate how we should behave and this is one way to manage each other in terms of ethics and etiquette.
  4. Basic rules are as follows:   Avoid trespassing, carpool for parking economy, dispose of waste properly, stay on trails, follow anchor ethics, camp in designated spots, respect leash laws, pack it in and pack it out, respect wild life, be considerate of others, leave what you find, plan ahead, and honestly the list can go on and get even more specific.
  5. Problems with land managers result in managers regulating levels of impact, which then results in limiting climbing access, which results in closures.
  6. 10,000 gyms are in the USA today and is growing.
  7. Wall builders are taking no more jobs due to the demand of new gyms.
  8. By 2030 90% of climbers will be from cities and urbanized areas.

As a starting point, I would like to address the younger climbers or the folks that may not have much outdoor climbing experience.

  • Don’t be shy to ask questions and seek out a person with the proper information.
  • Ask them anything no matter how goofy it may sound.  It’s a different game outside, and yet I urge you to get out there because that’s what climbing is really all about.
  • GET training. Hire a guide.  Talk to the owner of your local gym about getting outside.
  • Understand that planning ahead of time is critical in order to keep yourself safe, logistically on track, and be sure to be respectful and considerate of access and other people.

I am eager to grow and mature from my past with the positivity I have always brought to the climbing world.  Thanks for reading everyone and thank you for all of your support.


  • Brian Payst - Nice write up Joe! It was a great conference and we all need to figure out how to carry the energy and enthusiasm into the rest of the climbing world. Thanks for using your soapbox to hopefully start some of that.

  • Ken - Kudos on this post and the direction in which you’re taking your psyche and energy.

    The focus of the summit sounds like it is from the user’s perspective: how climbers who visit an area can do their part to keep the area in good standing with land managers, competing user groups, private land owners, etc. I’d like to take a moment to point out another way the Access Fund supports and protects climbing, and that’s by providing resources to route developers.

    Over the past four years we’ve developed a new sport crag in western Montana. The crag has gained a lot of popularity and now can see 30 to 40 climbers on summer weekend days. But even before it reached that level of use, when it was still just a handful of us going up there to develop the routes, we began to get pushback from others who considered this public Forest Service land “there’s” and no one else’s. Our trail was repeatedly covered with logs and debris, primitive erosion control we built beneath climbs were destroyed, some bolts were smashed. It’s worth pointing out that our activity of developing this crag was 100% legal, no different than the hundreds of climbing areas that exist on public land throughout the country.

    When your investment in opening routes that adds up to weeks of labor and thousands of dollars is threatened –not to mention your very right to climb– it’s hard to know where to turn. It’s pretty much impossible to get local law enforcement involved –there’s no real crime they can latch on to. And land managers, such as district Forest Service personnel, remain mostly unfamiliar and uneducated to climbing as an activity. To most officials in either camp, climbing is viewed as a bunch of hippies (not my word) scrambling around the mountains. In other words, the agencies who officially govern our activity do not have an accurate understanding of modern climbing practices and popularity.

    It is, therefore, with a great deal of comfort when we, as route developers, can turn to the Access Fund for guidance and support. And this support covers a wide range, from well-formed guidelines, to statistics that help educate land managers, to actual legal assistance in extreme cases. At present, in our case, we’re using the first two to facilitate our conversations with our local Forest Service managers. We’re optimistic that through dialog and education we can get official recognition of our right as climbers to use this public land, and as a result, protect that right going forward. But it’s also great to know that through Access Fund resources, we can bring increased leverage to the table should it come to that.

    As you have so well stated, “There are reasons why we can go climbing in certain areas.” Just as the labor and expense of opening routes is quickly hidden beneath the scene of climbers out in the sun enjoying those routes (as it should be!), it’s good to remember there may also be hidden battles that were fought or are being fought to keep those routes accessible in the first place.

    Bottom line to anyone reading this: If you love rock climbing of ANY kind: Support the Access Fund! The Access Fund benefits all climbers on many different fronts, and the stronger and better-funded we can make it, the more our voices as a user group of public lands will be heard and the better our rights will be protected.

    Ken T
    Missoula, MT

  • Joey Kinder - Ken I couldn’t agree more with your post. In the seminar there were many topics of this conversation. Theft, vandalism, and uncooperative climbers in the area causing problems for the masses. This can be a sticky situation. It can be unfortunate, having “bad eggs” and I love the fact that we have the guidance from the Access Fund. Trust me when I say I have put my trust in them over the past few weeks. UGH! In the USA we are lucky to have an organizations like the Access Fund, where as in Europe and many other countries nothing like this exists (to my knowledge).

    And of course the arduous work of putting up routes will never be appreciated by the masses and that’s just the code we have to understand. From one route developer to another I respect your effort and passion. Keep equipping and take care in your work.

    I love your message… thanks so much for the comment.


  • Travis Peek - Joey well summerized! This summit event was an eye opening experience to know across the whole climbing community as a whole we are all faced with such common issues. Enjoyed the read.

  • Jack Santo - Very nicely written Joe. Thanks. For a new organization like ours, the summit was invaluable. Was also great to get your perspective on some of the issues while at the summit. Ken – great comment as well.

  • Peter Sancianco - Joe! Great write up. This was my first Access Fund event and for me, seeing the enthusiasm and knowledge from everyone who was there was very refreshing. Such a cool group of climbers coming together to discuss something important to all of us. Everyone brought something to the table and I feel that one of the greatest resources the climbing community has are the climbers that give back. Can’t wait to continue the conversation and share what we’ve already started doing at our gym to raise awareness to our climbing community.

    Gotta give a shout out to Ty, Linda, the Mohonk Preserve, everyone who made the event possible and everyone who made it a success. Joe, I really gained a lot of respect for you over the weekend (not to say I didn’t already or that you need it.. love your videos), but video impressions and face-to-face can sometimes be different. It was good to know this isn’t the case. Keep the amazing content coming so I can share it with the climbing community in NE!

  • Ronin - So it’s the GYMS who are at fault? Not the climbign advocacy group that is not only creating scores of new climbers but teaching them to bolt routes, all while teamed up with a 4WD manufacturer who offers discounts to members?

    Glad we cleared that up.

  • Peter Sancianco - Sounds like Ronin has a chip on his shoulder..

    I know the man is just trolling, but I can’t let this slide. At no point during the summit were any fingers pointed at anyone or any group. It was a meeting of passionate climbers, land owners and industry specialists who were all looking for proactive solutions. Everyone who attended was there as a concerned member of a greater climbing community. No marketing ploys or surreptitious dealings.

    As a member of this community, I have to defend events such as this one from those who have ulterior motives. Ronin, I checked out your blog and while you make interesting points, your passion is mired by seemingly pretentious finger pointing that draws too much attention to your ego rather than to potential solutions or positive calls to action. Your polarizing, idiosyncratic writing style is not helpful and a damaging model for impressionable climbers to follow. It is truly disappointing that given your years of experience, you are not more open to addressing your concerns with the Access Fund more directly instead of using digital libel to get attention and create a “The Man” mentality against an organization with good intentions.

    The Access Fund is not, “The Man.” In fact, the concept of climber mentality in dealing with land owners was a topic of discussion during the summit. Land owners are people as well as the Access Fund. If you look closely at the Access Fund, it is easy to see the faces behind all the hard work. Access Fund members are also climbers, not greedy socialites looking to get a discount on a car. But to do good, organizations like the Access Fund need financial backing. Hopefully, the Access Fund can have a positive effect on said unnamed company (I’ll save you the google search… it’s Jeep) and maybe Jeep will take a page from Subaru and support more events, media, policies to raise awareness of access threats. Shout out to the Subaru traveling Leave No Trace team!

    Joe, sorry about all the unnecessary comment drama on your nice blog: )

  • Ronin - Peter-

    I’ve volunteered for AF events and donated hundreds of dollars to them. I’ve also watched as climbers, the majority of whom were AF members, have trespassed on private land, brought huge groups to the crag, and released 3 dogs to every 1 or 2 climbers, dogs who have gone off to chase deer, crap in the trail, walk on my rope and dig holes at the belay.

    I’ve discussed this extensively with Brady Robinson- you may have heard of him? He admitted that a number of my points were quite valid… so you see that I have tried.

    It took two generations of entitled AF members and their dogs to make me the curmudgeon that I am.

    I’ve tried for over three decades to have a positive conversation with climbers who were walking right by while we were doing trail work, because our event wasn’t giving away free T-shirts and tiny PowRBars. I’ve sponsored five trail work days out of my own pocket, on a carpenter’s pay, because the AF wanted to turn everything into a promo spot and social event that we really didn’t need that on private land.

    How many trail days have you done, privately, Pete? How many crags have you discovered, developed, and built trail to? So many feel so free to judge and criticize the people who make outdoor climbing possible, when they themselves have contributed little or nothing, by comparison.

    Here’s the truth- YOU, Pete, and just about every other climber in the world, would have one helluva lot less climbing in the outside world, without hateful old bastards like me.

    I read your response as “Truth hurts” and “spin control”.

    And that is fine. Hate me, love me, I honestly couldn’t give a rat’s ass.

    But I make no apologies or compromises on the demand that you and all the gumbies you create and send forth, with minimal experience, unleashed dogs and shiny new drills, respect the forest, respect the stone, and respect the people who have spent thousands of hours and dollars developing routes, meeting landowners and securing access AND building trail and trying to educate climbers.



    BTW- If you don’t like the way I write, please rest assured that I find most of your own content pretty inane.

  • JJ - ” Shout out to the Subaru traveling Leave No Trace team!”


  • Chris - Ronin, it seems like many of your complaints about the AF are based on experiences with people you claim are in the AF. Just because someone is a member of an organization doesn’t mean they necessarily embody the ideals that the organization stands for. I’ve seen climbers do this myself and it frustrates me too, but I don’t seek to blame anyone but that person. If the president of the AF were to go out and do these things, then it’d be a different case. I think it’s great that so many people are supporting the AF since, although they may be somewhat inflated and concerned with promos and free giveaways, the true intention is to get people involved and educated about climbing ethics. These “ulterior motives” are simply ways to get people aware and engaged. Not everyone is as selfless and ready to devote themselves to the climbing community as you or me without getting something in return. Furthermore, I don’t really see how you’ve endured 2 entitled generations of AF members when the organization has only been around since 1991. I don’t claim to know nearly as much as you do about development, nor have I offered as much of my time (being a full-time student is tough!). But I do know that negativity and jaded attitude towards an entitled, uneducated, at times destructive generation isn’t the way to change the way they are, because I admit that many climbers, young as well as old, are at fault of this. Education, mentorship, and awareness are the solution, which I think is the real motivation behind the AF. I would hardly say that they encourage mindless development of routes and crags, and just because they haven’t been completely successful in educating the masses doesn’t mean that they are ill intentioned. They’re a young organization and it’s a tall order to educate an ephemeral, ever-growing community of climbers. I realize a simple comment on a blogpost like this isn’t going to change your or anybody else’s mind, but I encourage you to view people as individuals, rather than seeing groups of people and making generalizations based on isolated events and experiences.

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