Some Preliminary Notes on the Intersection of Leave-No-Trace and Climbing


Most climbers I know consider themselves environmentalists to one degree or another. Before I started climbing I was a hiker and most of the hikers I knew considered themselves environmentalists as well. I think it is fair to say that most people who engage in human-powered outdoor recreation think of themselves in this way. A central part of environmentalism for these recreationists is Leave-No-Trace (LNT) ethics – central to the point where, for many people, LNT is what environmentalism means in practice. LNT is immentantely practical, it concerns how we travel, how we camp, how we cook and clean and defecate, and yet it is ultimately idealistic. To truly leave no trace is impossible, any intelligent person will admit this; LNT is built on the model of Christian or Platonic purity, just as one can never be truly free from sin or the corruption of the body, so can we never truly avoid leaving traces, yet we must strive to none the less, or so goes the ethic.


Backpacking in one of the most heavily regulated wilderness areas in Washington, 2008. Photo by Andy Smith


Issues have recently been raised with this version of LNT by a cadre of environmentalists, perhaps the most vocal of whom are Gregory Simon and Peter Algona. Informed by the work of William Cronon, they have questioned the ways LNT redirects environmental impacts from one region to another, encourages a culture of consumerism among outdoor enthusiasts, and is selectively enforced by specific user groups in order to exclude others. In a fuller version of this essay I would examine their work, and Cronon’s, in detail, and explain exactly what their, in my view rather damning, criticisms mean for climbers, but that would necessitate a full examination of the entire history of wilderness recreation in the Western United States, a task which is impossible for me at the moment as I am without university library access. I am therefore limited here to what I can accomplish on my own, which is raise a series of questions about how LNT really applies to climbing, and to human existence in the wilderness more generally.

Traces of human presence in a rather unlikely spot, well off route on the Persis-Index traverse.

Traces of human presence in a rather unlikely spot, well off route on the Persis-Index traverse.

Like most wilderness users, climbers believe in a version of LNT that fits the practical requirements of their activity. Just as hikers want well maintained trails, climbers want well cleaned routes, and just as many hikers would be amazed at the amount of construction work that goes into trail-building, so many climbers would be amazed at how creating clean climbs reshapes the rock faces. In some alpine environments climbers can just walk up and set off on perfect virgin stone, but the vast majority of rock climbs, particularly in Western Washington, would be unrecognizable in their original states. The proper degree of this reshaping is, of course, a matter of debate: on one side stands the old-school trad onsight purists, who believe a route description ruins a climb, and on the other are the new wave high end sport climbers, who want every route immaculately cleaned, chalked, and equipped with fixed draws. Most climbers fall somewhere between these two extremes. The critical point that I would like to raise is that LNT is irrelevant to this debate; LNT, and in fact environmental concerns in general, have nothing to do with the controversies that have defined how climbing is to be undertaken. LNT is evoked by one side or the other to give their position a moral dimension – “we climb this way because it’s the right way, for the world,” and to put it bluntly, this is bullshit. To not leave traces is no climber’s goal, and is in fact contrary to the entire endeavor.


Route development at a new bouldering area off Mountain Loop Hwy.


The ongoing debate over what constitutes the proper way to protect a climb illustrates my point. Early British crag climbers sound like modern environmentalists for rejecting the use of pitons at their home crags, but a closer examination of their arguments reveals not a concern for harming the rock, but a concern for their own reputations as sportsmen. Pitons and carabiners were a German innovation and the fervor with which the British climbers rejected them always had a nationalistic edge. Eventually, if not in Britain, pitons became ubiquitous and innovations in their design led to the great breakthroughs of the 1950s and 60s in Yosemite Valley. Then came “clean climbing,” a development so mythologized that fantasy and obfuscation intertwine freely. Most climbers today believe that pitons are an obsolete technology, that the world of climbing came to its senses, saw what they were doing to the rock, and found a better way. This is untrue on a number of levels. Firstly, pitons are still widely used, if only in several fringe genres of climbing: hard aid and ice/mixed. Secondly, that they have been preserved in these genres is not a coincidence, for it is in these two genres that climbers either already carry hammers or find it no great inconvenience to do so. This is the critical point of clean climbing – it was never about the damage that pitons were doing to the rock, it was just that pitons and hammers were heavy and inconvenient for hard free climbing and so climbers found a way to do without them.

A close examination of the historical record bears this out; Royal Robbins’ first attraction to the artificial chockstones he learned about in Britain was that they could be placed with one hand, while Yvon Chouinard, whose company manufactured pitons, was very leery of the idea until he realized that he could co-opt the movement to produce and sell a whole new line of climbing equipment. Spring-loaded caming devices, the ultimate tool of the clean climber because they can be placed and removed so easily, were actually rejected by this same generation, who feared that they would remove the psychological challenge of lead climbing. The next generation’s objection to bolting on rappel or to bolting in general, depending on who one asks, was identical. The movement against bolting is especially interesting because it so often uses environmental rhetoric. If according to LNT a wilderness user should leave nothing behind then a bolt is an obvious and flagrant violation, but the actual ecology of cliffside ecosystems complicates the issue. Although the common trad climber may feel that they are leaving less of a trace than the sport climber, the cleaning of cracks that most trad climb development demands is far more ecologically destructive than the placing of a few bolts and the removal of lichen from a few holds. This is where LNT ideals become confused. The goal of LNT is twofold, to preserve the wilderness experience for other users and to minimize damage to ecosystems, yet the common-sense application of LNT to climbing, leaving less stuff behind, makes these contradictory. To preserve the climbing experience for other climbers typically means to leave the stone unchanged but with the plant and animal life removed from it, forcing the two goals of LNT into a collision.

This is an serious dilemma because the application of environmental ethics to non-living substances is deeply illogical. Stone itself is not an ecosystem or a fragile living organism; the ethic of preservation, of look-but-do-not-touch, does not apply to it. A plant is harmed when a hiker tramples it and a bird is harmed when a climber destroys its nest, these things have adverse effects for that organism and for its offspring and ultimately for the species as a whole, but the stone is not harmed by its manual erosion. What this ultimately reduces to is a flaw in the ideological core of LNT. The problem LNT is designed to solve is humans “ruining” the environment and its solution is a sort of sustainable recreation, yet the ethic projects itself as a moral absolute. This allows LNT to be used to justify all kinds of exclusionary practices, from bolt chopping to flagging tape removal. This would be conceivable as a necessary evil if LNT as a moral absolute was justifiable, but at the most essential level it is contrary to the nature of our existence as humans. Our ability to leave traces is how we know we exist, how we root ourselves in the world and justify our lives. We want our lives to matter, we want to be remembered, and this means leaving traces. This is what climbers are doing when they establish first ascents, they are leaving a trace of their existence in an inhospitable place. The drive to explore and conquer, to sort a mountain into routes and variations, to realize it’s “potential,” all of this comes from the urge to leave a trace.

Classic shot of quarrying at the Index town walls, now a much-revered climbing area

Classic shot of quarrying at the Index town walls, now a much-revered climbing area

There is an argument to be made that this cultural desire to mark the world like a dog pissing on a tree explains much of the damage westerners have done in the last few hundred years but my goal here is to describe, not to condone or to condemn. Climbers do not want a pure, natural world where they can explore and leave no trace of their passage, they want to exploit and develop just as the loggers and miners and construction contractors do; the only difference is that they want to develop climbing areas and not cities, extract recreation and not timber or minerals. LNT ethics, while useful to climbers in order to manage their “impact,” are deeply at odds with the entire climbing culture.


Because this is a preliminary essay designed to organize my thoughts on the matter and provide a format for future research, I have not cited my sources as per academic standards.

Those interested in the environmentalists I have mentioned should consult

Uncommon Ground, ed. William Cronon

Beyond Leave No Trace, Simon and Algona

Those interested in the climbing history I have recounted should consult

Unjustifiable Risk?: The Story of British Climbing, Simon Thompson

Pilgrims of the Vertical, Joseph Taylor