A recent newspaper headline “Protecting America’s Rock Climbing Act Heads to U.S. Congress” leads me to believe that rock climbing was in trouble and that congressional action was required to save the sport. A few minutes of research revealed a different story. Within the last couple years, indoor climbing grew by 6% to 7% while outdoor climbing increased by 2% to 3%. And between 2006 and 2021, the climbing community grew nearly 64%. Seems positive to me.


Sponsored by Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) the bill’s inflammatory title gives the misleading impression that rock climbing needs protecting. For the sport to survive, this legislation proposes more access and fewer regulations are in order. The measure’s single purpose is to legalize the installation of permanent, fixed anchors and bolts on climbing routes, specifically within designated wilderness areas, where doing so is generally prohibited. This may not seem like a significant action, but in effect, it amends the Wilderness Act. A reminder: the Wilderness Act of 1964 is considered to be the standard for wildlands protection and currently safeguards 5% of Wyoming and less than 4% of the lower 48 states.

The legislation requires that no later than 18 months after its passage, the U.S. Forest Service, Park Service, BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service “issue guidance on climbing management in designated wilderness areas,” and that “the placement, use, and maintenance of fixed anchors” be allowed. If it becomes the law of the land, it opens the door for future impactful Wilderness Act amendments. For example, legislation is already written permitting mountain bikes in wilderness. Will e-bikes follow? Will the water sports community ask that motorboats be allowed on more wilderness lakes, or will hunters win the use of wheeled game carriers in wilderness? Will small plane pilots succeed in their push to develop more wilderness air strips? An open door is an open invitation.

And all for what?   

Those calling for fixed, permanent anchors claim that it’s a matter of safety and that it would bring more folks to the great outdoors. But isn’t rock climbing, particularly in wilderness, supposed to be challenging and perhaps just a bit inconvenient and dangerous? Should we then install handholds on exposed traverses? Should we construct bridges across streams considered by some to be unsafe and inconvenient to cross? Should we eliminate grizzly bears in the wilderness to make it safer for humans? As the late Montana author, A.B. Guthrie rhetorically proclaimed during an interview concerning grizzlies: “what is wilderness if not without danger?” Perhaps if something truly feels unsafe, we shouldn’t participate, and certainly within a wilderness, we shouldn’t demand that the situation be tamed by installing permanent conveniences. To do so goes against the very spirit and ethic of wilderness.

Fixed anchors — set in holes often bored with battery-operated drills — will delineate routes for years and attract more folks because they feel safe and secure clinging to convenient installations along clearly marked routes. How does beckoning climbers to fixed routes mesh with experiencing “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation,” which the 1964 Wilderness Act exhorts?

In 1990, the Forest Service’s Office of General Counsel issued an opinion that fixed bolts are “structures” and “installations,” features clearly prohibited by the 1964 law. It also opined that power drills frequently used to install the anchors “come within the ambit of devices prohibited” under the Wilderness Act. Hence the unfounded need and ill-advised attempt to amend the law.

It should be mentioned that not all traditional climbers favor fixed anchors. Many prefer the challenge of finding their own way, and when faced with insurmountable obstacles, acknowledging that some faces, some pitches, some mountains are simply too wild to climb — and wild they should remain.

Another argument is “why not allow permanent anchors, very few will ever see them?” That’s like reconciling leaving litter in the backcountry because few will ever see it. What happened to “pack it in, pack it out” and “leave no trace?” Remove the anchors and use them another day. Leave the wild untrammeled so another person can experience the thrill of personal discovery and accomplishment.

There are countless climbing opportunities outside wilderness areas where climbers can challenge their abilities and use permanent anchors. For example, mountainproject.com identifies 6,415 identified climbing routes in Wyoming. A quick “back of a napkin” calculation estimates far fewer than half are within wilderness areas. This doesn’t take into account the countless routes individuals use that are personal favorites outside wilderness and not included in official counts. 

Why must we surrender the integrity of the Wilderness Act and the lands it protects to a small and very select segment of the population? Has Manifest Destiny now imposed itself upon the very wildest peaks of Wyoming and beyond?

Wilderness needs protection, and traditional rock climbing is not under threat. Rock climbing is permissible within wilderness, just not the installation of permanent climbing hardware.

H.R. 1380 is unnecessary and sets a disastrous precedent. Passed, it would lessen the wilderness experience and open the door to other interests expecting similar outcomes.

Why must we surrender the integrity of the Wilderness Act and the lands it protects to a small and very select segment of the population? Has Manifest Destiny now imposed itself upon the very wildest peaks of Wyoming and beyond? Must we dominate and mar every last vestige of the wild? Have we lost all humility and self restraint?

Please oppose H.R. 1380 and keep wilderness wild. The Forest Service and Department of Interior agree, both have testified against the pending legislation.

Franz Camenzind is a retired wildlife biologist, winning cinematographer and former executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. He is a 55-year resident of Wyoming.

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  1. The bike lanes are now allowed to use electic motorized bikes, and there is a hearing to include cargo vehicles that are feet wide , four wheel electic motor quads . Charging stations will be required to be installed along the wilderness trails for the safety of the masses checking out the nature with motorized vehicles

  2. This article completely missed the point.

    El Capitan, the crown jewel of American Climbing in Yosemite, is listed as Wilderness. El Capitan has been climbed on since the late 1950’s, years before the adoption of the wilderness act. Climbers place bolts BY HAND, no power tools are allowed.

    —-Banning bolts in wilderness would be a CHANGE from how the wilderness act was interpreted and applied over the last 70 years. Normally they have been allowed and this act seeks to solidify that interperstion—-

    Bolts have been allowed in the wilderness since before the wilderness act existed, and were largely allowed in wilderness areas after the creation of the wilderness act. The proposed legislation changes NOTHING from the current status, only protecting climbing in wilderness areas from new land managers changing their minds on 70 years of precedent, and providing clear direction on interpretation of the act in regards to climbing.

    Yes the way the wilderness act is currently written has wording that argues against the use of bolting in the wilderness. However most wilderness areas that hold the best climbing in the US have viewed the sparing use of bolts (hand drilled) as an acceptable practice to protect otherwise unprotectable or dangerous climbing.

    Further, the use of straw arguments *where will it end?* is weak journalism. Focus on the issue and hand and please take the time to actually understand it. This bill only protects climbing in America as it has been done for the last half century.

  3. Sixty year old climber, climbing since my early teens, 220 new routes established across the country since 1993, many years spent climbing in wilderness, National Forest and Park lands, sponsor and participant in two dozen public lands trash clean ups and trail work events.

    This bill is nothing more or less than the Access Fund lying to Congress to force two venues (Joshua Tree and the Black Canyon) to bend the knee to Access Fund agendas. The Fund’s representative claimed that he was appearing before Congress “on behalf of America’s eight million climbers”, but only 1% of America’s climbers belong to the Fund. They didn’t even allow their own, dues-paying members to see and vote on the legislation before presenting it to Congress.

    New bolts in the wilderness should be by application, one a case by case basis. Replacement of wilderness bolts should also require application describing exactly how many bolts will be replaced, and where, to prevent new routes from appearing during what are supposed to be replacement events.

    The majority of climbers do NOT align with or support the agenda of corporate advocates like the Access Fund.

    Keep the wild in the wilderness.

  4. Right on. Sure I’d have fun paragliding in the wilderness, or riding an electric motorcycle (er mountain bike) too. It’s all ploy to unravel the best laws we have to protect far too little sacred land. How about phone booths every mile or two in case I have a boo boo. Big no.

  5. The greatest threat to USA Wilderness here in NW Wyoming, is the ongoing push to close it. Closing wilderness to primitive bipeds will kill wilderness philosophy and congress will follow and void the act. We need to encourage compliant use of USFS and NPS wilderness or suffers their elimination.

  6. Why not allow heli-sking or over the snow motorized transportation into designated Wilderness? Or cut heli-pads for everybody from agency biologists to fire crews to access wilderness. Because Wilderness since 1964 has very specific management to retain that character, a wilderness character, for as long as the public law is in place. Few, if any designated wilderness areas are pristine and untouched, with bridges, outfitter camps, along trail corridors. More and more these sites have disappeared in my area, some by nature, others by management actions. There is enormous pressure from recreation industries to relax outfitter/guide requirements to some of few remaining wild lands in this country without a compelling public purpose when so much roadless areas in multiple use are there to exploit.

  7. Unfortunately your assessment Franz is inaccurate. Federal wilderness areas already have “installations” in the form of trails and signage. These are constructed in wilderness areas to provide for the safety of the public. Contrary to your statement regarding bridges, these already exist as well within federally designated wilderness areas for the safety of the public to mitigate hazardous stream crossings. Fixed bolt anchors are a safety installation that also provides for the safety of recreational users and reduces the impact on natural vegetation that would otherwise be utilized for anchor systems. This legislation is a positive step in still protecting wilderness areas and the public. It further forces federal land management agencies to get on the same page and end their inconsistent management practices based upon local personal biases. Hopefully you can recognize that this proposed legislation actually is a positive step forward for wilderness.

  8. I’m an avid climber and because of that this editorial appeared in my newsfeed. While I largely agree with the author that sport climbing (contrast with traditional climbing if you don’t know the difference and wish to understand) is largely misplaced in our wilderness areas, I need to point out that I very much don’t think that that is a goal of this bill. Further, this opinion piece implies that this bill’s passage to law would bring power drills to the wilderness, and then lead to power tools/ vehicles/ apparatus for other recreational activities coming down the pike. Whether intentional or not on the part of the author, I believe this is a gross misrepresentation of the bills intent, and of it’s verbiage. To my understanding, this bill would not permit power drilling for bolt installation; bolts would continue to be legally installed only if drilled manually, as has always been the case in our wildernesses. What this bill would do is protect the continued existence of bolts within wilderness area, as well as making it officially legal (because it has been and continues to be debated) to replace them for maintenance to ensure their safety.
    While on one hand I share the author’s worry about a slippery slope, I believe that in this specific case it is misguided. This bill does nothing to further encourage grid – bolting, power -drilling sport climbing bolters into the wilderness; it only plainly and officially makes legal the continued practice of what has generally been accepted as legal by most for decades: manually drilling occasional bolts on wilderness routes to protect portions of climbing routes not otherwise protectable.

  9. Thanks for letting us know. Fixed placements to accommodate the untrained novice have no place in federal or state parks (see article about Sinks). Having free climbed since childhood, there is no reason to damage good rock to accommodate the gym climber who want to claim great climbs on real rock with mechanical assistance. Novice weekenders should stay in the gym.

  10. I have backpacked in wildernesses in Alaska and other states. I have also done some rock climbing In California and elsewhere (up to leading 5.9 climbs back when we were still using pitons.) Bolts in the wilderness is a desecration. Keep the wilderness experience pure. There are plenty of places to climb.

  11. I agree with the author’s stance that wilderness should be protected. However, respectfully, there are several benefits to judicial placement of fixed anchors that should enhance wilderness values in oft-used climbing areas.

    I have been climbing for over 20 years all over the United States. Often when one gets to the top of a route the way down is to walk or scramble down a different way then one came up. The other option is to rappel back down the route. Sometimes rappeling is preferred, but it often requires leaving gear in place to rappel from, and consequently many climbers opt to walk off. Walking off leads to a proliferation of social trails. If fixed anchors are put in place on the top of climbs for the specific use of rappelling it can often reduce social trail proliferation, litter (because climbers don’t need to leave gear in place to rappel), and can, in some cases, improve safety (getting down can be dangerous!)

    A great example of the problems with a moratorium on fixed anchors is Joshua Tree National Park. There are social trails all over the place there because climbers cannot simply rappel back down to the base of the cliff because many climbs don’t have a fixed anchor on the top. In J Tree’s case, the anchor would consist of a couple of small bolts affixed to the top of the rock where no one could see them. This would drastically reduce the damage to J Tree’s vegetation caused by the hoards of climbers. Of course, the numbers of climbers could also be limited or better trails installed, but that is another topic. Fixed anchors would help.

    Also anchors can be placed in areas that are difficult to see (the top of a cliff) and that mimic the color of the rock (bolts are available in a variety of colors to mimic different rock types). As a relevant aside, anchor placement is a challenging task and those that do it typically have stewardship in mind, as they have been climbing for years (I know of absolutely zero climbers who have installed anchors without having climbed for a long time). Thus, I don’t see an issue with numerous unskilled folks installing anchors all over the place.

    Finally, I do want to call into question the author’s primary logical strategy in this argument. A slippery slope argument is not strong. a does not necessarily lead to b, particularly when it comes to legislation.

    I appreciate the author taking the time to speak out and hope my thoughts here are useful to those of you that enjoy the comments section : )

  12. What about the now prohibited maintenance of the thousands of fixed anchors used for Trad Rappels across wilderness? Under the old policy these fixed anchors were maintained for decades with a hand drill.

    It appears this legislation targets that issue, and does not allow power drill bolted sport climbs as you would suggest.

    1. Just another step to tame the natural world. To many people in this world who think they want to improve on nature. There is a price we pay for everything we do.

  13. Franz – as a lifelong traditional rock climber, I definitely agree with your position on this matter. However, since you are not a climber, you may not have been aware of what to me is probably the strongest argument against bolts in the wilderness. And that is the circus-like, gymnasium attitude and disconnection from nature, that seems to accompany the use of these extremely difficult bolted routes. The use of crash pads, the yelling, the bro-party atmosphere, the top-roping, that seems to be part of the sport-climbing scene, would inevitably start to invade these wilderness routes, IMHO. I have nothing against bolts as a safety measure, to be sure, but the type of aggressive athleticism that seems likely in this case, would be a sad corruption of the intent of our venerable and honorable Wilderness Act.

    1. Peter, if you are a lifelong traditional climber then you have undoubtedly clipped hundreds of in-situ climbing anchors such as pitons, bolts, or webbing in wilderness locations. Many of these anchors were placed well before the wilderness designation was applied to the area and before the Forest Service retroactively decided these anchors are “structures”. These anchors were placed sparingly and minimally by first ascensionists and have been maintained by climber groups and good Samaritan volunteers using HAND DRILLS per wilderness rules. These wilderness routes have existed for decades without devolving into the sport climbing scene that you decry, partly because of the self-governing “rules” built into the climbing community and partly because of climbing management plans that this bill would create. This bill only seeks to preserve wilderness climbing as it currently exists and as you and I have enjoyed throughout our lives. It does NOT seek to introduce power drills, e-bikes, and sport climbing into wilderness areas. While I appreciate the author’s opinion and concern for wilderness areas, I believe his lack of climbing experience has led to the wrong conclusion about the intents and impacts of the bill.

  14. Thank you for your article. I had no idea a bill was being introduced. Being an avid outdoors person, hiker, etc., I can understand the position of the climbers. However, after reading your article and checking some things out, I can’t support something that permanently damages our wilderness. Again – thank you for bringing this out.

  15. One only needs to read about or observe what has happened in Ten Sleep Canyon in the Bighorn Mountains to understand the danger of destroying Wilderness as we know it. This has been going on for some time as noted in the Feb. 18 2019 article in Rock and Ice. This is proof what the future of bolting routes in the wilderness will be if we allow this bill to pass. Look around cliff faces of the non wilderness areas in you area and see for yourselves. Areas on the west side of the Bighorns, like Piney Creek canyon are being made into a outdoor climbing gym, complete rebar reinforced steps cut into the base of the rock face. H.R. 1380 bill is not what it appears in name.

  16. Mr. Camenzind’s defense of wilderness is eloquent and concise. We stand with him against the degradation of wilderness by a thousand cuts.

  17. Oh yea! I can see where taking it upon your self to dangle from a rope affixed to a single anchor drilled into the rock years ago makes perfect sense to have congressional oversite for your safety. We sure do need thousands more folks climbing like spiders all over the rocks. Now as a company if I ignored safety warnings and didn’t have back up anchors backing the anchors and some one fell. Boy o boy would I be in trouble with OSHA! But we can let fools drill holes in rock and dangle and swing free. Now I bet this has something to do with the $$$$ these fools will spend chasing their deaths. But let them do so with out some congress person writing rules.