Can Ethical Climbing Reach New Heights with Indigenous Communities?

I follow on the tail end of a generation of climbers who entered the world of climbing through their dads. My dad is an experienced climber and mountaineer who ensured from the outset that I was educated on the important issues within climbing. Primarily these are the safety practices of the sport, but also of the values of climbing – a love of the outdoors and a reverence for nature. 

In today’s climbing world the internet has bought a wealth of knowledge and great resources. But knowledge within the community used to be passed down across generations by word of mouth within tight-knit communities. In this age of mass information, some fundamental questions arise.

What is the due process in the development of ethical climbing?

I hope that my attempt to answer this is merely a beginning in the process of the rise of ethical climbing. As a UK based climber, I have discovered that crag access here is usually determined by land ownership –  and once consent is granted for climbers to use a piece of land, the access challenges are significantly reduced. Beyond the preservation of the crag for climbing, there aren’t too many concerns about the significance of our rock.

For this reason, it is worthwhile to turn our attention to the USA, where the sport of climbing meets indigenous pastoralism. The indigenous American peoples, across their 574 recognised nations, have a set of deeply pastoral cultures and traditions dating back thousands of years. With the recent arrival of climbers on the landscapes which indigenous people have nurtured and revered for millennia, ethical questions are raised.

Infringement of Indigenous Lands

Since the occupation of their ancestral lands first began, indigenous Americans have been pushed back further and further into reservations, which are still being threatened today as corporate interests are given priority. Projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which has violated the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, have been imposed on indigenous land. Indigenous activists have long recognised that treaties regarding their ownership of sacred lands are often held in contempt by the state, and do not withstand opposition to corporate interests. 

As of 2021, studies have shown that one in ten indigenous people do not have access to clean drinking water, often as a direct result of pipelines such as the DAPL. Pollution and contamination threaten waterways which have supported indigenous people for millennia. The escalation of this crisis has evolved from cultural violation to the destruction of natural infrastructure which has been cultivated to support native people. At stake is fundamental access to basic sanitation.

“The fact that some climbers have held Native American wishes in contempt is a sad reality, but one that must be confronted.”

I mention this in an article about climbing development as it is important to recognise that issues of climbing development do not exist in a vacuum. This entails not just protecting the rock, but also those communities who have subsisted for thousands of years where your sport has taken an interest in the last fifty.

As an ecotourism writer, I have witnessed the emergence of an ethos of supporting the communities who belong to areas of tourist interest, however, it is not adopted universally. Equally, in the climbing community, I have seen these ideas both being advocated for, and also disregarded.

Devil’s Tower, Wyoming

One such point of shared interest between Native Americans and climbers is Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, which is culturally significant to over 20 indigenous nations. A 2018 article from Outside magazine reports how “an increasing number of climbers are choosing to ignore a voluntary June climbing ban that’s been in place for more than 20 years to allow local tribes to hold ceremonies at the site”,  stating that “roughly 373 climbers scaled Devils Tower in June 2017, compared to 167 in 1995”.

It is not for me to speculate whether these ascents went ahead due to ignorance surrounding the voluntary June ban, or whether the ban has been recognised and disregarded in favour of an iconic ascent, however, I will note that between the 1990s and the present day, climbing has garnered a significant following online.

The Current Climbing Culture

The rise in popularity has seen the sport of climbing accelerate towards the mainstream. Whilst I would like to believe that this is ultimately a good thing, the community is faced with new challenges. With a new generation of climbers inspired by social media, the values which have been passed down in a previous model of climbing are now dislocated. In my time as the chairperson of my university climbing club in Sheffield, I saw an influx of new climbers turning up at the wall with little prior knowledge of the sport besides what had been featured on Instagram.  

Modern climbers are not tied into the core of their communities the way that they used to be. As sport climbing gains more clout, it is more important than ever that the community does not negatively impose itself on areas of interest to the sport. A disorganised climbing community which fails to adhere to ethics has the potential to be hugely damaging to local communities and environments. 

The decentralised nature of climbing communities can lead to a frustration of the group core when ethics are disregarded, as this can result in the degradation of crags, and the wishes of indigenous communities being held in contempt. Both of these have the potential to limit crag access, and makes the expansion of the sport more challenging. In trying to facilitate the expansion of the sport in line with the rapid rise in popularity, I believe that sensitivity towards indigenous cultures can be supported by ecotourism models and ensure that the ethics of climbing can be observed throughout the sport’s expansion.

To be clear, it is not my intention to turn away newcomers to the sport, nor is it to look back mournfully at the “golden age” of climbing. Today, climbing is more inclusive than ever and is moving away from a culture which was in many ways very chauvinistic, and a traditionally “masculine” pastime. So, to create space for newcomers to climbing, the development of new crags is put on the agenda. Whilst there is still scope for development in much of the United States, British rock has been scoured for new routes for years, and development only seems to occur in the higher grades, making overseas climbing tourism a possible solution. 

The Future of Ethical Climbing with Indigenous Communities

What is needed is for climbers to recognise the implications of their sport, and where indigenous cultures are concerned in climbing areas – such as in Wyoming with the Devil’s Tower. Climbers should see to it that the communities see the benefits of climbing in the area, and are not beholden to a sport which takes from the land without giving in return; otherwise, there is nothing to say that climbing development is anything more than an extension of neo-colonial doctrine.

The question arises concerning the continuation of this vein of sustainability at the core of climbing culture as the growing popularity of the sport sees the sensational image. For this reason, I see huge potential for the benefits of integration between the climbing lifestyles and ecotourism models, which have shown it is possible to represent the interests of indigenous peoples at the core of industry operation.

By playing to the strengths of the community and creating a space for traditional practices to thrive alongside the presence of tourist institutions, this coexistence can help traditional cultures thrive in the modern world where prior industry models have tried to stamp their practices out.

The Maasai people, for example, have proven to be some of the most talented safari guides in Kenya; and where climbing is concerned, some of Kenya’s Samburu people have enthusiastically taken to the sport in the area surrounding Mount Ololokwe, a gneissic monolith which is deeply sacred in their culture.

Global Development of Ethical Climbing

From the South African Rocklands to Ethiopia’s Sandstone Towers, climbing development continues, and is generally well-received, and carried out in a conscientious fashion. Ultimately, I believe that there are a great many success stories regarding climbing development around the world; yet I would caution that complacency can curtail the effects of goodwill. Here is my attempt to bring to the forefront ethical climbing around the world which puts the indigenous communities at the heart of the experience:

  • The Annapurna Trail – Walking with the Sherpas on the roof of the world (Nepal)
  • The Lares Trek – Incas and life amongst the gods (Peru)
  • Drakensburg and the Kingdom of Swaziland (South Africa)
  • Mount Olokowe – Samburu and the Sacred Monolith (Kenya)
  • Uluru – Preserving the Sacred Aboriginal Culture (Australia)
  • Sandstone Towers – (Ethiopia) 

Cornerstones to Successful Climbing Development

Treat the rock, and the people with respect. Be conscientious of any cultural significance the landscape may have to people, and bring reverence to the rock wherever you go.

Read up on the climbing ethics where you go. A country with any climbing presence will most likely have a climbing club who have set out a set of ethics regarding how the nation’s rock is to be treated, and these ethics will change from place to place. The Mountain Club of  Kenya, for example, states that routes are not to be bolted unless absolutely necessary.

Don’t go on the cheap. Climbers have cultivated a dirtbag culture in many ways, however, there is no better way to outstay your welcome in a developing country than to keep a tight purse. Give tips. Donate Gear. Help the local economy and the local climbing scene get up on their feet. 

Read other articles by Jonathan Gathercole

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