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Is Bouldering a Sustainable Climbing Activity?

How to Lessen the Impact of Bouldering


Climbers bouldering at Kid's Stuff area on North Mountain, Hueco Tanks State Historic Park, Texas.

A large group of boulderers at the Kid's Stuff Wall at Hueco Tanks can cause a lot of environmental impact and damage.

Photograph by Stewart M. Green
Ian Spencer-Green boulders above a crash pad at The Blowouts at the Garden of the Gods, Colorado.

The Blowouts, a popular bouldering spot at Garden of the Gods, has a lot of ground damage and soil loss from many climbers and hikers at the cliff base.

Photo © Stewart M. Green
Dennis Jackson bouldering at The Maze at Hueco Tanks.

Try to leave no trace of your passage on boulders, especially in remote desert areas that can be easily and permanently damaged by bouldering activity.

Photograph by Stewart M. Green

Bouldering has become extremely popular since the mid-1990s. There are, of course, the obvious reasons like bouldering is fun and a good social activity. But since then, climbers have also discovered that there are more boulders than cliffs, especially in places like the East Coast and the South where boulderfields hide in the woods. Boulders are often more accessible than cliffs. Bouldering requires less time commitment than roped climbing on any given day. Bouldering equipment is also minimal-rock shoes, chalk bag, and sometimes a crash pad-so it's easy to get out climbing without spending lots of cash.

Popularity Causes Bouldering Restrictions

The increased popularity of bouldering has strained American bouldering areas, with some being loved to death. Some popular bouldering areas, like Hueco Tanks in west Texas, have had severe restrictions placed on the numbers of boulderers allowed in the area as well as restrictions on where boulderers can go and practice their sport.

Bouldering Impacts Fragile Environments

Bouldering does have a lot of impact on environments. Many boulderfields are found in already fragile ecosystems, like the subalpine zone on Mount Evans and at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado; Niagara Glen near Niagara Falls with many rare and endangered plants and animals; and Hueco Tanks State Historical Park with its arid climate and many archeological sites.

Bouldering Effects that Cause Management Problems

The effect of boulderers on most bouldering areas that create problems for land managers include:

  • Compacting the soil below boulder problems.
  • Damaging or killing vegetation at the base of boulder problems by laying crash pads on the ground.
  • Plants and lichens being removed or "cleaned" from the boulder problem.
  • Cracks filled with soil and plants being "cleaned" out.
  • Delicate plant and soil environments on top of boulders being damaged or removed.
  • Creating social trails that go from one boulder to another as well as creating additional social trails from main access trails.
  • Using unnecessarily large amounts of chalk on problems, particularly overhanging ones that rarely get wet, so that ugly white pockmarks are found on popular boulders. Also leaving unsightly tic marks is a problem.
  • Leaving trash behind at bouldering areas, including cigarette butts, plastic water bottles, energy bar wrappers, bits of tape, and even glass beer bottles.
  • Not respecting area closures for wildlife and plants but feeling anything can and will be climbed.
  • Moving many rocks from the base of boulder problems or using a shovel to create a level landing area or fall zone.
  • Bringing dogs to fragile areas where they dig holes, lay on vegetation, chase wildlife, and create waste problems.
  • Chipping and gluing handholds and footholds by using a hammer and chisel to create or enhance holds or using epoxy to either glue additional holds on the rock surface or to stabilize and strengthen existing fragile features.
  • Bouldering near archeological sites, including rock art, prehistoric and historic structures, and even climbing above buried paleo-debris like middens or ancient trash piles.
  • Bouldering is often a social rather than solitary experience so large groups of climbers congregate at a boulder or problem causing more resource damage, including soil compaction and trampling vegetation.

Is Bouldering a Sustainable Activity?

Land managers and environmentalists often butt heads with boulderers over the impact that bouldering has on environments. Many land managers now wonder if bouldering is a sustainable climbing activity on their land resource. If they think bouldering is not compatible with their resource management, then the possibility of access restrictions, area closures, and changes in an area's environmental policy can result.

4 Ways to Lessen Impact

The good news is that climbers and boulderers can do a lot to lessen their impact on fragile cliff and boulder environments. There are several ways that this can be done:

  • By changing their bouldering behaviors.
  • By engaging in meaningful dialogue with land managers and environmentalists about bouldering and its impacts.
  • By compromising on where to climb to protect fragile boulder environments, which often have rare plants.
  • By educating land managers and other climbers about the effects of bouldering and how those effects can be primarily mitigated by climbers.

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