A couple weeks ago, after the devastating news of what our new president has planned for our environment, I decided to take action. The SLCA (Salt Lake Climber’s Alliance), along with the Access Fund and the Forest Service, are developing the largest trail network on Forest Service land. Pretty cool, right? It’s called The Grit Mill Project and you can check it out here.
Except, at first, I didn’t think it was cool. My knee-jerk reaction to trail work was negative because I viewed it as:
- A disturbance to the natural environment
- A money-suck, especially in labor
- Making approaches unnecessarily long
- Less natural
- Making access easier (and could bring in graffiti artists *anger, anger, anger*)
- And, of course, it pissed off die hard climbers who want to go back to the 1960’s when LITERALLY NOBODY ELSE was out climbing. (I feel you.)
But, I wanted to volunteer with an open mind, so I strapped on my work boots and hit the trail.
I hadn’t known much about the Access Fund. I’d heard their slogan to “Protect America’s Climbing,” but I didn’t know how they achieved that. What does sustainable trail work look like and how are they advocates?
They are advocates by supporting local initiatives through grants and loans. They use their platform to rally signatures for petitions. They organize adopt-a-crag events and help other passionate, local climbers do the same. They spend their workdays literally protecting America’s climbing from getting snagged up in public and private land swaps and sales. On top of all that, they also create sustainable ways to access the crags we love so dearly.
I’m going to take it back to high school and throw down the actual definition of sustainable:
Sustainable: (adjective) capable of being supported or upheld, as by having its weight borne from below.
Trail work employs natural elements to create a trail that can withstand the weight we stress on it every day. Through trail building, volunteers help make crush that fills in gaps between rocks to form stairs and solid retaining walls. They widen already existing trails or clear the way for new ones. They remove root systems that would eventually impact the trail. It’s a process of reinforcement that maintains the trails for years.
The trails that snake their way up Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons (as well as hundreds of other climbing areas) don’t have the capacity to support themselves with the amount of force we put on them. Think about it! A rope alone weighs about 10 pounds, add to that draws, food, water, and god-forbid a trad rack, PLUS your body weight—we’re easily packing up hundreds of thousands of pounds on these little deer trails. No wonder the Access Fund and other sustainability groups are worried about erosion. With the amount of weight we’re pushing down on the soil I’m surprised we haven’t destroyed the trails and mountainsides sooner.
I learned that I am undereducated about sustainability and the environment. I am, however, excited to learn more and become a better advocate.
As a concessionary note—trail work shouldn’t (and I don’t think it will) become necessary in more remote, alpine environments. We all want those places to remain wild. But, if I’m going to my local crag, and I know there are going to be a bunch of people with their dogs and their beer and their boomboxes, then I want to know, that as the sport grows, we’re doing our best to protect the places we love.