Within the past 12 months, new regulations have been implemented at popular climbing destinations nationwide, including Yosemite National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park and Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon, with more on the way. And while COVID is the ostensible reason, a recent article on the Access Fund website (accessfund.org) asserts, “Planning for many of these reservation and permit systems has been in the works for years … it was only a matter of time.”
Of course, these restrictions affect all visitors, of which climbers are just a fraction. But because climber safety depends upon accurate weather forecasts, especially up high, planning climbs requires a certain level of spontaneity — which is precisely what’s being limited.
As climbers, it’s easy to view our glass of future access as half-empty. So now, more than ever, it’s worth remembering our success stories — especially one that’s right in our backyard.
In the mid-1980s, Boulder’s elite began to establish some of North America’s hardest sport routes right here in the Flatirons. And the potential for more seemed limitless.
But soon, a confrontation between a climber and hiker snowballed into a conflict between climbers as a whole and what was then the Department of Recreation (DOR) and Mountain Parks. “The relationship between the land manager and climbers could not have been worse,” said Dave Turner, an attorney and longtime Flatirons champion. “The head of the Department told Chris Archer (a leader in climbing circles) they would allow new bolts in the Flatirons ‘when hell freezes over.’”
An immediate and complete ban on fixed anchors shut down climbing development for the next 15 years. In terms of climbing evolution, the Flatirons became a backwater.
A full decade passed before Access Fund activist Rico Thompson organized a cadre of climbers, including representatives from four local and national organizations to challenge the ban. They approached the DOR with three goals: 1) to demonstrate that climbers are not only users of the Flatirons, but caretakers, 2) to improve their relationship with the city and 3) to secure a pilot program for new routes.
The climbers sponsored trail projects, restoration efforts and educational outreach. By 1998 they formed what became the Flatirons Climbing Council (FCC) and slowly rebuilt a relationship with the city based on trust and teamwork.
“After many meetings — we’re talking 18 months to two years of this — they agreed to a pilot project,” said Turner, who served as FCC president from 2001-2007.
But then came a devastating blow.
The Boulder City Council adopted Mountain Parks from the DOR, which gave the Flatirons a new land manager and completely different staff. “So we had to start all over again,” said Turner. “Square one.”
Eventually, in 2003, Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the FCC, to allow for a handful of new routes on two minor formations: Der Zerkle and Red Devil.
“When the bolting ban was lifted, and the first new route went into the Red Devil, it was Archer’s route,” said Turner. “And you know what it’s named? ‘Hell Freezes Over.’”
In the past 18 years, roughly 60 high-quality routes have been added to the Flatirons in accordance with the MOU. And the FCC and OSMP partner up regularly, most recently for a volunteer trail project last Saturday (July 17) to improve the climber access trail on the south side of the Third Flatiron. “The current relationship between OSMP and the climbing community is in a great place,” said Beau Clark, OSMP Trails Volunteer Coordinator. “It’s really highlighted by open dialogue and the willingness to be flexible — two things that serve the long game well.”
In addition to trail projects, climbers and OSMP collaborate on a successful raptor monitoring program, wag bag dispensers (to minimize human waste), bolt replacement, trash cleanup events and more.
“We have consistently validated our interest in not only advocating for climbing, but also advocating for the well-being of the Flatirons themselves,” said Rui Ferreira, current FCC president.
And that really points to the right way forward, in the Flatirons and everywhere else climbers explore — regardless of new regulations: We must ensure that access and stewardship go hand in hand.
Contact Chris Weidner at email@example.com. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8.