Looking Back to Look Ahead


This weekend (May 1-3), the ROCK Project will be coming to New York. For those unfamiliar with this event series, the Access Fund and Black Diamond teamed up to work with the climbing community, aligning education and programs that directly address access and environmental concerns in particular regions. With the event based partly in a gym and partly outside, the goal is education on how to achieve longevity of climbing.


The event raises important questions about how to sustain the growth of climbing, and we're fully in support. In fact, we’ve asked many of the same questions. From keeping an all-nut ascent book at the store when pitons were being replaced with nuts to stopping carrying pitons at all, to donating money, time and energy—Rock and Snow has always tried to be thoughtful, respectful and involved with our climbing areas. But why is this important and what is needed to preserve the future of climbing?




Back in the early 1970s, climbing was at a tipping point. Two totally different communities (the local Gunks area and Yosemite) across the country were facing a decision surrounding a little piton. The dilemma: to hammer or not to hammer. 


Leading up to this, in the late 60s, pitons were the norm. But around the turn of the decade their destruction started becoming more evident. In his regional newsletter, The Eastern Trade, John Stannard, climbing pioneer of his time, writes “Pitons were about as natural as a bulldozer, and not significantly less destructive.” The Eastern Trade, which launched in Oct 1971, was published quarterly for eight years with a purpose of making people “aware of the problems and courses of action that may lead to their solutions,” along with notes on equipment, climbing techniques and news.


 A snapshot of The Eastern Trade. These newsletters provide a fascinating trip back in time, with plenty of serious discussions and tongue-in-cheek humor. You can read a collection of them on the Rock and Snow site, which the Mohonk Preserve gaciously lent from their archieve. 


From England, a new type of protection arrived: the nut. The practice of using this type of protection in the States, at the time, was newfangled. It was largely spawned by The Eastern Trade, by Doug Robinson’s 1972 essay in the Chouinard Catalog, as well as Royal Robbins and others that had traveled to and adopted techniques already in use in England. 


“The future of the Shawangunks,” writes Stannard, “depends upon the willingness of all climbers to use nuts and fixed pitons for their protection.”


These nuts, were the future: they left little to no damage to the rock and could be removed and used again. It was a novel and less impactful, but it depended on climbers to make the switch. And when the time-tested trust of the protection of pitons was sized up against the no-so-well-known nuts—many were skeptical. 


But resistance didn’t deter Stannard, and he spearheaded the change. He created an all-nut ascent log, placed it at Rock and Snow and urged everyone that did an all nut ascent to write it in the log, lending climbers notoriety and a source of beta. 


The idea came at a crucial time: The practice of placing and removing pitons in the Gunks over just six years “has produced a level of destruction in the Shawangunk exceeded only by the destruction it has produced in Yosemite.” The destruction came in the form of enlarged holes in key areas where party after party hammered in and then removed pitons. In some instances they suddenly created new handholds, changing the climb entirely. 


 Photo from SuperTopo of pin scars on Serenity Crack in Yosemite.


But there were other concerns, as well, centering around impact that the increase in climbers had on the environment,which caused La Verne Thompson, Trustee of the Mohonk Trust, the land managing body at the time that would become the Mohonk Preserve, in April 1972 to write: We all love the ‘Gunks’, but let us not love them to death.” And still others mourned another change from the increase in climbers: the loss of the “essential experience of the cliffs and climbing…"


A collection of old pins. Thanks to Richard Ross for contributing the photo.  


There were all types of actions taken to lessen the impact of climbers or other visitors on the cliff: climbers painted pitons grey to blend in with the cliff, they removed rock paintings, discussed new trails and exchanged ideas of how to introduce new climbers to climbing. The solution to impact was, as it still is, hard to navigate.




By the mid 70s, the practice of hammering in pitons was all but a dying art in the Gunks and largely because of the thoughts spread by The Eastern Trade and push from Stannard. Rock and Snow, the only show around, was also a huge supporter of clean climbing, pushing the movement forward. Soon, the store stopped carrying pitons altogether. But the step away from pitons didn’t go without backlash. Stannard’s advocacy for nuts, after a Sept. 8 1973 accident on Frogshead, resulted in a large cry that his promotion of nuts was “irresponsible and contributed to the accident.” 


Standard lamented the situation, but noted, “I also feel that a climbing from which all risk had been removed, would not be what it should be. The essential point is that each individual must have the freedom to choose those risks he will accept.”


Risk is a part of climbing, and something that we can never truly take away. It is as much a truth now as it was in the 70s. 


One July 1973 New York Times article notes that swarms of climbers "are sprouting like spring flowers on every cliff from coast to coast, showering canyons with dislodged rocks and increasingly their own bodies." 


Climbing gained popularity and got covered in publications like the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly the same as it is gaining a new explosion of mainstream coverage now. The result has pushed climbers, again, to take a self-exploratory look at sustainability. 


Rich Goldstone on Double Crack. He made the first all-nut ascent in the Gunks on this route. Read a snippit of Goldstone's account of his all-nut ascent in his Flashback.


There is the environmental impact, but there is also something more existential changing, a concern that Richard Petrowich raised in a '72 newsletter: "What I feel is being neglected is the quality of life, the essential experience of the cliff and climbing." 


Now, as then, the attention climbing gets and the more people that start climbing creates a catch 22 when the outdoor resources is so limited. Are we adding to the problem we are trying to shed light on? The more poplar climbing gets, the more coverage it receives, the more people it reaches, the more climbers it creates. In the end, impact increases; the problems grow, while the amount of rock in the world stays the same. 


By addressing it, by trying to target new climbers, is the media at fault for the over population by giving it light? Perhaps, yes; but ignoring it doesn’t help either. 


In his day, Stannard had three ideas of how to address the problem: “Discourage the exposure given climbing, reduce greatly the number of people you yourself introduce to climbing each year, and reduce your own impact on the land while volunteering you time and effort to help The Trust reduce the impact other make on the land.”  He even wrote a piece called, "Coping with the Media," which appeared in the April/June edition of The Eastern Trade, in which he talked of his approach, skirting the media, not giving them any photos that showed climbing in a fantastic way. The issue also reprinted mainstream articles on climbing. But simply telling less people about climbing is nearly impossible in today’s viral world where practically anything you need to know has a how-to video on YouTube.


While his first two option aren’t viable options anymore (or arguably ever), the last one is, and "The Trust" can be interchanged with the name of any climbing area that is local to you, and can apply today. 


“Clean climbing is required in most areas in the United States to one degree or another,” Rich Gottlieb, current Rock and Snow owner who has been in the area since the early 80s, say of the situation today. “Climbing developed differently over time and land managers and traditions must figure into the way we engage in our beloved endeavor.”


Each area must find its own way. In the Gunks, discussion that appeared in The Eastern Trade helped start a tradition of that. But it’s ever changing and morphing. 


“Trying to institute a fast food approach in which every place is the same is boring, destructive to an area, ignorant of climbing's rich culture, and limits our ability to grow beyond mere grades,” say Gottlieb. 


Rather, an approach we all must take, now and in the future, no matter how new or long-standing your personal climbing history is, is to be respectful and thoughtful in your own personal actions. 


“Climbing speaks in many tongues and the more well versed a climber becomes communicating with rock, self, and the environment, the richer the experience,” says Gottlieb. “If we exhibit intelligence, maturity, and respect we will go down as builders and not destroyers of this noble activity.”