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Traveling, living, loving, exploring and trying to make some semblance of sense out of this crazy world.  


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Devil's Advocate

This post is a continuation of comments made online, and some thoughts I have had since then, regarding the Access Fund and its members, as well as the climbing community as a whole.

I know that I shock and offend many of you deeply, and indeed that is often one of my goals.

ONE of them.

The other, overriding in almost every instance, is to make you think.

I apologize deeply for occasionally so losing faith in myself that I lose my temper and regress to a less than elegant mode of communication. It’s often just easier to type than to go get my medications. Easier, not wiser.

Such is not my intention; to simply offend would be mere vulgarity. Any idiot can be vulgar.

First and foremost, the Access Fund is a fine organization accomplishing many things. Gene Kistler in particular has gone above and beyond in support of a tiny crag far from his home turf of New River Gorge, where he uses the tiny amount of time left over between being a husband and a dad, running an outdoor shop, and climbing like a madman by staying buried in community and coordinating events between local climbers on his own behalf and that of NRAC. Gene is the donor who provided many of the top anchors recently installed at Franklin Gorge, and has acted as a sounding board for many of my complaints and ideas..

So much for the defense of the AF, which I am sure will have, by the time I post this, many, many vociferous defenders.

I responded to a post online, in which the post's author was advised to contact the Access Fund in search of a solution to impact problems and general climber apathy.   Based on my own fairly extensive and repeated experience, I advised against spending his time either preaching to the choir or baiting the piranha from the shallow end of the online gene pool (that is- posting on the forums).  Instead, I advocated beginning on a smaller scale and finding the people at his own crag who wanted to help.

(Between bouts of bitching about it online, I found a good crew of people at Franklin and elsewhere just meeting them there at the crag… kudos to each and every one of you- for what you did, my deepest thanks.).

I advised against contacting the Access Fund, because in part I know that what he will get is an Adopt-A-Crag packet and the contact info for his local affiliate, neither a real solution to frustration. Paperwork and phone calls- mmm, yes, I know you feel so much better now…

It becomes more and more difficult to believe in any of our advocacy groups, if one thinks for a minute about just how many members are already there, at the crag, contributing to the problem, not the solution.

Not because they don’t know how- I’m sure many of them attend at least one Adopt each year and no doubt work very hard on what they do there... petting dogs, sipping latte, exchanging emails and Facebook info, trying on their free shirts, nibbling their tiny PowRBars.... oh, yes, and building trail.

But the connection between that day of fun and confusion and new friends and laughter with a predetermined series of activities versus the average AF member's day at the crag was lost before it ever existed. There is simply no continuity, because no one with any advocacy group expects or requires the average member to act that responsibly and proactively on every climbing day.

No one is willing to equate freedom with responsibility, practiced every time you start up the trail. Telling people they have certain duties in order to remain free is not exactly a popular stance.

So I will defend my online point- it IS all about the money. You need the memberships to fund the events and sponsor conferences, grab the ears of Senators and to buy entire mountains. I have no problem with that and have been quite impressed with the accomplishments of the last few years.

But you need contented members and the corporations they own making more-than-mandatory donations and creating feel-good PR in order to survive as a corporate level non-profit.

Thus, you will seldom exhort your members when you can gently urge. You will make no definitive statement of the incredible impact that is created by the popularization of climbing, but rather point to the projects achieved. And I freely and sincerely declare that every one of them has been amazing and worthwhile. I have no problem with the overall structure that is the Access Fund organization.

But the truth is clear. Our name is Legion, for we are many.

We are by no means the first, of course. Far from it… every other sector of society despoiled this country long before nylon, Gore-Tex and Stealth rubber were invented… we are, in most cases, simply wandering amid the overgrown remains of their excess.

The difference is motivation. We are supposed to be outdoorsmen, one of the few groups whose passion is to explore and experience the world as it is. Not shooting or fishing, not mining or cutting, but traveling on the face of the land and accepting the challenges that come with choosing a slightly different path to the top.

Climbers are focused, driven, wonderful eccentric people. I’ve been one for the last thirty-four years of my life.

I’ve come from the bottom up; a wide-eyed teen in wool hat with tied swami and a brand-new figure 8 on a hawser-stiff strand of Goldline, shivering in the bitter cold of a December morning, awkward in surplus jump boots and oversized work gloves, looking out over the Shenandoah Valley from the top of the Blue Ridge with a new vision of the world. Incredibly generous and kind people gave me the priceless treasure of their experience and knowledge in the years that followed, and we found a place among all of us where no matter our disagreements in dress and style, in class and origin, politics and religion, we could all find a common ground to share the joy of this amazing thing.

In turn, the next generation of us who had come along took up that thought, that creed, and shared with each other and newfound friends the guidelines and discoveries of this world.

And when anyone in that crew erred, we said so. Truth was also something that we shared, and we expected it from each other, from the businesses where we spent our hard-earned pay, and from the organizations to which we belonged. The same held true for any of the many newcomers that were made welcome and shared with as family.

But this is NOT the way it is now.

Old timers no longer speak up when the newcomers stray from the path, unleash their crag dogs (many, if not most of whom are NOT appropriate to the setting, no matter how many years myopic pet owners are willing to spend debating the topic), poach climbs on private land where access is already an issue, and in general act like the worst examples of the other user groups upon which most young climbers look with a sort of condescending superiority.

Members of prestigious organizations such as the American Alpine Club, the Sierra Club and the Access Fund do not exemplify the goals or the mission of those organizations whenever they are in the field. It is more important to “have fun” or “relax” than to, with very little more effort and only a spoonful or so of honesty, preserve our heritage, secure our access and establish our legitimacy as not just users but friends of the mountains.

If you live in a place where every single AF member you know is deeply committed to being involved in as many climbing-access and impact related activities as they have time and funds to attend, then you live in one of three towns I can think of, or you live in a community likely comprised entirely of outdoor professionals.

Perhaps this seems a bit harsh, but I will NOT believe that everyone reading this will be free of the thought that they could do more, be more outspoken about what is right and wrong at the crag, and take the few extra minutes while you are right there to actually fix the problems you see, instead of waiting for someone else to organize a trail day or for the Access Fund to Adopt your crag.

Adopt it yourself.

In the age of iphones, Facebook and half a dozen other social media, do you really need  to pay someone in Boulder a hundred dollars a year to organize you and keep you informed of the fights, while making those fights more complicated than they need to be?  Do you need to be involved with a group who is constantly cleaning up after its members who have knowingly put up climbs on private land?  A group who cannot even come to a consensus on whether or not dogs and boomboxes at the crag are good or bad things?  Do you want to be part of an organization that will never revoke your membership, so long as you routinely pay your dues, even if you set fire to J-Tree or chop bolts in another country or add them to classic trad lines?

If you still think advocacy groups are a great idea and want to involve your area in their National program, great!  Might I suggest that you use that day to build something meaningful, or replace top anchors, or maybe invite the local landowners that you have been pissing off and crapping on for years to come see how you‘re trying to make things better and would love to do the same in return for access to a private crag.

The point I am making is simple- stop being so happy and proud to be a member of the Access Fund or any other advocacy group and start making that mean something. You have managed to purchase some amazing crags, and the temptation is to sit back and congratulate yourself, go explore the new crag, maybe take it kind of easy for the rest of the year.

But while you've been fundraising and buying self-fulfilling prophecies, you and your fellow members have walked through and climbed at more than a few crags that were quite literally falling to pieces under your feet, and you've managed to leave the job of recruiting volunteers and maintaining the trails to locals who have never been to the rendezvous at the New or the Red or the Gunks, and likely will never go, because of the representatives of your organization they have encountered, and the actions they've seen out of those members.

Again, they’re all fine events… but they are by no means the full scope of climbing.

I know I sound extreme, and in many respects I am just that.

But right now your public lands are under attack from many quarters.

This is, quite literally, a war.

Whoa… there he goes again, over the top.

Not so much.

Economic necessity is pushing a number of the local people who own mountain land to the brink. Timber is falling in a brown and green wave, here in the south, as woodlots are cleared for the money needed to keep house and home together.

Out-of-state retirees buy mountaintop acreage, literally fly in modular homes, and stock them with twice per season convoys from their local Costco. Gas drilling rigs are slowly but surely creeping in, and with them will go the pure springs and life of the mountain streams and high plateau bogs.

Misguided environmental efforts are stealing local jobs and blocking funds for wind energy projects as pointless wilderness proposals threaten climbing development and mountain biking access, effectively leaving the woods to fewer friendly eyes and wide open to timber and game poachers, as well as drug and illicit game smuggling. The same proposals ignore the fact that thousands of acres of private land adjoin the proposed boundaries, land on which the owners are free to indulge in as much development and resource extraction as they are allowed under local law.

Local law enforcement in counties and on public lands more and more often finds itself stretched thin as state budgets shrink to cover tax shortfalls and national programs are slashed in administrative efforts, right or wrong, to halt an economy swaying between inflation and recession on the back of an unstable dollar.

Massive cuts have come to the budgets that put inspectors in the field to oversee logging, drilling, and mining operations, leaving less scrupulous operators to violate environmental guidelines and push the boundaries as far as they can get away with.

Government listens now as never in the last 50 years to the paying users of the forest- the mining and gas operators with crews of a dozen buying local goods and using local services and generating tax revenue, the loggers who bid for 100 year old trees for dollars on the foot, and the hunters and fishermen who spend millions on permits, lodging and necessities eight to ten months out of the year.

Now more than ever, it falls to climbers, mountain bikers, backpackers, and the other educated, active users of this country’s amazing public lands to go beyond the edge of the map, to get out and find the rest of the country you too often drive blindly through.

You- WE need to be the part of the face between the government and the people and the environment. Each of us must be the hand that heals the forest and the earth, as well as the hand that climbs.

We need to support the communities around the conveniences we search for so desperately, and show the numerous ways in which those communities benefit from our presence. Stop stocking your coolers at Sam’s or Costco in the middle of metropolis and come spend your desperately-needed dollars where you find your desperately-needed recreation.

Skip a big climbing rendezvous and stay in a little community campground near your favorite crag. Go see a drive-in movie. Go roller skating. Buy some ice cream and gas and actually take time to talk to the locals.

Find out how many local jobs will be lost if you block the building of 40 wind turbines for the 1% chance that at least 1 endangered bat would likely be killed in the next 100 years of operation. Balance that against families, faced with losing the job of installing those turbines and the money it represented, instead being forced into clear cutting acres of mountainside oak and poplar forest to make bank payments, burning off brush against cliffs filled with caves in which hibernate thousands of bats, asphyxiated by the smoke in mid-winter by economic necessity, and building 250-foot chicken houses on the resultant wasteland, adding to the nitrogen load of the Potomac.

Not every wilderness is a good idea, and not every wilderness coalition is a open-hearted group of earth-loving environmentalists.

Just as not every Access Fund member is a paragon of climber responsibility and just as I am by no means an example of a great writer or thinker.

Simple old rules- question authority… ALL authority.

Especially me…

Ahhh… now, see? You’ve got me doing it…


In the end, a discourse such as this makes little difference, here or elsewhere.

And it is, of course, no excuse for my being the grating, vicious bastard that I am. I have no excuse for that. My charming, profane, pompous, arrogant nature comes from a slightly jaded view after a lifetime of wandering amid amazing athletes and near-legendary characters, dirt bags and rock stars, junkies and hookers and businessmen, vision seekers and PR whores, just a curious country boy who wandered over the mountains to see what lay on the other side.

I try to tell it the way I see it. I am as harsh with myself as any of you, so get in line to kick my ass or tell me how much I suck. The first guy that does both is looking back at me from the mirror each and every day.

This is my kung fu, and it is very strong.

It will inevitably take events beyond remediation to move any population to recognize need. I saw this in more than one country and have railed in vain against it and walked silently through it too often here in America.

I yield now to finer minds than mine to find the faults in my arguments and statements. It should not prove difficult nor should it take too long.

I wish you as much luck in coming up with working answers of your own.


  1. Brother I don't see where you have anything to defend against.
    Many good points here my Brother. I hope with all of my heart that people will take notice and understand the point being presented and not just jump to defend how much they have done by sending their check to the Access Fund and what they believe to be true. So I will do something that I seldom do anymore and climb up on the soapbox and give my views on a few things but I will do it in my blog because their is a lot to say. If you agree with what i say and would like to link it here that is fine.


While I appreciate and welcome commentary related to my posts, any spammers or trolls will be hunted to the farthest corners of the Internet, where I will get medieval on the offending poster with pliers and a blowtorch.