In this post, Jack Fieldhouse, experienced climber and route developer will go over the ethics and process of developing climbs.
I’m a fortunate person. I’ve had the privilege of spending my life living on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation). I’ve spent a lot of my recreational time (maybe too much) developing climbing routes and bouldering problems in the area. This pursuit, which has bordered on obsession at times, has brought so many positive aspects to my life.
I’ve explored many incredible places, built and enjoyed strong friendships established through working on common goals. I’ve found peace, quiet and positive mental health benefits. Through working my body and focusing on projects in nature by myself. Developing climbs is a physical and mental outlet for me; it’s meditative at times. It’s satisfying to find a climbing objective, dream about what it might be like, clean it, and hopefully climb it. Here in the Squamish area, the rock is often heavily vegetated, sometimes wholly covered.
I compare the process of developing climbs in our rainforest climate to that of opening a wrapped gift. There’s initial excitement in the discovery. Intrigue as you wonder what’s hidden underneath. Then joy and anticipation in exposing the features and working towards climbing it.
Ethics of Developing Climbs
Over the years, I have received many inquiries from people interested in learning more about how to go about developing boulder problems. Lately, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of people asking me to mentor them or join them in development projects. This has to do with the considerable increase in the number of people climbing in general. It is also a result of people trying to spend more time outdoors during the global pandemic. Often the questions jump immediately to what kinds of cleaning tools they should use or how to set up systems for cleaning taller lines safely. These questions are essential. However, there is a lot of foundational knowledge and area-specific information to be considered before one even begins to prepare a boulder to be climbed on.
Things To Consider
The first thing you must consider and research is whether it is appropriate to be prepping the boulder at all. It would be best if you didn’t open up gifts that aren’t for you to open. Over the more than twenty years that I’ve spent wandering around the Squamish area searching for boulders, I’ve seen many unique spots with beautiful stone. In the past, I admit that I’ve made the error of being overly excited by the discovery. I’ve jumped the gun in cleaning something before taking the time to research whether it is appropriate to develop the area.
The first asked question has to be about location. Is the boulder located on public or private lands? Do you have permission to be there and to do what you intend to do? You are on traditional lands or territories of the local First Nations people. Is there an agreement in place that allows for this type of land use or is it a wildlife management area or a known cultural site? Is it within a park, and do you know the guidelines for development there? Or if it is even permitted at all? There are many different types of parks, and they can have very different rules. One park may allow climbing development while developing in another park could result in litigation, severe fines, or even jail time.
Resources and Support
Can the area support others who will likely follow after you to develop problems? Or is the development and resulting increase in visitor traffic likely to create conflict and access issues in the future? Where will people park? What can keep people from impacting the surrounding area? Can the site sustain being developed? Remember that not everyone may be knowledgeable or respectful about sensitive regions. What you might think will be a secret location visited by a few can blow up with one social media post. Many of these questions can be answered with a bit of research, but that often takes time, work, and patience; spontaneous cleaning in a new or unknown area is a no-go until you have done your due diligence.
Is It Worthy?
If there are answers to the questions above, the next thing to consider is whether an area or boulder is worthy of development. This is a tricky question to answer and is certainly open to opinion as people enjoy all kinds of climbing styles. Things to ask yourself include: Is the stone of good quality? Do the lines inspire you enough to impact the area? I’ve certainly made mistakes and have cleaned off things that, in retrospect, I wish I had never put a brush to. In some cases, I’ve been relieved to see them moss over into obscurity. There are problems I never want to be documented that I’m embarrassed to have my name beside.
On the other hand, if having a low star rating or a bomb icon in a guidebook on one of my old problems might keep others from repeating the same mistake. I guess I can live with that. Sometimes you can’t know the quality until you’ve climbed the thing. Some problems look promising before cleaning but climb awkwardly; others look mediocre and become favorites. In Squamish’s coastal rainforest with our moss-enshrouded boulders, these assessments can be tricky. Consulting with experienced developers can help with this decision-making process.
The Physical Work
Once you’ve taken these background steps, you can begin the physical work of preparation. In this step, you must also take into consideration local ethics and guidelines. For example, some places frown on altering landings in any way. While in other areas, people will move the obvious landing hazards or fill in voids before developing a line. No matter where you are, the goal is to keep things looking as natural as possible while allowing for a safe and pleasant climbing experience. In some areas, you may need to clean off a lot of vegetation if the line is to remain clean for even a short time. In other climates, less may need to be removed where it doesn’t grow back as quickly.
In Squamish, I try to make any landing adjustments before cleaning the vegetation from the boulder. I then carefully remove the vegetation in as large sections as possible and place them around the landing area. I’ve found that in our coastal rainforest, the plants will usually happily transplant if you do the process quickly and carefully. Moving any rocks, logs, etc., can define and contain the landing zone. Which keeps people from spreading out too much and impacting a larger area.
I usually use a wire brush when cleaning here as we have rugged granite rock, which often requires some severe scrubbing. Other regions with softer rock or less moss often only require soft bristle brushes. People often don’t consider personal breathing protection; I always wear a dust mask or respirator when I scrub rock. The dust and lichens made airborne thorough cleaning can damage the lungs and cause other respiratory reactions. Gloves and eye protection are also good ideas. Depending on where I’m working, I sometimes use a leaf blower to give the problem a final blast of air to remove dust or debris. If I do this, I try to choose the timing that won’t bother others and avoid doing this in busy areas.
Although many people think that developing boulders is a simple process of finding rock and scrubbing it, there’s a lot more to it. Particularly in the thought and ethics that need to go into both the preparation and the process. New developers must educate themselves and take care in their approach to create safe, quality climbing in a manner that is ethical and respectful. This will help ensure the climbing community’s continued access to these beautiful areas.