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Daniel F. Cracchiolo Law Library Blog: Blog

Sports Month: Respecting the First Ascent

by Sophia Kingsley on 2024-04-01T11:00:00-07:00 in Sports Law | 0 Comments

With the advent of rock climbing as an Olympic sport in the Tokyo 2020 Games, this alternative, adventurous pastime/lifestyle has broached the mainstream. While this post will not predict the likely winners in Paris 2024, nor speculate about the risks associated with free soloing (see “A Sponsor Steps Away From the Edge” for the story of Clif Bar dropping Alex Honnold and other free soloers as sponsored athletes), I will instead use this unique activity as an opportunity to study the intersection between recreation, indigenous religious freedom, and the very concept of wilderness. Though many rock climbers choose to strictly climb indoors, a multitude of nuanced, thought-provoking stories can be found outdoors. In some areas such as Cave Rock, or de’ek wadápush in the Washoe language, the collision between sport and indigenous rights ended in a complete climbing ban, while other locations have been sites of semi-restricted access and ongoing management.

Hueco Tanks


                                           Above: "Sign of the Cross" bouldering area in North Mountain, Hueco Tanks.

Climbing’s interactions with the legal system followed a winding path in Hueco Tanks, TX.  Roped climbing began here in the 1950s, but the real allure of Hueco is bouldering, a sport that involves climbing short walls, or boulders, with crash pads on the ground for protection instead of ropes. Bouldering development began in the 1970s and increased in the ‘80s with John “Vermin” Sherman establishing hundreds of classic problems (Lucas, 2023). This area has been occupied for 10,000 years, including by the Jornada Mogollon people, who left hundreds of painted mask images on the rock. Currently, the Tigua Indians of Ysleta del Sur have 4,000 citizens for whom Hueco is a sacred gathering place. Tensions in Hueco rose due to over 150,000 annual visitors, erosion from crash pads and unofficial trails, litter, and even graffiti on Kiva Cave pictographs. (See Texas Parks & Wildlife, Volume 62, Number 9, September 2004, for more perspectives on Hueco Tanks.) Roped climbing was banned briefly in 1988 and the park was fully closed for two weeks in 1992 (Lucas, 2023). The Tigua people protested a bouldering competition and festival in 1992 on the basis of the land’s sacred status. Due to the severity of the damage and erosion, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) hosted a Working Committee in 1998 and a Public Use Plan was drafted and finalized in 2000. It created a reservation system allowing only 70 people in the self-guided North Mountain area at one time. Throughout the 2000s, Hueco’s status continued to be discussed by TPWD conservation committees and working groups. Areas have reopened due to restoration, but the reservation system persists.

Climbing in the Wild

In addition to issues of indigenous religious freedom, rock climbing as an outdoor activity also raises questions of what is and is not acceptable in wilderness areas. Proposals from the National Park Service and the USDA Forest Service would impact the placement and replacement of fixed equipment used by climbers. Specifically, fixed anchors would be treated as installations and therefore a prohibited use under the Wilderness Act §4(c). Unsurprisingly, there was a widespread, largely negative response from the climbing community and organizations such as Access Fund, which urged climbers to respond during the comment period from November 17, 2023 to January 30, 2024. USFS notes that a Tribal consultation for its proposed directive began in November 2021 and ended at the same time as the comment period. The 8,953 USFS comments are publicly available; many mention relations between climbers and indigenous groups, including the Climbers of Hueco Tanks Coalition

In contrast, NPS has not made the submitted comments available on their Planning, Environment and Public Comment site. However, I have submitted a FOIA request in the hope this information will be shared per the Planning, Environment and Public Comment (PEPC) System Privacy Impact Assessment: “NPS may share public comment PII with members of the public in order to provide copies or summaries of comments received on a project, and to provide information to the public as a report or verification of all correspondence received for a project, or as part of the process of reporting the public’s concerns on a project and the NPS’s response to those concerns pursuant to the routine uses listed in the PEPC SORN [System of Records Notice].”

Left: Climber ascends route using quickdraws clipped into bolts, which could be considered prohibited installations per the NPS and USFS proposals' interpretations of Wilderness Act §4(c). 

These two proposals coincide with the H.R. 1380 Protecting America’s Rock Climbing Act and America’s Outdoor Recreation Act, which was introduced in the House of Representatives last March and has been referred to the Committee on Natural Resources and the Committee on Agriculture. If enacted, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior would issue guidance on managing climbing in wilderness areas. The guidance would recognize “the appropriateness of the allowable activities described in paragraph (2) [recreational climbing, the use and management of fixed anchors, and other necessary climbing equipment] in such [wilderness] areas, if the allowable activities are undertaken in accordance with the Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1131 et seq.).” The legal aspect of climbing is clearly still under development. Although climbing is usually not what first comes to mind when one hears “sports law,” it is indeed an incredibly fast growing sport and one that makes for fascinating legal research. The Tribunal Arbitral du Sport, or Court of Arbitration for Sport (TAS/CAS), oversees international sports disputes, and climbing is no exception — have a look under "Sport climbing / Escalade" on the TAS/CAS database if you are interested in climbing-related jurisprudence.

Please see the resources embedded below for more historical discussion of these topics.

Cover ArtCave Rock by Matthew S. Makley; Michael J. Makley

ISBN: 0874178487
Publication Date: 2010-09-01

Cover ArtLand Is Kin by Dana Lloyd; Judge Abby Abinanti (Foreword by)

ISBN: 9780700635894
Publication Date: 2023-11-16

Cover ArtGlobal Change in the Mountains by M. F. Price (Editor); T. H. Mather (Editor)

ISBN: 9781850700623
Publication Date: 1999-03-15

Cover ArtPilgrims of the Vertical by Joseph E. Taylor III

ISBN: 0674058607
Publication Date: 2010-10-15

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