Monday, January 24, 2011

The Ethics of Leaving Fixed Ropes, Caches, and Draws

The ethics of leaving gear in the mountains or at the crag is complex. Some might consider anything left behind anywhere, akin to abandoning gear. Indeed, some National Parks and the Bureau of Land Management identify any gear left behind for any reason at all as abandoned.

So under these draconian policies, if you leave a tent up on a mountain, hike down to your car to do a resupply, and then bring your food back up, a ranger could decide that you've abandoned your tent. And while resupplying is not a common tactic, it definitely happens to some extent in every mountain range in the country.

There are three tactics that climbers regularly employ that require them to leave equipment unattended for -- potentially -- extended periods of time. These include fixed ropes, caches, and fixed draws. And unfortunately, not every climber is educated on the ethics of these issues, so sometimes gear is stolen.

Aid climbers commonly fix lines on big walls. They will climb as high as they can, fix ropes and then rappel to the ground and return to camp. Their ropes will remain fixed in position. The following day, they will climb up the rope with mechanical ascenders to reattain their high point. These lines are regularly unattended at night and sometimes during the day.  Obviously, these climbers are trusting that the equipment will not only be there when they return, but also that nobody will have messed with it creating a dangerous situation.

Mountaineers fix lines on steep and exposed snow or ice slopes. These types of ropes tend to be set-up by guides or by large expeditions that need to get a lot of people through a dangerous section quickly. Fixed ropes in a mountaineering setting are almost always left on popular trade routes that require them. However, occasionally a person will leave a fixed line on a less popular route to help facilitate quick movement early in the morning.

A Fixed Hand-Line Employed by Guides to Assist Beginners on Exposed Terrain
Photo by Jason Martin

There are numerous places throughout the country where fixed lines have been left permanently to help facilitate safe movement. Most of the areas where such ropes have been left don't provide many other alternatives.  Some of these are employed on sketchy rock sections, but others are used to bypass steep mud

Occasionally, large groups will set short fixed lines at cragging areas to help beginners safely move up and down a sketchy section. Unlike the other examples, these lines are unlikely to ever be left unattended for more than a couple of hours.

Obviously in every example, the loss of a fixed line could result in a dangerous situation. It's pretty unlikely that somebody straight-out abandoned a rope in decent shape that is clearly tied off for a reason...

In many mountaineering and expeditionary settings, a food or gear cache is an important part of a team's strategy. Commonly these cache's are buried in the snow and marked with wands or an avalanche probe. If such a cache were to disappear, it could mean the end of an could also be very dangerous for those who were expecting it to be in place.

It is the responsibility of those who employ the use of fixed lines and caches to clean them up when they are done. If they don't, this creates a negative impression about climbers with land managers and the public. If land managers know who abandoned a cache (in a place like Denali National Park), they will impose a fine.  Additionally, climbers who permanently leave these types of things behind provide a better argument for the ethically challenged to steal your cache or your fixed line. 

A Climber Confronts the Thief Responsible for Stealing Draws Off His Route in Smith Rock State Park
Photo by Ian Caldwell

Many high-end climbers (5.11-5.15 climbers) regularly employ the use of fixed draws on their projects.  In other words, they leave draws fixed on hard bolted sport climbs so that they can easily come back in order to continue working on the ascent of their routes.  Many sport climbers will come back to the same climb over and over again, sometimes logging weeks or even months, working to successfully complete their climbs.

This technique of "working" a climb used to be looked-down upon, but has become the norm for people trying to climb very difficult routes. The technically hardest rock climbs in the world are now regularly being climbed this way.

The issue with this technique is that it is now common for climbing draws to be almost permanently left on hard climbs. There are two problems with this. First, some land managers don't like the nearly permanent installation of these draws. And second, the fact that these draws have been left behind provides a major temptation to individuals who don't know any better and for thieves.

In the Winter of 2010, three climbers confronted an individual who was systematically stripping draws off of hard climbs at Smith Rock State Park. Instead of physically attacking the individual for stealing draws, the climbers kept level heads and educated the individual about what he was doing and how it affected them. Luckily for the climbing community, these climbers elected to film the confrontation for educational purposes. A video of the incident can be seen below:

Picnic Lunch Wall Draw Thief from Ian Caldwell on Vimeo.

There are many climbers out there who don't like the fact that there are bolts in the rock. And there are many climbers out there who really don't like the fact the bolts have draws permanently affixed to them.  But when all is said and done, regardless of your beliefs about this issue, if you know that the draws have been set to assist in a climber's ascent, then taking them is stealing.

There is controversy around each of these three topics.  But fixed lines, caches and fixed draws are an important part of many climbers experiences and it is important to respect those who choose to employ such tactics as long as they do it in a way that is in line with a local climbing area's ethics.

--Jason D. Martin


Anonymous said...

What happened to "Leave no trace"?

American Alpine Institute said...

Good question...

Front country climbing areas are not immune to LNT, but we do have to follow an area's given ethics. If we don't we are likely to make a small issue much larger than it needs to be.

Fixed lines and caches should always be removed after their use.


Ty Gittins said...

ya, well what about caches?....sometimes I remove the liners from my ski boots, and cache my boots and skis to more easily ski high slopes in the summer months...when you assure that the cache will not be tampered with, seems ok to you will never find my skis, and you wont see me skiing...
I believe that this type of caching, and the behavior of most climbers and mountaineers to be less destructive than some other outdoor some sportsman/fisherman/tourists who seriously disrespect the national forest/parks.

Katie said...

Though I know this is a bit off the ethics topic, I've been taught never to use any type of gear left behind on a climb for safety reasons, particularly random draws and webbing. If the draws are obviously meant to be permanent, that's a different story. But with found equipment, you never know what it's been through and it might not be safe to use.

Regarding Ty's comment, of course there will always be "less bad" behavior, or behavior that is less destructive. But the ethical question remains, even if it's less bad, should we still do it?

American Alpine Institute said...


Without knowing it, you use fixed gear left behind all the time. Bolts, anchors, chains, all of these are forms of fixed protection that I am sure you have used, even if just to rappel off a route. Ultimately you have to be able to asses the quality of the piece to the best of your ability. At times this is actually easier with a fixed cam or stopper, because you can often see the placement. Bolts, you really have very little information on who placed it, how they placed it, what rock it is in, etc... Just keep this in mind.

Additionally, clipping gear that is "obviously meant to be permanent," has safety concerns in and of itself. See BD's article:


Your comment that your cache will not be tampered with, or that I'll never find your skis, is a bit naive. Depending on how long you leave your equipment, you have no idea what the snow will do that year, how fast it will melt out, how the glacier will move, etc. Personally I don't believe what you are doing is appropriate, however you are obviously okay accepting the risk of having your boots/skis stolen or receiving a fine for caching if it is an area where it is not allowed. As long as you know this is a possibility.


Rick said...

Here is the Oregon Law on finding stuff. If you follow this you are NOT stealing. 90.020 also lets you charge your costs of recovery and storage.

98.005 Rights and duties of finder of money or goods. (1) If any person finds money or goods valued at $100 or more, and if the owner of the money or goods is unknown, such person, within 10 days after the date of the finding, shall give notice of the finding in writing to the county clerk of the county in which the money or goods was found. Within 20 days after the date of the finding, the finder of the money or goods shall cause to be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the county a notice of the finding once each week for two consecutive weeks. Each such notice shall state the general description of the money or goods found, the name and address of the finder and final date before which such goods may be claimed.
(2) If no person appears and establishes ownership of the money or goods prior to the expiration of three months after the date of the notice to the county clerk under subsection (1) of this section, the finder shall be the owner of the money or goods. [1973 c.642 §1; 1989 c.522 §1]

roxypopsy said...

I also think that "Leave no trace" should be enforced. In addition to this, climbers should consider other climbers trying to attempt the same route. I think Courtesy is also part of climbing. It shouldn´t be allowed to leave gear on the walls if you don´t plan to use it and moreover if you want to take a rest the next day.