Friday, October 23, 2020

Low Impact Climbing in Joshua Tree

Most folks who play outdoors are familiar with the basic Leave No Trace principles. Those principles apply differently to different environments and activities. Here are a handful of refinements of those principles for the rock climber in Joshua Tree National Park. Many of these concepts are also applicable to rock climbing in other desert settings such as Red Rocks, Zion National Park, and the greater Moab area.

Climbers' Trails

Desert plants and alpine plants have a lot in common, both are easily damaged and don't grow back. Ninety percent of the climbers in Joshua Tree are visiting areas with at least an unofficial climbers trail, if not an official maintained trail, leading from the road to the rock. Short-cutting these trails can permanently damage the desert ecosystem. This is probably the biggest impact that climbers are having on the park. The park service is even aware of it and is in the process of gathering information before formally deciding what to do about the problem. Most approaches in Joshua Tree are casual rambles that last for a few minutes. Take the time to find the trail. Just because it doesn't make a beeline from the car to the route you want to climb, doesn't mean it's not the right trail to be on. If, as is often the case, you have multiple options, try to stick with the most hardened path.

Paulina Varshavskay on Tennis Shoe Crack (5.8)
Photo by Ian McEleney

Know When To Bag It

Use the pit toilets at the road. If you have to urinate at the crag, step away from the routes and go on a rock. Plants “breathe” through their leaves, so urinating on them is not the same as watering them. It does, however, make them more appetizing to salt deprived animals. If you have to defecate and can’t make it to the pit toilet you have several options, but know that burying your fecal matter in a cat hole is not very effective in desert soils. In addition, leaving your toilet paper behind is completely unacceptable. The best option is to use a Wag Bag.


Pack it out, even if you didn’t pack it in. It’s easy to carry a plastic bag (the kind they give you at the store for your donuts and beer) for this purpose. Most climbers wouldn’t knowingly leave trash, but it’s common to have the wind blow your tape or candy bar wrapper into the bushes when you weren’t watching. A quick visual sweep of an area is a good way of ensuring that you’re not forgetting any trash (or #6 Camalots).

Mitzi Harding on Toe Jam (5.7)
Photo by Ian McEleney

Don’t Be Rude

The desert is naturally a quiet place. Many climbers savor this quality. Refrain from unnecessary screaming. Another climber could be at the crux of their route and might not appreciate you and your buddy debating the merits of American energy policy at full volume.

Leave your dog at home. Your canine companion may be a model of good behavior, but a dog's mere presence puts stress on native animals that are already locked in a struggle to survive. Not all climbers like being near dogs, even well behaved, leashed ones. Their fecal matter has all the same disposal problems as human fecal matter. Last but not least, the park has a pretty strict set of rules regarding dogs and tickets have been issued.

Rappel Anchors

Most routes in Joshua Tree do not have bolted anchors at the top. Often even routes that do have bolt anchors do not have hardware for rappelling on those anchors. This means that though there are bolts in the rock and hangers on those bolts, there are no rings, chains, quick links, or other hardware on the hangers to run the rope through for rappelling. If this is the case, the standard descent for that formation is either a walk-off or an established rappel somewhere else on top. There is no need to leave webbing and hardware on those bolts for your rappel. It can sometimes take a little investigation and scrambling to find the best and safest way down. If for some reason you MUST leave webbing behind on an anchor, use the tan colored webbing available at several shops in town.

What’s The Point?

These techniques might be a little inconvenient. They might require some advance planning, or even the carrying of extra stuff. Think about it. If all you cared about was the climbing, you could certainly get more routes done in the gym. You traveled all the way out here to climb awesome routes in an unparalleled setting. One visit probably won’t be enough. Do your part to keep Joshua Tree beautiful for other climbers and for yourself.

--Ian McEleney

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