Illegal Climbing Route Set Over 1000-year-old Petroglyphs in Utah

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Illegal Climbing Route Set Over 1000-year-old Petroglyphs in Utah

While climbing near Sunshine Slabs north of Utah’s Arches National Park in the United States, climbers discovered illegal climbing bolts fixed into p

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While climbing near Sunshine Slabs north of Utah’s Arches National Park in the United States, climbers discovered illegal climbing bolts fixed into petroglyphs that are said to be 1,000 years old. While it might seem a matter of common sense and decency not to hammer metal into the face of a painted rock, experienced climbers are calling for the education of new climbers to help them understand and respect ancient sacred sites, as well as the laws related to climbing in and around historic and prehistoric sites.

The area in and around Arches National Park in Utah is popular with climbers, who are worried that illegal climbing gives them a bad name. ( aheflin / Adobe Stock)

Fremont Petroglyphs Under Threat Due to Illegal Climbing

Archaeologists believe that the Sunshine Slab’s petroglyphs were created by the Fremont people , a pre-Colombian Native American culture who lived throughout the Utah, Idaho, Colorado, and Nevada region from about 2,000 years ago. Petroglyph panels can be found throughout these regions, many located within national parks in order to be able to preserve and protect them. These carvings offer insights into this ancient culture. Without these petroglyphs or pictographs (painting and carvings on rock walls), their history could be lost.

The wall art found at petroglyph panels is extremely fragile and can easily be damaged beyond repair, especially when people climb the area or drill into the rock. Even touching the rock art can loosen the sand and pigments of the art and increase erosion rates.

Sadly, it is necessary to have laws governing such actions, and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act does just that. Climbing on historic and prehistoric sites is illegal, so it is usually inexperienced climbers, lacking education about cultural and historical sites, who illegally climb these kinds of walls.

Arches National Park in Utah is home to only a few petroglyphs created by the Fremont people and archaeologists believe they only occasionally visited the region. This particular section of petroglyphs had been untouched. The images are located over thirty feet (9.14 m) off the ground, helping with their protection. It’s one of the only panels that had never been vandalized or ruined in the area. Until now that is.

The illegal climbing route passed directly over the petroglyphs near the Sunshine Slabs in Utah. (Darrin Reay / Facebook)

The illegal climbing route passed directly over the petroglyphs near the Sunshine Slabs in Utah. (Darrin Reay / Facebook)

Illegal Climbing Near Sunshine Slabs

The area in and around Arches National Park is very popular with climbers and there are many approved bolted slabs. Baker Slab, Science Friction Slab, and Falcon Face are three main sections with dozens of climbing locations which are safe, and permitted, locations. Most importantly, these permitted climbing areas don’t have any ancient petroglyphs on the rock faces.

Darrin Reay, an experienced climber, was the one who discovered bolts only inches from petroglyphs. Reay had been climbing at Sunshine Slabs when he discovered the petroglyphs mid-climb. “I get halfway up, and all the sudden there’s a petroglyph four inches from a bolt,” he explained in the magazine Climbing, “I look up, and there’s a whole panel, and the route goes right through the middle of it.”

Back in March, this route on Sunshine Slabs had been added to Mountain Project , a crowd-sourced climber website to help the climbing community find climb routes. It was listed as a 5.3. grade, an “easy” grade level, according to  Sierra. Stewart Green, a devoted climber and author of several climbing guides, published news about Reay’s discovery on Facebook.

“The fact is that we just can’t do whatever we want as climbers anymore, unlike the Wild West days when I was a young climber and anything went,” explained Green in an article published in Gripped. “Placing bolts and climbing by rock art sites is simply unacceptable.”

Image shows bolts put in directly above ancient petroglyphs. The bolts have now been removed to prevent further damage to the site. (Darrin Reay / Facebook)

Image shows bolts put in directly above ancient petroglyphs. The bolts have now been removed to prevent further damage to the site. (Darrin Reay / Facebook)

Ethical Bolting and How to Protect Petroglyphs

One of the easiest ways to protect petroglyphs is by simply not touching them. Oil from hands can harm and ruin the pigment or carvings. If you discover a petroglyph, or if you see graffiti or illegal bolting routes from climbing anywhere near rock art, it’s best to report the finding to park services. They can safely manage the situation without causing further damage to the site. This example from the Arches National Park area is a case in point.

Being an educated climber is the best way to protect priceless ancient art. Learning about where to climb and bolt is critical. Describing this incident as “a travesty,” Green explained that climbers need to understand and respect ancient sacred sites, to avoid making climbers look like what he dubbed a “bad user group” in the eyes of national park managers. “We need to do a better job educating new climbers that have learned in gyms and without mentors that we need to practice a Leave No Trace ethic where we climb,” he highlighted in the magazine Climbing.

Climbing and bolting on protected sites can also cause the entire location to close down, even if no petroglyphs are found. This occurred at the Bears Ears National Monument’s Indian Creek climbing location after people were repeatedly caught climbing illegally on petroglyph panels at Newspaper Rock. In this case the park closed down dozens of climbing trails because people were not paying attention to the rules.

Both Reay and Green explain that creating your own climbing routes is a great way to climb, but only if climbers follow the rules. “I believe in ethical bolting. I love the sport,” explained Reay in Climbing, having himself put up over 100 climbing routes in his time. However, “there is just no excuse to be putting up bolts on petroglyph panels” created by ancient Native American cultures. After strong backlash on social media, the offending climber has issued a public apology in Climbing, claiming it was “an uneducated mistake that I am dedicated and committed to making right.” Meanwhile, after discovering the illegal climbing route, Reay pulled the bolts to avoid more climbers doing the same.

Top image: Darrin Reay, an experienced climber, discovered the illegal climbing route and bolts only inches from petroglyphs in Sunshine Slabs north of Utah’s Arches National Park. Source: Darrin Reay / Facebook

By Sarah Piraino

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