First ascents and crag development
November 29, 2021
First Ascents and Crag development
Written by: Patrick Reynolds
Over the last two years of COVID and lockdowns, a lot has changed. We had a handful of new gyms which opened in Sydney giving rise to the highest number of climbers this city has ever seen. Additionally there are plans for another half a dozen gyms to open in the next 18 months and with that growth comes some sobering truths. During lockdown this year we saw unprecedented numbers of FA’s (first ascents) going up on the crag and while that in itself isn’t the absolute worst thing, some of the implications don’t bode well for our community.
Climbing the first ascent of a route or boulder problem can be rewarding, well, that's a bit of an understatement. It's different to repeating a climb. Maybe it's a little deeper because you spend more time devoted to the line, so much attention to the process, from vision to preparation, and finally realisation. You get to know an area intimately, it can be a profound and moving experience.
However, an equally moving experience can be returning months later to see the area worn down and used up, far from the untouched beauty it was once found in.
Maybe it’s a great boulder, but was it all worth it?
Is there something that could have been done to better preserve it?
The progression of climbing depends on the motivation of new climbers to leave their own mark. The unknown and unclimbed will always light a fire in the belly of any ‘lifer’ but those who are moved to do so carry a great responsibility.
We need to be aware of how and where we climb, and know that we, and the community will have a significant impact.
It's not that developing should only be enjoyed by cliques and those ‘in the know’ but there should be some prerequisites of experience and guidance.
How crags are developed or interacted with has changed dramatically over the years. The simpler times of climbing in previous generations have given way to unforeseen growth in the community along with a new awareness of cultural and natural significance. We know more now, and that has made it a complicated relationship, we all need to land on the same page in the way we interact with these places. It's worth mentioning that it is as much the responsibility of experienced climbers as it is the newer ones.
Often, even with seasoned climbers, oversights are made in developing, so they work together. Two heads are better than one as they say, and a fresh set of eyes can sometimes see what you can’t, or don't want too. It is imperative to know how to develop responsibly and ethically, Sydney areas are more delicate to navigate than one might first assume.
How and where we climb has changed, for the good and the bad which is why to borrow the hindsight of mature climbers is critical. So if you're driven to create your own experiences and climb something new or you’re an older member of the community with concerns, let's mingle.
As the saying goes you don't know what you don't know, and the subtle things we may disregard like removing a bit of moss or walking off a trail etc, could well be very important. There are cultural, environmental and communal sensitivities that must be taken into account. How to know you're making an approach responsibly, why you don't remove every speck of dirt or greenery and why you shouldn't just yeet off the loose rock straightaway.
It goes on, there is a lot more than you would think. Reach out to other climbers, guide book authors and gym owners and if they don't know they’ll be able to point you in the direction of someone who might. Experience is valuable stuff and climbers new to developing have to start there.
Are you aware of the history of the area, cultural, environmental and communal? Rarely have we stumbled across rock for its first human interaction, something to be aware of. Climbing history precedes thecrag, so ask around. Are we treading on toes that can’t yet be seen? Sometimes climbers have avoided an area for good reason. Can the area sustain the traffic? and how will you promote those guidelines for the area to protect it? It pays to look into the future a little. What will ten years of climbing do to this place, what can be done to limit the impact or should we take a wide berth altogether.
The thing with climbing and environmental impact is that, well, we are the thing. For better or worse we are a source of impact so it is up to us to be aware of our presence so that we can manage it. It's not just cleaning tick marks and picking up rubbish. It's being self aware, avoiding loud music and screaming, dragging mats, flattening the leaf litter. It may all seem trivial but you'd be surprised how fast careless movement in the environment changes it. Consider cleaning only what you need to, placing your mats carefully and be mindful of the location, local residents and wildlife. Bring your manners and be a good guest.
Maybe an FA is more something that is shared and belongs to the community rather than a reflection of ourselves or our individual accomplishments. Because they become a shared experience. As a collection of individuals with a shared passion, we have the opportunity to have an experience and then preserve it as best we can for someone that hasn't even been born yet. That's something to aim for and it's a ‘together kind of job’.
It is no wonder that people have become more inspired to develop a crag or put up a new route. Climbing something for the first time and sharing it with the community is very rewarding and everyone should be able to experience that, just so long as it is done thoughtfully and responsibly.
When we slow down and create new lines with careful intention, we touch on some of the core elements of climbing. Our immersion and connection with nature, it doesn't exist without the nature part, so protect it. If it's a legacy in climbing you're after, ask yourself one more question, what do you want your legacy to look like? Reach out, be the grasshopper and make your contribution count.