Climbfind Heroes

Feb 23

Defacing Boulders In The Gunks: Not An Ethics Problem, A Problem of Logic. Here’s Why.


Ok, let’s talk about it.

DPM published a video of a well-known climber defacing rocks in The Gunks, a bouldering area in New York State.

The climber in question has since been vilified by the climbing community. We’re not here to point fingers or cast the first rock (so to speak).

Instead, we’re here to ask and as objectively and logically as possible address, why the controversy?

What consists of “usual” cleaning?

I think it’s safe to say, the video depicts more than the average “cleaning” of a boulder.


The controversy around chipping involves this gray area between prying off a rock chip that is loose, thus preventing a potential hazard to future climbers, and forcibly altering rock shape that would otherwise not change under natural conditions (weather or erosion, for example).

The problem is, where do we draw the line?

We’ve all had a tiny crimp crumble in our fingers. I’ve even seen a giant boulder come loose in a person’s hand during a sport route, nearly killing the belayer.

But, to what extent should we “clean” and to what extent should we simply not climb these problems?

What’s the impact on future access?

Climbing is misunderstood as a sport. Mountaineering and rock climbing is arguably one of the oldest recreational activities in the world, yet the sport has yet to be recognized by the Olympic Games, for example.

As far as public understanding, let’s face it: Anybody who has ever hiked into an area with a crashpad has undoubtedly been inundated with questions by bystanders, such as “is that a mattress?” “what is that on your back?”.

This lack of exposure to the world at large may be partially responsible for the access problems experienced by climbers. When something’s misunderstood, it’s often shunned.

With access already a problem, the act of defacing rocks only exacerbates the issue.

The Access Fund puts it best in their statement:

"[The Access Fund] vehemently opposes intentional alteration of the rock by gluing or chipping for the purpose of creating or enhancing holds. We believe such actions degrade the climbing resource, eliminate challenges for future generations of climbers, and threaten access."

imageOutside The Access Fund’s statement, most parks prohibit visitors from altering the surrounding vegetation or rock anyway. So, any act of “cleaning” could be an issue for future access. Outside a brush, Rangers do not permit other tools to be used on rock.

Therefore, regardless of your ethical issues with chipping, if you want to keep climbing in beautiful national or state parks, protected mountainous areas, or even somebody’s private land, bring your crashpad and leave behind your chisel.

Is this a generational gap issues?

It’s possible that the older generation of climbers don’t see chipping as an ethics problem.

Twenty years ago, there were not nearly as many boulderers as there are today. As a result, chipping a few boulders may have had limited impact on the environment, as well as the number of problems available. 

The person in question is of a certain generation. It’s possible he just doesn’t see the long-term effect of his actions in terms of access or preserving climbs for future generations.

What’s the solution? The ethics issues of rock climbing should, finally, be formally addressed. Now is our opportunity to draw lines in the sand (or across sandy rocks).

Nevertheless, be a bit tolerant. It’s difficult for generations to agree on gray-area issues. Anybody with a grandparent can agree on this.

In society, what is deemed acceptable, from women in the workplace to child-reering behavior (spanking vs. not)  to minority rights (gay marriage), changes drastically over time. It’s not our place to judge. It’s our place to educate and adapt.

I still don’t see it. What’s the argument for chipping?

People who take a hammer, chisel, or other tool to rocks don’t see it as an ethical problem. If there’s a boulder with a V13 (8B) line, it’s likely that it won’t be frequently trafficked.

Since a small fraction of the world climbs 8B or harder, some people believe that altering the rock actually improves the sport by making it accessible to more people.

While it’s true that altering rock may allow more people to climb it, and it even—in certain circumstances—may make the line “better.” Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue there aren’t enough good lines out there. It’s difficult to logically agree that there just isn’t enough rock to climb.

imageIn addition, if you’re after a certain style of climbing, go create it in the gym. Learn how to become a route setter and marvel at the myriad holds available for indoor climbing. It’s fun, I promise.

If you want the “outdoor" experience, there are even a variety of outdoor, artificial climbing walls. Go find one.

If climbing is a competition, what counts as cheating?

Unfortunately, in the world we live in, there’s no obligation to follow “tradition”, “community rules”, or other de facto policy. Climbing has finally matured into a sport that needs official rules (sorry dirtbags).

These rules should be set by an officiating body, such as the Access Fund, and enforced by sponsors of athletes and the athletes, themselves.

Examples of these documents already exist. At its annual General Assembly in October 2009, the UIAA approved the Mountain Ethics Declaration, a central guiding document on the ethics, principles and values of the sport. Boulderers—we’re half a decade behind!

I know what climbers will respond: Why can’t people just behave ethically? Why all these official rules?

Because, as we discussed above, ethics is subjective. Think about Everest. You can summit Everest—get a tick mark for achievement—by using extra oxygen. But, when it comes to professional cycling (and yes, they also go up and down in elevation) just ask Lance Armstrong whether or not he can recirculate oxygen in his blood to win…

Climbing isn’t a competition, you say? Well, I’d argue otherwise. Look at websites like, World Cups, or competition among climbers to obtain sponsorship.

If climbing, like summiting Everest, is not a competition, there are, at least, undeniable rewards to success. Look at the First Ascent Team for Eddie Baur and keep telling yourself that number of climbs, difficulty of climbs, and how you achieve either of those things doesn’t matter to the community and to businesses.

Individuals earn money from climbing.

The point here is, the number of climbs and their difficulty does matter. It mattered to the climber in DPM’s video who is (was?) a sponsored athlete. And, if altering rock makes you more successful, then climbers will be motivated to do it.

Climbers have an incentive to take a hammer and chisel to rock and reap the rewards. What the community should really be asking is, since defacing rocks decreases access to climbing areas and results in other dangerous consequences for the sport, what can we do to stop it?


In the end, the filmmakers of this controversial DPM video didn’t feel like discussion or logic would change the behavior of the individual in question. However, these filmmakers may not have been aware of the dangers of scapegoating.

Scapegoating has long been studied. It is defined as:

"Scapegoating is a hostile social - psychological discrediting routine by which people move blame and responsibility away from themselves and towards a target person or group.

It is also a practice by which angry feelings and feelings of hostility may be projected, via inappropriate accusation, towards others.

The target feels wrongly persecuted and receives misplaced vilification, blame and criticism; he is likely to suffer rejection from those who the perpetrator seeks to influence.

Scapegoating has a wide range of focus: from “approved” enemies of very large groups of people down to the scapegoating of individuals by other individuals. Distortion is always a feature.” [Scapegoat Society]

The key here is “distortion is always a feature.” It’s clear from the incident and surrounding commentary that climbers are upset with the perceived lack of ethics in their community. Climbers want to see an end to chipping or altering rock. This is the real issue that is being distorted.

Nevertheless, scapegoating—as was done here—hurts and discredits a single individual without bringing real change to the root of the problem.

If the filmmakers felt so strongly their actions of posting this video were justified, why did they remain anonymous while singling out a fellow climber?

There’s nothing wrong with exposing the truth. I think posting the video is valid in many ways.

imageBut, is this individual in New York the only one to alter rock in this way? If he’s not (go look at Carlo Traversi blowtorching holds and decide) then he’s been made a scapegoat, which is (ironically) ethically wrong. 

The video should have been posted without a close-up zoom on the perpetrator’s face. Then we could have had an objective discussion of the issues.

I’d personally like to see a list or petition published where climbers can sign their name, promising to use a brush—and a brush only—on rock.

Future discussions can address the acceptability of blowtorches, leaving gear, or different types of chalk. For now, the discussion is about chisels.

So what’s the answer?

Keep expressing your opinion! But, let’s be more logical and less emotional. It’s hard, but it’s truly the only way to drive lasting change.

Don’t forget that actions speak louder than words. If you love rock, take responsibility with collective action toward positive progress in the sport (this doesn’t mean just adding comments to a Facebook thread).

Defacing boulders in the Gunks is not an ethics problem, it’s a problem of the incentive system, organization, and lack of structure within the climbing community.

Bringing a chisel or similar tools to the crag is not logical. Fact. For all other ethical discussions, well, those remain in a bit of a gray area.

One last side note: A pervasive comment about the incident is, “climbers should get a life, this is not an important issue.” First, the environment is quite important—you live in it. Second, if you don’t think this is important, then stop reading climbing news and get back to all that charity work, volunteering, and other “important” activities I’m sure you’re up to.


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