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How to Navigate the Crag, Part 1: Leave No Trace

Climbing outside is not as easy as grabbing your new rope and quickdraws, piling into your buddy’s Outback and parking it outside Miguel’s at the Red. If you do that without preparation, you’ll have earned dreaded “gumby” status. The culture around climbing began in places like Yosemite Valley, where intricate ethics and schools of thought emerged dictating best practices that have survived and been refined until today. Luckily, it’s never been easier to get outside and have great fun, while remaining safe and considerate of the environment, others, local ethics, and yourself – you just need to do the research first. That’s where we come in.

This is the first piece in a five part series called How To Navigate The Crag. We’ll cover everything from Leave No Trace ethics, to local style, to logistics. Today we’re starting with Leave No Trace.

What’s Leave No Trace? It’s a seven principle manifesto, codified in 1994 through the Leave No Trace center for outdoor ethics, that equips adventurers with the skills to always use the outdoors ethically and responsibly. Adopting the Leave No Trace Seven Principles makes it possible for others after you to enjoy the spaces we travel to in order to pursue our sport. The principles are simple, but not always easy – so we’ve outlined them below with climbing specific examples:

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

The first principle outlines the need to be aware of the logistics and time you’ll be visiting a place and whether or not it makes sense for your personal intentions. You should only plan to visit crags when you’re fairly certain that you won’t be adding to a crush ofpeople during popular times: for example, trying to spend a bit of time work the most popular 5.10s at Roadside Crag in the Red River Gorge during Rocktoberfest weekend. It’s just not going to work without overcrowding and the environmental impacts that come with that, especially at a spot like Roadside Crag.

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Next is to make sure you’re traveling and camping on durable surfaces.  The Buttermilks in Bishop, CA, are a great example of this: much of this area is ecologically sensitive, with off-trail traveling discouraged by the many signs along the trails from boulder to boulder. When we “go our own way” and create our own trails and campsites, we harm and cheapen the place for the next climbers – and just as critically, threaten climbing access. As LNT says, it’s always better to find a trail or campsite than to make one.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

The next principle is straightforward: pack it in, pack it out. This goes for heavily trafficked areas, like Muir Valley in the RRG, as well. This isn’t just your granola bar wrappers: If you use toilet paper in the woods, you need to bring it back out with you. Gross, we know, but even grosser to find it when it’s not yours. And this principle goes even further: your business should be done in a dug out hole at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. At the Red? What this really means is to do your heavy-duty business before you even get to the crag. Otherwise, be prepared to do it the right way for everyone, including the environment.

4. Leave What You Find

Hueco Tanks State Park is one of the best places in the country to boulder. It can be difficult to get access: the permit system requires planning far in advance, and day-of spots to get in are competitive. One of the reasons is that the site is full of prehistoric rock paintings and pictographs. They’re as beautiful as they are fragile, and this is what the fourth principle is all about: leave behind what you find. That means don’t touch or modify or remove or damage the environment you’re in, within and beyond the bounds of local regulations (like the ability to bolt in areas like the Red; but if you’re that far along, you don’t need this article).

6. Minimize Campfire Impacts

Minimizing the impact of fires is all about what you learned from Smokey the Bear: be careful with your campfires, keep them as small as possible, and put them out completely, using water. We’ve seen rampant forest fires in the American West due to increasing drought and drying out of potential fire fuel resulting from a changing climate. It’s more critical than ever to keep personal fire usage under control in dry places. If you’re not overly careful, you could unintentionally cause a whole lot of damage.

7. Respect Wildlife

While visiting the Buttermilks at the right time of year, you could run almost right into a rattlesnake. You might not even see it until it starts rattling. And if it’s in the way of your next problem, you have a few options, only one of which is the right one. You could walk off the marked trail, around the snake, and onto your destination. But that wouldn’t hold to LNT ethics.  You could also (if you’re both unethical and overly gutsy) try to goad the snake off the trail and out of your way. But that wouldn’t be right in light of the sixth principle: to not pester wildlife and keep your distance. Ultimately, the right move is to back away and climb something else. The snake won’t always be in your way, but the boulder will always be there.

8. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

The last principle of Leave No Trace is fundamentally about community, and that’s the core of outdoor climbing culture – that we’re in it together, pursuing this daring sport in the world’s wild and beautiful places. To “be considerate of other visitors” means to yield to others on the trail (especially while carrying a crash pad), to tone down the crag music, and generally avoid obnoxious behavior. If it’d bother you if someone else did it, then don’t do it yourself. Make it fun for everyone. Simple.

The seven principles of Leave No Trace ethics aren’t easy to follow – that’s the point. They offer a better alternative to behaving outdoors in a way that threatens access to beautiful public lands all over the world. This article is just the start: learn more at the Leave No Trace website linked below.

Climbers are some of the most avid users of the outdoors, and it’s up to us to maintain the beauty of – and our own access to – these spaces.

Next up: How To Navigate The Crag, Part 2: Crag Etiquette

This article cites heavily from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:

© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:

Red River Gorge and Red Rocks photos courtesy of Ed Yu

Roadside Crag photo courtesy of Laurel F

Rattlesnake photo courtesy of David~O

By Chris Rooney, a Chicago-based climber and writer. 


FA Member Spotlight: Dr. James Lee

This month, we’re shining the spotlight on FA Member Dr. James Lee! Starting this month, James will be using his expertise to offer physical therapy services at all First Ascent locations. Follow James on Instagram @leephysicaltherapy, connect with him via email ( if you’re looking for physical therapy or need a quick tip, and say hi to him next time you see him around FA!

How did you get into climbing?

As a little kid, I would love to climb trees all the time. My cousins would make fun of me and call me jungle boy, but it wasn’t until I started physical therapy school in 2006 when one of my classmates introduced me to indoor climbing… game changer.

What do you love about climbing?

I’m biased for sure, but I think climbing has to be one of the most all-encompassing, full-bodied, high-tension, peaceful, physical, social, frustrating, encouraging and spiritual activities out there. It’s rare to find people from all walks of life come together like this.You learn not to give up, to press on. The moment when everything finally comes together for the send, it’s a great feeling. Being out in nature and, literally, on top of the world looking down, you’re awestruck. It can’t get better than that.

Why are you excited to start the physical therapy program at First Ascent?

Physical therapy is still a very young branch of medicine. Not many people really know what we do, so I’m excited to educate people more about their own bodies and show how they can optimize their physical health with movement. It’s important to distinguish when to be alarmed about certain pains versus when it’s okay to work through other pains without the fear of causing more damage to yourself. Learning good habits is a lot easier than breaking old ones, especially when it comes to a strenuous activity like climbing.

Why is physical therapy important for climbers? What’s your best tip for preventing injury with climbers?

How many times have you heard someone going to see their doctor because of a climbing injury and the doctor tells them to stop climbing? At the end of the appointment both parties are frustrated and don’t understand each other. Physical therapists are movement experts and can teach you when it’s okay to push yourself and when it’s time to listen to your body and rest. Climbing motion is also pulling specific. When you’re constantly working your body in one direction, inevitably the opposing muscle groups tend to get neglected. It’s important to know how to fix those muscle imbalances because they may end up leading to chronic issues down the road. The best tip I can give beginner climbers is to practice OPEN HAND CRIMPING!

Bouldering or sport climbing? 

Sport takes you to greater heights. I love finishing a climb and being able to soak in the view. Bouldering gives you a different high. I feel accomplished when I’m on top. I did it. Short and sweet. But when you’re hundreds of feet off of the ground, you feel small and almost insignificant like a tiny blip on the radar screen.    You get a sense of something greater, something beyond you, something truly awesome.

What is your favorite place to climb outdoors?

I’ve been going to Devil’s Lake more and I love it. There are new boulder routes being set up as more people explore the talus fields. I’m more confident in my anchor building skills and I’m starting to climb simple trad routes. The rock is slick and it’s the perfect place to build a strong foundation.


Do you have any particular climbing projects or fitness goals for this year?

I’d love to go to the Red and get back on Easy Rider 5.13a or Orange Juice 5.12c. Those were my two most memorable fails, and I’d be happy if I can red point them one day. Jesus Wept 12d looks like a really fun climb too and I’d love to give that one a go. I feel accomplished leading and flashing the Upper Diagonal 5.9 trad at Devil’s Lake. There’s no need to go any harder than that. A personal fitness goal I’ve always wanted to sort of (not really) meet is to get a six pack, but I love sweets much more than the thought of shredded abs. Key lime pie at First Slice is my favorite. 

What keeps you busy when you’re not climbing?

When I’m not climbing, I’m treating patients or I’m busy making videos on instagram to help people with climbing. I volunteer with the Adaptive Climbing Group (@adaptclimbgroup) where we help people with disabilities to climb. And I love spending time with my wonderful girlfriend who just said yes to marrying me! We enjoy cooking together and also going out to eat. If you ever see us in the gym training together, it’s probably the only time you won’t see her smiling… my fault. 

I’m also currently training my pet Sophie to become a great crag dog one day! She has her own Instagram @crag_dog_sophie.

What do you love about Chicago?

I love calling Chicago my home. We have the most beautiful skyline, the city streets are clean and we have a lake the size of an ocean. It’s easy to find a peaceful corner to get work done or get caught up in a big crowd at a music festival. The diversity of cuisines is never ending too. I just discovered this Venezuelan restaurant on the very north side of Lake View. The cheese sticks alone are so delicious.

What is something about you most people don’t know?

I’ve been playing the drums almost every week at my church for the past 20 years. I was self-taught starting my freshmen year in high school because our youth group needed a drummer.I now play for our adult service. I’m actually really surprised it’s been 20 years, maybe because I learned at such a young age and it was built into my routine for so long that you just lose track of time. It’s so much fun. I still feel like a kid whenever I play.

Anything else you want to say to the FA Community?
I’m excited to be on the front lines of injury prevention at FA. Climbing is my passion and I’m fortunate that I can use my profession to help people climb better. I can’t wait to meet you!