Wilderness agencies consider new policies for rock climbing gear across nation, including Oregon

By April Ehrlich (OPB)
Jan. 18, 2024 2 p.m.

The guidelines propose permit processes for installing, replacing climbing hardware.

A rock climber climbs Smith Rock on May 16, 2020. It was the first weekend that Smith Rock State Park was open since the pandemic shut down parks in Oregon.

A rock climber climbs Smith Rock on May 16, 2020. Federal proposals to gear used in parks would only apply to national parks directly, not state parks like Smith Rock. However, some climbers worry Oregon could adopt similar policies.

Stephani Gordon / OPB

Two federal agencies are considering new guidelines determining where and how rock climbers can install or replace bolts used for rock climbing routes.


The U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service are proposing policies for drilling bolts into rock faces in federally designated wilderness areas, like the Mt. Hood National Forest or Yosemite National Park. The deadline for public comment is Jan. 30.

Rock climbers typically need to drill half-inch-wide bolts called anchors into crags to create new climbing routes. Sometimes climbers can use removable hardware, but those need to be wedged into rock faces with sufficient cracks.

The agencies’ rules would define fixed anchors as “installations,” prohibited under the Wilderness Act of 1964. If climbers want to install a new bolt or replace an existing one, they’ll need to apply for an exception through one of the agencies.

Many rock climbing groups oppose the proposals. They point to the policies’ apparent contradiction in affirming rock climbing as “an appropriate activity” for wilderness areas, while also limiting the activity.


“It’s very difficult for us to understand how climbing would be considered appropriate and legitimate, while at the same time, a fundamental tool to actually do rock climbing would be prohibited,” said Erik Murdock, interim executive director of Access Fund, a national climbing advocacy group. “It would be similar to saying you can build a house, but you just can’t use a hammer.”

Agency staff say many parks and national forests already have their own rules for managing climbing anchors.

“What this guidance would do would just standardize [climbing hardware rules] across all of our parks and make sure that no matter which park you’re going to, the process for requesting new fixed anchors is the same,” said Cynthia Hernandez, a spokesperson with the National Park Service.

Climbers say the process should instead allow for flexibility to accommodate the diverse needs of individual parks and forests.

“Yosemite National Park gets millions of visitors every year and has very different usage needs and visitor density than, say, the wilderness area in the middle of Alaska,” said Byron Harvison, director of policy and government affairs for the American Alpine Club.

Some of the country’s most popular rock climbing destinations would be impacted by the new rules, including El Capitan in Yosemite and routes in Joshua Tree. The rules wouldn’t apply to state parks like Smith Rock in Central Oregon. Still, climbers worry new federal guidelines could influence local policies.

“What we’ve seen over the last 30 or 40 years of climbing management is, often municipalities and states and counties borrow policy from the federal government, so this is not a great standard,” Murdock said.

Smith Rock State Park issued a temporary policy in 2020 prohibiting the installation or removal of fixed climbing hardware without first getting permission from the park manager. The park will likely develop a climbing management plan in the future, according to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.