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Tensleep Canyon

Rising to the east of the Bighorn Basin, the rugged dolomite cliffs of Tensleep Canyon in Wyoming have become a popular spot for rock climbers from around the world.

A Wyoming rock climber’s installation of routes in a popular Bighorn Mountain canyon has the Forest Service concerned and the sport’s athletes divided.

“It’s a huge concern for us because we want to conserve the land for future generations,” said Sara Evans Kirol, spokeswoman for the Bighorn National Forest. “You can’t put it back. It’s gone forever.”

Law enforcement is involved, she added, because such actions are illegal.

The routes hammered, glued and chipped into the dolomite stone of Tensleep Canyon have also raised the hackles of other climbers from across the United States.

“The sport/lifestyle of climbing is derived from mountaineering and our ethos is built around people facing the wild challenges presented by nature,” JB Haab, a Colorado climber who is upset about the route manufacturing in Wyoming, wrote in an email. “It’s a human vs. the mountain type of thing... What a handful of people have been doing recently is creating unnatural holds on the rock where they didn’t exist previously by chiseling or drilling with hand and power tools. This tactic is generally called chipping by our community and is categorically discouraged by all climbing institutions. The only allowable alterations to the rock that are generally accepted of this nature are where a climber may ‘clean’ the rock face of loose debris or soften razor-sharp edges of the rock to make a route safe.”

Rocky route

More than 1,000 climbing routes exist in Tensleep Canyon, with guidebooks available to help climbers find their way.

Lots of routes

The online climbing guide Rakkup printed says that more than 100 new lines were created in 2017. Although the website called the route manufacturing “egregious,” it still chose to publicize the lines to provide “the best and most accurate information” to its readers.

Recently, some climbers removed manufactured routes to “make a statement that these routes are unethical,” said Taylor Spiegelberg, vice president of the Bighorn Climbers' Coalition. Spiegelberg, who lives in Lander, Wyoming, said his group is trying to be a mediator and find solutions based on a more ethical sense of climbing. Removing routes also damages the rock, he said.

“Once X amount of damage has been done to the resource it can’t be fixed,” he said. “We weren’t in favor of removing the routes because it results in more damage.”

Spiegelberg worries that if action isn’t taken before more damage is done, climbers could be kicked out, as has happened in other places in the South and Rockies. He would like to avoid that outcome.

Rock climbing

Rock climbing has surged in popularity in Wyoming's Tensleep Canyon over the past 15 years. 

Disagreement

At the center of the controversy is Louie Anderson, a Californian who moved to the small community of Ten Sleep, Wyoming, about three years ago. Along with his wife, Anderson established the Ten Sleep Rock Ranch not far from the climbing venue, offering lodging, information and hospitality for fellow climbers.

When contacted for comment on the issue, Anderson said the matter had already been widely reported and he didn’t want to talk about it.

His wife, Valerie Anderson, said the local climbing community is trying to self-regulate and solve the issue internally by holding open discussions at the local brewery.

In a Facebook post Haab, along with other climbers, publicly denounced Anderson’s work — and the publication of the routes in a guidebook. In one such posting, Haab and fellow climbers Charlie Kardaleff and Aaron Huey called the situation “a battle for nothing less than the Soul of Ten Sleep.”

Hot spot

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The area in the southwestern corner of the Bighorn Mountains has been drawing rock climbers for 15 years, Evans Kirol said.

“It’s actually internationally renowned, so a lot of people come, especially during weekends and holidays,” she said.

A recent rock climbing festival in the community of Ten Sleep drew about 600 people, Spiegelberg said.

In the last five years, use of the canyon for climbing has increased considerably, partly because it is so easily accessible just off the highway. The cliffs are also popular because the routes are long, providing a variety of technical challenges, Evans Kirol said.

“As climbers, we enjoy the cool summer temperatures provided by the high altitude and shady walls of the sub-alpine canyon,” Haab wrote. “Dolomite, the type of rock found in Tensleep Canyon, is unique in the Americas and provides challenging climbing using (normally) natural pockets that festoon the rock faces of the canyon. The climbing here caters to ‘sport climbing’ which utilizes fixed protection or bolts to assure the relative safety of climbers during their attempts to climb the route.”

Spiegelberg said climbing across the Bighorn Mountains is “blowing up.” There are more than 1,000 climbs just in the canyon, he said. Free camping, guidebooks to help climbers find routes and a mixture of moderate and difficult climbs in a “beautiful place” combines to create the perfect rock climbing recipe.

“The Bighorn dolomite is some of the best rock in the country,” he added.

Taking action

Concerned by the controversy, crowding, trash and defacing of public lands, Evans Kirol said the Forest Service is working to assess the area with an eye toward lessening the damage caused by automobile parking and foot traffic trampling vegetation, no access to toilets and trash. The agency is also collaborating with the local climbing community to GPS routes and inventory those that were user created, including trails to get to the climbs. Hiring a climbing ranger during the summer could also be part of a future plan.

“We are already challenged to make our sport sustainable because while participating in the sport we are inherently impacting the places we value by causing further erosion, trash, loss of vegetation and human waste issues,” Haab wrote. “If routes are able to be chiseled into any rock face regardless of the natural challenges once present, we see that the impacts of our sport will grow even larger than what we are currently experiencing.”

Evans Kirol said the Forest Service is seeking partners to help the agency hire an archaeologist to assess the heritage resources in the canyon.

“We’re working toward a climbing plan that could require some environmental analysis, so we’re trying to get some data together,” she added.

Ready to help

Spiegelberg said his group would like to gain the ability to hold trail days to help with cleanup, as well participate in designing campgrounds and even raising money for a public toilet. Before that can happen, though, he said the forest has to finalize its plan and include his group as a partner.

“Right now, the Bighorn Climbers' Coalition can’t do anything” on its own, he said.

The coalition would also like to develop a set of guidelines and standards for creating new routes, which because of the stone requires the installation of bolts for climbers to tie off on.

“Natural rock faces, while extensive, are in the end finite and should be respected and conserved, that minimal cleaning and manipulation of the natural rock should take place,” Haab summed up.

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