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Maintaining Safe and Clean Anchors in Wilderness Areas

Posted by Joseph Anderson

Maintaining Safe and Clean Anchors in Wilderness Areas

Is it possible to rappel a route without either leaving something behind or by depending on another source to have left something such as a sling or a bolt behind? In the great majority of cases the answer is no.  Now add in increased safety, which should be in every sober person’s descent plan, and what do you get? With this focus it is even less likely that a technical descent can be accomplished without fixed anchors.  Over the past several decades this has been an ongoing philosophical and practical dilemma, debate and sometimes battle between, climbers, land managers, policy makers and the general public.    

Bolted anchors for resource protection (AKA practicing Leave No Trace):

At center stage is the use of bolts for fixed anchors (where drilling into the rock is required) versus anchors such as slings, chock stones and other creative uses of natural features (in order to avoid the need to drill into rock).  This dilemma is most prevalent in America’s Wilderness areas where the land has been protected by the 1964 Wilderness Act stating that “the land will not be altered or changed but left in its natural state.”  The idea for many is that anytime someone has to drill into the rock in order to add an anchor, than you are altering the landscape or defacing it. Enter the Access Fund, an American Advocacy group with a mission to “Keep America’s climbing areas open and protect their environment”. Their official statement on bolted fixed anchors pronounces “they can be used as a resource protection tool” pointing out that on a case by case basis “strategic bolt placement has been increasingly used to protect sensitive resources such as cliff-edge vegetation, soils, and specimen cliff trees that might otherwise be directly used as rope anchors.”

 In addition, you don’t need to go far to see how a couple of bolted anchors can limit an excessive amount of unsightly garbage in the form of tied webbing around rocks and trees draping the vertical landscape.  We need to consider which is more in line with the “leave no trace” ethics, a few bolted rocks that often remain unseen until quite close or a cliff top of draped slings?  

Anchor Safety in the Wilderness:

Since revising their policy on bolting in wilderness areas on May 13th 2013 the National Park Service issued an updated director’s orders stating that “authorization will be required for new fixed anchors”.  Please note that this is a more lenient approach to their previous complete ban on replacing old anchors or adding new ones.  Although this seems like a step in the right direction the language remains misleading, is subject to interpretation and is most concerned with promoting a “Clean Climbing” technique which is defined as using “slings, cams, nuts and stoppers”.   Reading this updated directive, there does not seem to be much about the promotion of safety in climbing at all. 

During the summer of 2012 I arrived into Boston Basin after a routine hike in with several students when I ran into my friend Ian.  Ian said that several National Park Rangers just finished chopping the bolts for the descent route of the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak.  We both shook our heads knowing very well what would happen next.  The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak is one of the most popular technical mountain routes in the North Cascades National Park and is in a designated Wilderness Area.  This popularity has only increased over the years.  With that someone had the good sense to establish several bolted anchors lower on the descent that kept descending parties out of the dangerous gullies as well as insured that less experienced parties were not rappelling off of unsafe anchors like for example what had happened on the nearby Sharks Fin Tower in 2005. Here 3 climbers died while rappelling off of slings wrapped around loose rock.  Yes this was a function of less experience and that’s exactly what you get on these more popular mountain venues – an increase in climbers with less experience.

Here we are in December of 2013, seven  months after the new directive was passed and to catch you up there was (as predicted above) an unfortunate death this past September on Forbidden Peaks West Ridge descent gullies where the bolts were cut. North Cascades National Park notes that they are in no way responsible or accountable for this death. They have yet to clarify to my knowledge any update to their interpretation of the new policy which does not allow any bolting whatsoever. The fact remains that a permit for establishing fixed bolted anchors could be issued for these high traffic climbing routes in the North Cascades National Park which would unquestioningly keep people safer.  However, the issue remains that the North Cascade Park’s wide interpretation of the directive is favoring an approach that promotes increased garbage and decreased safety or shall we say, more slings leading to a less defined and therefore more dangerous descent route and less bolts. 


I think to better understand this culture of defending the Wilderness Areas against bolts at all costs it is helpful to look at some of the lobbying groups set up to protect the Wilderness.  Check out PEER’s (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) reaction to this 2013 directive posted on June 20th 2013 by Kirsten Strade stating that, “the directive causes more problems than it solves”.  Its number one complaint states that “Illegal authorization of placing fixed anchors in Wilderness areas” should be stopped and that “rather than degrade wilderness rock faces, some wilderness cliffs should remain un-climbable and untrampled.” They continue with threats of lawsuits and allude to the fact that climbing is not a reasonable activity.  They are not alone. Check out, whose work is “guided by the visionary 1964 wilderness act.”  They raise the same urgency to the National Parks directive stating “The National Park allows illegal authorization of placing fixed anchors in the Wilderness area” as their top complaint.  In fact there are countless folks who base their decision making on the wilderness theory rather that the wilderness reality.

Most National Parks with very important climbing areas such as Grand Teton, Yosemite and Joshua Tree have interpreted this directive to allow a cleaner and safer approach to maintaining the wilderness area.  The fact is that a remaining few such as Grand Canyon National Park and North Cascades National Park have adopted an interpretation that is increasingly part of a fringe culture and a point of view that is not very good at admitting or even understanding the (sometimes fatal and often ugly) outcomes of not allowing fixed bolted anchors when necessary. 

Regardless of whether there will be any immediate accountability for the specific case of Forbidden Peak, in the big picture, the policies and the culture will continue to evolve towards a safer and cleaner approach to the mountains which I have to believe will lead to appropriate placement of fixed bolted anchors when necessary.