R.Ichard Gilbert claims he had no idea he was doing something wrong when he was drilling bolts into a rock face in Utah to create three new climbing routes that illegally defaced a 1,000-year-old indigenous cultural site.
Climbers know the rock that Gilbert shot as the Sunshine Wall, a ledge north of Moab and Arches National Park that houses the centuries-old petroglyphs of the Fremont. Gilbert has said he failed to see the importance of the carvings, although most climbers aim to never disturb the indigenous cultural sites.
Gilbert’s bolts have since been pulled from the Sunshine Wall. But his admission last month that he was the one who profaned the petroglyphs for exercise sparked a quick and severe backlash, with dozens of news articles about his mistake, dissidents in the open-air media, and even death threats.
“It was awful to see,” said Skye Kolealani Razon-Olds, executive director of Kanaka Climbers, a local Hawaiian climbing group, of the bolts. Razon-Olds noted that petroglyph climbing has been a problem in Hawaii for more than a decade. The latest news from Utah “hurt me as an indigenous person,” she added, “knowing how much pain other indigenous peoples would feel when they see it”.
Gilbert’s action enlivened long-standing debates over the checkered history of climbing, a white and male dominated sport whose practitioners have struggled for decades to climb wherever they want and have often been successful.
Bolt anchor near a petroglyph near Moab, Utah. Photo: Darren Reay / Facebook
While it’s growing in popularity, there’s little recognition that climbing, like much outdoor recreation in the U.S., depends on land stolen from Native Americans, local climbers say.
“The United States is unique in the fact that we have so much public land, national parks, and national monuments,” said Angelo Baca, climber and cultural resource coordinator at Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit that works to protect the land indigenous communities. “It is important to understand that it is available at an affordable price. The expropriation and removal of our indigenous communities from these places has never been recognized or corrected. “
The 2014 documentary Valley Uprising, for example, tells about the beginnings of sport climbing in California’s Yosemite National Park in the 1950s and 60s, as well as the vagabonds who flocked to its impressive granite faces. Climbers glorified in the film include Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia; Royal Robbins; and Robbins rival Warren Harding, whose aggressive climbing style relied on hammering pitons into bare rocks. The park’s history continues in popular culture thanks to films like Free Solo, the Oscar-winning documentary about Alex Honnold’s ropeless rise of El Capitan.
Neither of these films recognizes the history of the park’s origins, including the systematic burning of native villages and grocery stores by the state-sanctioned Mariposa Battalion, driving families from their homes.
Learning such a story, according to Razon-Olds and Baca, is the first step non-Native people should take outdoors.
“This latest incident, coupled with a history of incidents between the climbing community and tribal nations, only divides the climbing community and the tribes even further, creating a wedge,” Ashleigh Thompson, a PhD student in anthropology, told a recently appointed Access Fund panel , one of the country’s leading climbing organizations that included Razon-Olds, Baca, professional climbers Chris Schulte and Gilbert who drilled the bolts in Utah.
A bolt just above a petroglyph near Moab. Photo: Darren Reay / Facebook
Thompson, an Ojibwe woman and climber, admitted she was reluctant to appear on the jury and noted the Access Fund’s legal push against a climbing ban on Nevada’s Cave Rock, a sacred site for the Washoe tribe. The fund claimed the US Department of Agriculture promoted the tribe’s religion and even discriminated against climbers.
The Fund lost that case and later said the process helped it learn “the importance of reaching and working with Indian tribes whenever possible”.
Today the fund is to give climbers space to listen to the indigenous people and learn from them, says its managing director Chris Winter. He admitted that modern climbing has roots in mountaineering and exploration, and not necessarily in sustainability and inclusivity.
“It was about reaching the summit and making the first ascent. I think it was just part of the sport from the start and it attracted people who were drawn to that kind of sense of achievement, ”said Winter. “But I think we are becoming more and more aware of what this means for our relationships with other people and other cultures and the world around us.”
Just last week, another historic petroglyph near Moab, the rock of the birth scene from the Ute era, was destroyed with violent, racist language. Baca said the act was part of the ongoing brutality against indigenous peoples.
Although it is unclear who is responsible, Baca said that climbers who want to face this violence against the indigenous people must view the protection of sacred art as more than just a way to maintain access to their favorite rocks.
“If climbers really want to improve their game, they need to use it not only as good climbing protocol, but also as a means of achieving restorative and social justice,” said Baca. “Climbers are particularly sensitive and aware of the environment and its changes. As they develop this relationship with the land, they should also become guardians and protectors of the land. “