Guest post by Dan Hohl. Dan Hohl is a Master’s Candidate in the Environmental Humanities Program at the University of Utah. He is driven towards long days in the mountains, preferably combining climbing and ski touring. The incredible public lands in this country hold some of his most treasured memories, and inspire him to speak up on their behalf.
Place attachment is a concept from social science that generally describes the bond between individuals, or communities, and specific places that are important to them. Climbers do not need to read the research to understand the power of place attachment. Our sport boasts hundreds, if not thousands, of incredible places that we have become connected to as climbers.
As a climber with a growing list of environmental concerns, I found myself drawn to study this relationship between climbers and landscapes. I have been incredibly fortunate to dedicate my graduate work at the University of Utah’s Environmental Humanities program to this subject. It has been a privilege to learn from experienced mentors whose expertise encompasses both climbing and academia.
These years of reading, writing, and volunteering around climbing, not to mention all of the pitches themselves, have taught me that climbing is inextricably tied to certain places in a unique way. Individual climbers experience powerful personal growth in their home crags and through exploration of new areas. As a California native who cragged, skied, and camped in the Sierra Nevadas, my affinity for the Range of Light is forever. And my desire for early mornings, long approaches, and wilderness has connected me to the Wasatch alpine during my stint in Utah.
It has become clear during my studies and climbing that attachments to places exist at the community level as well. The community is linked to the refuges of vertical play where climbers gather and celebrate. One’s first trad lead at a scrappy local cliff, crashing into a bivy after hours of scrambling and traversing ridgelines, and experiencing Creeksgiving are all formative moments that shape climbers and ingrain that place into our sense of identity.
I used my resources at the University of Utah to conduct an online survey amongst climbers across the country. My goal was to understand how climbers relate to their environments and view certain environmental issues. Despite its small size, the results showed me that most climbers care enough about local places to be concerned with increasing impacts. One respondent summarized his or her feelings toward the climbing landscape in this way, “My soul feels filled up when I go to climb. Different places feel different emotionally. Desert can be quiet and introspective. Mountains can be intimidating. I met my best friends including my wife climbing in the wilderness. It’s where and when I feel most free.” There is no doubt that climbing brings us close to certain places.
I also learned that a part of this place attachment in climbing is an expectation that we will give back to our climbing environment. Conservation, stewardship, and advocacy for climbing are common goals for our incredible local climbing organizations. We most often fulfill our community’s expectation of giving back through volunteering or donating to these local organizations. Trail work, fundraisers, and local elections have been excellent avenues for climbers to protect and improve community crags.
However, the current times demand more of climbers. Our fellow outdoor recreation groups and other allies need the climbing community to contribute to causes larger than local climbing protection. This is an opportunity for climbers to engage in new advocacy campaigns and protect places for both future climbing and for the myriad of other reasons that attach us to outdoor places. Climbers can use their same energy for local volunteering to take part in advocacy and activism that support climbers and non-climbers alike.
The propensity for volunteering with our local climbing organizations should be no less widespread when it comes to volunteering for diverse human-powered outdoor recreation advocacy groups. Outdoor Alliance is an excellent example of such an opportunity for climbers to take advantage of. Protecting local crags is essential to keep the climbing community strong and the sport thriving. However so many of climbing’s most cherished places lie on large tracts of public land that do not fit neatly into local management plans. It will take cooperation with our human-powered allies to achieve public land protection and ensure that the least-impactful forms of recreation are prioritized in land management plans.
Local climbing organizations can help their climbers engage in bigger organizations like Outdoor Alliance and take part in the campaigns to protect our public lands and keep undeveloped places free from irreversible harm. The climbing community cannot hold back its support until our crags are in the line of fire for development or privatization. We can pick up the pace of our volunteer and advocacy efforts by contributing to our allies even when their campaigns do not directly relate to climbing.
I have seen climbers dedicate hours of free time to strenuous trail work, trash pickups, and fundraising events. Our community is full of intelligent and passionate users that understand the importance of individual contributions. Imagine how many places we will protect if we expand and energize our efforts. Climbing is an incredible sport that gives each of us so much; we have an obligation and a privilege to give back to it through environmental advocacy.