Speak Up Now to Protect Access to Peaks and Canyons

Mountaineers courses and programs often rely on fixed anchors to navigate challenging terrain and reach breathtaking summits. But recently released directives from the National Park Service and the Forest Service could regulate some fixed anchors out of existence. Speak up to tell these agencies the important role that fixed anchors play in our community’s ability to safely access public outdoor teaching spaces in Washington.
The Mountaineers The Mountaineers
December 20, 2023
Speak Up Now to Protect Access to Peaks and Canyons
A climber uses a fixed anchor to belay his partner up to the summit of Mt. Shuksan. Under a recent proposal by the Park Service and Forest Service, this fixed anchor would be prohibited. Photo by Nate Derrick.

Note, this public comment period has closed. We'll keep our community updated on future developments in this process.

For many Mountaineers students, the South Face of the Tooth in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is their first foray into the world of alpine climbing. Considering its close proximity to the Seattle area, wide ledges for belaying, and grippy holds, it’s no wonder that the South Face is a classic teaching space for our alpine programs. Unfortunately, our community’s ability to safely access critical teaching spaces like the South Face of the Tooth is in jeopardy due to recently released National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) proposals.

Bolts Under Scrutiny

Last month, the NPS and the USFS released draft policies that would classify fixed anchors as “installations” under the Wilderness Act of 1964. That means that both new and existing bolts, slings, and pitons in Wilderness Areas would be prohibited until each anchor can be individually reviewed by land managers. In other words, both new and existing fixed anchors would effectively be considered “guilty until proven innocent.” 

Both the National Park Service and Forest Service policies acknowledge that climbing is a legitimate use of wilderness, but by classifying fixed anchors as “installations,” the directives are threatening our community’s ability to safely navigate peaks, pitches, and canyons. Historically, the term “installations” has been used to describe objects like bridges, buildings, paved roads, and landfills - types of infrastructure that most people would agree are incompatible with preserving wilderness character. Under the two new directives, fixed anchors would be lumped into the same category and subjected to the same level of scrutiny as a paved road. 

While the NPS directive would only apply to Wilderness Areas, the Forest Service directive would restrict the use of fixed anchors in both wilderness and non-wilderness areas. In non-wilderness, the USFS proposal would limit the placement and replacement of bolts to established “climbing opportunities.” What qualifies as “climbing opportunities” is poorly defined in the directive and highly subjective, so we aren’t sure what this would mean for our programs and activities. At minimum, this policy would create unnecessary confusion for land managers and climbers.

Although the NPS and USFS directives would prohibit installations, they can be allowed on a case-by-case basis through a process called a minimum requirement analysis (MRA). Under this classification, land managers, already under-resourced, would need to find the time or budget to undergo an MRA process to approve a fixed anchor for continued use or future installation. That’s a lot of red tape for a single bolt. 

Beyond the administrative headaches for land managers, the proposals represent a genuine safety concern for the millions of outdoor recreationists who rely on fixed anchors for protection. Climbers, canyoneers, backcountry skiers, ice climbers, and mountaineers, not land managers, are traditionally responsible for assessing and replacing fixed anchors. But the National Park Service and Forest Service proposals would take away the ability to replace unsafe anchors in a timely manner. Climbers and other recreationists who use fixed anchors need the flexibility to make spur-of-the-moment decisions that keep themselves and others safe in the backcountry. 

Impact on Mountaineers Activities

The proposals could directly impact many Mountaineers courses and programs. If you’ve ever summited Mt. Shuksan via Sulphide Glacier, or rappelled off the summit block of Unicorn Peak in the Tatoosh Range, you’ve benefited from fixed anchors that would be prohibited under both directives. These are but two examples from a long list; many of our courses’ most popular routes are in wilderness areas and would be impacted. 

Once finalized, the directives would most likely not affect routes in the short-term. Both proposals explicitly state that the continued use of existing fixed anchors will be allowed until those anchors can be subjected to a minimum requirement analysis. Given that the MRA process requires significant time and investment, and that federal land management agencies are often understaffed and under-resourced, it’s unrealistic that the NPS or USFS will be able to weigh in on all the routes that currently sit within wilderness areas in Washington. 

The extent to which these directives impact our programs will also depend on what kind of management approach the Forest Service and Park Service take. A worst case scenario would be that the agencies actively seek out routes with fixed anchors now deemed noncompliant and remove them. Due to a lack of resources, a more likely outcome would be that land managers wait until a recreationist, guiding company, or concerned party identifies an anchor to be replaced, removed, or installed before they go through an MRA process. 

Impact to Conservation

Climbers are powerful advocates for the outdoors. As ambassadors of sustainable recreation, climbers have been at the forefront of protecting our public lands for generations. Our community has been strong supporters of the Wilderness Act and has worked with other conservationists to protect places like the Alpine Lakes Wilderness for generations. That’s why these directives are not only an outdoor access issue, but a conservation issue. As climbing and other outdoor recreation activities grow in popularity, the conservation movement needs climbers to continue to be powerful advocates. With so many big challenges facing the outdoors - from climate change to lack of funding - it’s more important than ever that all outdoor enthusiasts come together to protect it.

Take Action

Join us by sharing your concerns with the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service. To make your comments heard and help shape the final policy, you’ll need to submit two separate letters - one for each proposal. The public input period for both agencies is open through Jan 30, 2024

Our partners at Access Fund put together a detailed guide on how to structure your comments. Follow their step-by-step instructions to comment on both the proposed USFS and NPS directives. If you’re a climber, mountaineer, backcountry skier, canyoneer, or ice climber, consider sharing a personal anecdote in your comments. Federal agencies want to know why you care about maintaining access to public lands in Washington. A narrative about your experience using fixed anchors to rappel off Ingalls Peak in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness as part of our Basic Alpine Climbing Course is a compelling advocacy tool. 

Speak up by Jan 30, 2024 to protect sustainable climbing on our public lands. 


We’re tackling this issue from several angles. Learn more about and take action on a potential legislative solution.