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The Rock Climbing Controversy That Could Change The Bighorns

Catherine Wheeler

Ten Sleep Canyon sits on the southwestern edge of the Bighorn National Forest, and it's always been a destination for rock climbers.

"In the past couple of years, the area's popularity has exploded," said Alex Green, president of the Bighorn Climbers' Coalition (BCC).

"Ten Sleep Canyon has been seeing a pretty big resurgence in rock climbing development over the handful of years. That resurgence has come with its share of pros and cons," Green said.

He said more people have been developing rock climbing routes, or paths up a rock, in Ten Sleep. The rocks in the canyon are limestone, and it requires some cleaning before it's safe to climb.

"You need to pull off loose flakes, loose rocks. You need to file down razor-sharp edges, make sure they aren't going to cut you. Sometimes get rid of a little vegetation in the middle of a route. There's kind of a minimal standard that absolutely needs to happen when you're developing limestone," he said.

That's where climbers have had some differences in the past year. In 2018, climbers in the canyon started noticing that some of the newer climbing routes were looking a little too clean- something they call manufactured.

"Instead of just filing down a razor-sharp edge so a pocket doesn't cut you when you put your fingers into it, they might make the mouth of the pocket bigger so you can fit three fingers instead of two or something like that," Green said.

Green said the BCC started hearing about routes that had drilled holes for pockets as well as some with rock had been reinforced with a type of glue.

That's led to a big conversation about what is considered ethical route development in the canyon.

The man at the center of the controversy is Louie Anderson.

Anderson has climbed in Ten Sleep for more than 20 years and moved to the area about four years ago. He's developed around 150 routes since moving here, and not all of them have been controversial. He also owns a local business that offers climbers a place to stay when they visit the canyon.

Anderson said he met with local climbers about his route development practices in June 2018.

"Those conversations, I thought, went quite well. The initial meeting and then the follow-up conversations over the following month or so kind of led me to re-evaluate what I was doing and change my opinion on the tactics I was comfortable using. And I told these people that and from that point on I haven't done those things," Anderson said.

He said he spent the last year or so trying to regain the trust of the climbing community.

But in February, several long-time Ten Sleep climbers brought more attention to the issue with a published open letter attacking Anderson and others' practices.

Alex Green with the BCC said the published letter forced his group to react.

"It necessitated a very direct response and a more public response than we were initially preparing for," Green said.

So the organization started holding route developer round-tables where climbers could get together and talk about what's been happening in Ten Sleep, which has led to them writing a guidance document for route development.

"It's being written by members of the local community. We're getting input from everyone on all sides of this, and we're going to be coming up with a set of guidelines and standards that I think we can all be happy with moving forward," he said.

But while it looked like the issues were being resolved, a group of people went up to the canyon in the middle of the night in early July and took down some of the routes Anderson had developed. Green said about 70 routes throughout the canyon were negatively affected.

"Thirty-ish were totally stripped and removed from the wall. They just don't exist anymore as routes. Another 30-ish were partially affected. They put red padlocks on the first bolts of a lot of routes, a handful of routes they filled in some holds they thought were manufactured with epoxy or broke some holds off the wall even," he said.

The actions prompted the U.S. Forest Service to finally get involved. Powder River District Ranger Traci Weaver said they now will be enforcing federal rules on route development in the canyon.

"You can't go and manufacture, you can't create trails or routes on national forest [land] without a permit or operating plan," Weaver said.

Weaver said they made the decision to put a pause on route development to give everyone a chance to cool down from the tension over the past year.

"Basically, what it was from my perspective was to get everyone to take a tactical pause, to move forward more thoughtfully and on the same page," she said.

The Forest Service has hired a ranger to solely focus on climbing in the area. The ranger, James Pfeifer, will be working in Ten Sleep to educate climbers on sustainable practices and taking an inventory of climbing routes and on the impacts of climbing.

Weaver said the Forest Service will also work with the BCC to finish up a climbing management plan for the forest, something that's been in the works for a while.

"We'll work with them on route development ethics that they're working on now. We'll make sure there's information about the wilderness area and how we want to manage that, as well as addressing dispersed camping, and human waste, and dogs and all of the other impacts that people potentially when they come to climb," Weaver said.

As a first step for the management plan, the Forest Service granted the Bighorn Climbers' Coalition $22,000 to start surveying the canyon. Last year the BCC mapped trails and dispersed camping in the canyon. Currently, they've been working on the archeological survey.

There is no definite timeline on when a final management plan would be ready.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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