Conservation or Blame Shifting: The Tahoe Tree Story


Hiking up to the Happies at Moonlight on a busy weekend is a surreal experience, but not because the euphoria of an ethereal landscape setting the imagination wild.  Everywhere around is evidence of human presence – piss puddles right in the middle of the trail, bright white toilet paper glinting in the dim light, giant tick marks on features so obvious I saw them 50 yards away in the dark.

Climbers are a strange bunch.  Like any user group in the outdoors self-preservation at all costs is paramount.  We refuse to own up to our own mistakes while hurredly chasting others.  Among other hobbyists, like fishermen and hunters, it might seem as though climbers keep their impact substantially lower.  A few months ago I spent a night at a popular hunting camp site, and had difficulty finding a place to pitch my tent amidst spent shells and shattered domestic beer bottles.

In reality there is no such thing as being absolved for setting the curve.

I am one of six kids, and sat squarely in the middle in almost every facet – decent grades, decent catastrophies, decently messy room.  I kept my nose clean just enough to stay off the radar of the parents, hoping one of the other Davis kids would screw up worse than I did.

I found a boulder to warm-up on and chalked up, caking my hands with the precious send-dust in hopes that I might maximize my own experience at the expense of the aesthetics of the boulder in front of me.  It wasn’t a very popular boulder, but still bore the regular scars of heavy use – lichen-free foot and hand holds, an occasional ticked chalk mark, and a wide sandy base with a lone bush struggling for survival right below the crux.

The poor bush. Later that evening, looking through a guidebook, I found an old picture of the route.  A few Bishop Old School dudes were running laps on the Problem I was working on, complete with short shorts and a chalk bag on a shoulder sling.  Missing was the large crash pad, the kind that climbers like myself are prone to drag across delicate landscapes because picking it up can be a real pain in the ass sometimes – or so we tell ourselves.

Before I saw that picture, as I was working the problem, I put a real beating on the little shrub.  After trying to avoid the lone dried snag and falling a few times square on top of it, I shrugged and did what everyone else did – plunked the pad right on top and sent.  After picking it up, the bush looked no worse for wear, as the few larger stems were thick and hearty enough to have survived this far.  A few more days of being stomped on was hardly noteworthy in his long life.

Back to that photo from the late 80’s, I noticed the bush wasn’t alone – he had buddies.  A lot of them.  In fact, the photo gave a glimpse into what the little wash we love so much used to look like – funny enough, it used to look like the rest of the landscape around Bishop.  Green and vibrant, full of budding flora hiding fauna as one might expect to see in any other wash in the Eastern Sierra.

I’m sure the climbers in the old picture thought they were being as low impact as possible.  Historically, they were likely the cleanest bouldering user group bishop had ever seen.  However the minute their hands touched the rock and found the problem, the little oasis at its based was doomed, just as Columbus noticed a gold chain around the neck of a native in the bahamas.  The treasures were too good to be passed up, and as word got out fleets of boulderers would come to experience the wonderful stone as well, bringing with them chalk and psyche and cameras and TP and dogs and all the things that us humans need to maximize their own experiences.

A few days ago news broke about a famous professional climber cutting down some very old, very rare trees.  A quick perusal of the reddit style comments on any blogs give the impression that the average rock climber feels the same way about conservation as Che Guevara felt about independence.  Amidst death threats and publicly sharing the guilty climbers’ personal info, including home address and phone number, was the reality of our situation – we are no better than the hunters or the fisherman, who don’t see their shells and excess line draped about reeds as an issue.

The crag in question that had it’s Juniper gardened was an “underground” crag, whatever that means, hidden from the riff raff of the populace.  I had been to a few of these “secret” locations over the years, and usually the experience is about the same as anything else – lots of rock, lots of hiking, not great routes.  Perhaps this one crag is different, but who knows – you have to be a member of the treehouse club to gain access to the precious map to the hideout anyway, and I’m not about to go to the bluegrass festivals to make the kinds of friends to be invited to these areas.  Unfortunately the Pro climber wasn’t vetted quite deeply enough, as his questionable ethics destroyed an old tree much to the ire of the internet community.  Professional athletes are people too, the same people that leave TP or use chalk, all with a sliding scale of personal responsibility and understanding of ethical impacts.

If a secret crag is to be mostly free of the mess a horde of visiting climbers brings, two well-known and published locations might be the antithesis.  The Alabama Hills and New Jack City are rough, desert sport climbing locations a few hours drive from the populations of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego.  Though their innate beauty can’t be denied the experience is tainted by Off Highway Vehicle scars, bullet holes in the rock, outdoor latrines and buckets upon buckets of trash from everyone and anyone.  Their proximity to the highway and the accessibility of the well-protected moderates brings EVERYONE to enjoy it, and the more people you bring the more spectrums of humanity exercise their understanding of the outdoors.

I don’t mean to condone anyone’s actions, least of which my own or that of Joe Kinder.  No impact should be excused, or even need be.  It is an inevitability that people will raze the landscape of that which is in front of them, as we always had.  Instead I hope to be a voice of reason, because any impact can be mitigated and we can all take steps for ourselves to keep the areas we love clean for others to enjoy.  In hindsight, I shouldn’t have dragged my pad over the frail bush, just as a hunter should’ve picked up his shells and Joe should’ve left the saw at home.  By pointing fingers other directions we pretend to absolve our own guilt at the expense of our Brothers and Sisters, but in the end it isn’t about getting by being ‘decent.’

We should all aim to hold OURSELVES to the high standard we hold the rest of the world.  It might not ever happen, because we are human, and all humans are flawed – like Joe and I.