Last nights BMC meeting in Staveley focused on the ethics of Winter Climbing in the Lake District. Following on from two incredible seasons there has been much vocal argument about what is acceptable and what direction our sport should take in the future.
Simon Webb from Nature England gave a very informative presentation on the effect of our actions on some of the very rare arctic plants which struggle to survive in the gullies and crags on which we pursue winter climbing. However the good news was that winter climbing on vegetated lines does very little damage if they are in condition ie the turf is frozen and not just snow covered. Simon's plea that we avoid climbing when the vegetation isn't frozen was met with plenty of support.
There was some discussion on the differences between dry tooling and mixed climbing. The difference was not as clear as some participants would have liked and the end result of damage to the rock from ice axe and crampons is very similar. Steve Ashworth noted that dry tooling was very much a underground activity in the Lakes and encouraged the BMC to look at developing guidelines and crags which I believe would help in educating climbers as to what is acceptable. Last winter two young climbers were photographed dry tooling on Millstone in the Peak District causing extensive damage to the thin crust characteristic of gritstone. Education has to be the key to preserving the limited amount of rock we have in the UK.
The main topic on which folk felt very strongly was the effect of winter climbing on classic rock routes. Bowfell Buttress in Langdale gives a classic VD in summer but has become polished from extensive traffic. In the last few years it has also become a very popular winter climb at grade V. It now sports a lot of superficial scratching which is visually intrusive in summer conditions but hasn't effected the actual climbing.
The size and frequency of the holds and protection on routes such as Bowfell Buttress and the Crack (VS) on Gimmer mean they will usually remain physically unscathed but visually damaged from the passage of winter climbers. Routes at these grades should still offer a similar experience to the summer rock climber regardless of whether they are climbed in winter. Interestingly 11 of the 16 Classic Rock routes in the Lakes have now received a winter ascent.
However the leading activists are getting stronger and are looking to push their boundaries. As they move on to harder classic routes the potential for significant damage is increased. Smaller holds and critical runner placements are more prone to damage from ice tools and crampons which could significantly alter the nature of the route in summer conditions. The explosion in climbing standards of the last few years has meant that more people now climb on the harder routes and understandably wish to test themselves on the published routes of the leading activists of our era. There is no easy answer to this natural progression with regards to the sustainability of our sport and to it's effects on other mountain users
Many people climb due to its lack of rules and regulations. Picking on one small part of the climbing world for the damage they do is to forget the side effects of many other aspects of our sport - polish, chalk, clearing of vegetation etc. However the actions of a few can and will have a negative effect on our mountain heritage and the enjoyment of others. Maybe we accept that routes will change, holds will break, placements will wear out, rockfalls will occur and in the grand scheme of things they matter very little compared to the natural erosion and that caused by walkers, mountain bikers and horse riders? Many of the rock routes at Millstone were formed by the extensive pegging of aid climbers. The mountain environment is always changing as are fashions in climbing. Or do we look at self regulation to protect the experience of the majority?
The latest Welsh winter climbing guide has taken the step of defining some routes and areas of crags as out of bounds in an effort to protect the classic rock routes. This would be a controversial step for the Lake District but would possibly help with the education of climbers. There would be no legal basis and climbers would still be free to climb where they wished, indeed some leading climbers have already indicated that they would ignore any effort to restrict where they climb, but it would have some influence on the majority.
There have been many controversies in climbing - bolts, chalk, aid, top roping. The climbing community has eventually self regulated itself with regards to these issues and I'm sure the same will happen here but they'll be plenty more 'positive discussions' until a consensus is reached! Until that time please only climb when routes are truly frozen and take responsibility for the effects of your actions.