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Cave Climbing in Oregon

      by Larry King
A Brief History
Attracted by the challenge of extreme, overhanging routes, and seeking an alternative to the crowded climbing conditions at nearby Smith Rock, climbers developed "indoor climbing gyms" in six Oregon lava tubes beginning in 1991. By 1993 approximately 250 permanent bolted climbing anchors had been installed in five federally managed caves, with another cave extensively impacted by climbing chalk.

In 1994 complaints from the caving community resulted in a "freeze" on future bolt placement. Later that year the BLM allowed the removal of bolted routes from one cave, and additional bolts were removed from another. Currently there are four affected caves, one impacted by chalk only and three others chalked and extensively bolted. Climbers have placed bouldering routes directly over a pictograph panel in one cave, and they have destroyed vegetation and built belay terraces to facilitate ease of access.

The federal resource agencies developed an interim cave management policy in 1995, prohibiting placement of new bolted anchors or removal of existing anchors. The policy states: "Existing installations (i.e. stairs, ladders, fixed anchors, etc.) will be evaluated for retention or removal."

1996 Developments
On February 21st, Oregon Public Broadcasting aired a television segment on the cave-climbing controversy, describing cave conservation problems in light of Central Oregon's rapid population growth. Cave climbing was used as an example of growing recreational impact. Climber's representative Eric Von Heideken talked about the caves: "The abundance of hand and foot holds lend themselves really well to fun, fun climbing. It's a really great place to climb. There are all sorts of levels of environmental degradation, and some of them are more acceptable than others. We've tried to work with some of the land agencies to allow for these small impacts so that we can keep coming out here and act somewhat like stewards of the area to protect it for all people to use"

Conservation problems are presented in a web page devoted to the issue, the "Central Oregon Shame Page" at

Climbing Chalk Ban in Deschutes National Forest Caves
Prior to August, 1996, use of chalk in the caves had been allowed with the understanding that it was "easily removed with water". Cavers cleaned the chalk from one cave in 1992, but until 1996, no further attempt had been made. In May, 1996, and again in August, Forest Service personnel used a pressure washer and several hundred gallons of water in an attempt to wash climbing chalk from the cave walls. It was discovered that chalk had become deeply embedded in the porous lava, and could not be completely removed. A ban on the use of climbing chalk in all Deschutes National Forest caves followed shortly thereafter. The USFS caves are now posted with general cave conservation notices, including special information for climbers. Some signs read "No Chalk, No Moving Rocks", others state: "The Deschutes National Forest priority of cave management is to provide protection to caves and cave resources. All other activities, including "sport climbing" are subsidiary to this management goal." As of November, 1996, approximately ten climbers had been issued $200 tickets for violating the chalk ban, and one had been caught climbing on one cave's rock art panel.

In September Sam Davidson, senior policy analyst for the Colorado-based Access Fund, accepted an invitation to address the September National Speleological Society Western Region meeting in California. The Access Fund represents the interests of climbers and the climbing equipment industry, being heavily involved in impact mitigation at developed climbing areas by sponsoring projects such as trail construction and erosion control. 1994 program disbursements exceeded $450,000. Current projects include organizing political support in opposition to a proposed ban on bolted climbing anchors in Wilderness Areas.

Davidson said that Oregon's cave-climbing routes were developed by climbers from Smith Rock, where heavily bolted "sport" routes are considered ethical. He felt that cavers were unrealistic to expect climbers to share their strict interpretation of the "Leave No Trace" ethic sanctioned by the American caver's organization, the National Speleological Society. According to Davidson, the "Leave No Trace" ethic is "not an absolute to be rigidly applied to all types of recreation irrespective of each type's special requirements or traditions." "The Access Fund believes that climbing is generally an appropriate use of cave entrances, and that climbers should consult with local land managers about cave resources and use restrictions before establishing climbing routes in these sites."

According to representative Jim Angell, "The Access Fund wants to make it perfectly clear that we will not accept "significant cave" designation (under the Federal Cave Resource Protection Act) as a means of preempting climbing use." "The Access Fund recommends that sport climbing be self-regulated, that bolt anchors be retained, and that new anchors continue to be installed until each cave entrance has reached climbing route maturity". According to Angell, "The location and quantity of the bolts is not significant." (4/22/96, J. Angell for the Access Fund to J. Kenna, Prineville District BLM)

Forest Service officials scheduled a visit to Smith Rock in late November to observe the effects of erosion, damage to vegetation, chalk, "manufactured" routes, and glued-on holds. Smith Rock's crowded climbing conditions are reflected at one of the new "climbing caves" where a typical summer weekend will find 15 climbers in the cave at any given time. Current visitation is estimated to be individuals per year. The vast majority are climbers.

With crowds come impacts. One by one the classic climbing areas have all fallen under the scrutiny of resource managers. Management plans now regulate climbing practices at most American crags, and unregulated bolting is virtually unheard-of. Caves are now considered to be the "cutting edge" of sport climbing. Cave entrances in Europe have been the site of bolted routes for many years. Thailand is the current cave-climbing hot spot, with bolted routes placed directly on huge stalactites in the eroded sea-front grottos of Phra-Nang Bay.

Climbing has a commercial side with no equivalent in the current state of U.S. cave exploration. Tremendous growth in the popularity of climbing has fueled a marketing bonanza of equipment sales. Significant differences between the caving and climbing worlds are best illustrated by comparing the financial structure of the climber's Access Fund with that of the National Speleological Society. One is largely sponsored by the "outdoor industry" and is openly access-oriented, the other financed by individual members with an emphasis on science and conservation.

Just a few years ago the lava tubes of Central Oregon were pristine sanctuaries, occasionally explored by small groups of cavers and geology students. A recent visit found a parking lot filled with out-of-state cars, and a cave full of climbers. A fine coating of climber's chalk covered much of the entrance area, and someone had drawn their own fake pictographs with a discarded lump. The prehistoric rock art panel nearby was covered with chalked climbing holds. One climber was playing rock and roll on a portable stereo and another brought along his dog. Over in the corner a climber was urinating.

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