This past weekend I made it out to Moab for the first time in several years. Based on the rate of expansion the last time I visited I expected to see skycrapers and three international airports when I arrived. The town had certainly been through some changes, but once we got out into the backcountry I was pleasantly surprised to see things really hadn’t changed that much.
There is no doubt the sport of climbing has exploded in popularity. With no indication that this growth is going to slow down any time soon its pretty common to hear climbers lament how crowded the crags have become, and how they long for the good ol’ days when it was common to have an entire cliff to yourself.
Based on my experience over the last few months, I’m fairly confident this “overcrowding” hysteria is highly exagerated. I don’t deny there are more climbers than ever. And if you choose to go to Cactus Cliff or Supercrack Buttress on a sunny spring Saturday you will surely witness this firsthand. But these crags are only the tip of the iceberg. For every Cactus Cliff there are 10 other cliffs, just as good, that are totally deserted. That’s not to say you won’t have to do a little extra work. You may have to drive a little further, walk a little further, walk through some brush, clean some routes, maybe sink in some steel, but the rock is there waiting.
We hiked the Fisher Towers trail on Friday evening, and I counted 6 parties of climbers…all on Ancient Art. So if your concept of the Fisher Towers is limited to the one route in the CitiBank commercial, ya, the Fisher Towers are unbelievably crowded. Ancient Art is a fine route with a unique summit, and I’m happy to have done it. But there are HUNDREDS of other routes, many that will blow your mind, a stones throw away that go years without ascents.
Often the cliffs and routes that we think of as “classic” are really just old and convenient. They were developed first because they were the most obvious, not necessarily because they were the best. The routes at these crags have developed a mystique due to their place in history, and the long list of folks that have tried them. The routes seem a bit easier because they’re heavily chalked, all the footholds have black rubber spots, and you can probably find the beta on Youtube. But the holds are polished, footholds have crumbled, and a few handholds are probably lying in dust on the ground. These routes aren’t really easier and they aren’t really any better.
That’s not to say the classics should be avoided. I love climbing classic routes, and a look at my tick list will immediately betray my preference for such routes. But there are other great routes out there just waiting to be climbed. You may have to wade through some crowds now and then if you want to feel that special connection to your heroes that comes from repeating one of their legendary lines. Or you can call in sick and show up at the crag on Tuesday. Even Smith Rock’s Dihedrals are completely deserted on Monday. Another option is to watch the weather forecast and show up during the off season. If you want the Motherlode to yourself the solution is simple. Wake up at 7am and you’ll have a few hours of solitude before the hoards arrive.
If all else fails, get yourself a used Hilti on e-Bay, walk that distant cliffline you’ve been eyeing for years, and build your own personal paradise. Once you’re lonely, longing for the cameraderie of fellow climbers, post the beta on the web and watch your creations become the classic lines of the next generation.