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Updated: Jul 13, 2022

In a recent social media poll, Boulder Planet asked, “Can our love for climbing help save the planet?”

74% of those who answered said yes, and 26% said no. Several shared about how they aspire to climb outdoors and how that keeps them connected to environmental issues and inspires a strong sense that we should all do what we can to preserve nature.

In this article, we’ll explore various perspectives on how our love for climbing really can inspire us to save the planet together. Climbing is an activity that can create communities of people who are connected to their natural environments, and it can be a positive model of sustainable development. Many climbers have also channelled their love for the sport to be influential advocates for the planet, whether by responsibly stewarding their local crags, by using their voice, banding together to take collective action, or even using climbing itself as direct action (as in the case of action climbing)!

Positive impacts of climbers (and climbing) in Southeast Asia

We spoke with several people who have worked to develop outdoor climbing areas across Southeast Asia, asking them about their environmental ethos and the positive impacts they think climbing (and climbers) can have. Read on to hear more from:

  1. Aswadi Noor (Adi), in Nyamuk, Malaysia

  2. Fai Kanita in Thakhek, Laos

  3. Panitan Jutaporn in Khon Kaen, Thailand

Aswadi Noor (Adi) is a climber who has helped develop climbing areas in Nyamuk, Malaysia, since 2002. Adi’s responses reflect how love for climbing can inspire us to love a place and how our love for that place can then inspire a sense of responsibility and stewardship.

Adi said: “We climb outside on the natural rock because we want to experience what nature has to offer: the beauty, the adventure and self-growth. And by doing so, we need to appreciate and respect what it has to offer. To do so, we need to leave as minimal impact as possible. That means everyone needs to be responsible for their crag.”

Some of these principles Adi mentioned are:

  • Not over-bolting the routes.

  • Climbing routes within your capability and not any harder to prevent the rock from getting over-chalked or polished from imprecise footwork.

  • No littering.

  • Staying on the trail

  • Building permanent trails with as much of the natural resources available

  • Maintaining the trails.

  • Caring for the forest to be a healthy forest by trimming, planting, etc.

Adi also shared an anecdote of how he and the climbing community have cared for their local crags:

“In the beginning, Nyamuk was quite shady. There were major trees that were casting shade. Then about 5 to 6 years later, 3 of the major trees died from illness. So they fell and exposed the soil to the sun, which stimulated the growth of weed and parasitic plants. After a few years, these plants would consume the majority of the space for sunlight and soil. This would cause the small forest of Nyamuk to become unhealthy due to lack of shade, humidity and diversity. It was only three years ago when I started climbing outdoors seriously again and realised what had happened. I also realised that Nyamuk had been neglected during the few years that I hadn’t climbed there. Everything had become overgrown, on the trail and on the rock. So because of my love and passion for climbing and for Nyamuk, I started clearing and gardening. I did this alone in the first year. Then friends and other climbers started to get interested in helping out, and in the third year, we managed to organise a small event with more than 20 people strong.”

We also spoke with Fai Kanita from Green Climbers’ Home (GCH) in Thakhek, Laos. Since GCH’s early beginnings, they have practised a philosophy of environmental protection and social responsibility. They also try to live harmoniously with nature as much as possible by following Leave No Trace and other principles of environmental stewardship and promoting proper waste management both within their facilities and around the area (you can read more about their philosophy here).

From what she has experienced, the climbers that Fai sees coming through GCH are mostly “an environmentally conscious bunch”. We asked Fai what she would like to see the climbing community do more of. She mentioned that the climbers who come to stay at GCH could play an essential role in inspiring a sense of trash minimalism and environmental protection among the local communities:

“Climbers can keep showing locals that they value the environment trash free. They can show and educate the locals on how fragile the ecosystem is, how the Laos ecosystem is an extension of the world’s environment. The socioeconomic barrier is large here, so the local Laotians have different worries. Travellers who come to Laos help immensely with their economy. As Laos comes farther along in its economic status, travellers should convey what they value most about Laos, which is its pristine nature. This can shift the mindset of the Laotians and be an example of what sustainable development can look like for all stakeholders.”

We also heard from Panitan Jutaporn (Assistant Professor, Dept. of Environmental Engineering, Khon Kaen University), who researched and wrote about the development of climbing in the Khon Kaen area. In her article for the Khon Kaen Climbing Club about the Zoolander climbing area in Thailand, she wrote about how climbing can provide a model of a “localised, environmentally sensitive development”:

“The resources it targets are the rocks as they stand. There is no need to dig them out, no need to break them down, no need to disrupt the ecosystems that they are embedded in. Climbers will specifically come to the area and spend their time, energy and money to make sure they can have access to the rocks and practice their passion. Thus, minimal development is needed, namely creating access to the rocks and supporting the development of the external services that will allow climbers and other nature enthusiasts to satisfy their basic needs, which are availability of food, shelter and toilets. Climbers will create demand for services such as creation of homestays in nearby villages, guest houses, dormitories in the park and the expansion of existing restaurants or convenience stores which in turn will benefit local communities.”

She also mentioned how climbing provides another mode of environmental access which can, in turn, promote a love for the environment, and therefore a commitment to preserving it:

“Unless people are able to access the natural environment, they are unlikely to want to take action to enhance/conserve it – supporting recreational activities such as hiking and climbing are therefore key to connecting the public with the natural environment and can be considered as highly sustainable activities as they promote long term mutually beneficial interactions.”

These stories show us how the experience of outdoor climbing can be an essential avenue for people to connect deeply with nature and become active stewards of their natural environments. If well-managed, climbing could also be a model of sustainable development, an economic shift we need to see more of in the coming years. Being mindful of our impact also means keeping in mind the carbon footprint from air travel and educating ourselves on whether offsetting options offered are legitimately reducing carbon, should we still choose to travel.

Climbers who advocate for the environment

Both in Asia and across the world, many climbers recognise that they have a stake in promoting environmental/climate action beyond their local crag and feel driven to do their part to advocate. To name just a few prominent examples of elite climbers who have channelled their passion for climbing and leverage their fame and platforms into purposeful action:

Alex Honnold, a climber famously known for his near-deathly free solo climbs, also profoundly cares about climate/environmental action. He created and donated a third of his income to the Alex Honnold Foundation, which supports organisations advancing solar energy access worldwide. The foundation not only looks at reducing the environmental impact but cares about social and economic equity: “No matter who you are, we believe that energy should be easy to access, affordable, and have a low impact on the natural world.”

Tommy Caldwell, a climber famous for his achievements in Yosemite (and the movie the Dawn Wall), is heavily involved in climate advocacy in the US. Among other actions, he consistently works to mobilise the climbing community to vote (as in this funny video), join collective efforts, and support environmental organisations.

Adam Ondra, a recent competitor in the Tokyo Olympics and considered by many to be the best climber to have ever lived, speaks out for the environment from a different angle: food. He recently announced that he is an investor of SENS foods, a brand that creates products like peanut butter protein bars, gluten-free pasta, and chocolate protein shakes from cricket protein. In his statement, he said: “I liked their sustainable food so much that I became their investor. They have their own cricket farm and produce sustainable cricket protein, which is the same quality as high-end beef, but 2,000 litres less water is needed. In short, Maximal nutrition, minimal harm.”

Climbing advocacy groups

Above and beyond the individual level, many climbers have also organised their communities and collectively acted to support climate/environmental causes. To name a few:

  1. Protect Our Winters (POW) is a “community of athletes, scientists, creatives, and business leaders” that “helps passionate outdoor people protect the places and lifestyles they love from climate change.” Their climate advocacy campaigns often focus on passing bills that promote carbon pricing, renewable energy, electrifying transit, and protecting public lands from fossil fuel extraction. Many prominent climbers, such as Emily Harrington, Beth Rodden, and Matt Segal, are part of their alliance of athlete ambassadors.

  2. The Access Fund is a “US-based national advocacy organisation that keeps climbing areas open and conserves the climbing environment.” They mobilise the climbing community to protect public lands, buy out threatened climbing areas, restore degraded areas, inspire climbing advocacy, and mentor responsible climbers who are stewards (and not just users) of the environment.

  3. Climb the Hill is an event co-organised yearly by the American Alpine Club and the Access Fund since 2016 that brings together members of the climbing community to advocate in Washington DC for action on climate change and policies that protect climbing areas. By meeting lawmakers directly, the climbing community has been successfully mobilised for political advocacy on environmental causes.

To all who answered a resounding “Yes!” to the question of “Can our love for climbing help save the planet?” we hope these examples of how the climbing community has come together in support of climate/environmental action, whether in their capacities as crag developers, citizens, voters, consumers, or community members have inspired you. It starts within ourselves: to be thoughtful and intentional about our actions and their impact on the environment. And we can extend our impact by using our voice to share why we should and how we can protect our environment for a safer climate future.

So what do you think?

This article is written by Climate Conversations in collaboration with Boulder Planet. Climate Conversations is a nonprofit organization that facilitates meaningful conversations with the people we care about that inspire them to embrace our responsibility for our environment and our future.

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