Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

Volunteers work to install rock features at the base of the Fun Rocks climbing area near Mazama during the recent “Adopt-a-Crag” event.

By Matt Taylor

The Methow Valley is one of the fastest-growing rock climbing areas in the state. Its many attractions, including relatively low crowd levels, a wide variety of varied pitches, and easily accessible terrain, have made it a rising star among Washington’s many climbing destinations.

While the additional visitors have helped boost the valley’s recreational appeal, the increased traffic on the popular climbing routes has had a profound impact on the long-term ecological health of those areas.

In response, the Methow Valley Ranger District teamed up with the Access Fund, a national climbing advocacy group, to host a week-long program in the Methow help locals restore and reduce the environmental impacts of increased traffic on climbing routes in the upper Methow.

The program, which concluded on June 15, focused on both physically engineering the chosen sites to reduce environmental impact and training local volunteers and climbing rangers in techniques to encourage sustainable climbing practices.

“Climbing is definitely a fast-growing sport,” said Zach Winters, a climbing ranger with the Methow Valley Ranger District. “Climbers really are an excellent user group, they don’t intend to have negative impacts.”

However, he said, “the impacts of this greater use are increasing”

Most concerning are the impacts on erosion and vegetation. “Recurring use results in loss of vegetation and organic soil,” said Winters. “It’s inevitable.”

Erosion containment

In an effort to combat the problem, the program focused on a number of specific measures to discourage unnecessary erosion. Those included replacing existing user-generated structures with more durable and natural materials, establishing a better access trail, and using boulders around staging areas to limit the space used by climbers at the base of their climbing routes.

“Climbers will tend to spread out if they’re given the chance,” said Winters, a tendency which significantly and unnecessarily increases the amount of land impacted. The placement of the boulders “provides a visual cue,” he said.

While significant physical changes occurred as a result of the program, the event was primarily focused on training the rangers and volunteers how to prepare and modify other climbing areas to optimize sustainability.

“They’re basically teaching us to fish,” Winters said prior to the event.

The week concluded with a volunteer event which drew about a dozen local climbers and other volunteers to the Fun Rocks climbing area in Mazama to help complete the restoration projects that had been started earlier in the week.

“The Methow is so amazing because we have such a great community,” said Winters.

The Methow Valley Climbing Rangers program was founded as a part of the Methow Valley Ranger District in the summer of 2016 to help more effectively manage the increasingly popular climbing areas around the Methow Valley Ranger District. 

The ranger district manages 1.3 million acres of public land in and around the valley, although the climbing rangers’ work is primarily focused in the heavily trafficked climbing areas around Mazama and Washington Pass.

“The mission of the U. S. Forest Service is to care for the land and to serve people,” said Winters. “We want to be the best possible resource for people using these climbing areas.”