Tahoe’s rock-climbing angels

Board members and volunteers get ready for a cleanup day at Eagles Lake trailhead. | Courtesy Tahoe Climbing Coalition

As the number of outdoor recreationists visiting the Tahoe Sierra continues to multiply, preserving sustainable access to the outdoors has become one of the greatest challenges for land managers and environmental advocates in our region. The popular, yet potentially dangerous, sport of rock climbing is no exception.

Report dangerous hardware 

“If you look at the numbers, we must have three or four times the amount of climbers than before,” says North Tahoe Climbers Coalition board member John Scott. “I’ve been living and climbing on Donner Summit since 2004 and it’s crazy. How do we accommodate that?”

Read our feature on climbing at Black Wall

While it’s important to welcome visitors into the region’s tourism-based economy, this influx presents numerous problems in terms of trash, human-waste disposal, parking access and trail maintenance. When it comes to rock climbing, user safety is an added concern.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction in looking at some shiny new bolts and knowing they will last for 20 years plus and thousands of user days.”     –Michael Habicht

On March 13, 2015, Scott Sederstrom fell to his death climbing on Silent Pillar Wall in Owens River Gorge outside Bishop when he put his weight on a metal bolt that unexpectedly failed. Like practically all sport climbers, he trusted his life on protection that he did not himself install. This incident, and others like it throughout the nation, have shined a spotlight on the potential for aging rock hardware to lead to life-altering accidents.

Fortunately, with help from national groups and local volunteers, two stewardship organizations in the area are now working to keep Tahoe Sierra climbing safe and sustainable for the decades to come.

A self-regulated sport
After years of mounting interest, the gravity-defying athleticism of sport climbing made its Olympic debut this summer in Tokyo. This outdoor activity differs from traditional climbing in that practitioners clip into metal bolts with circular hangers drilled into the rock face, rather than freeclimbing with removable gear. The use of bolts allows climbers to scale walls that would be otherwise impossible to safely ascend due to the lack of natural features, such as cracks, to which climbers traditionally secure themselves.

A majority of the sport routes in the Tahoe Sierra were bolted in the 1990s. With a lifespan estimated at 20 years, the hardware on most of these routes are now in need of replacement.

Michael Habicht replaces a bolt on one of Tahoe Basin’s many rock climbs. | Courtesy Jason Ogasian

After moving to South Lake Tahoe in 2011 to work as an emergency-room doctor at Barton Memorial Hospital, Michael Habicht was inspired by the successful resurrection of Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association to form a similar stewardship group for rock climbers.

“We had thousands of climbs listed in the basin and no local organization to curate them,” he says.

After gaining the support of local climbing pioneers such as Jay Sell and Chris McNamara, he founded Tahoe Climbing Coalition in 2019 with the mission to protect and improve rock climbing in the Tahoe Basin through mentorship and stewardship. Since its kickoff party at South Lake Brewing Co in 2019, the nonprofit has raised more than $20,000 and completed hundreds of hours of volunteer work at popular crags throughout the region.

Many of the bolts on climbs throughout the Tahoe Sierra are growing old and in need of replacement. | Courtesy North Tahoe Climbers Coalition

“To have it super local is to have relationships with the land managers,” says Habicht. “You can’t do anything without that trust and feedback. It has a much higher impact statement to have a sign up on Castle Rock about the peregrine falcons, for example, that comes from a local organization in conjunction with the Forest Service.”

Tahoe Climbing Coalition began its mission with cleanup days focused on the uber-popular Eagle Lake Trail at Emerald Bay.

“Eagle Lake is a trash shitshow literally and figuratively,” says Habicht. “We’ve found diapers, coolers, beer bottles, inflatable pizza wedges, used toilet paper, cigarette butts — all kinds of trash people leave behind — you name it. It continues for miles up the trail with heavy, heavy impact mostly from tourists. It needs someone to look after it.”

From there, coalition volunteers improved the access trail and installed new bolts and anchors at the Eagle Lake climbing crag. They’ve also done bolt replacement at the 300-foot Pie Shop wall in the city of South Lake Tahoe and cleaned up the Grinch bouldering zone in Christmas Valley. They partnered with Climbing Resource Advocates for Greater Sacramento (CRAGS) to do work at Sugarloaf, Phantom Spires and Lover’s Leap along Highway 50. Their next big project includes trail work and falcon signage at Castle Rock off Kingsbury Grade.

“It’s very behind the scenes and often underappreciated by the people who use them, but it’s incredibly important work,” says Habicht. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in looking at some shiny new bolts and knowing they will last for 20 years plus and thousands of user days.”

Jay Sell and Nikita Shah remove graffiti from a local crag. | Courtesy Tahoe Climbing Coalition

Any climbers who come across suspect or dangerous hardware can report their finding on the Bad Bolts section of the coalition webpage.

Tahoe Climbing Coalition also hopes to reopen its mentoring and outreach programs, which introduces underserved kids to climbing both at Blue Granite Climbing Gym in South Lake Tahoe and in the wild.

“Covid made that grind to a halt,” says Habicht. “We’re trying really hard to restart it.”

Two coalitions, one mission
While Tahoe Climbing Coalition focuses primarily on crags within South Lake and the Tahoe Basin, North Tahoe Climbers Coalition has taken on responsibility for the climbing areas in Tahoe and Truckee. The organization came to life after Truckee Donner Land Trust purchased a 12-acre property surrounding Black Wall near Donner Summit in 2015 to protect the classic crag from development. The climbing routes there were established more than 50 years ago and range from deep chimneys and low-angle slabs for beginners to splitter cracks and overhanging test pieces for experts. Along with Yosemite Valley, Donner Summit was home to many of the best rock climbers of the 70s and 80s. Today, it serves as a training ground for both elite athletes and newbies.

Climbers use ropes to safely remove graffiti from Donner Summit. | Courtesy North Tahoe Climbers Coalition

Since 2018, North Tahoe Climbers Coalition has replaced bolts at Black Wall, Snowshed Wall, Space Wall and the Big Chief climbing area along Route 89 between Truckee and Olympic Valley. A new official access trail was installed at Black Wall to prevent erosion from the proliferation of dozens of improvised paths. As part of the Donner Pass Road Construction Updates, they are helping to install new portable toilets at Snowshed and School Rock, two of the most frequented crags on the summit. They are working with Nevada and Placer counties to ensure climber parking access is maintained and expanded as Old Highway 40 is widened to accommodate a new uphill bike lane. They’ve organized graffiti cleanup days to combat the never-ending onslaught of unauthorized murals on the rocks and train tunnels overlooking the road. Farther west down the highway, they plan to work on other climbing areas such as Spaulding Campground, The Emeralds, Rainbow and Bowman Valley.

“How many climbing gyms are there today versus 20 years ago?” says Scott. “That growth translates to more people outside and we have to figure out a way to mitigate that. We’ve got to have established trails. We’ve got to have bathrooms. It’s not feasible to bury your feces anymore because a hundred other people are doing the same thing. We have to make sure there are safe routes. That may mean new bolts, anchors, scrubbing parties and making sure there are enough resources to go around.”

Both climbing coalitions are working with the national organizations of Access Fund and American Safe Climbing Association, which support local groups to take ownership and responsibility for their area crags.

“The goal is to make it safer and more approachable,” says Scott. “There’s a lot more people these days. We’ve got to make sure we’ve got the infrastructure to welcome them.” | tahoeclimbingcoalition.org, northtahoeclimberscoalition.org