Committed #2: The ROCK ProjectWednesday, September 7, 2016
The author and Jimmy Chin flexing in Joshua Tree, 1996. Photograph: Courtesy Brady Robinson
As a climber growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was drawn to the dirtbag lifestyle. I sought adventures with friends, nights spent under the stars and meals enjoyed in the dirt in between climbs. Along with my buddy, fellow Minnesotan Jimmy Chin, I was overwhelmed by a strong passion and excitement for climbing. We didn’t think about the future. We were completely focused on the present and whatever climbing objective we could dream up next. Freedom and possibility seemed nearly infinite. And in those days of youth, we took our national parks and the public lands for granted. They seemed as immutable as the rocks we climbed.
We looked up to heroes of generations past—Muir, Brower, Chouinard and so many others. They had crafted intense lives based in the outdoors, stripping away anything extraneous and embracing the rawness of experience and adventure. These experiences created a visceral connection to the land. And like our heroes, we came away from our trips with a sense of wonder and appreciation for the places we saw, places we often had largely to ourselves.
But times have changed. Gone are the days when Yosemite Valley and other iconic destinations were frequented by only a handful of core climbers. Now, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, over six million people in the US climbed rock or plastic at least once in last year. It’s becoming clear that climbing and other forms of human powered outdoor recreation like mountain biking and backcountry skiing have moved from the fringe to the mainstream. And this influx has caused alarm, with some wondering if we are loving our wild places to death.
Several years ago The Nature Conservancy reported that the average age for new members was 62 years old, with only 8.5 percent of its members under the age of 45. These numbers translate to a youth that is disconnected from the traditional conservation movement. And this lack of engagement begs the question: Who will lead the next generation of conservation?
Climbers, that’s who. And backcountry skiers, mountain bikers, hikers, paddlers—the enormous and ever-growing population of those who have ardent connections to the land through their outdoor pursuits. These young adventurers are the heirs of the conservation movement. The same passion that Jimmy and I stumbled upon as we explored the upper reaches of Yosemite is present in the minds of all who have a love for wild places. And, in my experience, this passion inspires an intense desire to protect these landscapes.
The author climbs at the Cookie Cliff, Yosemite, 1997. Photograph: Courtesy Brady Robinson
So, as our growing community learns to love the places we play, we must be sure that we don’t destroy them in the process. As the Executive Director of the Access Fund, my staff and I work daily to keep climbing areas and their surrounding environments open and conserved. We recently partnered with Black Diamond to launch the ROCK Project, an innovative education program designed to meet the influx of climbers head on, giving our community the tools to minimize our impacts on climbing areas and conserve our treasured landscapes.
Preparing the next generation of climbers to be responsible outdoor users is critically important to the future of our sport and our public lands. Most climbers of the current generation had their first climbing experiences indoors. The dirtbag, stripped-down outdoor experiences that Jimmy and I and all of our friends had in the ‘90s might be foreign to many of today’s climbers. So we have launched the ROCK Project to sustainably connect today’s climbers to the outdoors. And hopefully, we will be helping to reenergize the conservation movement in the process.
In the coming months, we will take the ROCK Project on the road, engaging climbers in six cities across the country and lighting that spark that will create the next great generation of conservationists. As climbers within the greater outdoor recreation community, we have the passion, the drive and the authentic motivations necessary to protect our wild landscapes. But it won’t happen on its own. We need the tools and the leadership to call us to action. And we need you. We hope you’ll join us in this movement.
See you out there,