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Taking A Stand

Submitted by owleyes on 2009-04-29 | Last Modified on 2009-07-20

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by Cindy Bender

By Cindy Bender

"Life's like a path, goin' from somewhere's to somewhere's. Some days yer plannin' and some days yer goin' -- and some days... well, some days, yer just workin' on the trail..."

If you do not stand up for something, then you stand for nothing, and that is a pretty empty place to stand.

I was introduced to rock climbing just a year ago, in the middle of a very tough time in my life. My marriage of twenty-seven years had come to the end of a prolonged death. I was six years into treatment for Multiple Sclerosis, with a stroke and loss of sensory control on my right side, as well as the rehabilitation needed to regain motor skills and associated nuerological disorders. I have degenerative disk disease (2 back surgeries w/rods and screws placed); have had surgery on my right knee for a complete lateral tear of the meniscus and scraping of arthritis under the knee cap, 3 -- count 'em -- three invasive abdominal surgeries, and continuing arthritis.

Life, in short, had become overwhelming. My work for a local non-profit had been revealed as simply supporting yet another political amateur hour with public funds. Even though I loved my work with children from all over the country as a volunteer center host, I needed something to challenge me on a new level, turn me in a new direction; something to get me back in the game.

One day, I was invited to tag along to watch two friends climb rock. Ask and ye shall receive.

I was petrified... and amazed. There was no possible way not to watch, even though every time one of them slipped, fell, swung out, or “hollered” in the attempt at the next move, I flinched, closed my eyes, and “hollered” right along with them. In what he later explained was an attempt to calm my fears and redirect my emotional reactions, one of these guys handed me a camera and asked me to take a few pictures.

Suddenly, everything changed; I was in control. The activities that had kept my heart in my throat became a beautiful, intense, and bold dance I was watching. How amazing was this dance with the rock and the nature around me! I shot hundreds of images... and some even had climbers in them! But regardless of my success as an action photographer, I was, with a single electric jolt, re-connected.

Within a matter of days, I came out of my misery and began once again enjoying the life that was still going on around me. My pen began flowing, thoughts filling my journal, recording these wonderful hours outside.

“They” say that nature is an amazing teacher and healer, if we will only listen, and look. Well, “they” are right! I started taking pictures, not just of these two amazing climbers, but of everything: trees, sunsets, old barns, rivers, flowers... EVERYTHING. I spent time just touching the rock, putting my hands on holds close to the bottom, climbing around on rocks at the base of the climbs, asking questions as to the meaning of common climbing terms and phrases.

The friend who had invited me on the first outing began teaching me to climb, accepting my weaknesses and pointing out my strengths, taking training hikes with me and encouraging me to believe I could do anything if I wanted to badly enough. [image 1]

To save some time (and answer a lot of questions) my mentor gave me a book to read about the history and technical details of climbing and mountaineering, the well-known Freedom of the Hills. Through reading and hands-on experience, I learned how to work with ropes and move on rock. I learned the price of impact and the importance of “leave no trace” by helping with trail building and repairs. As a teen, I had seen the impact the presence of man had on the jungles of Nicaragua, and understood the importance of this at once.

This began my very personal physical, mental, and spiritual discovery of the freedom and responsibility of climbing. Yes, I said “freedom” and “responsibility” together in one sentence, because you cannot have one without the other. If you will not pay the price, someone else must pay it for you. There is no such thing as a free lunch!

Because I have Multiple Sclerosis, there are some days when I simply cannot climb or do trail work. On those days, I either take pictures, sit to read, write in my journal, or simply stay home. But on many days when the pain is still a major fact of my life, I am at the crag; climbing and hiking and shooting hundreds of picture (some with climbers in them!), and, also: repairing, rebuilding, and reconnecting with the living force of this place. The point is, if I have the time and energy to climb, I have the time and obligation to work on preserving the places I love, affirming the life inside me and my connection to not only the future and the present, but to the past and the care that was taken here before I came.

On good days, I love to get my hands down in the dirt, rocks and leaves to work on a project that, when completed, allows me to stand back with pride (because I actually did something worthwhile) and say “wow.” There is a connection, a time inside myself that takes me away from the cold slow countdown of my disease. There is a great sense of accomplishment in realizing that I am shaping the land, changing the future, through the simple action of preventing impact while making it easier for everyone to get to the climbs. See,

when I am hiking up a trail, whether to climb, or just sit, I truly appreciate the effort, time, and labor that has gone into making it possible to get there... because I've contributed some of that time and effort myself!

After some strong initial doubts, even my doctors have concluded that climbing is safer for me than a lot of other activities. In fact, they have one and all expressed some amazement as to my improvement since beginning to enjoy this sport.

As with any other new discovery and exploration, there are storms in my new world, as well. Unlike any other sport I have ever heard of, "ethics" are a source of more debate, anger and self-righteous jumps to judgment than anyone outside the climbing "community" could ever understand. Finding that truth out took away some of the joy I had discovered along with a feeling of my "place" in such a community.

During a really bad MS episode, when I was simply unable to do the work, I put a good bit of financial assistance into the restoration of one of the heavily-impacted areas at my local West Virginia crag, Franklin Gorge. Investing not only my time and effort but putting my money where my mouth is, I became a partner in the process of preserving climbing and access... not by writing a check to some organization that writes great speeches but just keeps covering the same old ground... not by waiting for someone else to organize the work and find the funds... but by reaching down and pulling the money out of my pocket, and getting my hands dirty, as much or as little as I could afford and do at that time. [image 2]

The result is still there, despite recent herds of thoughtless angry internet bullies, climbing gym tour groups and students gone stupid. The mulch on the little hill by “Castaways” is organic pine bark and leaf mulch, made locally with local products. The junipers were recommended by a local green house owner to re-establish the soil without invading or taking over the area. Those materials were carried up the trail by a visiting group of students and climbers from Vermont, who drove for far more than three or four hours to reach West Virginia, and who put more than half a day’s work into restoring and improving the trail work before even breaking out their ropes and gear! No free food, water bottles, T-shirts, or prize giveaways, just a group of good hearts doing what they thought was right. A proud effort -- which some other group of self-important, oblivious crag brats destroyed in just hours during the Spring Break just past. [image 3]

By now I’m sure some of you might have guessed that the climber who gave me my first glimpse into this oddball world (and from whom I am still learning), is Mike Gray. The mystery was probably easy to solve because of the trail work, responsibility and “leave no trace” references. Mike is not exactly popular around here at the moment... which is funny when you find out how much the kids from the Blue Ridge School and from Luyndon State College loved the guy. He came to Franklin Gorge back when there were only a handful of climbers there, and he pretty much created the idea of continuing trail upkeep. He took on the responsibility because he had created routes there, and felt that attracting people to a place to climb meant that you made sure the places stayed in good shape.

Mike spent years trying to educate people who really didn't care. Why should they? The place was still open, they had written their check, done their day of trailwork and chalk cleanup at the climbing spots just outside DC... what more did this guy want? Mike listened to years of people telling him how good the trail looked, and writing down addresses and phone numbers that somehow just never called, never answered, never showed, just never could find the time. He invested his own cash in replacing bolts, buying tankfuls of gas, and, when it came to it, buying airline tickets to fly home and see his family and, among other things, work on the trails at Franklin. He spent a lot of the time he could have spent completing other routes and exploring the hundreds of other crags scattered across WV and the Southeast repairing Franklin, fixing rusted bolts, replacing unwelded cold shuts and begging for support. He organized Traildaze and made it a success with hours on the phone, in the car, and preparing campsites for volunteers.

He was headed out after Spring Break to replace bolts on all the old top anchors. His mind was on the visit of future groups looking forward to returning to see the work they had done at Franklin. He reacted strongly when he found our work trampled and kicked aside. Years of talking to groups, of patiently pointing out impact and trying to educate, of offering to work with groups or individuals anywhere, any time to repair the trails and to help them understand the closed circle that is trailwork and climbing and being outdoors in the first place.

So, filled with despair and seeing no other way to deal with the impact immediately, Mike took what he thought was the only action possible. He removed the fixed gear that makes it so simple for groups to set up climbs and spend an entire day milling around at the base. He removed all of the top anchors and some of the top bolts on all the climbs around the re-impacted areas.

Then he had the courage and the personal responsibility to go home and post the information on the Internet and sign his name to it, knowing just how popular the decision would make him with the climbing community (especially when the guilty parties cried "foul!" the longest and loudest), as well as calling and emailing gyms and climbing shops all over the region to let climbers know what had happened and why.

I want you to try to understand something... this was not an easy decision. It was not a fit of anger. It was a decision that went against almost everything Mike had worked to achieve for over a decade and a half. If you had ever picked up a book by some of the “Old School” climbers, or read a few letters and articles from some of the older climbing magazines, you would have soon seen that he is NOT the only one who ever believed that the freedom to climb is only half of the story. The other half is the responsibility to protect and preserve the places where you enjoy this freedom every time you visit them. The fact that I have seen (and heard) so many of you at Franklin Gorge ignoring the damage you do and demonstrating a blatant disregard for the work done there by a few very dedicated people really angers me... and I am not an angry person! You are all so caught up in your "rights" to climb anywhere and anything that you've missed the bus!

Since many people aren’t grown up enough to admit that people who care only a little less than they do are the real problem, rather than bashing on Mike for his actions, maybe you should all just keep spewing about your right to enjoy freedoms without responsibility and slamming on the people who create and maintain the crags in the first place. Stick with what you're good at. Personally, I feel that Mike Gray has every right to take down any and all the climbs he sees as a problem in order to protect and preserve this private property. Just my own opinion... If you don’t like it, TOUGH!

Well, there you have it, folks. This is my story, my opinions, and my feelings on the matter of rock, climbing and impact. It is a shame (and a sad commentary on the often clique-driven climbing “community“) that one man should have had to shoulder the responsibility for the rest of you. That means YOU: the original route bolters who couldn’t take time to find out if this was public land or, if not, who owned it; you, the Access Fund members, Outward Bound/NOLS graduates, and AAC supporters who came here for years without caring enough to adopt this crag, and most especially you, the self-entitled newcomers that apparently simply cannot be bothered to do more than whine and gripe about the man who bolted many of the routes you climb and who put the trail under your feet. It is far too typical that when this same man does what needs to be done to reduce impact and allow the earth a chance to recover, you self-righteously blast him from the safety of a keyboards... but can’t even find the guts to use your real names! Not surprising, I suppose, when most of you can’t or won’t express those opinions to Mike’s face when you meet him in person.

There is no denying that the man is harsh with people who are acting stupid, or treating land they don't own with anything less than respect, or making excuses as to just why they can drive three hours to climb but cannot spend ten minutes picking up trash and repairing trails every time they climb. Mike has no patience with groups and especially their leaders who preach Leave No Trace and global warming but actually are the worst environmental offenders when it comes to the places they climb. And he has no use for Access Fund reps who spout about all the good their new climbing coalition will do for the entire region, but who can't be bothered to show up for trailwork after writing their pretty little PR pieces for an online audience.

Harsh, opinionated, headstrong, and determined... just like a lot of the people who founded this country, and the ones who pioneered the sport you all claim to love so much. Meeting landowners, securing access, creating trails, upgrading hardware... all before these things were being done by any national-level organizations. Take a good, hard look at what Mike has accomplished, whether you like him or not. Then have the guts to take a cold look at just what you've really done, for the crags, for yourselves, and for each other. You shot the messenger.

Maybe someday you will be mature enough not to jump on the bandwagon in condemnation of someone like Mike. Not likely... humans seem to love a mob... but I can always hope that this article might have given some of you the kick in the pants you need to take a look around, find something to believe in, and take a stand. Have the courage to swim upstream, go against the group, and sign your name to the views you have expressed, whether in “real” life or on the Internet.

Just be ready to face the sad fact that, when and if you do, someone out there, probably someone you think of as a friend, will be more than willing to question your intentions, ridicule your efforts and attack your methods.

Someday life may just throw something at you much more challenging than a steep trail, a few closed routes, or a difficult piece of climbing six feet above your last bolt. Unless you've had the courage to strike out on your own, to stand up for what's right instead of what's expedient and popular, you'll never know whether you have what it takes to get through that kind of crux. Climbing gave me what I needed when life had me on my knees... but only because I had lived a life of standing up for my own thoughts and beliefs.

If and when that day comes, if all you've ever done is ride the bus, I wish you luck... you’ll need it. If you need to talk to someone who understands, I'll be right here... working on the trail.


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4 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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1 out of 5 stars Interesting article. I would have liked it a lot more if the finish wasn't assuming that I (and everyone else who reads it) didn't have ideals/ethics/etc. that we fight for and that just because Mike does he's right. As it is, I stopped reading near the end. Could have been worded significantly better.
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wow, went off the rails towards the end there didn't ya? Don't think that you and the people you know are the only ones concerned about preservation and maintainance of climbing areas/wildlands. your article tends to paint everyone else in the world with the same brush.
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agreed. liked the first part. don't like the attitude/assumptions taken towards climbers at the end.
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5 out of 5 stars Could be she was just speaking from her personal experience. Could be that both of you are proactive trailbuilders and outspoken advocates of climber responsibility, unfairly judged. But if that were so, perhaps at least one of you would understand that the article wasn't aimed at YOU, hmmmm?

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