Reaching higher

Access Fund and Patagonia present ‘Solid Protection’ event to empower rock climbers as conservationists


Are rock climbers the future of the conservation movement? Brady Robinson, executive director of the Boulder-based Access Fund, thinks so.

“At the very beginning, we were motivated by access threats, by our access [to climbing areas] being restricted,” Robinson says of his organization. “In my view, to do a good job with access, you have to do a good job with conservation. If the place isn’t taken care of, what good is it to have access to it?” In that vein, the Access Fund, in partnership with outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia, is sponsoring an event titled “Solid Protection: Tools and Strategies for Protecting the Places We Love to Climb” May 15-17 in Boulder and Westminster.

Founded in 1991, the Access Fund is a national nonprofit advocacy organization whose mission is to keep climbing areas open in the United States and to conserve the climbing environment.

The Boulder portion of the program is Friday at 5 p.m. at the Agora at the Riverside, where there will be a happy hour and a screening of the 1988 climbing film, Moving Over Stone. Labeled an “instructional-inspirational” rock climbing film, today it might be seen as campy in format (and clothing style) but the locations featured — Yosemite Valley, Canyonlands National Park, Smith Rocks and more — are timeless.

The film’s director, Doug Robinson (no relation to Brady), will be on hand for the event and will also deliver the weekend’s keynote at a dinner Saturday.

The Access Fund refers to Doug Robinson as a legend, and the argument can certainly be made. He was a contemporary of the generation of Yosemite climbers that included Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard, who founded Chouinard Equipment and its successor, Patagonia. It was in a 1972 Chouinard Equipment catalog that Robinson wrote an essay about “clean climbing” — that is, climbing without hammering in rockscarring pitons and using only removable gear to ascend the rock.

Brady Robinson says the selection of Doug Robinson to give the keynote address is perfect for a gathering of climbers concerned about the environment.

“What can we learn today from the clean climbing revolution from the ’70s? The issues have changed and some of the lessons, techniques, tactics that he used may be universal,” Brady Robinson says, “Given also that Patagonia, [which then] was Chouinard Equipment, played a really key role in that transition in the ’70s … them partnering with this event is kind of full circle.”

Saturday’s agenda, which takes place at the Westin hotel in Westminster, is full of workshops with topics that cover the intersection of rock climbing and land conservation. Presenters include representatives from local climbing alliances to national conservation organizations plus Patagonia’s director of global public relations and communications.

Presentations cover strategies for climber education, involving climbers in landscape-level restoration projects, using social media to attain support and best practices for local climbing organizations, among other things.

As the Access Fund has grown and flourished, it has helped the climbing community acquire more than 15,500 acres of land, making land conservation a default strategy — and making the Access Fund a key stakeholder in the process.

“We are a land trust,” Robinson says, pointing to the Access Fund Land Conservation Campaign. “Conservation has risen in importance and probably our ability to be a player.”

The Access Fund Land Conservation Campaign is a revolving loan program that steps in to help local climbing organizations access money when necessary to move quickly to access or keep open climbing areas. For example, in 2014 the campaign helped the Western Colorado Climbers’ Coalition purchase additional cliffs in Unaweep Canyon, near Grand Junction.

“We support 90 local climbing organizations. We’re stronger than ever and a lot of these organizations are showing up and working productively with land managers,” Robinson says, referring to public land (in most cases) managers in areas open to climbing.

The average age of a traditional conservation organization’s membership is close to retirement age, Robinson said in his TedxBoulder talk. He points out that the future of conservation is in the hands of future conservationists, that is, today’s youth who are engaging with the outdoor environment — the boulderers, rock climbers, mountain bikers and other so-called extreme sports enthusiasts.

“The newer generations in a sport tend to be more open and accepting that there are some limitations to what we can and can’t do,” Robinson says, “What we’re trying to do is say, ‘How can we encourage all of these people to be more responsible users?’” 

But Robinson also wants to take these users to the next level beyond responsible use and to active engagement in protection. He sees a bright future for this as well.

“I think it’s fair to say the climbing community and the mountain biking community, they show up in force” at trail-building and conservation events, he says. And they put their youthful vigor to good work. “I’ve heard land managers say when the climbers show up at a conservation event, one climber is worth like three average people.”

The Solid Protection event will serve as a reunion of sorts for climbers who are already highly involved in local access and conservation campaigns, but is open to climbers who may not yet be connected in that way. In addition to the everyday climbers in attendance, other rock climbing and mountaineering legends are expected to attend as well, including Lynn Hill, Jeff Lowe and Tommy Caldwell — whose recent historymaking first ascent with partner Kevin Jorgeson of the Dawn Wall on Yosemite’s El Capitan drew worldwide attention from the general public in addition to climbers.

“We’re part of a greater community,” Robinson says of climbers, “a greater community of people who are willing to step forward and say these lands, these places that we love are protected.”

ON THE BILL: Moving Over Stone with Doug Robinson. 5 p.m. Friday, May 15, 2015. Agora at the Riverside, 1724 Broadway St., Boulder. It is free to attend Solid Protection, but registration is required. Go to www.accessfund. org/SolidProtection.