For the first time in its history, the Olympic Games will include climbing as one of its disciplines. The growth of the sport presents exciting opportunities, but there are also economic, environmental, and social concerns about climbing’s footprint on the rural communities that are home to the majority of the climbing sites. 

At the forefront of these concerns is how to ensure that the growing number of climbers respect the communities they visit to climb, protect the natural environment and observe the cultural significance of the sites themselves.

The appearance of climbing in the Olympics is evidence of its significance and growing popularity. To be considered for a charter as a new sport in the Olympics, a petition must be submitted by an international organization proving the sport is “widely practiced,” according to the International Olympic Committee. Climbing surpasses Olympic charter standards with ease. The International Federation of Sport Climbing estimated in 2015 that 35 million people worldwide were active climbers.  According to the 2019 report by Outdoor Foundation, 9.9 million Americans engaged in some form of climbing in 2019.

Erik Murdock, policy director for climbing advocacy non-profit Access Fund, knows the economic benefit of climbing for rural communities.

“[Climbers] spend a lot of money on food, gas, hotels, and other ancillary expenditures related to climbing,” Murdock said in a video interview with the Daily Yonder. “We’ve done a lot of studies that show that [climbing] has a consistent, sustainable, positive economic impact on local economies.” 

The impact of this spending on the national level is substantial. The climbing industry contributes approximately $12.45 billion to the national economy, according to the American Alpine Club. Due to the remote location of many climbing sites, much of this revenue flows to rural communities through accommodation expenses.

One case study by Eastern Kentucky University found that climbers generated an additional $ 2.7 million for local businesses in high-poverty areas around Red River Gorge, a popular climbing destination in the Daniel Boone National Forest. That’s the equivalent of about 40 full-time jobs.

With overall climbing rates expected to surge following its visibility these communities will have the opportunity to make even more revenue. However, with more money comes more climbers and the possibility of greater environmental and social impact on both climbing sites and the communities near them.

According to the Access Fund, One fifth of climbing areas in the U.S. are already under threat from private developments, degradation from over-climbing, and use by climbers who lack an understanding of each site’s sensitivities and do not follow the “leave no trace” practices.

A Research paper published in a peer reviewed scientific journal Plos Ones found that the increased climbing traffic can disturb plants, animals, and the face of the rock. Over time, too much activity can render climbing sites unclimbable and damage the habitats species that live there.

Access Fund volunteers working on trails, securing climbing access, and preventing further human-caused erosion. (Photo courtesy of Access Fund)

In another study a researcher Nora Covy from the University of  Northern Colorado, concluded “rock climbing is associated with lower [avian] diversity levels,” meaning climbing activity was having a noticeable impact on bird mating seasons. Ultimately, however, Covy concluded that informed management of climbing sites could preserve them for years to come.

In addition to wildlife disruption, many climbing areas also function as cultural sites for Native communities. Devils Tower in Wyoming, for example, holds cultural and religious significance for more than two-dozen individual tribes, according to the National Park Service. The Outside Magazine reported that the climbing activity at the formation has increased 200% since 1995, despite its religious significance and use in religious rituals.

The noise and proximity of climbers to worshippers “disturb [native] efforts to obtain spiritual guidance” said  Arvol Looking Horse, a spiritual leader of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in an interview with the Indian Law Resource Center.

Murdock of the Access Fund sees education as a way to ensure that outdoor climbing can be enjoyed respectfully for generations to come. He recalled that “25 years ago,  climbers were really confused why certain areas were getting shut down in order to protect endangered Raptor habitats but now, through education, that is just a part of climbing.