Back in December 2016, an informal group of Moab climbers, slackliners, and BASE jumpers climbed up Ancient Art, the iconic twisted summit in the Fisher Towers area northeast of town. At the top, they draped Christmas lights and ornaments across the tower's sides, and posed with a flaming star for a photo. "Happy Holidays from the Moab Monkeys," the caption read.
Three months later, a different subset of Moab climbers discovered the video of the stunt – which Climbing Magazine, among other websites, shared last year – and reignited a controversy over style, ethics and who can claim to represent the climbing community.
"It's highly disrespectful of Ancient Art and the Fisher Towers," said Kiley Miller, a climber and Moab-area resident for more than 20 years who saw the video earlier this month and passed it on to her friends. "It's just utter disregard for the area, and for the tower itself. In a sense, it's like desecration."
"I feel very comfortable saying that a lot of the people who live around here, a lot of the climbers who have lived around here for a long time, do not think this is cool, do not think this is OK," Miller said.
But Andy Lewis – the internationally famous slackliner and BASE jumper known as "Sketchy Andy," who lives in Moab and coordinated the Christmas stunt – is unapologetic.
"The only reason why they're complaining about this is because for some reason they are jealous," Lewis said. "They think we're having too much fun, maybe."
"The style around being a climber is dying today," he added. "Unfortunately, I'm bringing style back."
Claims of BLM rules violations fall short
For at least one critic of the event, style wasn't the issue. Bill Love, a county resident who learned about the video from Miller, responded with an email to Lance Porter, district manager for the Bureau of Land Management, on March 7. The Fisher Towers are on BLM land, and Love pressed Porter to issue a citation.
The Moab Monkeys, Love wrote, "trashed BLM property by leaving Christmas ornaments around an area that is visited by hundreds of locals and tourists each year. Much of the trash has been removed by concerned citizens from the local area."
Love told the Moab Sun News that he had not personally seen any trash from the event, or spoken with anyone who had. The Sun News found two people who had posted on Climbing Magazine's website and the Mountain Project climbing forums about finding trash on the route.
Patrick Betts, a climbing guide who works in Colorado and Utah, said that he was taking a client up Ancient Art on Dec. 13, 2016. (The Monkeys filmed their video Dec. 9.) On his ascent, he found two large cardboard boxes from Christmas decorations, and saw glitter on the route.
"The stunt itself doesn't really bother me," Betts said. "My only real problem was the fact that they left obvious and large pieces of trash."
Betts said he climbed the tower again in the second week of March, and almost no glitter remained.
Victor Colussi was on a personal trip to the Fisher Towers with his brother on Dec. 14. He, too, saw glitter on the route. He also found a cardboard box, and a half-empty bottle of Gatorade.
"I wasn't put off by the Christmas spirit, but the attitude in the video towards such a valuable and fragile resource was disconcerting," Colussi said.
Lewis said the boxes probably blew away during the descent.
"We did drop some boxes. I'll own up to that," Lewis said. "I'm sorry I dropped some boxes."
Other participants said the dropped boxes were a result of dismantling the project at night.
"We took everything down in complete darkness to make sure that we would not be in anyone's way," Taz, one of the climbers in the video and a freelance graphic designer in Moab, said.
She, Lewis and local photographer Scott Rogers all insisted their group carefully planned the project in accordance with Leave No Trace principles.
In a second email to the BLM, Love claimed the event required a commercial filming permit. But he told the Sun News he hadn't found any evidence that anyone had sold the pictures or video taken during the stunt. The BLM reached the same conclusion.
"It was not commercial, so there were no film permits required," agency spokesperson Lisa Bryant said.
The district's recreation and law enforcement staff looked into the video when it was first posted, Bryant said, and found "no violation of BLM regulations."
"While some people may not feel like that was a very tasteful stunt, there was nothing illegal about it," she said.
Ethics and personalities clash
But for other detractors of the stunt, legality was never the main issue.
"You don't turn spires into Christmas trees," Miller said. "This kind of behavior just promotes a circus mentality, and a lack of conservation and land ethics."
Eve Tallman, who came to Moab in 1981 to climb and has lived in town since 1999, said the stunt depicted rock climbers as "environmentally irresponsible."
"Their actions make all climbers look bad," Tallman said.
Their anger over the video comes in part from preexisting resentment. Both Tallman and Miller claimed Lewis and the Moab Monkeys have left old slacklines, fixed ropes and bolts scattered throughout the backcountry.
"It's well known that some of those players who are in the Moab Monkeys leave their fixed ropes and fixed anchors all over the canyon lands, and it's really disgusting to me," Tallman said.
Trish Hedin, former president of the climbing access advocacy group Friends of Indian Creek, said that in one instance in 2015, Lewis' slackline anchors on Castleton Tower caused a climber to rappel off the wrong side of the tower, requiring a nighttime rescue.
"All of that is just high, high danger," Hedin said. When she confronted Lewis about the incident, she said, he refused to remove the bolts.
"He told me he was the representative for his sport. OK. In that capacity, you should be leading with a modicum of respect for other user groups, respect for land managers, and some level of intelligence," Hedin said. "It's none of the above."
Lewis has been blunt in replying to critics. In December, when the video first drew some negative feedback online, he told commenters, "Go (expletive) yourselves you self righteous (expletives)." After being contacted by the Sun News for this story, he posted again on Facebook: "to everyone who disliked this project [...] Go (expletive) yourselves (expletives)."
Taz said the insults and profanity didn't win over any opponents of the stunt.
"But that's what he is," she said. "That was a reaction that comes from his heart ... That doesn't devalue the project."
Lewis called his reaction "equal and opposite negativity" – an unfiltered response to the people who insulted something he saw as "a community effort to give love and spirit and respect to the community," and whose complaints to his shoe sponsor Five Ten led to the cancelation of his contract.
"It's a constitutional right of mine that I can tell people how I feel about how they feel about what I did," Lewis said.
Regarding the 2015 Castleton Tower incident, Lewis said, "It is not my responsibility that people make bad decisions on their own. When you find brand-new bolts at the top of the summit, with no anchor material, and you can't rescue yourself once you've rappelled, that's not my fault."
As for the claims that he's left other gear hanging in the desert, Lewis said sometimes he leaves ropes in place for BASE jumping access, but that he works with the BLM and other land management agencies to help remove old and worn-out gear from the backcountry.
Rogers agreed: "We've definitely removed more stuff than anyone's left up," he said.
Bryant, at the BLM, confirmed Lewis speaks with the agency regularly and has helped with gear removal.
"I know the ethics around here,” Lewis said. “I know what is good style and bad style."
That defense doesn't persuade Hedin.
"He knows nothing about ethical climbing," she said of Lewis. "He should read some old journals by Royal Robbins. That might help him understand ethical climbing."
"He's hurting his sport," she added. "I don't want, as a climber, to be lumped in with him."
"An age-old argument"
Rogers thinks the Facebook comments, and the involvement of Lewis, a relatively public figure in the small world of climbing, have drawn attention away from the substance of the disagreement.
"There's still an appropriate discussion happening in between the lines here," he said. "It's kind of like an age-old argument of what's good for the land and what's not good for the land."
Indeed, there is a substantive debate happening beneath the name-calling. Hedin, for instance, argued that the Cutler sandstone composing Ancient Art is far too fragile to support multiple people hanging off the summit, while Rogers said that the force of storms in the area far exceeds any stresses the Monkeys created. Miller claimed that the stunt promoted irresponsible land use, but Lewis and Taz contended that constant commercial guiding with inexperienced clients is a far more irresponsible use of the area than their project.
Neither the debate nor the accompanying anger are likely to end any time soon. Lewis certainly isn't backing down: "Andy Lewis doesn't give a (expletive) about anyone, what they think, or how they feel about me projecting in the desert," he said.
For Christmas 2017, he wants to go bigger and hang lights all over Castleton Tower, and he's inviting anyone – including his critics – to help.
"The lighting of the Christmas stoke will go on, hopefully, forever," he said. "I hope this will be a Moab tradition."