Crisp, cool temperatures and long, clean cracks draw crowds of rock climbers to Indian Creek in the fall. The popular climbing area south of Moab, which is within the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument, is world-famous for its unique rock formations and climbing style and has seen significant increases in visitation and use in recent years. Climbing advocacy nonprofit The Access Fund has established relationships with stakeholders and managers in the area, conducted trail building projects and messaging campaigns, and contributed to the construction of vault toilets to reduce human waste problems. This fall, The Access Fund has launched a new program that employs two “Climber Stewards” to be on-the-ground contacts for climbers at Indian Creek.
The Moab Sun News spoke to the new stewards, Lauren Hebert and Johanna Cogen, about their first days on the job. Herbert started rock climbing while going to college in Colorado, and would take trips to Indian Creek on school breaks.
“It was kind of a formative place for me, in terms of climbing,” said Hebert. “It was a place that drew me back… I’ve been coming back for ten years and seen a lot of growth, in climbing and just personally, there.”
Cogen also visited Indian Creek for the first time while she was a college student in California.
“The first time I came, I was just enamored with the beauty and the magnitude and how untouched it felt,” Cogen remembered. “That memory really viscerally stuck with me.”
Both Cogen and Hebert said that while the area has grown in popularity, that feeling of vastness, that facilitates a reverence for and connection with the landscape, still exists. It’s one of the reasons Indian Creek is so popular. They both said that while the increased visitation is noticeable, the special feeling the landscape evokes is still intact.
Hebert and Cogen will be stationed in Indian Creek over the next 10 weeks. They’ll host “Climber Coffee” events on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings, offering free brew at popular campgrounds and parking lots, connecting with climbers, answering questions, and educating users on low-impact, ethical recreation. The stewards will also conduct climbing patrols, hike out to crags to conduct outreach, and help with visitation, wildlife, and archaeology monitoring efforts.
The Access Fund website explains the reasoning behind the creation of the stewardship program.
“Increasing popularity is leading to greater levels of impact in the region, with folks unknowingly camping where they shouldn’t and creating ever-expanding “mega” campsites that damage the environment. There are also growing concerns around improperly disposed human waste, impacts to cultural resources, and conflicts with nearby cattle ranchers,” the site says.
It’s not only the increasing popularity of the area that’s prompting the need for education, said Access Fund Director Chris Winter. It’s true that with more people, behaviors that once had a small impact are multiplied and create a large impact—like parking on the very edge of a crowded lot and crushing vegetation. In addition, Winter said, more data and research has fostered a better understanding of different outdoor environments, and helped inform best practices tailored to those environments. Digging a cathole to bury human waste, for example, might be acceptable in an environment with more moisture and bioactivity, but in the desert, it takes a very long time for that buried waste to break down.
Similar stewardship programs initiated by concerned locals in other popular climbing destinations like Yosemite and Joshua Tree national parks have had positive effects. Recent climber surveys conducted in Indian Creek in partnership by The Access Fund and the University of Utah showed broad support for a similar stewardship program at Indian Creek.
Winter said the first weekend of the program went well. The new stewards and other Access Fund staff engaged with eager climbers, spreading education on how to be respectful while climbing at Indian Creek.
“It was great,” agreed Ty Tyler, stewardship director for The Access Fund. “It was the first really busy week down there in the Creek. People saw the tent and they were like, ‘What’s going on over there?’ I think people were pretty psyched.”
Heber and Cogen said they were excited to engage in important conversations about minimizing impacts with receptive climbers. They spoke with a climber from Scotland about “how to poop in the desert,” and fielded questions about how long one should wait to climb after rain.
There had been some precipitation earlier in the week, and climbers know that the soft sandstone in southern Utah is very fragile when wet. Climbing on it when it’s wet can be dangerous—holds may break, and gear may be insecure—and can also damage the routes.
“We generally recommend people wait 24 to 48 hours,” to climb after rain, Winter said, adding, “But like many things in climbing, it's nuanced. Look at the ground at the base, feel around inside the cracks before you take off to see if it’s wet in there. Try to pick a crag that’s been drying out in the sun for a while.”
Winter was pleased that climbers were showing concern for the issue.
“People were being really responsible and wanting to have that conversation,” he said.
Another topic of importance the program organizers want to emphasize is honoring the cultural significance of the area. Petroglyphs and cultural sites are plentiful in Indian Creek. During their first weekend, the new stewards took part in discussions of the meaning of the landscape, and the many people who have been drawn to it over time. A participant who is a member of the Navajo tribe explained that it’s not just the sites of dwellings or rock art that are sacred; it’s the landscape itself.
“One of the topics discussed in orientation was the fact that people have been coming to the Bears Ears region for a really long time,” said Cogen. “There’s a vast and deep history… climbing is another part of that story.”
“A big part of the message we want to put out is protecting cultural resources and the cultural value of the landscape as a whole,” Winter said. “We talked a lot about that with folks.”
Some of the people who stopped by the stewards’ tent were not climbers, but people on their way to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, hikers, or sightseers. The stewards were also able to help those visitors with information about staying on trails to protect biocrust, using toilets or wag bags, and visiting cultural sites respectfully.
The Access Fund hopes to implement more climber stewardship programs at other popular crags across the country.
“This is just the beginning,” Winter said on The Access Fund webpage. “We’re taking what we learn from this pilot program at Indian Creek, and the visionary programs at Yosemite and Joshua Tree, to expand this program to other popular climbing areas from coast to coast.”
For now, Cogen and Hebert are looking ahead to a meaningful season of productive conversations.
“This program has so much potential, and we’re both really excited and honored to be the folks on the ground this season kicking it off,” said Cogen.