For years I have envied the job title of “Climbing Ranger.” Something about that term fills my imagination with images of wild adventures and epic rescues in remote locations. Mountaineering, climbing, rescues, glaciers, rocks, seracs, my imagination goes on! Fast forward to the present and I’ve just completed my first season as a USFS Climbing Ranger. Most of those keywords were relevant! But I can attest that those descriptors are only a minor portion of the true meaning of being a Climbing Ranger, particularly in the Enchantments Zone of the Alpine lakes Wilderness in Washington.
This summer marked my fifth season with the US Forest Service and my first season as a Climbing Ranger. I’d spent the previous four summers working primarily in the front-country (trailheads, campgrounds) in the Mt. Baker and Baker Lake areas of the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest where we experienced high visitor numbers for a myriad of different recreational opportunities like hiking, climbing, fishing, hunting, boating, and camping (to name a few). Moving from my previous role in Developed Recreation to the role of Climbing Ranger, based mostly in the backcountry of one of the most popular hiking destinations in the state, revealed an entirely new side to land management that I had previously never seen. I felt myself empowered at times and helpless at others to protect the areas we patrol. I felt lenient at times and eager to educate and enforce at others. I had no idea the extent to which overuse affects the landscape!
I was hired as a Climbing Ranger for the Wenatchee River Ranger District (WRRD) which includes all of the mega-popular Leavenworth area and the Enchantments Zones of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Leavenworth is home to many hundreds of bouldering, sport, and trad climbing routes and is blessed with nice weather when compared to Seattle located just a few hours away on the west-side of the crest. The Enchantments contain some of the highest-quality alpine mountaineering and rock climbing routes in the state, ranging from Mt. Stuart’s 2,000’ North Ridge to Dragontail’s Dragons of Eden (7p 12.a) to moderates like Prusik Peak’s and Stuart’s West Ridges (both about 5.6). The quality of rock is outstanding and, combined with the quantity of routes, the area draws a substantial crowd.
So what does it mean to be a Ranger in the WRRD? The Climbing and Wilderness Rangers can both attest that being a Ranger in the WRRD is largely about managing the Enchantments! Perhaps this doesn’t come as much of a surprise to readers who have known about the area for years. For me, I knew it was popular. However I did not realize the extent to which the area has been discovered! The reality, as far as I see it, is that the area is seeing unprecedented popularity and exposure to a demographic of people that have little understanding of what a Wilderness Area is and who lack a general knowledge of how to conduct themselves in those areas. I discovered that being a Climbing Ranger in the Enchantments has far more to do with managing the thousands of visitors, climbers and hikers alike, than it has to do with climbing!
Words like “mountaineering, climbing, rescues, glaciers, rocks, and seracs” morph to become words like “permits, toilets, litter, tat, drones, dogs, and poop!” Don’t get me wrong, we patrolled many climbing routes this season. But after a summer of immersing myself in the area I ask myself, “what stands out when I reflect on the season?” Was it the climbing? Was it the beauty of the routes? Or maybe it was the patrolling and cleaning of the climbing routes? Or perhaps it was how we maintained our integrity in our position of public service? What actually echoes in my head as the most noteworthy, mind-blowing take-home message was the sheer number of users that visited the Enchantments! Hiking to Colchuck Lake, a 3.7 mile walk, could take upwards of 5 hours as a Ranger! “Did you get a chance to fill out the Day Use Permit at the trailhead? It is the green tag found at the kiosk. No, it is not the parking pass. It is actually required everywhere in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.” The endless and repetitive conversation simply repeats.
On any given weekend I could easily talk to 500 users visiting Colchuck Lake. Akin to the busiest day at your favorite ski area, I describe the trail as “500 people blissfully unaware of one another.” On average, three discarded plastic water bottles on the side of the trail, 2 ACTUAL shits left on the ground to be packed out or buried (but we climbers don’t often carry shovels…), one oversized group, and one drone or pet. By mid-summer the trail to Colchuck Lake had a dust buffer two feet wide on either side of the trail from the heavy use on the dry soil. Who knows how much soil was lost from the tread surface during the daily migration?!
There seems to be a complete lack of knowledge or disregard of the fact that rules and regulations exist in National Forests! Where does this stem from? Are people simply seeing pretty places on Instagram and zombie-strolling their way to the viewpoint, neglecting any form of pre-education or trailhead informational reading because “@peakbeggar went there and said the hike was sooo easy and super pretty for photos?” Honestly, some people literally did not even consider us Rangers to be legitimate! For example, after informing one user that dogs were not allowed on the trail she had the audacity to ask us how much the ticket would be for her to still take her dogs up the trail! Another group, flying two drones and containing 15 people, did not know they were breaking any laws despite that both regulations were stated clearly on the backside of their Wilderness Day Use Permits they signed at the trailhead. I am impressed in the wrong way.
Okay, so what the hell does a Climbing Ranger do that Wilderness Rangers do not already do?! Fair question! Many climbers do not believe that climbers, as a user group, are committing the same environmental-infractions as the masses of day-use hikers “down there on the dirt highway.” Additionally, many people think we are climbing the routes to remove any and all non-bolted anchors and subsequently make it harder for folks to climb the routes.
These schools of thought are wrong. Climbing is becoming continually more popular and that means that new climbers are constantly coming onto the scene. On any given weekend I could talk to several climbers “venturing outside” for their very first time at the Forestlands Bouldering Area in the Icicle Canyon. Are gyms teaching climbers how to boulder outside? Maybe. But it is not their responsibility to do so. The Climbing Rangers visited Colchuck Balanced Rock (CBR) only one time this summer and what did we find? We found a climbing group knowingly camping without an overnight permit in the Colchuck Zone. How often do you think that happens? Wilderness Rangers do not visit that location, so my guess is that it happens frequently.
I hate to say it but climbing is growing in popularity just as hiking is, and I don’t see why there would be an end in sight. I see poor-practice amongst the new and inexperienced hikers, why would there be any difference in the climbing community?
We climb routes so that we can be stewards of that environment. It is hard to describe the absolute asinine quantities of unnecessary anchor slings that are left behind on the trade-routes in the Enchantments. On Prusik Peak, in a single weekend, we removed nearly 20 liters of EXTRA material. Rangers, being human, also need to rappel the routes. We do not remove whole anchors. But why were there eight slings on that one station?! Fact - climbers are not innocent as a user group!
You will eventually find the Climbing Rangers out in the mountains. We are there with extra time to reduce the impacts to the vertical environment that climbers on-a-mission do not give themselves. We are there to go slow, to be thoughtful. We have an extra day, an extra night, maybe a whole weekend to spend in the mountains. Time allotted to contact and educate the public, protect the environment, enforce regulations, climb routes, and to preserve our National Forests.