Magic Wood: Bad Behaviour Or Just Bad Business?by Jack Geldard - UKC Chief Editor Sep/2013
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Thomas Saluz runs a guest house and campsite at the popular bouldering spot of Magic Wood, Averstal, Switzerland. Thomas has been in touch with most of the leading climbing websites across the internet to complain at the bad behaviour of his guests, leaving rubbish and faeces all over the campsite, which he has to clean up.
I received his email with disappointment; I do still cling to the hope that climbers are better than that. But surely Thomas can just throw people off his campsite if they are misbehaving? And if they are not affecting the crag itself, then it really is just Thomas' problem, right?
I asked him: Is the climbing area also being mistreated?
He replied: The climbing area remains surprisingly clean.
Case closed? Thomas provides basic camping for climbers at an extremely cheap rate of 5 chf / £3.40 per night. Climbers abuse the campsite and leave rubbish and human waste all over. Perhaps Thomas needs to rethink his business model?
I asked Thomas a few more questions, and he is clearly very passionate about climbing, and about Magic Wood. So why not charge more, or even simply close the campsite? He told me that his campsite serves a purpose, and that is to make official camping cheap enough to stop the wild camping that was becoming very common in Magic Wood. Previously climbers were dossing in the woods (not actually legal here) and in their vans, then going to the toilet in the trees, and generally making a mess. His idea was to contain this behaviour with a basic and cheap campsite.
"We offer the cheapest campground in Switzerland. This way all climbers can afford to stay and we can counteract the problems common in climbing areas. Magic Wood always been a prime example of how other climbing areas could prevent a shutdown." he told me.
Of course it is in his best interest to convince climbers to clean up after themselves on the campsite, as it saves him work, but he does have a point and Thomas was pretty adamant that access issues would arise if things didn't change:
"If we can't fix the problems on the campground it will remain a thorn in the side of the local community, and they will take the business away from us. The following will happen: Businessmen will take over, and prices will be raised drastically. [But] problems with the trash and poo won't be solved this way as wild campers will increase. The only logical conclusion will be the shut down of Magic Wood."
British climber Gaz Parry has been to Magic Wood several times and seen the place develop. He told me:
"When Martin Smith first went to Magic Wood there was no camping, just roadside sleeping. The next year the local climbers along with the community had raised some money to create a small cleared area including a bin and two porta-loos so as to maintain access and stop the roadside sleeping which is not allowed in Switzerland. This is the year that I went and there was a box in which to put 5 Euros that went towards the upkeep of the facilities. This is the same charge as today, so I think Thomas' charge is not really a method of making money, it is the historical charge. I feel the problem is a case of climbers mistreating community services and goodness rather than a business suffering, although both go hand in hand in all cases of access."
Gaz's version of history is more or less correct, the facilities at Magic Wood have grown to match the increase in demand for accommodation for climbers. Crunch time came back in 2006 when hordes of climbers were rocking up at this amazing venue, but the facilities really couldn't handle it.
"Magic Wood was not far from being shut down at this point as they just didn't know how to handle the amount of climbers." Thomas told us. "The local community had two options. Either get the campground up and running or close the area." Luckily for climbers, they chose the campsite.
But it seems that the facilities need to grow even more to cope with the ever increasing number of visitors. This is part of the reason why climbers are dumping in the woods (and on the footpath!) rather than using the toilets provided on the campground. Thomas hasn't yet received permission to expand the campsite and the maximum number of toilets he can supply is six. Six chemical toilets are just inadequate to meet the demand at peak season, and when the toilets get full some people would rather go outside than face the smell. Thomas told us:
"The last three years we had around 8000 visitors on our campground per season (April-October) and this year there was probably even more. For the last four years we have been talking about improving the campground standards - providing proper toilets and showers. These type of toilets we will be able to clean daily and would never would become full [Thomas has trouble cleaning and emptying the current toilets - ed.] - a huge advantage. As the whole project is big and expensive we have to make it in steps. Next year we should get drinking water and sinks to do dishes on the campground. The year after toilets and showers are planned. This could easily take another three years too."
Clearly Thomas is a man trying to make a living, but in doing so he is also taking on the responsibility of acting as the go-between for climbers and the local community, a task that hasn't proven easy. Thomas explained a little more about the local 'community' and the systems in place for villages in Switzerland:
"The community is actually everybody who lives here of course, but five people are on the local executive committee who decides what is going on. For big projects they have to make a proposal at the big community meeting every 3 or 4 months, where everybody votes on the proposals.
We have run into problems with the local community and certainly feel like they would like to give the business to somebody else, so yes, we are under pressure. Some locals who don't like boulderers have already complained to the community. They are looking for points to pull us up on and the first thing they see is usually the dirty campground. Not dirty because we don't clean up, but dirty because some guests just abandon their stuff all over when they leave, which stays there until we see it and clean it up."
And whilst Thomas is a business man, he claims that the campsite is not the money making scheme many might think:
"After running the campground for three years, we got the opportunity to combine several businesses and we are running now the restaurant, guesthouse and the campground here at Magic Wood. If I calculate it properly I don't think we make money out of the campground. The little bit we get is from the beers and other drinks we are now selling at the shop. CHF 5 per person per night is not a lot at all by Swiss standards. The provided firewood, the trash collection, salaries for employees as well as the toilets eat most of the income. On top of that we have to pay 3.8% VAT on each CHF 5. We make our money with the restaurant and the guesthouse to keep it balanced."
But Thomas holds out hope for keeping the site running, and keeping the costs down:
"If we can educate the climbing scene in behaving and showing respect for mother nature then we will make a big step towards a good relationship with the locals and perhaps we can avoid access problems."