On 4th February I was bouldering in Wales. It was a perfect day: I'd climbed my project in the morning and had the whole day ahead of me. The weather was almost alpine, with a cool breeze, snow on the tops, and endless blue skies. On such days there are few places as fine as the Sheep Pen Boulders, which is where I headed to catch up with friends. Perched just above Nant Ffrancon, with the Glyers just opposite, it seemed like the place to be that day. Whilst there I overhead a conversation: something about Whitehouses being banned...no...destroyed? Someone had smashed the crag with what looked to be a sledgehammer. People gathered around the phone to look: it was a shocking scene.
For those that have never heard of it before, Whitehouses is a small crag located in North Yorkshire. In recent years it has become popular with the hardcore bouldering fraternity, not least because of its quick drying, road-side nature, but also because of the number of high quality problems and eliminates that are packed within its walls. It's a good option for a marginal day, fondly thought of by locals and a lovely place to be. However, sometime over the weekend of the 3rd/4th February it was the scene of - for want of a better word - destruction. Many of the holds were knocked off, rendering virtually every one of the aforementioned classics unclimbable. So the big question is, how on earth did it come to this?
Firstly, access at Whitehouses has been sensitive for quite some time. A set of guidelines had been produced that climbers were suggested to follow, which included:
Now what seems immediately noticeable is that these aren't unreasonable requests; in fact, most of them (certainly 3 out of 4) could be applied to almost 99% of the crags that we visit (something we'll address in the next #respecttherock article). However, it would appear that climbers had indeed been misbehaving. There are reports of people continuing to park in front of the gate, and one instance of a climber approaching another climber who had parked in front of the gate being told to f**k off when informing them that they needed to move - something I find truly shocking. I've seen a few messages online specifically targeting indoor climbers, but from having had multiple conversations with various activists can't find any substance to these remarks. Furthermore, there doesn't appear to be a large amount of concrete evidence that many infringements to the agreed terms occurred at all. It's a specialist crag with a devoted following. That said, were I to offer a short summary of where we're up to so far, it does appear that there have indeed been instances of a very small number of climbers misbehaving, and that is - simply put - all that it takes.
When it comes to whoever did this - and who exactly it was still remains an unknown - it can be deduced from the gravity of the reaction that this was a major issue for the individual concerned and most likely had been building up for some time. Rock means different things to different people: to us each hold has meaning, each problem has history and significance, to others…well…it's just rock, inanimate and bare. Whilst there are previous examples of hold chipping, such as what occurred at Robin Hood's Stride/Cratcliffe a few years ago, or the manure that was spread across Craig y Longridge, tar over holds at Windgather, or trees chopped underneath Raven Tor, these tend to have been isolated to individual problems or routes. The Whitehouses case differs, since it's the first crag I can recall* to be pretty much written out of action. The permanence of the 'solution' is what I find so upsetting. Were I to turn back the clock I would ultimately be looking for any outcome other than this: revoke access, ban climbers from visiting the crag, cordon it off. Still, here we are - there's no going back!
* those with a longer memory have since highlighted this is not the case, as the Main Buttress of Yellowslacks, which is located just above Glossop, was dynamited by the farmer back in the 1960s
The scary thing is that what happened at Whitehouses could happen elsewhere and perhaps the most striking parallel to be drawn is with Almscliffe. A few years back the resident farmer requested that 'lamping' (aka. night bouldering) activity cease. At the time there was a blend of sympathy and uproar in equal measure. We lead pretty privileged lives in so many ways these days, so who on earth has the right to tell us that we can't go bouldering outdoors at night?!? There's a sense of entitlement that is so severely misguided. Almscliffe isn't on CROW land, it is privately owned, and we should consider ourselves lucky to have access. Whilst none of us like to be told what to do, sometimes we have to do what we're told…To that end, climbers have ceased lamping and deserve a pat on the back accordingly.
Continuing the Almscliffe story, the BMC recently erected a sign alongside the parking area to help promote good practice. It outlined the basics: take litter home, avoid lamping, don't fly drones, and then a gentle reminder that it is a working landscape (i.e. watch out for the cows). All logical stuff and - dare I say it - intuitive stuff. However, what it didn't say was not to approach the crag ON TOP OF THE WALL which is exactly what some climbers (and non-climbers) have seen fit to do, so as to avoid the muddy path just to the side. Now, I'm going to throw this out there, but I'd have thought that not walking on top of the dry stone wall would have been obvious, but apparently not, and this is the kind of thing we're contending with. Thankfully the disposition of the farmer underneath Almscliffe is more reasonable than that of the individual that took their hand to Whitehouses, but were it not, we might be in a sorry state of affairs. Remember: it only takes one individual to destroy a venue.
The above signs, which were produced by the BMC only a few months ago, have now had to been redone to include 'do not walk on walls'
Another example, again within Yorkshire's fine borders, is Kilnsey. Kilnsey is without doubt one of the finest crags in the country and is very popular as a result. Parking has increasingly become an issue as climbers try to push the limits of what is possible not just on the crag, but also when it comes to the parking that does/doesn't exist on the side of the road before the crag. The result is that cars stick out into the road and get in the way of the farmer's gate (located just opposite) and also local traffic. Meanwhile, the lay-by located 580m further up the road can often remain empty. The reason for this really is nothing short of laziness. Why walk 580m when you could walk 20m? The answer is simple: because in doing so you help to maintain good relations with the farmer, the locals, and anyone driving down that road (the verge side parking, for those who haven't been, really isn't ideal). Were this situation to come to a head, how would the climbing community feel if the crag were to become banned? Whilst Kilnsey is on CROW land and we will therefore theoretically always have access, it cannot be stressed how difficult access can become without the goodwill of the landowner and the local community. Hopefully the discussions that are currently taking place will lead to a more formal set of guidelines
So where do we go from here?
After the events at Whitehouses we, as climbers, need to assert more strongly than ever a sense of respect not just for the rock, but for the people around it. More than ever, we need to be conscious that the fragile balance can easily be ruined by just one person, hence if you see someone behaving badly - be that climber or non-climber - say something (politely). Yes, they may tell you to f**k off, but you've done your bit - at least for the time being. Bringing your experiences onto the likes of UKC, UKB, the BMC, Facebook, and all the rest of it will hopefully sharpen other people's senses and galvanise support. I really can't see any other way to do it.
For a bit more info on Whitehouses and what it meant to local climber Dan Turner check out his Vlog, which has archive footage of the problems being climbed as well as real-time footage of the holds as they are now.