Colorado State Study: Longs Peak Climbers and Mountaineers Embrace Leave No Trace Ethics

Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park is attracting more visitors today than ever before. Though it may seem odd, according to a new study by a Colorado State University researcher, the peak is in better shape today than it has been in recent decades in part because backcountry mountain climbers have adopted outdoor ethics called Leave No Trace.

Longs Peak has been a popular backcountry area ever since the early 20th century, and visitation to the peak has grown higher with each passing decade. However, “frontcountry” automobile tourists to Rocky Mountain National Park have greatly outnumbered backcountry climbers since the park’s founding in 1915. The park’s efforts to manage climbers on Longs and protect the peak’s natural resources have always been constrained by the park’s limited resources and park managers have given priority to managing pressures in the frontcounty.

Ruth M. Alexander, a CSU history professor, and CSU graduate assistants Catherine Moore and Josh Weinberg worked with staff at Rocky Mountain National Park to determine how hiking, mountaineering and climbing on Longs Peak have changed in the past 80 years.

“Park managers and rangers, and climbers themselves, have always expected climbers to assume a great deal of responsibility for their own safety and enjoyment on Longs Peak, despite its considerable dangers,” said Alexander. “Resource and funding limitations in the park have reinforced this ethic of self-responsibility. Park rangers have provided climbers on the peak with information and guidance about safety and routes but they have placed relatively few restrictions on climbers.”

The passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 coincided with a sharp increases in the number of technical and non-technical climbers on the peak. The Wilderness Act promoted ecological thinking and a new level of sensitivity about the fragility of the peak’s natural resources among park staff and, eventually, among climbers. By the 1970s and 1980s, rangers and leaders in the climbing community were encouraging the adoption of Leave No Trace principles, essentially expanding climbers’ ethic of responsibility.

“Leave No Trace principles are based on the notion that all backcountry climbers on Longs have responsibility for protecting the peak itself. Climbers’ adoption of minimal impact ethics means that Longs Peak is in better shape today than it was in the 1970s,” Alexander said. “In 2010 there is less trash and waste on the mountain, and less off-trail travel, than in previous decades. Many technical climbers began adopting techniques that minimized damage to the rock in the 1970s and 1980s. After 1990 the park established climbing regulations that made ‘clean climbing’ the required norm on Longs Peak.”

The history of Longs Peak raises fundamental questions about how to define wilderness sites and wilderness experiences in a popular national park setting. The peak has been understood historically to be a wilderness site, and it now is defined that way by law. However, the peak is often crowded with visitors, and the park deliberately tries to keep climbers “on-trail” so as to limit their impact on the natural environment.

“Longs Peak is a carefully managed and very busy wilderness site. The peak offers a wilderness experience to visitors in terms of its harsh alpine conditions, but it cannot offer most visitors the solitude that has traditionally been associated with wilderness,” Alexander said.

Alexander presented findings from this study, “People and Nature on the Mountaintop: A Resource and Impact Study of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park,” at Rocky Mountain National Park’s research conference held earlier this week in Estes Park.

Alexander is a faculty affiliate with CSU’s Center for Public History and Archaeology (CPHA), which initiated this project with Rocky Mountain National Park through the Rocky Mountain-Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit. The CPHA fosters the collaborative, democratic production of historical knowledge about America’s protected landscapes through engagement with the institutions responsible for their stewardship. The CPHA will change its name to The Public Lands History Center in 2010 to reflect this mission.