Access skills: how to develop a new crag

Posted by Elfyn Jones on 04/03/2015
Have you found the next Parisella's Cave? (Photo: Alex Messenger)

Every climber dreams of making their mark in a guidebook. But did you know that developing the wrong crag could not only lead to access problems, but also give you a criminal record?

Developing new routes and establishing first ascents has always been a fundamental part of our sport. It’s at the very heart of the pioneering spirit and the ethos of pushing the standards. However the amount of new rock that’s available for new routing is becoming increasingly scarce and more difficult to find. And that’s leading to conflict. Much of the available rock, especially for new sports routes, is often on cliffs that have been ignored by previous generations – being too scruffy, too vegetated or just too small. But, ironically, these are the very areas that have become wildlife and ecological sanctuaries – partially due to their inaccessibility to grazing animals but also due to a lack of human interference.

Watch out for SSSIs

As a result, many of these sites, especially in limestone areas, have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This gives considerable legal protection to these locations and the real potential for criminal proceedings against anyone who damages or disturbs the special interest found on these sites. The damage or disturbance does not need to be deliberate: since the Habitats Regulations came into force a few years ago, anyone who is deemed to be “reckless” in their actions and potentially causes damage to the SSSI could face prosecution. Developing new routes – including removing vegetation, loose rock or simply drilling bolts – could quite easily be interpreted as being “reckless” in the eye of the law and lead to a criminal conviction as well as creating considerable access problems. Ignorance of the fact of knowing the crag is an SSSI is no longer a valid defence. To avoid being charged with causing reckless damage, a climber must prove that they’ve checked the status of the land before developing new routes and obtained both the landowner’s permission and formal consent from Natural England or the Natural Resources Wales, the government’s statutory bodies for nature conservation.

How do I know if a crag is in an SSSI?

SSSIs are rarely marked by signs or markers on the ground. They may, or may not, be within National Parks and may, or may not, be on land designated as Open Access, so it’s very easy to fall foul of these regulations. In Wales, you can check on the status of the land by checking Natural Resources Wales’ Protected Sites map or, in England, Defra's interactive map covering rural, urban, coastal and marine environments across Great Britain.

Can I get permission from the landowner?

In reality, it’s very unlikely that an approach from a climber requesting permission to develop a new climbing venue, directly to a landowner or one of the statutory conservation bodies would be accepted. It’s a complex process and a climber would need to prove that the development does not impact adversely on the feature for which the site has been designated – and that may be to protect a specific rare plant, an assemblage of scarce vegetation types, nesting birds, roosting bats or simply the rock itself if the site is a geological SSSI.

But I want to develop a crag – what’s the best approach?

The BMC has a number of regional access volunteers who have intimate knowledge of their local areas. They are listed here on the BMC website, or you can approach one of the two BMC Access and Conservation officers: Rob Dyer if your project is in England or Elfyn Jones if in Wales. We promise that we won’t steal your project (they’re probably too hard for us anyway!), and we really would rather negotiate an access agreement before any damage is caused, rather than having to step in afterwards to resolve a difficult situation.

Expert Q & A

This issue’s expert is BMC ambassador Calum Muskett. Calum is a North Wales based climber and instructor sponsored by Rab, DMM, Five Ten and Podsacs. To find out more visit his website: www.muskettmountaineering.co.uk

Q. How do I know if a crag has been climbed on before?

A. The first place to check is in the local definitive climbing guidebook. If there is no mention of the crag then it would still be best to check with a group of knowledgeable local activists in case the crag has been recently developed, or, if there are any access or conservation issues preventing development.

Q. If a crag is not in a guidebook, is it new?

A. Not necessarily. Some guidebooks are more definitive than others and occasionally miss out crags that aren’t considered to be good enough to make the cut. Also, if a guidebook is a few years old it is more than likely that new areas will have been developed since publication.

Q. Where do I send new routes in?

A. Most guidebooks include details of where to send new route information to. It is also common to document new routes on database pages on the Climbers' Club website as well as UKClimbing.com; some areas even have wiki pages created for new routes to be listed in.

Q. How do I place bolts?

A. If you’ve never placed a bolt before then it’s best to learn from someone with experience of doing so. There are plenty of good tutorials on youtube but remember that ultimately these bolts are meant to hold falls and save lives so don’t botch it!

Q. I really want to climb a new route, where’s the best place to look?

A. Look for gaps in topo diagrams or go on a walk along an esoteric hillside or through an unpopular quarry. Many popular areas have been climbed out so you’re looking at either desperate, well known projects or esoteric gems that have previously been ignored.

Further info

Regional Access Database (RAD)

The definitive source for all crag access information and nesting restrictions: www.thebmc.co.uk/rad

The RAD app is available for Android and iOS devices:

Available for Android Available for iOS

Read more access skills articles



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