Dave Pickford takes a flying tour of the worlds best climbing destinations and asks the question - in today’s climate of environmental awareness, just how does climbing square up?
As climbers we’d all like to think that we either have a positive, or negligible, effect on the places we visit. But is this always the case? For Europe and North America the answer may well be yes, but in developing countries, the impact of climbing and mountaineering may be more significant than we’d care to admit.
‘Impact’ is a highly relative term here, and its meaning might depend largely on the type of climber in question: flying from London to Bangalore to go bouldering at Hampi for the weekend is obviously a different kind of activity to wild camping in the Mexican desert, hitch-hiking to the crags, and living off tortillas made by the wife of the local caballero. You may be crimping hard in both scenarios, but they are quite literally a world apart.
Yet from the petroleum guzzling jet-setter to the carbon neutral full-time dirtbag, there is a common factor that hopefully unites all climbers at a fundamental level: a desire to preserve the crag environment from potential threats. This amounts to a collective ideology of environmental preservation, and it is not something that could be applied with any justification to golf, or even skiing. Both of these activities require large chunks of land to be requisitioned for their dedicated use.
In comparison to some other adventure sports, and sport in general, there is an unwritten but strong preservationist ethic at the heart of the climbing community. Climbers do not, generally, require vastly consumptive resort-style facilities to accommodate their activities, such as are commonplace in winter sports hotspots. Our engagement with the crag environment does not, on the whole, have a demonstrably negative effect on its ecology and bio-diversity, such as diving or fishing can.
Once-endangered species such as peregrines and choughs now thrive on Britain’s sea cliffs, their nesting sites protected by carefully-observed seasonal restrictions. The days of chopping down trees in Wales and removing occupied Swifts’nests in Yorkshire in the name of new routing are certainly things of the past. We can claim with some justification that climbing is an environmentally friendly and sustainable pursuit. The proximity of the climbing community to the Green movement was well illustrated in 1997, when many British climbers took part in the Newbury bypass protest. The few rope access technicians with a climbing background who worked on the eviction of the tree camps were permanently ostracised from climbing circles afterwards.
Ignoring for the sake of argument (for it is another argument altogether) the profligate waste that has been strewn across the slopes of Everest over recent years by unscrupulous expeditions, as climbers we can be proud of the environmental philosophy that lies behind lightweight, self-contained adventuring. But there is a catch here: because it is now a hugely diverse activity taking place on a global scale, climbing often takes place very close to the contrasting milieu of the mainstream tourism industry.This is evident in different forms throughout the world, in guises at once bizarre and alarming.
In developed countries, the symbiosis of climbing and tourism is mostly benign. French sport climbers top out from multipitch routes in the Verdon Gorge to become a new photo-opportunity for coachloads of Japanese sightseers. Similar scenes take place in Alpine honeypots like Chamonix and Grindelwald, where climbers have been an added local curiosity for holidaymakers since the late nineteenth century. Staggering back from the mountain, ice-axe in hand, the ragged figure of the climber represents precisely the form of novelty that many casual visitors crave.
At Geyikbayiri, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, an enterprising pair of Germans have developed a small, eco-friendly holiday camp in the heart of a new sport climbing area, successfully creating what is perhaps the world’s first rock climbing resort. In Alumnus in the nearby Dodecanese, the systematic development of the island’s sublime limestone cliffs into one of the world’s premier sport-climbing destinations has had a positive effect on the previously struggling local economy - which due to the island’s almost complete lack of sandy beaches had never tapped in to the mainstream holiday market, and struggled along on fish and shellfish sales.
Over the past five years, local GDP has improved considerably and climbers now bring in valuable and consistent revenue to the island. The positive impact of the sport climbing boom in Alumnus is evident in a number of other not particularly prosperous corners of Europe where climbing has ‘taken off’: places like Croatia, Andalusia, Corsica, Sicily, and Sardinia have all benefited in various ways from the arrival of climbing in their tourism portfolio.
At the same time, the kind of unregulated development of big holiday apartments, hotels, and other supporting infrastructure that was seen throughout the ‘80’s and ‘90’s on Spain’s Mediterranean coast is extremely unlikely to occur in such places. The normal preconditions for the existence of such an infrastructure – such as an abundance of flat sand and golf courses within minimal walking distance of a 24-hour supply of cheap beer - simply do not exist, due to the very same topography that makes climbing possible. It is likely, then, that climbers will be able to continue visiting interesting new regions off the beaten track in Europe and North America, and bring valuable revenue to local businesses in those regions, without undue concern that their holidays may be contributing to the development of yet another Costa del Cerveza.
In developing countries, the relationship of climbing and mainstream tourism can often appear closer than in the developed world. Pembrokeshire climber and activist Trevor Massiah was one of the first British climbers to step off the gunwales of a longtail and on to the fabled - and then pristine - sand of Railay Beach, near Krabi on Thailand’s south western coast. He remembers the area in the early nineties as an unreconstructed tropical paradise, and the ultimate winter sun hangout: “When I first went in 1991, we were the only climbers there, and the whole place was quiet, just local fishermen and a few intrepid Europeans. Later that season we went to Ton Sai for the first time to see what everyone had been talking about. There was nothing there, no cafés, no bungalows - only Dum’s Kitchen at the end of the beach. Most of the boatmen didn’t want to land there because they didn’t know the reefs. There were perhaps a few hundred simple bungalows and shacks on Railay. It was a hangover from the hippy trail – a real locals and traveller’s scene. Only the climbers explored beyond the beach though, we used to walk over the high trail through the jungle to Ton Sai and not see anyone all day.”
This low-key atmosphere had changed by the winter of 1994-5, when development had really kicked off. Trev remarks that on returning in the mid-nineties: “I lost interest in going back, the original friendliness and sense of adventure in the scene had vanished. By 1997, I couldn’t believe what had happened to it.”
Today, after ten years’ more development and business from the booming tourist industry, what is the original tropical climbing paradise like? A widely-recognised statistic probably means more here than any hyperbole: several sample tests carried out since 2003 have shown the sea in the region to be medically unsafe for swimming. This is largely due to the quantity of untreated sewage that has leeched through the thin sandy soils after years of ever-increasing numbers of visitors, and it is also partly a product of the intensive local shrimp-fishing industry. Prajak Khunrat, an expatriate Thai now based in the UK, observes how bad the contamination of the groundwater has become: “When I first went to Railay in the mid-nineties, there was still sweet water in all the wells. Now it is brown and dirty, no-one can drink it. All the water is brought on the boats from Au Nang these days.”
So Thailand’s famous exotic limestone hot-spot harbours a rapidly consuming secret - long term environmental poisoning. And this is largely a result of more than a decade of booming tourism, of which climbing has an intrinsic part. In this sense, in a developing country like Thailand, the proximity of climbing to the most environmentally-damaging aspects of unregulated mainstream tourism becomes strikingly clear. After the devastating Tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 - the world’s deadliest-recorded natural disaster that killed an estimated 165,000 people across Indonesia, south east Asia, Sri Lanka and India - there were suspicions that that Ton Sai and Railay might take years to re-develop as a major destination. Yet the upwardly-mobile and resourceful nature of local Thais disproved this, and by the 2005-06 winter season business was, almost, back to normal.
As the tourist trade steadily increases year by year and local businesses expand, investment in better sanitation and water-purifying technology will be essential. Local Thais are more aware than anyone else that if this doesn’t happen, then Ton Sai and Railay will eventually become a paradise completely lost. As far as the climbing is concerned, Massiah reminisced: “Exotic climbing destinations like this, like Thailand or Vietnam, they were special in the first place because you were exploring, breaking new ground, and there was a really adventurous vibe in the whole scene. And that’s what made them cheap back then too – that kind of region in a developing country is generally a cheap place to hang out!”
As climbers, we now have unprecedented opportunities to travel the world in pursuit of our dreams. From obscure European regions instantly made easily accessible in an afternoon’s travel by a low-cost airline, to mysterious limestone massifs hidden in the deeper reaches of south east Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and Latin America, Massiah’s point about relative cost is of huge importance, because it underscores a wider issue about the relationship between climbing, tourism, and globalisation in the context of today’s rapidly changing developing world. To find the sort of mythical place Alex Garland wrote about in his famous 1996 novel ‘The Beach’ - we now have to look further than ever off the beaten track.
The mushrooming mainstream tourist industry in south east Asia over the last fifteen years is inexorably linked to the expansion of the global free market. In his brilliant short book Al Maida and What It Means To Be Modern John Gray observes that this is a “political construction not much more than a dozen years old”. Wherever that global market can reach, and given the correct conditions, the growth of a tourism economy will follow.
Today, it is in developing countries where oppressive or corrupt regimes, terrorism, and organised crime have held sway over economic development that the magic wand of global tourism has not yet touched. Burma, the far north-east of India, the more remote islands of Indonesia, the Philippines, and much of central Africa may, in future, reveal new versions of that exotic cragging paradise first represented by Ton Sai and Railay. But it is a fairly sure bet that they will be more difficult and dangerous places to get to than Thailand in the early nineties.
Let us travel to another tropical country on the other side of the world that harbours some astonishing rock climbing potential. There can be few nations in the western hemisphere with as distinct or exotic a presence on the world stage as Cuba, the largest and most populous island in the Caribbean. And the recently-developed limestone sport climbing in the Finales region of Pinner del Rio province in Cuba’s west is about as exotic as cragging gets.
However, like the presence of the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba’s far east, there is a darker side to the exotic promise of Cuban rock climbing. It’s bound up in a web of political intrigue that can sound a bit like a sub-plot for a John Le Carrré novel. Armando Menocal, a Wyoming lawyer with a long-term interest in the development of climbing in the Vinales region, has recently been refused entry to the country on two occasions at Jose Marti International Airport, Havana.
The Cuban authorities’ refusal of entry to Menocal is part of a wider ‘crack down’ on climbing by the Cuban government, which has allegedly made climbing illegal for Cuban citizens. The recent presence of state-employed ‘guards’ patrolling the cliffs close to Vinales appears to be the main front of this policy. But why is this happening? A lack of awareness or understanding of rock climbing as a ‘sport’ by the Castro regime is certainly part of the reason, and a suspicion of the activities of climbers as a result. Diving, by contrast, is a huge cash cow in Cuba’s tourism economy, and high government fees for popular dive sites are commonplace.
There is a profound irony in the nonsensical motions of the Cuban government in their anti-climbing policy. It was well illuminated late one night around the big trestle table in the casa of Oscar Rodriguez in Vinales. I discussed the access situation to the crags with Alberto, one of the local Cuban climbers, and a couple from Wyoming - who had made the long journey to Vinales via Jamaica, since United States passport holders are not permitted to enter Cuba under Federal law. The Americans talked about how uneasy they felt travelling with a United States passport, and of how they were aware of a collective outrage among their climbing community at the Bush administration’s record of by-passing virtually every environmental preservation bill. They talked about how odd it was, by contrast, being ostracised as climbers by the Cuban government - a regime so fundamentally different to that under which they lived back home.
Alberto talked about how he wished to be able to climb elsewhere in his home country, but how difficult it is for him to travel any distance within Cuba, due to the almost impossibly low government-imposed wage he earns as a casual labourer (even Havana’s professional elite earn little more than a $100 a month). Foreign travel is, for Alberto, a captivating but unlikely possibility: buying just one plane ticket would involve a far higher expenditure than his gross annual income.
In between the communist propaganda celebrating Castro’s dictatorship scrawled in the streets and the bottles of Havana Club rum on the café tables, Cuba’s pastoral west is in many ways still an undiminished example of that exotic cragging paradise first defined by the sea-cliffs of south west Thailand in the 1990’s. And it remains so due to the unique conditions imposed on both the country and its people by almost fifty years of socialist dictatorship. When these conditions change – which they undoubtedly will in the near future – it is likely that the archaic rurality which gives climbing in Cuba its unique charm will change significantly. As the notorious New York gangster Al Capone allegedly quipped on the dubious merits of making a swift getaway to Havana, “it just ain’t far enough from Miami beach”.
As a final example of the evidence of tourism and globalisation in the international climbing scene, the proposal by Trevor Rogers, president of New Zealand engineering firm TGR Helicorp, to manufacture an unmanned, self-flying Himalayan rescue helicopter - the ‘Alpine Wasp’ - gets top marks for novelty. What makes this helicopter different is its ability, Rogers claims, to fly up to and possibly beyond 9000m. This is some 3000m higher than the operational limit of the world’s most altitude-capable conventional helicopters. In a recent Guardian article, Ed Douglas wrote about the background to the proposal for this remarkable contraption, and of how “the increase in numbers attempting Everest in the last decade has led to concern that more selfish attitudes are becoming commonplace”.
This observation cuts right to the chase of commercial mountaineering in the Himalaya, in which the Alpine Wasp is a striking example of international market forces landing squarely in the middle of one of the world’s wildest places. Douglas continues that: “there are fears that the helicopter’s presence will attract less experienced climbers who may try to charter it for their own convenience.” Will quick aerial drop-offs and pick-ups at the South Col be commonplace in future years? Given that this last season (2007) was the busiest in the history of the mountain, with more than five hundred people standing on the roof of the world, such a scenario would hardly be surprising. It is unclear at this stage what further pressures the presence of the Alpine Wasp might exert on the Everest region. We can be fairly sure, though, that the existing problems of high-altitude rubbish and mushrooming local inflation will worsen.
What can we conclude from this global tour? It is clear that across the world climbing destinations are united by two dominating influences in a changing world order - globalisation and tourism. Climbing is now a global activity which depends for its well-being on global resources: energy, the internet, and air travel being the most crucial of these. The flux of the international climbing scene is as directly affected by globalisation as the price of oil itself.
It is no longer possible to make a valid case for climbing being a specialist, niche activity that stands - as the poet Geoffrey Hill once said of England - ‘at ease in its own world’. As climbers, what we do is not insulated from the behaviour of global financial markets, cyber-terrorism, or another oil war in the Middle East. In fact, we are more vulnerable to the above than we might think, and our adventures are as influenced by global market forces as the prices of the airfares we buy to fly to our next destination.
If unmanned choppers buzzing around the summit slopes of Everest, extravagant banquets on Ton Sai beach hosted by international financiers, and climbers charged with transatlantic espionage conspiracies in the Caribbean all sounds a bit much - like Douglas Adams mixed in with a bit of James Bond and Hunter S. Thompson - then just wait. We may be surprised to find yet more outlandish events holding sway in the international climbing scene of our century’s second decade.
Dave Pickford is a climber, writer and photographer based in the UK. He has a particular interest in the Greater Himalaya region, the Indian Subcontinent, and the Far East.