On Friday, April 9th, guide Darrin Reay and some friends went for a weekend rock climbing trip to the remote Sunshine Wall Slabs north of Arches National Park in Utah. When they arrived they came across three newly bolted sports routes.
Reay started one of the new lines, a simple 5.3. However, about 30 feet above the ground, he was faced with the image of a warrior holding a spear engraved in the agate. Reay noticed he was climbing through a whole 20 by 30 foot plaque with a few dozen native petroglyphs on it.
“The route went right through the whole thing,” Reay told Outside. After Reay and friends climbed down and discovered that the two nearby routes were also screwed through the petroglyph slab, they spent the weekend removing the screws and documenting the damage.
“I thought about leaving to report them,” Reay told friend and climber Stewart Green, who wrote about the incident on Facebook. “But I just couldn’t let it stand. It was my duty. “The petroglyphs, Green thought, seemed to come from the Fremont people, a pre-Columbian Native American culture that lived in Utah and parts of the surrounding area 2,000 to 700 years ago. It’s unclear whether Green is correct or not, but similar ones Petroglyphs attributed to the Fremont people have been documented in other areas nearby.
(Photo: Darrin Reay)
It didn’t take long to find out where the screws came from. Reay and friends found the routes posted on Mountain Project, a user-generated database of climbing routes, and attributed the incident to Richard Gilbert, a climber from Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Gilbert, a veteran Marine and 15-year-old climber, has since publicly posted an apology and description of his actions, which he describes as “no apology for the damage”.
According to Gilbert, he was exploring the unscrewed wall in the Sunshine Slabs area in late March and mistaking a number of petroglyphs for graffiti. He attributed vandalism to the proximity of the wall to a public campsite. He decided it would be safe to develop routes along the wall. He later added information about the new routes to Mountain Project and mentioned what he interpreted as graffiti in the description. (These routes were eventually removed by an administrator to prevent climbing in the area.) His mistake only lasted a few weeks to grab the attention of the site’s dedicated climbing community. Outrage followed quickly.
Gilbert’s story largely unfolded through conversations on the Mountain Project forums where he said he first realized his mistake. “I saw a post on my route on Sunday evening [at Sunshine Slabs] and it said, “Hey, this is not graffiti, this is petroglyphs.” I thought, oh my god, I messed this up completely, I’m going to fix it now, ”he said. He changed Mountain Project’s route descriptions to steer climbers away from the area, drove back to the wall to fill in the bolt holes, and left a sign to draw attention to the petroglyphs.
“It’s wrong. It shouldn’t have happened. It’s just bad education for me and I take full responsibility,” says Gilbert.
He returned to the area on Monday, April 12, and met with authorities at the Moab Bureau of Land Management to report the incident in person. “I told him this was my mistake and asked what I had to do to make sure other people weren’t paying for my mistake,” he said. The BLM office opened an investigation following the meeting and previous calls to report the incident, Gilbert said. (The BLM office did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.) According to the National Park Service, such rock art is protected nationwide and acts of harm can result in crime and / or misdemeanor, with penalties that can range up to penalties a ten year sentence and fines of $ 100,000.
Meanwhile, online conversations about the incident turned to death threats against Gilbert and expressed anger at his actions, including many public posts on the Mountain Project forums and direct messages and phone calls made to him.
Green posted the incident on Facebook this week and campaigned to raise awareness in the climbing community about cultural resources and Leave No Trace guidelines. “The fact is that as climbers we just can’t do what we want anymore,” he wrote, “unlike the days in the Wild West when I was a young climber and anything went.”
Similar situations have arisen in popular climbing areas in the United States, including Hueco Tanks in Texas, Painted Bluff in Alabama, and Indian Creek in Utah, where routes have been removed and areas near rock art have been closed.
Along with the apology both online and in an article from Climbing, Gilbert has recognized the work needed to repair not only the physical damage but also the connections to local communities after the damage. “I’m not the victim here,” he said. “I made a mistake and I’ll pay for my mistake, but I think it’s also important that the Aborigines have a voice and be heard now.”
Gilbert, Reay, and Green each expressed the importance of this incident in teaching climbers the history of the places they climb and the need to prevent these problems from occurring in the future. “I want people to be educated outdoors as much as possible,” Reay said. “It’s been a long-time passion of mine and I don’t want these places and our access to public land to be compromised by the actions of a few people.”