Rock climbing ascends to the forefront of outdoor recreation
Dennis Nelms lowers me from the top of a 30-foot rock wall.
Nelms is a climbing community stakeholder in the region. He and I spent the morning climbing new routes at a recently developed outdoor climbing area in Northwest Arkansas. Even though the sun had only been up for a few hours, temperatures were already reaching the 90s.
Plus, it’s summer in Arkansas which means humidity and a lot of bugs.
The climbing area is called the "School House," and it’s in the middle of Fitzgerald Mountain, which is a 10-minute drive from Downtown Springdale.
Nelms said improvements to climbing gear and intentional route creation change the way new areas are developed, which makes it easier to bring safe outdoor climbing closer to people.
He alongside Trailblazers, the Access Fund and The Arkansas Climbers Coalition have worked to build the area into a place where someone can come learn to climb, even if they have no experience outside.
Traditionally, climbers find a new spot to climb outside and proceed by climbing the hardest wall possible. Then, they might put up one or two easier routes to warm up on. Nelms said this way makes improvement nearly impossible if you aren’t already an advanced climber. At Fitzgerald, there are plenty of climbs suited for beginners.
“And that's accessibility for somebody that's new to climbing," Nelms said. "It really sounds counterintuitive, but that's the way it's always been.”
Nelms said he’s been taking cues from the Northwest Arkansas cycling community by bringing accessible climbs closer to the people who want to get outside.
“So now what we're doing is we're trying to find rock that's close in proximity to population," Nelms said, "and really look at, okay, we're gonna go in, and we're going to put in these easier climbs, and then add in those harder climbs later, which is really turning development and climbing on its head.”
Intentional, professional development hasn’t really been attempted anywhere else in the world.
“I mean, there's not the closest thing to it would be maybe via ferratas, which is it's a type of climbing with irons, with cables and lanyards," he said. "And it's usually guided. There's not a lot of communities that have approached recreation like Northwest Arkansas. What they've done in the landscape of cycling—10 years ago, people were like, 'This is crazy. You can't do this.' And now they're like, 'How did you do this? We want to do it.'”
Arkansans haven’t always been so enthusiastic about climbers, Nelms said.
Until recently, most climbing areas in the state could have permanently closed if private landowners and state parks decided to shut them down. What’s more, climbing has only just reached the mainstream of outdoor recreation.
“Climbing is culturally has a history of being on the fringe," Nelms said. "You know, it was the rebel dirtbag that lived behind the dumpster in Yosemite Valley or hid from the Rangers behind the log. That was me in the 90s. So, it's evolved a lot. You know, there's a lot of change. Now it's more on the forefront. When Tommy Caldwell did the Dawn Wall, the rangers were there to congratulate him which is just such a unique experience for the climbing community—it's really come full circle. So, things have just changed so much in that landscape. And what we're realizing is that climbing has a value to communities that they don't even realize.”
The Arkansas Climbers Coalition is a nonprofit organization that seeks to draw out climbing’s many benefits, said Andrew Blann, coalition vice president.
He said that developing climbing areas close to population centers bolsters a town’s culture and economy.
Climbing has always been here. Arkansas is an amazing resource for rock climbing— I think it's been overlooked for a long time.Andrew Blann, Arkansas Climbers Coalition vice president
Historically, people have flocked to the Rocky or Appalachian mountains for outdoor climbing, Blann said. Even though climbs in Arkansas don’t reach the same heights as the ones to the east and west, they are uniquely poised to bring climbers into rural areas that might not get much traffic otherwise.
“Think like Newton County, Searcy County, Jasper, those sorts of areas, and it brings a lot of tourists into those areas," Blann said. "People are traveling— whether they're traveling from Northwest Arkansas— and going to those places and spending money in establishments that are there. There's a lot of people that are coming down from the Kansas City area or St. Louis, Little Rock, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas.”
The Midwest is generally lacking in the elevation department. So, anyone in roughly a five-state radius of the Ozarks:
“This is their home climbing area," Blann said. "This is where, if you're a climber, you're going to on the weekends, because you don't really have that much else. There's some cool climbing in Oklahoma and the Wichitas. There's some climbing in Southern Illinois. Texas has a lot of climbing, but Texas is huge. So, depending on where you are in Texas, you are a lot closer to the Ozarks, then somewhere like Hueco Tanks or something like that. So there's there's a really large potential for bringing in climbers. They are coming in from these places, and if individuals or businesses can kind of cater to climbers, even just a little bit, they will go and spend their money at those places.”
Climbers love places that support climbers.Andrew Blann, Arkansas Climbers Coalition vice president
The NWA Land Trust recently made waves at Lincoln Lake by referencing a plan for recreational climbing in the park in the trust’s conservation easement with the city of Lincoln. A conservation easement is “a voluntary, legal agreement that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values.” That’s according to the National Conservation Easement Database.
Director of Land Stewardship Marson Nance said climbers allowed for their inclusion by being good stewards of the land they recreate on.
“Make sure that we're being mindful of the habitat out there and potential species that can be present there," Nance said. "And just kind of working through the process with all these groups to determine where is climbing good, where is it not good? Or where areas that we need to kind of leave alone for habitat? So yeah, climbers can just be mindful that they're in a wild space— they're in a natural area, that there are plants and animals there. There's some in Lincoln that are fairly rare in the state of Arkansas. Just be mindful of that and be respectful of the area— whether they're staging or climbing or, you know, putting hands in cracks, that kind of stuff."
Nelms said he hopes to bring people who have never touched rock with the intention to climb out into these areas. Specifically, he said he is looking to get Arkansans from marginalized communities up Ozarkan cliffs.
Nelms said the climbing community is thinking intentionally about identifying and engaging diverse communities in the region, especially those with a dense population group who may be unfamiliar with rock climbing.
"Take Springdale for instance," said Nelms. "The climbing out there is phenomenal— it's about to get really big— and a good portion of the population, they're Hispanic. But when you go to climbing gyms and you go to climbing communities, you see very few examples of that Hispanic population. So, it's not about accessibility as far as location, things like that, it's more like what's culturally accepted, and how do we help perpetuate that? I don't have that answer, because I'm not Hispanic. I can't answer that question, but I can understand accessibility for things. I can understand how, from an outside perspective, why would I climb? But why do I climb? This is my personal space is my personal time. I have to work and I'm very fortunate that work is climbing, but not everybody has that ability to do that. So we've got to figure out how to engage those different communities.”
When it comes to learning about how to engage, Nelms said he's starting by asking members of those communities.
"I'm just trying to find connectivity there. And I don't know, I mean, I'm looking for people to communicate with about it. All this amazing cycling we have here, now more climbing that is going to be available, more boating is going to be available. I really am struggling to find ways to connect with different communities.”
So, it's not about accessibility as far as location, things like that, it's more like what's culturally accepted, and how do we help perpetuate that?Dennis Nelms
Fitzgerald Mountain is open to the public and new areas will be added to the popular climbing app, Mountain Project, later this month. For those looking for more information, visit the Arkansas Climbers Coalition website.