Rock climbing has been considered a sport since the early twentieth century. And it’s becoming more mainstream in the U.S. and Canada. As rock climbers visit parks in growing numbers, some people are beginning to wonder… can nature and climbing always coexist? The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams reports… one climbing guide thinks a Midwest park has reached its breaking point, and he’s giving up income to prove it:
Rock climbing has been considered a sport since the early twentieth century.
And it’s becoming more mainstream in the U.S. and Canada. As rock climbers
visit parks in growing numbers, some people are beginning to wonder… can
nature and climbing always coexist? The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Rebecca Williams reports… one climbing guide thinks a Midwest park has
reached its breaking point, and he’s giving up income to prove it:
(clinking, rope sound) “You guys stretched out real good? Let’s get
climbing! Grab a helmet and let’s get climbing…”
Michael Hood’s climbing class is gearing up to scale the sandstone cliffs at
Oak Park… nicknamed the Ledges. It’s a popular seven-acre park in Grand
Most of these kids have climbed here many times, and they get started
“Let’s get you up here. Bug, you coming up here? Let’s do our commands..
“On belay?” “Belay on.” “Whoa, gotta feel the fish first, watch that break
This class is special. It’s probably the last good day of the season. It
also might be the last time they’ll ever climb here.
Michael Hood has been coaching climbers at the Ledges for 19 years. He gets
most of his income from teaching here. And you can tell he loves his work.
But he says, after today, he won’t teach another class here.
“These sandstone, fragile sandstone cliffs, and all the plants and animals
that live on them, cannot share the rock with climbing. Because we
interfere with all the life processes that go on up there, no matter how
sensitive we are.”
Hood says over the past few years, he began to realize the impact decades of
climbing were having on the Ledges. He’s seen cliff swallow nests pushed
out to make way for better handholds. He says climbers have worn away the
topsoil at the cliff’s edge. And even the rock is vulnerable.
“You can do decades worth of damage in just one day very easily.”
Hood says the problem is that the Ledges are small, 150 yards long and 40
feet high. And there are lots of climbers. Visitor surveys show that
thousands of people climb at the park every year. It’s the only place to
climb outdoors in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. So climbers come from places
as far away as Detroit, Ohio and Indiana.
Michael Hood says there are some rules in place, but there’s no one to
enforce them. Hood recently asked the city’s parks and recreation
commission to consider banning climbing at the park.
That’s stirring up the climbing community.
At first, Hood says he got a lot of angry phone calls. Now, a group of
local climbers is asking the city to keep the park open.
Judy McGarry has been climbing at the Ledges for two years. She says if the
park closes, she’d have to drive to Kentucky or Canada to climb outdoors.
“It’d be really sad if they did close it. I know with a lot of people
coming down here there’s erosion. But if you think about it, who really
cares about this rock more than climbers? We want it here so we can climb
Climbers are fighting to keep parks open across the country. Shawn Tierney
is with the Access Fund, a non-profit group that advocates for climbers. He
says climbers called him when they heard about Michael Hood’s efforts to
close the park.
“I think his concerns are probably valid, he’s concerned about resource
impacts at the area, and instead of closing the area, which to me seems to
be a very extreme measure, there needs to be some management of the area.
And recruit climbers in the process of helping to take care of the area.”
But Michael Hood isn’t sure anything short of a permanent closure will work.
“Climbers want to believe they could put a few regulations in place and save
this place. But the problem is climbers are notoriously an unruly bunch,
myself included. We don’t like to be told what to do, how to do it, when to
Experts say conflicts between rock climbers and park managers are fairly
common. Peter Kelly studies cliff ecology and climbing at the University of
Guelph in Ontario. He says one problem in these situations is that not much
is known about cliff ecosystems because they’re hard to get to.
“Obviously people have observed that damage has taken place. But what has
been lost there that people didn’t even know about?”
And that’s the big question. Michael Hood says he’s asked geologists and
botanists to take a look at the park. But he doesn’t want to cause more
damage while he waits to see if the scientists publish or the city makes a
decision. He’s convinced he can’t keep bringing people to climb at the
He says it’s the right thing to do for the park, even though it’s not a
decision he came to easily.
“I’m losing a lot. I’ve lost a lot of lifelong friends over this, I’m
losing most of my income, and my livelihood. And the love I have for
guiding and working with these young people. It’s really powerful for me to
be out here. I live and breathe this, and to give this up and walk away
from it is… I can’t even articulate what a sacrifice this is for me.”
(sound up of climbers packing up equipment, ropes being put into piles, etc)
The sun is setting, and it’s getting chilly. Hood and his staff take the
ropes down and pack the helmets into bags.
Hood gathers the kids in a circle.
“That we could share this last day together here, I will never ever forget
it. And we’ll climb together some more, in other places. But every time I
come here I’ll think of this last day with you guys and never, ever forget
it. It’s just wonderful.”
Michael Hood hopes his class will walk away understanding why he’s giving up
climbing in a place he loves.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Rebecca Williams.