YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — Remember "Cliffhanger," the Sylvester Stallone thriller that splashed onto movie screens earlier this year? Rock climbers here sure do.
"God help us," muttered one rock jock, preparing to scale the craggy face of Yosemite Valley's Cookie Cliff. "Now every bozo in America wants to be like Stallone and come up here and hit the walls."
Long considered a fringe sport best left to wacko daredevils, rock climbing has gone mainstream, exploding in popularity--particularly in sport-crazy California.
While climbing pioneers lament sharing the cliffs with the new crowds, the National Park Service is worried about another consequence of the boom--environmental damage. Due to sheer numbers and the bad behavior of an irresponsible few, rock climbers are leaving their marks on the American landscape.
These impacts, experts say, are both permanent and temporary. Climbers disturb cliff-dwelling birds and animals, scar ancient rock art, uproot plants, and litter ledges with trash and human waste.
To improve their handholds, many climbers routinely scrape lichen off rock, sometimes leaving bare trails across granite walls that are visible from miles away. Others drill bolts into the rock to anchor their ropes, glue on artificial holds to traverse a tricky spot, or chip and gouge the rock to create a better "natural" grip.
"In the old days, there weren't many people climbing so there wasn't much to worry about," said Dick Martin, chief of resource and visitor protection for the park service in Washington. "But we've got some real problems now. It's time we took them on before it gets totally out of hand."
Federal land managers from Maine to California are considering new rules to govern climbers and the impact of their sport. Proposed regulations could close heavily used routes, control crowds by a quota system or keep climbers off unexplored rock faces.
Already, one highly controversial step has been taken at Joshua Tree National Monument, one of the nation's premier climbing spots. In a move welcomed by environmentalists, Joshua Tree has banned the use of bolts.
At Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming, American Indians are seeking to ban climbing on the 865-foot peak because they view it as an assault on a sacred place.
Norbert Reidy, a climber and a policy analyst for the Wilderness Society, said his group is generally supportive of the sport but believes some restrictions are needed.
"The Park Service doesn't allow a hiker to move rocks or use a shovel to create a foot trail, so why is it OK for an individual to chip away and put a string of bolts across a smooth rock face?" Reidy asked. "There are tons of places to climb in this country, and it's time to examine whether the use of bolts is really appropriate in national parks."
Telling climbers where or how to climb is anathema to devotees of the sport. A prime attraction of rock climbing, they say, is the freedom to pull off the road, slip on some sticky rubber shoes and chart a new path up an unfamiliar granite wall.
Consequently, talk of rules has climbers in an uproar. In a recent newsletter, the sport's leading advocacy group-- Access Fund--warned that "new regulations imperil climbing freedoms" and urged members to fight back. Some have discussed flouting the rules to set up a test-case court fight.
Still, most climbers concede that their sport's new popularity has created environmental problems that need to be addressed. "We're at a turning point," said Sam Davidson of Access Fund, founded in 1990. "Climbing has been discovered, and we realize there are environmental consequences. It seems unavoidable that some restrictions lie ahead."
Even so, many climbers believe that they are being unfairly singled out while environmental harm being caused by other visitors is overlooked.
"If a climber scrapes lichen off a rock," Mark Chapman, a Yosemite climber for 23 years, said, "it's considered a crime. But is that worse than the park service cutting down a giant tree so buses can pull over and give tourists a better view? It's hypocritical--unequal treatment."
Randy Vogel, a Laguna Beach attorney and author of 15 climbing guidebooks, calls his sport "an easy target" for regulation because it is highly visible and because climbers "don't have political clout or huge sums of money to throw around."
Vogel argues that climbers have been exemplary in their environmental sensitivity through the years. In the early 1970s, some of the sport's leaders launched the "clean climbing" revolution, touting techniques that leave fewer scars on the rock. The principal change was the replacement of pitons--steel spikes hammered into cracks and removed--with more environmentally friendly tools.
Climbing rocks is an activity that began long before pitons were invented and the first national parks were set aside. Obsidian chips atop many Yosemite summits attest to the climbing skills of the Miwoks and other indigenous Americans.