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When trad climbing I have seen many people wrap their rope around a tree and then rappel, and then yank the rope down at the next belay station or tree. I have also seen the scarring as a result of this over time on some trees. I can see doing this is remote places where there simply is no other option, but I am concerned about trees at high traffic areas like the Gunks, and moreover I am concerned about people's safety rappelling down on damaged trees.

  1. Are my concerns about tree damage warranted?

  2. Is there a consensus in the climbing community whether this is an acceptable practice?

  3. If this is an issue, is there a way for me to minimize this personally or within the climbing community as a whole?

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3 Answers 3

I know that on the east coast, a couple of the park services have been pushing the climbing community to install bolt anchors as a replacement for nests of old slings around trees. This is in part because slinging anchors around trees can damage the bark, and sometimes eventually kill the tree. This shift from webbing anchors around trees to bolted rappel anchors is happening / has happened at the New River Gorge and at the Gunks. So I'd say that in a broader sense, the park services and the climbing community are aware of the problem, and are taking steps to address it. At least on the east coast.

From an individual prespective, if you're trying to get back down to the ground safely, I'd say go ahead and rap off a tree. Leaving a sling of some kind, and rapping off a carabiner in the sling, will be more gentle to the tree's bark than just throwing the rope around the tree, rappeling as-is, and then pulling the rope down. One person doing this isn't the problem, it would only become a problem if everybody did it. Just make sure the tree is big enough, and secure on the cliff.

You can also look to get involved with your local Access Fund or other climbing groups that are responsible for bolt replacement. I know that around here, the park service regulates the placement of bolts, but the climbing community has to buy the bolts on its own, usually through contributions from climbers. The climbing community orgs around where I live, at least, hold fundraisers every year, and much of the money goes to bolt replacement and new hardware for rappel stations.

EDIT: I just realized that my original post didn't actually answer the question. No, there's not a consensus. Traditional climbing ethics in the US and Britain (possibly elsewhere) emphasize minimizing the placement of bolts to preserve the original state of the rock. The park services (the real land owners, and final word on ethics) sometimes have different priorities, and are willing to tolerate extra rappel bolts if it means less damage to vegetation. The actual "ethic" for a climbing area is always an agreement between the local climbing community and the landowner.

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Rather than leaving a biner in the sling, you can save some money by bringing a few cheap and lightweight rap rings. In any case, putting a rope directly around a tree is not just likely to do more harm to the tree, it's more likely to damage the rope, leave you with a stuck rope, or leave you with a rope covered with sap. –  Ben Crowell Apr 16 '13 at 23:21

I think if you're seeing damage your concern is valid. I do recall reading that soil compaction is the bigger problem and different rigging won't help that.

You could use a "friction saver" as shown in the following video, saving both the tree and your rope from wear.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8lXy1hn1UU

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I lived in Yosemite for over a year and saw TONS of tree belay stations. Most of them were there to stay with a number of slings and belay rings attached "for good". Yosemite had a number of bolts getting chopped by other climbers for using power drills rather than hand drills, so the ethics as far as acceptance in using trees was not a problem, or I would guess the slings would be chopped as well.

As for the tree damage, I think there would be more of a problem with removing the slings and redo them with each new climbing team. That might be an issue, but just using a tree didn't seem to cause enough damage to worry most people.

For the safety aspect, just making it to the ground safely, that is a totally separate issue and one that should be checked every individual instance, just like a hold, bolt, piton, cam, friend, etc. Just because it worked for the group before you doesn't mean it will this time. (look at what happened on half-dome last month. My friend did half dome one day and the exact next day the cables broke and stranded a guy for hours before S&R got to him)

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