Climber drills bolts into ancient petroglyphs

A climber installed three bolted routes into the ancient petroglyphs on the rock face of Sunshine Wall Slabs northwest of Arches National Park in Utah laboring under the ignorant misapprehension that the thousand-year-old Fremont culture rock art was modern graffiti. The Sunshine Slabs are well-known to climbers and there are already bolt routes installed that are responsibly placed not to endanger the petrogylphs. It is against the law to climb or near rock art or any other protected archaeological sites.

The bolts were discovered a week ago by Wyoming climbing guide Darrin Reay and reported on Facebook. The culprit was quickly discovered on the Mountain Project, a crowd-sourced database of climbing routes and online community. Richard Gilbert, a climber from Colorado Springs, Colorado, had posted about drilling bolts into the rock face in late March to create easy climbing routes for beginners and disabled climbers.

When the story broke wide, Gilbert claimed that he thought it was graffiti because one of the glyphs resembles the letter H which “did not exist in Native American languages.” Alas, he had no idea what he was talking about as it is not an H and even if it were, nobody knows anything about the language/s of the people who inhabited the area a thousand years ago.

Gilbert’s story unfolded largely through conversations on Mountain Project’s forums, where he says he first realized his error. “On Sunday night, I saw a post on my route [at Sunshine Slabs] and it said, ‘Hey, this is not graffiti, these are petroglyphs.’ I was like, Oh my gosh, I completely messed this up, I’m going to fix it right now,” he said. He changed the route descriptions on Mountain Project 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 poor education on my part, and I do take full responsibility,” Gilbert says.

He returned to the area on Monday, April 12, and met with authorities from the Moab Bureau of Land Management to report the incident in person. “I told him this was my mistake, and asked what do I have to do to make sure other people aren’t paying for my mistake,” he said. The BLM office opened an investigation after 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, rock art like this is federally protected, and damaging acts can lead to felony and/or misdemeanor charges, with penalties that can include up to a ten-year prison sentence and $100,000 in fines.

It’s highly unlikely that he’ll suffer any such penalties as he has been forthcoming and is cooperating with authorities. The debacle has had the positive effect of launching a wider conversation about educating climbers to be conscious of cultural resources. Led by the Access Fund, a group of organizations dedicated to the responsible preservation of climbing areas have released a statement on the defacement of the Sunshine Slabs.

We unequivocally condemn the recent actions at Sunshine Wall, near Moab, Utah that compromised the integrity of petroglyphs, sacred Indigenous cultural artifacts.

It is essential that climbers understand the significance of petroglyphs, not only as a window into the past but as an ongoing and vital part of Indigenous culture and identity to this day, and are committed to protecting these sacred sites. The cultural and spiritual value of these places cannot be measured, and we firmly support efforts to protect them. We are currently reaching out to our friends and partners in the local and national tribal, climbing, and land management communities to discuss how to best proceed with the current situation and prevent such instances from occurring again.

5 thoughts on “Climber drills bolts into ancient petroglyphs

  1. It is not credible that an experienced rock climber from Colorado Springs (someone from out West who knows what petroglyphs look like) would think this is modern graffiti.

  2. This is bad, but maybe not as bad as deliberate vandalism, for example happening in Bears Ears National Monument, also in Utah. :blankstare:

  3. I agree with Tristram. It’s incredibly hard to believe that anyone would think the petroglyphs pictured were anything other than that: ancient works of art.

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