SALT LAKE CITY — A lease signed Thursday between climbing advocates and the LDS Church has solidified access to hundreds of routes in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
For decades rock climbers have been drawn to the popular granite crags at Gate Buttress, benefitting from years of negotiation between the sport's enthusiasts and the land's owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But until now, the understanding carried no formal agreement.
The lease places the 140-acre Gate Buttress parcel under the care of the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, a local advocacy group whose goals include educating climbers and maintaining the areas they frequent, and the Access Fund, a national climbing and environmental group.
Gate Buttress is home to 588 climbing routes and 138 boulder problems, which the crowdsourced online climbing guide Mountain Project says range from easy to "impossible-to-believe-humans-could-climb-it."
Julia Geisler, executive director of the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, noted that beloved routes in the area are seeing an unprecedented amount of traffic, which has consequences for the environment.
"We've been using this property since the 1960s for climbing, and climbing is growing," Geisler said. "We're seeing an impact from that use that we need to make sure we're stewarding and keeping the places where we love to recreate pristine."
The first recorded route in the canyon was developed at Gate Buttress by former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson in 1961. After years of enjoying the area, Wilson said climbers are eager to help care for the area.
"We can now go and fix the environmental damage that's we've caused over the years with our climbing routes. A lot of funneled water and deep erosion, we're going to fix that," Wilson said.
Climbers like Wilson have continually worked with LDS Church leaders regarding permission to use the area, Geisler said, adding that the church has been a gracious host for years.
"It was never a written agreement, it was just an understanding that climbers could access the property, so at any time it could go away," Geisler. "It also allows us to invest dollars into recreation infrastructure on the property, which we've never been able to do in the past."
Beginning next year, the climbers alliance and the Access Fund will kick off efforts to maintain trails, staging areas and climbing routes, the same as has begun on U.S. Forest Service owned land in lower Little Cottonwood Canyon. And the benefits will trickle down to 400,000 Salt Lake County residents who get their drinking water from the canyon.
"If there's one thing that this is a win, it's for the Salt Lake City watershed because we're going to limit the erosion in that area by doing the trail work," Geisler said.
Some work will begin as early as Saturday. After a ceremony marking the agreement, volunteers will set out to clean up a popular bouldering area.
People come from all over to climb and boulder on the canyon's "world class granite," Geisler said, all of which is within easy reach of the Salt Lake Valley.
"The rock itself is what people are going after, the granite. If you drive up Little Cottonwood and you see that gray, white granite, it's really frictiony, there are a lot of cracks, and so the climbing itself is really interesting and engaging," Geisler said.
When it comes to options for climbers, Utah is unparalleled, Wilson said.
"In Little Cottonwood you have the granite; over in Big Cottonwood, you have the quartzite; down south you have limestone and conglomerate, and every one takes a different technique. So if you want variety, this is like a buffet," Wilson said.
Geisler encouraged those wishing to support work by the climbers alliance and the Access Fund to participate in crag cleanup events, attend fundraiser events — there's one happening on June 8 at Black Diamond Equipment in Salt Lake City — or make a donation.
Representatives from the LDS Church declined to comment on the climbing lease Thursday, pointing instead to a joint press release. The release notes that "the church's teachings include a belief that we have a responsibility to work with others to care for God's creations."
Contributing: Keith McCord