ALMO — Winter’s grasp is still holding firm on the large rock outcroppings, spires and monoliths of Castle Rocks State Park and City of Rocks National Reserve. The trails are buried in deep snow and the rocks frozen with icicles — the start of the climbing season is still weeks out.
As spring approaches and the snow melts, however, climbers can rejoice a little more and add another activity to their climbing quiver when highlining returns.
In a draft assessment dated Oct. 28, Wallace Keck, superintendent of Castle Rocks State Park and City of Rocks National Reserve, reported an extensive assessment on the sport of highlining in the parks following the park-wide ban of the activity, which started Aug. 28. After Keck’s assessment, the decision was made — with certain caveats — to allow highlining in both parks as of November last year.
Actions leading to the initial ban were due in part to two separate highline incidents that occurred on Aug. 16 and 27. The first highline spanned from a point in Castle Rocks State Park to BLM-managed ground and was performed by Ryan Robinson during the Idaho Mountain Festival. The second, observed by Keck, spanned a canyon section from campsite 38 to a pinnacle below the Bath Rock overlook by a small group of climbers within the City of Rocks National Reserve.
In the first instance, Keck assessed climbing on and setting anchors for highlining on BLM land was in violation of a federal rule. In the second, neither the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation nor the National Park Service at City of Rocks had a ruling or policy against highlining because it was not known to occur.
Assessing the activity
Keck considered several factors when performing the assessment, which included the following questions:
- Does the sport fit within the purpose of the park?
- What are the impacts of the sport to nationally significant resources and traditional forms of recreation, including natural resources, cultural resources, visitor experience and scenic qualities?
- Does it pose a threat to visitor safety?
- What are the estimated annual costs of the new use?
- Is there a place for the sport?
The short answer to the questions was yes, highlining is permitable and should be managed similar to climbing in City of Rocks National Preserve and Castle Rocks State Park. But since the activity is extremely new to the parks, a full evaluation needed to be performed along with several deciding factors based on history, resources and purposes of the parks.
Keck said that based on the Arizona-Idaho Conservation Act of 1988, it was understood the purpose of the national reserve was to preserve and protect nationally significant resources in priority order of the California Trail landscape, historic rural setting, and granite features, with the framers of the park putting protection ahead of recreation. Climbing at the parks did not become popular until the 1970s and ‘80s, well after the protections were in place.
With the rise of popularity of climbing at the park, the City needed more protections, Keck said. The designation of a national reserve was granted on Nov. 18, 1988, and with that designation, climbing was not prohibited by Congress, but needed to be managed in keeping with the primary purpose of the park.
As the evolution of sport climbing occurred, highlining became popular in climbing communities in California and Utah, eventually migrating to the two Idaho parks. But highlining needed an assessment after the incidents in 2019. Highlining is an extreme form of climbing; the park determined it did not necessarily conflict with any policy or plan, but needed to be managed similarly to climbing.
Keck also estimated the annual costs of approved highlining; the greatest cost would be the administrative process and monitoring in the field. He estimated each submitted application would cost 10 hours of staff time — $250 — to make a field assessment and submit recommendations to the superintendent and an additional four hours — $100 — to monitor the activity and resources annually. Park staff do not anticipate more than three applications per year with a total cost of $1,000 per year.
One other point Keck stated was the concern of safety. The decision to permit highlining was not based on the safety of the highliner who participates in the activity knowing the risks, but on the safety of the visitors who come in contact with the highliner. Rockfall, unexpected encounters with a highliner above a trail or road, tripping over webbing, or curiosity could lead a visitor to take a risk not fully considered.
Visitors wishing to develop highline routes involving a fixed anchor will need to submit an application to the superintendent specifying the location for the desired route. Park staff will examine the application and visit the site for review, submit a recommendation to the superintendent before approval or denial to permit the highline is made. No application or written permit is needed for highlining in approved areas with temporary anchors.
For the complete revised superintendent’s compendium read it at the park’s website at: nps.gov/ciro/learn/management/superintendent-s-compendium.htm