A Conversation with Nate Liles of the American Safe Climbing Association (ASCA)

By Cody Lee | October 27, 2021

Photos courtesy of the ASCA and SLCA.

If you've climbed at popular areas like Yosemite, Smith Rock, Wild Iris, or City of Rocks, you've more than likely clipped bolts and used anchors provided by the ASCA.

A registered 501c3 non-profit, the American Safe Climbing Association (ASCA) is the USA's only nationally-recognized organization that focuses solely on maintaining and replacing fixed hardware at climbing areas. We spoke with Nate Liles, ASCA development director, to learn more about the massive impacts the organization has had on the safety of the climbing community, as well as how to support them and get involved locally. 

Can you give us a quick history of the ASCA?

The ASCA is the American Safe Climbing Association. We were originally founded in Yosemite by Chris McNamara in the late 90’s and the whole initiative was focused purely on replacing old bolts. At that time, there were a lot of terrible quarter-inch buttonheads that people didn’t trust, and Chris really spearheaded an effort to start replacing some of that stuff within Yosemite Valley. He hosted a bolt replacement clinic, and the only person that showed up was Greg Barnes.

Ultimately Greg really picked this up with a passion, and went on to replace bad hardware on classic routes in the valley and has installed over 2,000 bolts throughout the country. He’s personally replaced bolts on some of the most popular routes in the U.S., including The Nose, Epinephrine, Levitation 29, Astroman, and many others. Greg took over as the director in 2000 and Mcnamara stayed involved as a board member.

So we grew pretty quickly into a national level organization, but we've always been quite small (only 2 part-time employees). The vast majority of our finances go directly back into buying the best quality hardware for rock climbing, and then the installation is all handled by skilled volunteers. So as far as impact for finances invested it's certainly pretty impressive, and there's not too many nonprofits that are operating with that level of efficiency.

It’s pretty impressive what the ASCA has been able to accomplish with only two part time employees. 

It's sort of out of necessity, just because of our level of funding. I think ultimately—given the scale of the work that needs to be done—doing so with a paid team of re-equippers would be an astronomical undertaking. So we really have to lean on the local community and the local climbing organizations in areas that need the work done. I would say at this point, there are tens of thousands of bolts that need immediate replacement, and hundreds of thousands of bolts that we would consider sub-standard and needing replacement sooner than later. We're always going to have to rely on the climbing community to step up, whether that's volunteering time and organizing people to do the work or whether that's through donating funds. 

So since 1998, the ASCA has replaced 25,000 bolts and recently they have equipped over 5,000 single pitch anchors with sustainable, durable lower-off hardware. Can you elaborate on that?

Yeah, I would say at this point significantly over 25,000 bolts, you know, because we're so small and some of the early tracking is tricky. But we’ve been really pushing the lower-off initiative because we believe it is really impactful for the climbing community. Our lower-off initiative is essentially equipping popular routes that are single pitch, half a rope length or less, with a clip and lower style anchor that's made out of steel that's going to last a really long time.

It is ultimately safer to spend less time changing systems—we can just clip, get our belayer to take us, and lower to the ground instead of threading chains, untying, etc. A few of the very common accidents we've seen in climbing are unfortunately really basic: transition to rappel, miscommunication with your belayer, or someone thinking that you're rappelling when they’re thinking you're lowering, etc. A clip and lower style setup does not by any means solve all the problems with that, but it certainly streamlines things, and I believe it's avoiding a lot of accidents. I imagine that lives have been saved already, we will just never know what didn’t happen.

The transition of the norms from rappelling off anchors to lowering has been gradual, but seems to be gaining traction at many climbing areas nowadays. 

This has always been a point of contention for folks because what you often hear is people say, “This is dumbing down climbing, you should understand how to rappel, you should understand your systems.” And we absolutely agree with that, we're not trying to dumb down climbing and make it something that is overly simplistic. But climbing is no longer a small fringe group, it’s pretty mainstream, and anytime you have the opportunity to create a margin of safety in something that has a high volume, you choose to do so. The lower-off initiative is a really easy step to mitigate hazard, and it also just improves efficiency at busy cragging areas. 

Can you comment on the unique relationship between first ascensionists, fixed anchors, and the liability of user groups and landowners? 

Yeah absolutely, so this is really interesting and somewhat unique to climbing. So essentially we have a user created infrastructure with all these vertical “trails.” We go to the cliff and then you sort of vertically “hike” all these trails right? But this is a trail where we really depend heavily upon the bolts/anchors for safety, you could fall or hang on any of these bolts and if anything fails it could be very serious.

Well, in the late 80’s and early 90’s we didn't necessarily have a good understanding of best practices or guidance for installing hardware. Often, developers didn't even have hardware that was created specifically for climbing, so people were creating their own hangers or buying stuff at the hardware store. So there's massive variety within this user-created infrastructure and it’s essentially abandoned by the first ascensionist. There are exceptions to this, but the vast majority of routes are on publicly accessible land. Nobody is liable for the abandoned gear and it’s essentially “use at your own risk.” Land managers certainly didn't want to take it on, it is a massive scope and there's liability concerns if they're gonna say that they steward all of it.

Again, we have to lean on the local climbing community to step up, and if you care for your area, you're gonna want to maintain it. We certainly saw this at some of the early sport climbing areas like Smith Rock & Owens River Gorge where people will take it upon themselves to replace things when they're dangerous. The ASCA ultimately has a little bit of a bigger vision where we want to support both individuals and Local Climbing Organizations (LCO’s) with the best high quality hardware, so they can free up some funds locally to focus on stewarding their crags doing trail work, buying tools, signage, etc. 

What is the ASCA’s connection with an LCO like the one we have locally, the SLCA?

In the past, we've provided a lot of bolts for Little Cottonwood Canyon. But the SLCA is unique because they have reached the point where they have large fundraising ability, actually more so than the ASCA does locally. So at this point, we're certainly available to provide auxiliary support if we have a supply of hardware and they need extras if they are in short supply or something, but they are fully functioning on their own and don’t necessarily need the ASCA’s help. 

The SLCA has even gotten their fundraising to the point where they actually have a paid team for hardware replacement that they’re piloting right now. This is ultimately the model for LCO’s if they have the fundraising power. They are leaders setting an example for others to follow. One thing we have been doing more and more lately is providing hardware to an LCO—say 100 bolts, hangers, lower-offs, etc.—and then they'll try and fundraise to see if they can generate enough to then pay it back to us in a donation. If they can fundraise locally and get their own hardware in the future that's awesome, but we don’t have an expectation of being paid back for it. We simply want to give them support and make our cliffs safer, however they can achieve that.

That is so cool. So you’re essentially giving LCO’s a chance to see if they can be sustainable on their own. 

Exactly. So it takes some of the pressure off because there are a lot of climbing areas where the LCO needs to replace 400 bolts, but they don't know if they can raise the funds for all of that. It's a lot easier if we can just say, “Hey, we're gonna ship you all this stainless steel hardware. Here's what you need, go ahead and start the work and fundraise for it as you go. If you can raise the funds for it and pay for it yourself, that's awesome, but if you can't, that's okay because you know we're here to support you in it.”

So how can we support the ASCA?

The first way you can support us is by supporting your local climbing area and becoming a steward. This is primarily what climbing needs, is people to step up, get involved, and do the work. If you're living in the Salt Lake area and you want to see your crag stewarded, send the SLCA some money because they're out there doing it with the professional team. Now, if that's something that you don't have the time or aptitude for, the best thing you can do is donate some money to your local LCO. Certainly be a member and support their efforts if they have a bolt replacement program and get involved with that, whether it's contributing funds or volunteering.

The second way, ultimately, is supporting us financially. We rely 100% on the climbing community. We are a 501c3 non-profit. We have two paid employees that are both part-time. So the vast majority of our funds go directly to buying the best quality hardware and then shipping it out to volunteers, and they're going to install it locally. So that's certainly the best way that you can support us directly, but I would encourage people first to understand the work and try to get involved locally.

And this year there’s some new incentive with the Cares Act?

Yeah, so with the Cares Act people can donate to a 501c3 non-profit and still take the standard deduction, and you can get that money written off without having to itemize everything. It’s huge because most folks don’t itemize their entire tax return, and now they write off a donation to their favorite non-profit. The individual contribution to qualified non-profits while still taking the standard deduction is up to $300 ($600 for married couples).

Anything else you’d like people to know?

Greg has been tirelessly doing this for over 20 years out of pure passion. He was the director, and only employee, for several years before even getting paid. Especially considering the amount of work he does, plus all the re-bolting work over the years that he’s never been paid for ... Compared to other directors of non-profits he makes a pittance, and if our fundraising does better I’ll be encouraging him to take a more reasonable salary because he makes an obscenely low amount of money. So, if there's one person that's been an incredible steward to fixed hardware in climbing, it's Greg without question.

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