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Did Moab’s Bizarre 2022 Climbing Crime Bolster the Bouldering Community?

moab bouldering vandalismA hold smeared with petroleum grease at Big Bend Bouldering Area; (photo/Steph Davis)
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The vandal who either played a prank, maliciously damaged resources, or ‘pooped on the carpet’ of Moab climbers (depending on who you talk to) generated an unforeseen response. 2022’s nastiest climbing scandal appears to have strengthened a community.

Calamity could have ensued when someone smeared axle grease on a handful of popular boulder problems in Moab, Utah. The vandalism looked like a reckless and sorry act.

Chagrin was palpable on social media, where the story quickly made the rounds. The “face with symbols on the mouth” emoji (the red one, with the angry eyebrows and the $%#& censorship) was standard.

But after that knee-jerk reaction, the climbing community quickly retracted. Suddenly, the incident submerged online, as climbers abruptly ceased broadcasting it.

Now a season and a half after the fact, that restraint appears strategic. “WANTED” posters didn’t start cropping up all over the internet because local climbers did not want to draw excessive heat on the bogey. It was a cops-and-robbers gambit: attention, as demonstrated, encourages some criminals.

In retrospect, discretion makes a lot of sense. As a community of athletes, the last thing you’d want to do is encourage the “Greasegate” bandit.

The upshot? The grease-slinging individual has not resurfaced, and the affected community only appears stronger.

What Happened, in Brief

To rehash: On Feb. 14, climbers arrived at Moab’s Big Bend Boulders to find heavy axle grease smeared on holds. The affected holds included some obvious handholds covered in chalk and indistinct footholds in the middle of nowhere, used only on obscure variants.

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Who did it? The answer remains as unclear as ever. While some consider the vandalism a targeted attack, others are less convinced. Eight months after the incident, we’re still just throwing theories around.

Various climbers separately told me they thought it was “kids,” “teenagers,” “probably some tourist,” and even “this one guy who kept getting kicked out of Joshua Tree” for outlaw bolting.

Identifying a possible motive has proven, if anything, even more nebulous.

Carpet Pooping: The Offense in Context

But whoever did it (climber or not) knew it would get a rise out of somebody. The apparent perp harnessed the force’s dark side and started slinging grease.

The resulting sentiment registered clearly to the community it affected: F you, climbers. Andrew Bisharat, notorious climbing pundit and co-host of the Runout Podcast, explained the insult in terms of scatology.

“Can we just stop for a minute and admire that in bouldering, if one were to put their hands on the start holds of your problem without any chalk, it would be akin to walking into [your] house and taking a dump in the middle of [your] living room,” he asserted, in his characteristic deadpan.

As Bisharat pointed out, devotees condemn the practice of even so much as swiping a hold with your greasy, unchalked fingers as a capital offense. So, climber sleuthing has primarily led to the conclusion that the grease monkey who lubed up the Black Box Boulder did it as a covert but tangible act of malice against pebble wrestlers.

When was the last time someone defecated on your carpet? Unless you have (very young) kids, that person probably meant it as an insult.

Manhunt Fizzles; Theories Proliferate Quietly

Immediately following the incident, the whodunit mill cranked up in Moab. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Friends of Indian Creek, and others joined in the chase. To spice up the hunt, the BLM at one point levied a $1,000 reward for information leading to the individual or individuals who did it.

But then the trail went cold. The problem remains and always has been that nobody knows who they’re hunting.

That’s true, with an exception or two. Lisa Hathaway has a theory; she just doesn’t want to tip her hand.

Hathaway didn’t want to actively publicize her theories because she reasoned that publicity might elicit an unwanted reaction from the perp. Said perp might get off on the attention and decide to chase the thrill again; they might feel more hotly pursued and retreat deeper into hiding; they might find that the community somehow misinterpreted their message, whatever it was.

“Your message sucks; if you’re listening to this, f**k you,” Bisharat said. “And that’s all I have to say about that.”

A Vulnerable Moab Community?

Some throw haymakers; others swing a little more soberly.

Hathaway did suggest that vigilance counts for something, especially in the arena of a rapidly growing sport. As climber numbers continue to grow, the potential for misanthropes in the community increases.

What used to be a cottage sport populated by a tight-knit cadre of outsiders on the fringe of society suddenly becomes more like a gym in a city. Widely diverse members from all over the place coexist with a panoply of backgrounds, interests, and preferences.

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Where does vigilance come in? Well, groups that used to hang out at boulder gardens used to be smaller and more insular. That meant more communication and more consistency within the community.

Put that all together, add generally lax work schedules and an outsized focus on recreation, subtract climbing gyms, and you’ve got something like a neighborhood watch at the boulders.

Now that the community is much larger and more indistinct, it’s more easily penetrable. And Hathaway did mention that crowds were unusually light at Big Bend this spring. She attributed it to the possibility that local boulderers got in the habit of climbing at home walls many built during COVID-19 lockdowns.

“There’s a lot of people and not a lot of protection” in the community at this point, Hathaway assessed. “We’ve always gotten by in this world by most people not wanting to do something psychopathic.”

Tension in Moab = Trouble in Paradise

Moab,City,Center,And,Historic,Buildings,Aerial,View,In,Summer,
Moab city center and historic buildings in summer; (photo/Wangkun Jia, Shutterstock)

Boulderer Chris Schulte suggested the act could have resulted from the tension between user groups. The Big Bend Boulders are right by a busy road, and he reasoned that “it doesn’t take a genius to look at some holds on a rock covered in this white powder, then look at the people sitting there with the same powder all over their hands and figure out ‘huh, ok, those must be climbers.'”

Then he pointed out that conflicts could arise on multiple levels between climbers and anyone else in the area.

“Maybe you think they’re f**king up the rock, and you decide you’re gonna put an end to it. Maybe you get your wires crossed with one of them in the parking lot. You know, who knows where people are coming from that might just make them upset toward another group of folks and think, ‘I’m gonna f**k with them.'”

Moab’s profile of different outdoor recreators does range far and wide. Climbers, mountain bikers, sport shooters, ORV enthusiasts, and desert mystics who want to feel the vibe all populate it. Sometimes, peace between those groups has proven delicate, whether they conflict directly with each other or not.

Snap judgments on either behalf can increase the temperature.

“I mean, the same can be true of climbers, right? If you see some bros rolling out from the parking lot in their ORVs, you may think it’s noisy or invasive or anything else. When from their point of view, they’re just going out and enjoying nature in their own way,” Schulte said.

The Possibility That It Was No Big Deal

On the other hand, what if “Greasegate” was just a random act of vandalism? That’s what the Friends of Indian Creek’s Ben Riley thinks.

“I think it’s a one-off, kind of a random act. If I had to guess, I would think it was probably some drunk kid trying to be inflammatory,” he said. “To say that there’s some kind of [culture] war going on in Moab is an overstatement — there’s always tension in rural climbing areas, but it’s not at a boiling point here.

“I don’t think there are really any juicy tidbits to be had, to be honest with you.”

Riley did allow that he thinks the bandit greaser did occupy some position inside the fold of the bouldering scene. He said the smear effort affected problems from V0-V11. And the perpetrator greased footholds on some variants that were so obscure, Riley deemed them too subtle for a casual passer-by to process.

But, he said, you don’t have to be a bouldering expert to know the act would fire people up. For him, the limited information leads to a catalog of possible suspects so deep that the community might as well move on.

“Nobody’s come forward [with information], which I thought would be the case from square one,” he said. “The good news is, they didn’t come out with hammers and alter it more permanently. We’re in the process of drying the holds out, and we’re confident the grease will dissipate under the sun this summer.

“And as far as finding who did it, that’s a pretty long shot at this point.”

If any Moab climber might know the greasy vandal, it’s Riley. That’s because he climbed avidly at Big Bend in the months leading up to the incident. Did he sense tension in the community or between climbers and bystanders? Ever see anything fishy or anyone sketchy? Any people who appeared obviously out of place, holding a bucket of axle grease?

I asked him. He said, “No.”

I paused to see what he would say next.

“Absolutely not,” he said.

Transmission received. The local BLM office essentially shares Riley’s noninflammatory perspective. If the department ever got very far into its investigation, officials didn’t say so. The BLM never posted a person of interest in conjunction with the case, nor did it divulge any leads throughout multiple phone calls with GearJunkie.

So what is “Greasegate,” outside of an awkward compound word and a sufficient excuse for an Andrew Bisharat rant? From where I’m sitting, it sure doesn’t look like much.

And, after all, what’s so bad about greasy holds? I’m aware that if you don’t get the send, you can’t post it to the ‘Gram. But in this day and age, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Moab Climbers Focus Forward, Not Back

If Greasegate does submerge, never to be heard from again, it did produce one significant outcome: an opportunity for local climbers to get together.

“It brought the climbers together pretty well. We had a good outing out there, cleaning the boulders. Moab’s climbing community can be a little fragmented, and [while] this wasn’t a ‘good,’ thing, it definitely brought people out of the woodwork that you didn’t even know climbed out there — which was cool.”

These days, business at Big Bend continues more or less as usual. Riley’s not there this season (he dispatched from Kalymnos, Greece, at last check), but Friends of Indian Creek said visitor/transplant numbers seem more or less on par with pre-pandemic years. October weather has been fair following a rainy September, so bustling days are the norm.

All of Friends of Indian Creek’s interactions with me showed that the group has moved on from Greasegate. Not bound up in retribution, the advocacy coalition is instead setting an example of looking toward the future.

“We are gearing up for the Moab Craggin’ Classic [Nov. 4-6] and also making comments on the draft Bears Ears National Monument plan, so that has been occupying much of our time,” Board of Directors President Rachel Nelson said in an email.

Degreased

To me, it all begs one overarching question: did Greasegate matter? As of this writing, nobody has given me a clear update on what the previously slathered holds look like now. But climbers are (reportedly) swarming the area this fall, so one of two things must be true:

  1. The holds are dry.
  2. The climbers don’t care.

Or both.

Will theories that will never see the light of day continue to circulate among insular micro-societies, huddled over beers around dirty crash pads? Most likely. That’s because it’s fun to monger rumors and play private investigator.

It’s not only fun — it’s one of humanity’s tried and trusted community-building methods. Generating shadowy theories and teasing out confidential information helps us feel validated. It helps us measure our closeness with our cohort and shimmy in even closer if we like.

Does Bisharat’s judgment that the perpetrator’s message “sucks” pull any weight? Sure. But from where I’m standing, it’s only pulling it right to the collective heart of the Moab bouldering scene.

And in the solidarity that’s always underpinned the climbing community, the reply to that message has become clear:

“Meh.”

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