Coming Together: Stewardship and the Climbing Community in the Midst of COVID-19

Sylvain La, Paul Amsel, and Kat Porter scrubbing graffiti above Julliette’s Balcony atop the Mather Gorge of the Potomac River. Photo by Court Zabel.


Blue paint is hard. So is black. Don’t get the paint remover on your skin, it burns. After a certain point, expect diminishing returns. Is the paint coming off? Or are we just making it brighter in cleaning off one layer at a time? Climbers are generally bullheaded people, and none of this seemed to stop us. So for seven straight weeks, groups of volunteers met in the Climbers’ Lot on the Virginia side of Great Falls Park and set out onto the trails with brushes and spray bottles in hand.

Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in March, public lands around the country have seen an uptick in visitors. However not all of this recreation has been responsible. The National Park Service has seen trash pile up on the trails and at the climbing crags at a significantly higher rate than normal. Great Falls saw not only this increase in trash, but in vandalism as well. Many of the most popular and accessible crags in the park now saw some degree of graffiti.

Mid Atlantic Climbers (MAC) decided to do something about it.

Graffiti covering the base of the classic climbs at Aid Box. Photo by Court Zabel.


MAC worked within the regulations set by the National Park Service (NPS) so that we could remove the graffiti with as little ecological impact as possible. Hours before each event, organizers pre-treated each tag with a specialized heavy duty paint remover approved by the NPS for use on historic structures and fragile stone. Great Falls is known for its style of thin face climbing, so preserving the texture of the rock was a priority for both the Park Service and the climbing community. The longer the paint remover was left on, the better. Applied directly to the graffiti, this paint remover broke down the graffiti and loosened its hold on the rock. Some areas needed multiple treatments over the course of these events.

Court Zabel on solo “dawn-patrol” pre-treating graffiti by headlamp several hours before a cleanup event. Photo by Court Zabel.


Volunteers used nylon brushes to scrub graffiti from the rock face, until the paint remover turned into a uniform grey color. And though we used spray bottles, the nozzle, when held about an inch from the rock, accomplished the exact same thing as a power washer. From there it became a game. Scrub and spray until you hit the point of diminishing returns. At that point, the coordinators would evaluate which tags needed another treatment and hit it with another round of paint remover. Rinse and repeat—no pun intended.

Paul Amsel “power-washing by hand” to remove a large graffiti tag above the Sandbox climbing area. Photo by Court Zabel.


The volunteers were stellar. Over the course of seven cleanup events, MAC saw 45 volunteers, all of whom were members of the climbing community. Retirees came out despite the health risks, some took vacation to come and clean. Others flexed and rearranged their work schedules to make time. MAC partnered with the NPS so that the events could  follow COVID-19 guidelines and minimize personal risk. Volunteers were required to wear masks at all times and reminded to bail if they showed any symptoms of COVID-19, and we had excellent compliance. Groups were designated at the beginning of each cleanup and spread out amongst the crags for social distancing. When the placement of graffiti tags made social distancing difficult, climbing partners quarantining together in “pandemic pods” were able to work more closely. Events were carefully planned to take place on weekdays during off-peak times in the park to avoid crowds. Even working within these safety measures, MAC organizers, the climbing community and NPS, managed to accumulate 300 hours of work on this project.

The National Park Service was an outstanding partner to Mid Atlantic Climbers during this project. Trudy Roth, the volunteer coordinator for Great Falls and the George Washington Memorial Parkway, explained the approved graffiti cleaning process, provided most of the cleaning supplies and equipment, and even chipped in to help scrub during each cleanup. Court Zabel, the organizer and coordinator of the whole effort, worked closely with Roth on “dawn-patrol” and “dusk-ops,” well past normal working hours, to pre-treat the graffiti, and prepare for volunteers’ arrival. Zabel stated that “Great Falls is still near the top of my all-time favorite climbing spots and has a lot of sentimental significance for me, so I may have taken the vandalism personally.” Quite a few climbers can echo his sentiment. Whether in the form of a summer camp or Gym-to-Crag class offered by any one of the local gyms, many climbers who started in the Greater Washington, D.C. area had their first outdoor experience at Great Falls Park. And the turnout of volunteers was a testament to exactly how much we care about Great Falls.

Greg Christopulos, and NPS Volunteer Coordinator Trudy Roth treating and scrubbing graffiti at the base of the climbs at Aid Box. Photo by Court Zabel.


Stewardship and crag maintenance is just as much a part of being a climber as crushing grades and sending hard. We won’t have access to our climbing areas without regular maintenance and responsible outdoor ethics practices (e.g., Leave No Trace principles). In an email exchange, Zabel describes it perfectly, “When we began to see some graffiti during the COVID-19 lockdown we were disheartened, when vandals tagged the base of the climbs at a popular area, we were nearly heartbroken. We took it personally and resolved to do something about it.”. This mutual desire to ‘do something about it’ and the love for a local crag is what brought us all together despite the pandemic. The value of contributing to the upkeep of our climbing areas cannot be underestimated, so that climbers of every skill level can continue to not only access but enjoy them.

Because at the end of the day, we all have the same goal: to climb and enjoy the outdoors!

Pandemic pods & socially distanced volunteers assembling at the Great Falls climbers’ lot ready to get cleaning. Photo by Court Zabel.