Olympic Climber Nathaniel Coleman Opposes Utah Canyon Development Plan

  • Nathaniel Coleman won a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics in sport climbing’s debut at the games.
  • The Utah native is now trying to protect an iconic climbing area shown in the film “Home Crag.”
  • Coleman and others are pushing back against proposed developments in Little Cottonwood Canyon near Salt Lake.

One night in the summer of 2020, at around 2 am, Nathaniel Coleman became the first person to climb a boulder problem known as the Grand Illusion, which has a difficulty rating of V16, making it among the hardest in the world. Afterward, he and his buddy who filmed the climb left the boulder field, went straight to their favorite burrito spot, and had a glass of whiskey as the sun rose.

About a year later, Coleman, 25, won a silver medal for Team USA at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which marked sport climbing’s first-ever appearance at the games.

Now Coleman is working to protect the iconic climbing area where that first ascent occurred, which also happens to be the place he grew up climbing — Little Cottonwood Canyon, located just 25 miles from Salt Lake City, Utah.

A new short documentary from Gnarly Nutrition called “Home Crag” features the efforts of Coleman and others in the Salt Lake climbing community to protect the canyon from recent development proposals that could leave significant, permanent changes to the natural landscape and threaten boulders that have been used by climbers for decades.

Coleman told Insider that the proposals, which are intended to alleviate winter traffic in the canyon, “spread like wildfire through the climbing community” because “they were proposing such massive change and such irreversible change to the canyon.”

North Ridge of Little Cottonwood Canyon

 

North Ridge of Little Cottonwood Canyon

Ryan Houston/Getty Images

‘It is the home crag’

Coleman grew up in Murray, located just south of Salt Lake. He’s been climbing at Little Cottonwood nearly as long as he’s been climbing. It was one of the first places his coaches ever took him to climb outdoors.

“It is the home crag” Coleman said, adding that it’s “a place where a lot of people learned to climb and were introduced to climbing.”

Little Cottonwood is an iconic spot for world-class climbing. It’s also historic, having drawn rock climbers for nearly 80 years, long before climbing went mainstream. To this day it still attracts climbers of all skill levels, from novices to the best in the world.

“Even for me there’s always new stuff to do, new areas to explore, forgotten boulders,” Coleman said of the canyon.

Little Cottonwood is also used for many different kinds of outdoor recreation, including hiking and skiing. In 2017, Little Cottonwood and Big Cottonwood Canyon, located just north, together attracted 4.2 million visitors, more than all five of Utah’s national parks combined, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Easy access to the canyon is part of what makes Salt Lake such a desirable place for climbers, including USA Climbing, which moved its headquarters there in 2018, as well as the many outdoor brands that are based there, like Black Diamond Equipment, Gregory Mountain Products, and Cotopaxi.

Nathaniel Coleman, of the United States, celebrates after winning the men's sport climbing silver medal at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.

 

Nathaniel Coleman, of the United States, celebrates after winning the men’s sport climbing silver medal at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Significant, permanent changes to the landscape

The development proposals in the canyon were announced in the summer of 2021 by Utah’s Department of Transportation, with the ultimate goal of alleviating congestion in the canyon, primarily on busy ski days in winter when traffic is the worst.

There are two options preferred by UDOT: widening of the road to accommodate a bus line during peak season, or constructing a gondola for skiers. Both options have sparked significant concern in the climbing community.

Julia Geisler, the executive director of the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, told Insider both options involve extreme, permanent changes to the landscape, and that adding an additional lane would also entirely eliminate some climbing boulders as well as roadside parking.

SLCA, a nonprofit dedicated to limiting climbers’ impacts on the environment, is advocating for a third proposal, one that would add buses and improve public transportation that could be used by anyone in the canyon year-round, not just skiers on the busiest 25-30 days of the year.

In a statement to Insider, UDOT said the preferred proposals were selected after draft environmental impact statements were completed for five options, including an enhanced bus service that would not involve widening the road. UDOT found the road widening and gondola to be the best options but said that any of the five options could still ultimately be chosen.

The final environmental impact statement is expected to be released at the end of this ski season, which is typically April.

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‘Once it’s gone, it’s gone’

Geisler said investing in development focused primarily on alleviating ski season congestion could prove to be shortsighted, given the impacts of the climate crisis: “Are we going to have a snowpack in 50 years to go skiing on?  The rocks will still be there.”

She added that protecting the canyon is important to the people who currently use it, but also for future generations.

“It’s the place where a city of million-plus goes to connect with nature and recreate,” she said, adding “once it’s gone it’s gone.”

Coleman agreed that UDOT’s preferred proposals made many climbers feel like access for skiers was being prioritized and that climbers and other canyon users weren’t properly taken into consideration.

He stressed the importance of Little Cottonwood to Salt Lake, to the larger climbing community, and to him personally as someone who grew up with it as his home crag.

“I want to protect it for the next young kid who’s introduced to climbing through Little Cottonwood or whose coaches take them out there, and I want them to be able to have the same experiences that I had because they meant so much to me,” Coleman said.

“I know I wouldn’t be the same climber without those experiences and the canyon.”

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