I’m 3 bolts up on this 10c “sport” line. Hanging by my left arm, I shake out my right while looking up at the next bolt. It seems so far away, but yet clearly provides a marked pathway along the otherwise bare rock face to the two rap rings 80’ off the ground. I try to remain calm, thinking, why are the bolts so spaced out? This Mountain Project “sport” route should really be listed as a mixed route, and honestly the bolt at my face is right next to a perfect 0.5 c4 placement and a sweet rest jug.
This blog all started after reading a few forum posts and thinking about the UIAA paper published in 2014, “Recommendations on the Preservation of Natural Rock for Adventure Climbing”, available here. I hope this provides a little food for thought next time you enter a bolting war. We all climb for different reasons and we all want to get home safe. Let’s encourage climbers to make the right decisions by properly managing the use of bolts.
So why? Why are bolts placed where they are and why are we replacing them when there are great gear options? Should we be adding more bolts to make this “sport” route an actual sport route, or should we just chop them all?
Mentioning the need for a bolt in North Carolina will start a battle royale on any local climbing forum. This is a state full of old, pure, hardened climbing ethics. But what about new crags, and what about the bolts that we are maintaining? My question is, does bolting promote a sustainable environment for all climbers and what should we, the climbing community, be considering when managing bolts?
I think we could ask just two questions before deciding on the need for a bolt:
- Is this route intended to be a sport route, or a trad route?
- Will adding a bolt promote LNT ethics?
If the line is intended to be a sport route, then simply add a bolt. Mis categorizing mixed routes as sport routes, on Mountain Project or in guidebooks, deceives sport climbers and lures them into taking unnecessary risk. Promoting safe climbing needs to be a top priority for the entire community. We must consider that a majority of new climbers are unaware of old ethics, and are coming outside from heavily bolted indoor gyms. Many of these climbers think, “I guess that’s just how it is,” knowing little about protecting mixed routes. We should ensure that sport lines are well-protected and are truly sport lines, or we should not promote them as such (unless the sport route is labeled “R” or “X” in the guidebook/Mountain Project).
So, can bolts be placed on a traditional climb? Sure, and they should be, but only on a section of the climb that cannot otherwise be safely protected. This doesn’t mean “safely protected” for a new climber, it means that even an experienced climber doing this route would be taking a concerning risk if they slipped above their last pro, and that a simple bolt here could prevent a serious injury.
With this said, let’s stop replacing unnecessary, old, rusted bolts on easily protectable trad lines. These lines were likely retro bolted in the first place, and the bolts are only encouraging poor risk management. If good gear options exist, then chop the worn bolts! This mentality would encourage the use of good gear placements over clipping rusty bolts, which is a convenience trap even experienced climbers commonly fall for.
The second question is, does adding a bolt promote LNT ethics? Leave No Trace ethics don’t actually mean that there should be no trace of human use -- the spirit of Leave No Trace is to sustain the environment by promoting users to practice sustainable habits in the outdoors. There are two prominent areas I see this misunderstood in climbing.
The first is climbers’ unwillingness to properly manage rappel stations in the spirit of outdated climbing ethics and pure stubbornness. Sure, the first ascensionist found a good healthy tree to rappel from but, with thousands of repeat uses compacting the soil, the trees are dying. Climbers that pride themselves in taking care of the earth are literally going out and killing trees, driving them away from cliff edges, and exposing more rock to erosion. There is nothing LNT about this at all. Like a regularly used campsite, bolted-rappel stations provide a clean and tidy solution to protecting trees and precious cliff-top soil. Additionally, well-managed rappel stations could remove unsightly tattered slings and reduce rappel anchor failures.
The second LNT consideration is around preserving natural rock faces for adventure climbing.
Bolting routes does not promote the preservation of adventure climbing. Bolts give beta to the route and add a false sense of security, while neglecting to teach the art form of gear placements and proper risk mitigation. People are not learning how to properly manage their fall lines or even their rope. For many climbers this is ok, but for the climbing community as a whole this is bad.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t develop sport climbing areas; I’m saying we should also continue to develop traditional climbing areas. It is the balance of them both that will keep the climbing community developing and innovating new techniques, as well as new gear. The importance of this may be hard to understand if you have never lead a route from the ground up on your own gear and, if that is the case, then you should find an educated partner/mentor and give trad climbing a shot.
As the climbing community grows larger, and more people are being introduced to climbing by indoor gyms, there is a greater need to review bolting education and develop a best-practices framework in the climbing community. Let’s encourage climbers to make the right decisions by properly bolting sport lines, encouraging good risk management on adventure climbs, and embracing LNT ethics.