To Bolt or Not to Bolt

Knowing when to drill permanent pro is half the battle
Matt Segal taking the terrifying fall from the crux on Air China (5.13+ R), Liming, China. Photos by John Dickey

Matt Segal taking the terrifying fall from the crux on Air China (5.13+ R), Liming, China. Photos by John Dickey

Sometimes you search for first ascents, and other times first ascents find you. In 2011, I traveled to Liming, China, with the purpose of establishing new routes on the amazing sandstone walls outside the remote Chinese village. (Read about it at Not knowing what to expect, I had dreams of establishing China’s hardest traditional climbs. On our first day climbing, a route caught my eye, and I knew it was the one. It was a subtle crack system that paralleled an obtuse arête. Establishing a new route is a creative process, and I had found my canvas.

For me, going ground up is always ideal, but often times a route needs pre-inspection. Holds need to be cleaned, gear placements found, and hard sequences solved, especially if a route may be dangerous. After staring up at the line, I came to the conclusion that it would be possible to climb the route using traditional protection. I spent a few days cleaning and trying the route. Due to the soft nature of sandstone, some holds and gear placements had to be cleaned. I scrubbed the red sandstone and tick-marked all the crucial climbing holds and gear placements.

Matt-Segal-Air-China-Fall-2I was able to find just enough gear to protect the route and make it possible. Two nests of micro-cams would protect a blank 5.13+ section, but it might be a little dangerous; the gear was small but seemed good enough. In retrospect, the allure of creating China’s hardest trad climb may have clouded my judgment, but the idea of placing a bolt never entered my mind.

Eventually I was ready to pull the toprope, and with my trusted partner Will Stanhope belaying, I went for the lead. Stanhope has belayed me on numerous sketchy leads and knows the score with tricky catches. I placed all the gear effortlessly but still entered the crux a little nervous. The climbing is extremely insecure: pasting your feet on sandy holds, slapping the slopey arête with your right hand, and bearing down on tiny crimps with the left. I got halfway through the crux, which was about six feet above my nest of two small cams, when my foot skated off a tiny foothold. I was airborne and completely out of control. I felt the rope catch me for a millisecond, and then I continued to fall and spin around the arête where I eventually flipped upside down and fell head first. I ended up hanging upside down about eight feet off the ground. My fall had yanked the gear so violently that the rock exploded. The fall was around 45 feet, and if I had fallen from any higher, I probably would have hit the ground head first.

Matt-Segal-Air-China-Fall-3I was pretty whiplashed from the awkward fall but felt lucky to be alive. Stanhope was in shock; he had just recovered from a terrible climbing accident where he ripped gear out of the famous gritstone route Parthian Shot in England. He hit the ground from 60 feet, shattering his heel, and belaying me brought back some painful memories. Completely freaked out, he said I should place a bolt, and he wouldn’t belay me if I didn’t.

Battered, I mulled over the prospect of tainting my dream of establishing a 100-percent gear route with a bolt. Finally, I realized it wasn’t worth risking a 60-foot ground fall where the nearest hospital was who knows how far away. I later sent the route with the bolt, calling it Air China (5.13+ R).

Matt-Segal-Air-China-Fall-4I operate under a philosophy that routes don’t need to be repeated safely, so I don’t establish them that way. The joy in climbing routes like these is all my own, and I don’t always feel the need to equip routes with the greater community in mind. Some people might view my approach as reckless and feel a route like Air China should actually have more than one bolt. I always try to have a minimalist approach to establishing new lines, but others place a higher importance on repeatability. To each his own—but it’s important to think through your bolting philosophy as a first ascensionist. Have a reason to place—or not place—each bolt.

In the end, is this route still far from a sport route despite the bolt? Yes. Did I enjoy the process of projecting and eventually sending the route? Yes. Did I personally find the process cheapened because I added the bolt? Yes. But some sacrifices need to be made so your friends don’t have to scoop your brains back into your head.


Previous Comments

I've led Air China. Haven't finished it yet, but have one hanged it. It really isn't that dangerous. If you climb it the right way all that you are risking is a fall no bigger than ones found on most sport climbs. The biggest potential fall is on a super deep .4 X4. Your next protection is a bolt. A great mixed route and I recommend it.

Mike Dobie - 01/26/2015 9:24:38

What ever happened to personal responsibility? When you go rock climbing, you are making the decision to take a risk. If you're not comfortable with that risk, then don't climb. Rock climbing has something for everyone, and it's easy to avoid a X or R rated route if you want to.

Paul - 12/18/2014 4:30:06

I notice my comments were taken down, I suppose they were to blunt and honest. So I'll condense my remarks in a more civil tone. Don't commit yourself to a climb you have doubts about. You alone make your own choices and no one else really has anything to say about it. Who made anyone of you keeper of the gates. I climbed for me, not for anyone else and could care less about what others thought. I didn't put up a route worrying about someone else's kids or if they would be wearing a helmet, that's all on the climber. Bottom line, when in doubt, don't climb.

Bill Skadder - 06/19/2014 2:58:46

This bullshit about leaving a dangerous route for others to risk their lives or to wear or not to wear a helmet, (both seemingly a bad influence to kids) is that, Bullshit. Every climber comes to know their limits, or should. You climb any climb at your own risk, its your decision. Don't place your stupidity or inexperience on someone else. No one holds a gun to your head and tells you to climb. Don't shoot off your mouth, don;t go off half cocked about someone you really don't even know, who the hell are you guys anyways, super climbers? Lets hear about your "great" adventures, your great 1st routes. Every person has an ego, some of its called "confidence". Bottom line, DON'T CLIMB THE ROUTE. I'm old school, 1968-2011. I didn't climb to impress anyone, and could give a shit what others thought about me or how I climbed, I climbed to get away from assholes like you guys.

Bill Skadder - 06/19/2014 1:56:42

Look guys, just because Matt left the route in a state that some consider dangerous doesn't mean the next guy is forbidden from making improvements. Matt made a judgment call on what needed to be done for his ascent of the climb. Right or wrong, that decision is his to make. When you climb this route, you do not need to let Matt make decisions about your safety for you. If you decide to put in a second bolt, then do so. I would hope that you would leave it as a trad route though.

Jason Jackson - 04/23/2014 11:39:00

the part of that article that really gets to me is the "routes dont need to be repeated safely, so i dont establish them that way" line - it sounds to me like going out of your way to big note yourself - 'im so bold i only needed one bolt so everyone else should also be'... but is everyone else also supposed to preinspect and rehearse and tick mark the crap out of it on top rope first? sounds like a bit of a contradiction to me

Bill - 03/22/2014 1:37:47

Why are the majority of comments having a go at this guy? He made a route. It has one bolt and requires gear, the rock is somewhat fragile. It will take skill and judgement to send it. If you are the kind of climber that is happy with that, climb it. If you are not keen, then don't. It's not complicated. So he has opened a route that was not there before yet is not accessible to everyone. I don't see the problem. If you want bolts, go climb something else.

David Courtney - 03/06/2014 3:02:04

"Did I personally find the process cheapened because I added the bolt? Yes." Sounds like a big Ego driving this mentallity seeing as how you nearly decked. How about you big 'bad ass' climbers wearing a helmet on dangerous routes? You must get them free for $%^& sakes, just wear it for your magazine cover shots. You - as a sponsored climber have a responsibility (whether you like it or not) to set an example for the kids out there. Think of the kids! I'm tired of seeing guys like you and Stanhope and Trotter climbing Hard R/X routes without helmets!

DS - 03/06/2014 12:30:47

I feel like future climbers need to earn this route; "badasses only" sounds fair to me. By making a route bold and giving it death-potential, you deter a lot of the weekend-warrior gumbies who think they have something to prove. Matt's a stud and he shouldn't be required to cater to the masses of self-entitled "climbers" who think they deserve to safely flail up a 5.13+. If you want to climb Air China so badly, climb harder and get on Matt Segal's level.

TaylorH - 03/01/2014 12:31:33

Your route doesn't need to be repeated, it is the nice thing to do for the community but that doesn't make it mandatory. In the same way it is your life to risk so if you want to place sketchy gear and hope for the best, go for it. It is unfair however to essentially blame your friend/belayer for you putting in a bolt. Either way this is an amazing accomplishment and a well told story.

Mike - 02/28/2014 8:31:48

lets be real, how many people can climb 13+ trad? if you're scared don't climb it.

Harry - 02/17/2014 6:40:33

@Matt Segal, Safety should be our number one concern. How good are you going to feel establishing a route that kills x number of people, leaving children without their parents, etc.? If you want to be a bad ass in your own mind, lol, then climb it unsafe. But protect a route for climbing another day for the masses. Not protecting a route properly really does take away from the community of climbers that have bigger responsibilities than ego trips that are built in the sand. Another climber that would have come along and done a proper job of protecting that route could have granted access to so many more climbers. I see unsafe routes as selfish in the infinite degree. A trad route should be that, a trad route. But if the rock is poor, breakage likely, it is better to protect the rock from damage, protect the people, and educate the community.

Andrew Sellers - 02/14/2014 3:39:47

Choosing to keep a climb within a certain set of ethics can be a hard, and somewhat dangerous choice. Not everyone is willing to risk so much when it comes to climbing but the ones who do should still be applauded for their actions. I know you (Matt) must have been gutted at having to place said bolt, but you still got to climb it with a friend and that should be of most importance. Climbing harder traditionally protected routes is a dangerous game. I wonder how many repeats it will see by unsponsored climbers who spend their lives ranting on internet forums rather then going out climbing. (my excuse for weighing in is that I've little else to do while I recover from a climbing injury, and no, the climb did not have any bolts in it).

Lord of all things ethical - 02/13/2014 3:19:29

If you want to risk your life you can always go free soloing--just let me know so I don't have to witness a death splatter first. However, not everyone wants to climb a desperate, unsafe route. The focus for most of us should be on safety. I wonder how many of those advocating death risk have witnessed a friend die, or crushed bones like Stanhope has done? Why not try running blindfold across a highway--that would be more bold then free soloing?

gautam - 02/11/2014 3:03:47

Why not send it the way you want then retro bolt it for the masses? One can always choose not to clip the bolts. I grew up climbing in Cali under the spell of Bachar (r.i.p.) and it's just so limiting to anyone not wanting to lay their life on the line.

Bruce - 02/11/2014 11:07:09

Ha! Haven't visited your website for a while and look at this headline! The common sense Matt is: you either do it the way it is suppose to be done (and everybody knows what is that way) or you don't do it. Why don't you just do less scary climbs or moves and do them trad and not preinspected? What is the point of running towards the higher numbers if you are not really up to them (at the moment or if not at all)? In this case: you shouldn't have done it. You are scared? It is too much of a risk for you or your friend/belayer/audience?!? Go home! Leave that rock face alone. Play chess or whatever (sorry chess players!). Change the game and find something that you are really good at! Seriously. :) And what was the point of this poetry in the article? To answer your question: Not to bolt! You can still have fun ;)

Igor - 02/09/2014 2:44:31

I agree with Daniel's well thought out comment. Climbs can still be "bold" without entailing death upon failure of a single piece of sketchy gear. I particularly dislike extreme highball starts on 5.10 routes in popular areas because some hard man in the 1980s thought it would be wimpy to put in a bolt.

Peter - 02/07/2014 10:54:19

What once considered common sense back when I started climbing now needs to be justified in an article.

Marc B - 02/06/2014 4:35:59

I think this is a really interesting piece in which Matt explains why he did what he did. Otherwise, it is left up to the armchair pundits to debate endlessly, both pro and con. I think Matt's decision is justified and since he got the FA, makes it all the better. If you want to climb X-rated death routes, props to you man. If you want to climb clip-ups all day, sweet. All that matters is that you're out climbing! Sounds like a sick route, nice FA!

Dan Smith - 02/06/2014 12:59:52

On one hand, to each their own seems logical. On the other hand, each route you put up that can't be repeated safely is taken away from the vast majority of future climbers, while each route put up that can be repeated relatively safely is given to the vast majority of future climbers. I, personally, don't want to take routes from people. Many local amazing climbs where I'm from have already been taken from climbers who care about their lives.

Daniel - 02/05/2014 8:22:01

What is the purpose of telling someone that the things they publicly declare to be important to them are worthless? What do you do that is so important? Who cares either way? No one, see? There's no reason for anyone to care about anything any of us do. Man, the internet is weird.

Billy - 02/05/2014 1:39:37

Such hostility as appears in the previous comments warrants a response. . . I love trad. Placing gear makes me feel in control. When I can't place good pieces I remember that I made the decision to not just climb in this style but opt for a route that is run out rather than one of the countless that are safe and straightforward to protect. My approach has always been to respect the leader I belay's style--no matter how scary it looks to me. As such, I accept responsibility for the positions I put myself in. That said, you climb your way, I'll climb mine.

Alpine Faith - 02/04/2014 8:55:18

I'm very sad that you love risking your life, if you had splattered your brains, it would have been a tragedy. Thank goodness your friend recognized the danger and demanded a bolt. He may have saved your life. The idea that safety cheapens the experience is an idea we need to part with. Certainly, there is danger inherent in climbing, but no one uses ropes that might not hold. But many climbers still put a value on sketchy gear placements and risking their life. Is that bold? Certainly, however, it also results in many needless injuries and worse. Climb safe and climb tomorrow.

Aaron - 02/04/2014 12:42:20

Seriously dude. Go volunteer in a homeless shelter or something.

Holden caulfield - 02/03/2014 5:57:34

Blab blab friggin blab. I am so glad that you so explained the minutiae of your "desperate" climbing experience. My goodness, how will I ever sleep tonight?

Jack Clinton - 02/03/2014 4:02:06