The Future of Bolting

A growing danger from aging hardware means standards are on the horizon
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A growing danger from aging hardware means standards are on the horizon
Andrew Burr Future Bolting

Photo: Andrew Burr

NEWS FLASH: U.S. Forest Service closes sport climbing on public lands pending compliance with UIAA materials recommendations.

OK, that’s a lie, it hasn’t happened—yet. In April 2016, the Access Fund (AF) and Petzl sponsored the second Future of Fixed Anchors Conference. Approximately 60 policy wonks, bolting geeks, and climbing organization representatives from all over the country gathered in Las Vegas to discuss bolting, hardware, removal techniques, funding, liability insurance for hardware-replacement organizations, best practices, worst practices, and bolting as a public service. Another topic of discussion was the imminent UIAA materials recommendations.

The original sport climbing boom of the 1990s installed a staggering number of bolts on hundreds of crags all across the country. Twenty-plus years later, this hardware is reaching the end of its life. Many of these old bolts may be fine. But many aren’t. On most sport climbs, if a single bolt fails, the consequences can be dire. Added to that, many of us bend safety rules. Have you ever bailed off a route on a single bolt? Ever taken a victory whip? Or clipped in direct while your partner takes you off belay to extract her dog from a fight?

Fortunately, when correctly placed, modern climbing bolts are strong and reliable enough that accidents are rare. Problems arise as bolts age. And around the country, bolts are aging.

Most of the bolts placed in the 1990s and earlier were made from zinc-plated steel. Zinc is the material that keeps chain-link fences from rusting, which occurs when iron reacts with oxygen. Zinc reacts so strongly with oxygen that as long as zinc is present, oxygen ignores the iron and zinc-plated steel won’t rust. Unfortunately, bolts are electroplated (so their small threads can still work) and the zinc coating is thin. The zinc soon disappears, turning into zinc oxide that can scrape away, or zinc chloride that simply washes off, leaving the underlying steel unprotected. It’s like peeling an egg. Once the shell—or part of the shell—is gone, the bolt’s tasty iron insides are consumed. It takes a couple of decades depending on weather and climate, but rust will ruin the bolt.

Worse, corrosion hides inside the hole in the rock, making it impossible to detect. Even in dry climbing areas, the insides of bolt holes form shady, often moist micro-environments that hold water, then dry out, concentrating the minerals that speed corrosion. The bolt’s externals and hanger may look OK, while the internal parts—including the small clips and wedges that allow the bolt to grip the rock and hold falls—may be compromised. Kenny Parker, the chief re-equipper for New River Alliance of Climbers (NRAC) at West Virginia’s New River Gorge, reports that on some 20-year-old sport routes he’s replaced, one old bolt might be quite strong, requiring aggressive crowbarring to budge. Yet another bolt just a few feet away pulls or snaps off effortlessly. You just never know. Victory whip, anyone?

Bolts may be aging, but in most popular climbing areas, local communities are on task, upgrading hardware with long-lasting stainless steel. Unlike zinc plating, the “stainless” process puts the oxygen-attracting metals within the steel itself, so the bolt’s corrosion-resisting shell continually renews itself. But replacing bolts—removing them, re-drilling existing holes, or in some cases drilling new holes—requires a significant investment of time and money. In areas like Boulder and Yosemite that have a high level of commitment to reusing original bolt holes, it may take a skilled worker all day, sometimes more, to re-equip a single sport route. Plus, steep rock, use of glue-ins, difficult access, or anchors that can’t be trusted even to facilitate re-equipping all add to the time required.

For perspective, a small sport climbing sector such as the Arsenal at Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado, might take one skilled person two to three weeks of full-time work to re-equip. Rifle is a small climbing area, and the Arsenal is just one of its 30 sectors. Multiply that by the many hundreds of climbing areas in the country and you are talking about tens of thousands of hours of work. Not to mention the expense of the stainless steel replacement hardware itself.

The good news is that local climbing communities have been very good at getting this work done and new hardware paid for. Boulder, Rifle, the New, the Red, Rumney, Yosemite, Joshua Tree—these and many other well-known areas are on it. The bad news is that hundreds of American sport climbing areas are off the beaten path, with no large climbing communities or local climbing organizations to raise money and organize volunteer labor. At lesser-known sport crags from Tennessee to California, the old zinc-plated bolts are near or past retirement age, with no caretaker and no 401k.

So how did the entire infrastructure of American sport climbing become at risk from corrosion? It’s a two-part answer. Part 1: In the old days, we didn’t know any better. Part 2: First ascensionists pay out of pocket for those little clippy things that the whole community uses. Thanks to the latter, in the U.S., less expensive zinc-plated hardware is still being installed, prolonging and aggravating our infrastructure crisis. For decades now, European crags have used only stainless steel hardware, funded (first ascents included) by climbing organizations or local communities who consider climbers an economic boon. In the U.S., however, subsidized hardware for first ascents is rare.

One discussion at April’s conference concerned the upcoming international guidelines for corrosion resistance in climbing bolts. The UIAA (International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, the organization responsible for developing and maintaining global safety standards for all climbing equipment, from ropes to harnesses to carabiners) has long had standards for bolt strength. It is now close to releasing guidelines for ensuring bolt longevity.

Prompted by a spate of anchor failures in high-corrosion tropical climbing areas such as Thailand and the Dominican Republic, the UIAA formed a bolt-corrosion task force. Although the official recommendations are a while from being released, the broad strokes of the guidelines are already clear. Two are particularly significant.

First, the emerging standard for the minimum expected lifespan of a climbing bolt is 50 years. If this strikes developers as too demanding, it’s on par with similar applications in the construction industry. It also acknowledges the hassle required to replace bolts. While some plated-steel bolts in desert environments can last 50 years, most bolts don’t. But that argument is moot because of the second guideline: stainless steel—either 304 or 316—will be the minimum material requirement. Zinc-plated bolts are off the list, and will be officially declared “indoor use only.”

Like many climbing practices, route equipping has been a free-for-all up to this point, with no formal documents to set standards. Those days are numbered. Official climbing-management plans are coming to more areas and will refer to the UIAA recommendations for “best practice” guidance. Stainless will be required. Most climbers would agree that’s as it should be, but what’s scary is that established areas with widespread use of non-stainless anchors could be shut down for not complying with the industry standard. The writing is on the wall: from here on out, no developer should place a plated-steel bolt. Yet who’s going to enforce the ethic?

“It’s going to come down to peer pressure,” says Brady Robinson, the AF’s Executive Director. “I’ve heard this argument: If you can’t afford a climbing rope, do you use clothesline instead? No, you don’t. Either you find a way to get ahold of a climbing rope, or you don’t climb with a rope at all.

“The whole economic argument doesn’t hold water. Bolting on private property is one thing. Bolting on public land is a public act, and thus should adhere to the most appropriate standard, which at this point is probably the drafted UIAA standard.”

So, what’s a dirtbag equipper to do? The ASCA (American Safe Climbing Association) and many local climbing organizations sponsor bolt replacement with either stainless steel (for most inland climbing areas) or titanium (for coastal areas), which each provide the longest-lasting protection for their respective environments. The cost of rigging a climbing area with either is not a huge deal for an organization where everyone chips in, but it is significant for an individual who foots the entire bill. Most existing programs only subsidize replacement hardware. First ascents are a different matter.

Several presentations at the Fixed Anchors conference offered possible solutions. How about this one: Land management agencies embrace climbing and pay for everything. That pipe dream is what’s happening for the limestone cliffs at John Boyd Thacher State Park, near Albany, New York. After navigating the labyrinthine environmental impact statement and permissions process, a small group of climbers persuaded the park to open sections of its limestone escarpment to climbing—and further convinced the park management that they should fund the development, paying for the hardware and the labor to install it. Though common practice in Europe, examples of this scenario in the U.S. are rare. Is this the wave of the future? Probably not, but it’s sweet to see it happen once in a while.

A more promising solution is the work of the Red River Gorge’s Fixed Anchor Initiative (FAI). The FAI is a bolt-subsidizing program for first ascensionists that encourages them to use stainless steel hardware for new routes. The developers still pay for bolts, but for the price they’d pay for a time-bomb zinc-clinker, the FAI provides sustainable stainless steel, with donations from the climbing community picking up the difference. It’s a simple system, but not without risks of abuse.

Bolt replacement—with its costs, back-breaking labor, and fancy tricks for extracting shitty old bolts—will continue to challenge the climbing community for decades. But getting better, longer-lasting hardware in the rock the first time may be more important. The FAI and other organizations are showing that it’s possible for the local climbing community to share the cost of doing it right.

Jeff Achey is a dirtbag equipper who no longer places zinc-plated bolts. Donations accepted.