The rules of accepted practices in route development are often unclear and confusing; they differ from region to region, usually because of the area’s history, local ethics, laws regarding drilling, and more. To help decode the topic, we picked the brains of a unique cross section of first ascensionists to help paint a picture of the first ascent landscape in America today.
Matt Segal Matt Segal’s first FA was Iron Monkey (5.14) in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, in 2006—a traditional line Segal initially stepped away from to become more competent and confident in placing gear. Since establishing Eldorado’s hardest trad route, he’s put up hard, often runout lines in the modern “headpoint” style—practicing on toprope to dial in the moves—to manage the calculated risk required for such ascents.
Alli Rainey This Wyoming local began her development career after bolting a 5.11 on the clean and solid rock of Shinto Wall in Ten Sleep, a limestone sport crag in her home state. Finishing the drilling in a mere three hours gave her a false sense of the strenuous work required for cleaning and bolting routes, but she went on to make first ascents of more than 15 5.13s in the area.
Jonathan Siegrist A consummate sport climbing developer and nomad, Jonathan Siegrist is driven by an unyielding desire to establish hard, aesthetic lines. So far, he’s managed to rack up around 20 first ascents in the 5.14 range—up to 5.14d!—and is always prowling for more.
Matt Samet The former editor in chief of Climbing caught the first ascent bug 25 years ago as a teenager. He’s established everything from steep limestone sport lines to X-rated traditional fright-fests, and he’s witnessed firsthand the often-controversial growing pains the world of development and bolting has endured.
Cole Fennel Cole Fennel is a Fayetteville, Arkansas–based photographer and avid FAer. Hunting around the Arkansas hills for new crags, he’s put up somewhere around 100 routes and established entire new crags on public land.
Developers have long been catalysts in the climbing community. How do you view the role of developers, and is it understood by other climbers?
Matt Segal: I think there has always been controversy around first ascents, and there will always be. Climbing is somewhat of an arbitrary activity with no real rules. Each first ascensionist makes his or her own rules, and it’s only natural that someone is going to be challenged.
Alli Rainey: From the time I first started climbing in 1992, it seems like climbers have argued and bickered about ethics around everything in climbing. I tend to think in a more unity-oriented manner—as in, it’s more important for us to get along despite our differences. We should present a united front to create climbing coalitions, educate the public and young climbers, and get more people climbing. Yeah, the crags are crowded, but obesity is an epidemic, and people just need to get outside and do something! Which is why we need to keep bolting, too, of course. So I’d rather put my energy into issues that I consider more crucial.
Jonathan Siegrist: I think that in general, the public has absolutely no idea what it takes to develop a route, let alone develop an entire area. There will always be a dialogue about the importance of conservation and the desire for access—and there should be. I wasn’t around, but it sounds like things were actually worse in other eras. Nowadays, you chop a tree down, and you receive empty Internet threats. Back then, you bolted a crack, and you would actually get the shit kicked out of you. It’s all about where we draw the line as a community for what is right and what is wrong. Developers are definitely at the forefront when making those ethical decisions, and it’s not always black and white.
Matt Samet: Here’s how I put it: People who put up routes actively and avidly are much more in contact with the ethical boundaries of our sport than people who just repeat routes. Any time the sport has been pushed forward, it’s been via a first ascent. You’re not just exploring your limit, but also what you can do within the interface of the stone. I think people don’t understand how big a gray area it is when you start preparing and cleaning rock. I don’t think there’s any black and white. There have been plenty of asinine cases where the community feedback is overwhelmingly negative, but there are plenty of sport routes that don’t exist without tactics like aggressive cleaning or gluing. I think it’s very easy if you haven’t put up routes—especially sport routes—to assume some stance of ethical purity, but, you know, all rocks are different. Cliffs vary. Routes can have perfect rock and then 10 feet of choss that you have to clean. When you get into it, you start to understand that, and you’re much less likely to criticize others’ climbs.
Cole Fennel: I think there is probably more “controversy” now just because the number of climbers is far greater than ever before. The Internet certainly isn’t helping in that department.
There always seems to be some bit of controversy around the secretive nature of area and route development. Do you think that routes or areas are the “property” of the discoverers until they feel it’s okay to share the location?
Segal: I don’t think that areas are the property of the developer; that said, I have kept projects a secret until I sent them. When you find a route, clean it, unleash the sequence, chalk it, etc., you get attached, and your ego gets involved. You don’t want someone to come out and “steal” all your hard work. Some people don’t really respect the art of first ascents, and they think it’s all about climbing hard. But it’s not. More than half the battle is having the vision to see a line. They would be skipping the whole process.
Samet: I’ve never found an entire virgin area before, so I’ve never really faced that dilemma. I got in early in Rifle [Colorado], but it wasn’t much a secret then. I had an interesting talk with Jason Keith, though. [He is a former employee at the Access Fund, and he still consults with them.] He mentioned that most access issues don’t come up at existing crags that already have crowds. They come up at new crags where someone’s kept the whole thing a secret, and then word leaks out. Like if the place had been developed in a vacuum, and then suddenly a bunch of people show up and all kinds of weird stuff happens. I can see both perspectives. It certainly helps to have feedback from the community when you’re developing, but it also helps not to have a circus descending.
Fennel: I see both sides, but it’s hard for me to take pity on people who bitch about secret crags. They aren’t the ones putting in all of the effort to get an area established in the first place. I’m not a secretive person by any means, but I definitely don’t choose to spray about how sick new walls are until the finders have picked their lines. That said, I bolt for more than just myself. Unlike some developers who primarily bolt routes near their limit, I really like finding crags with a good grade range, and then fully developing it—even the mega-moderates. I probably would feel a little different if I lived in an area that has crowding issues, though.
Why do you think there aren’t more women out there developing areas?
Rainey: There are still far fewer female climbers than male climbers, so that’s part of it. Also, it’s a ton of physical labor, and you get really dirty. Maybe that’s just a stereotypical thought that women—on the whole—don’t like to get insanely dirty and covered in moss, spider webs, dirt, and drill dust as much as men. Nor do they like to use heavy power tools and show up at home with bashed knuckles from the wrench slipping. Or maybe they do, and I’m just out of touch with that aspect of femininity. Also, I find it impossible to bolt and climb at full power. I have to do one or the other. Bolting wrecks me. It doesn’t seem to wreck the guys quite as much, but maybe that’s just my perception or excuse.
Samet: There are still more males than females in climbing. That balance is changing, but I think it’s just boys with power tools. Seriously! Why is it that it’s all men in manual labor and construction? I don’t know. Men like to bang on shit, hammer shit, drill it, break it, and use big expensive tools… And women know better.
Siegrist: I’m not totally sure. I suppose you’d be better off asking the ladies. Regardless, I’d love to see more women establishing routes, and I’m guessing that with the wealth of talent out there now, we will be seeing more of it.
Fennel: Beats me. At my home crag, we hardly have any women climbing, let alone developing.
Is a first female ascent a positive thing?
Rainey: I think it’s a big positive! It probably inspires other women more than first ascents by men. And we are not men; we are women—we don’t compete against men in athletics for a reason. We just have different bodies, and that’s the way it is. For me, it’s most inspiring to see other women climb strong and try hard.
How has development changed over the years for you and for others?
Samet: Regarding access, we used to think we could just walk up to a cliff and start spraying bolts into it, and climbers certainly did! I mean, we did that only 25 years ago. Land managers had seen very few bolts in America, and most of the time these crags were godforsaken places that no one went to or cared about anyway. You could drive into places like Rifle or even the Flatirons [in Boulder] or Eldorado and drill bolts. Climbers put up so many routes so rapidly in the mid- to late 1980s that land managers didn’t catch up until the mid-1990s. Now everyone’s caught up, and if you go bolting a crag on someone’s private land, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.
Also, now people put up a lot more moderate sport routes. You didn’t used to see that. Back in the day, there weren’t that many hard routes to try, so people who were bolting routes were just trying to find something harder to climb. Then this whole idea of pleasure climbing emerged and took off. A lot of people who can climb 5.12, 5.13, or even 5.14 are putting up 5.10 because they know there’s a huge demand. Originally, when sport climbing was conceived, you only put bolts on faces where there was no other option.
Is it the first ascensionist’s responsibility to regard the safety of future climbers when establishing a climb?
Siegrist: Yes, to an extent that is reasonable. Bolts will eventually fail regardless of the metal or placement. But it is the responsibility of the bolter to make routes safe for the foreseeable future, and clean routes to a degree that avoids seriously injuring the climber or belayer. That being said, there is also an important distinction between bad bolting and airy bolting. I prefer not clipping every other move, and I also enjoy the mental battle of runout routes. So I don’t bolt clip-ups, but I also don’t think that this makes me an unsafe bolter.
Segal: No! But it is their responsibility to give an honest account of their ascent. Did they toprope it first? Did they pre-place the gear or plug it on lead? I think that’s the only responsibility of first ascensionists.
Rainey: For me, yes. I approach it this way: I don’t want anyone to die or get hurt on a sport route I established because I didn’t clean it well enough or I put in a bad bolt. But, as a whole, when you’re getting on any route, it is buyer beware. It’s certainly a mistake as a climber to automatically assume a route or a hold is safe just because it’s there. The newer the route, the more potential for danger. People should go into it with this awareness.
Samet: I don’t think it’s that binary, but I think it’s the responsibility of the first ascensionist to be clear about the style in which he or she established a route to let climbers know about the potential risks. Take my route Primate (5.13) on the south face of Seal Rock in the Flatirons. I toproped the unholy f*** out of it, and then I pinkpointed it with a couple pieces pre-placed that would have probably ripped. But I never said I did otherwise. I never let off the impression that you could just show up at the base with some cams and go for it. You have to be honest with your community and build some clarity.
Fennel: Yes and no. First ascensionists need to be putting in quality hardware, but individual climbers need to have good enough judgment to make decisions for themselves.
Red-tagging: Do you have a rule?
Segal: Be respectful and talk to the person who is claiming the route as his or her own. Making a first ascent takes a lot—more than most imagine—to clean, bolt, and figure out protection and sequences. But I think climbers ought to know their role, and if they are not actively trying something, they should pass it on.
Rainey: In Ten Sleep, we don’t red-tag. The equipper gets credit and naming rights. Whoever wants to can climb it whenever it’s ready. Of course, if someone has a problem with this, he or she could red-tag it, and everyone would respect it... for a while, anyway.
Siegrist: Red-tagging is 100 percent legit. Establishing routes is hard-ass work, and it takes a ton of time and money. I’ve paid for every bolt, hanger, drill bit, perma-draw, and drill I’ve ever used. It adds up. But, most important, it’s the vision of the developer, and we all get attached to a dream. Developers should have plenty of time to do their thing. There is no standard time limit—whenever that person has given up, it should be open. It would be bullshit if you bolted your dream route and tried it every weekend for six years, and then some wanker came along and was like, “Hey dude, time’s up!” Get a drill and a wire brush, and make your own contribution. If you are busy, or you don’t plan to get up there for a season or more, it’s time to open that gem to the community.
Samet: If I bolt it and have a tag on it, stay the f*** off! I don’t know about the length of time. If you’re actively trying it and you’ve put all this time, money, passion into it, I think it’s lame for someone to jump on it and take the first ascent.
Fennel: One year after equipping or as long as the developer is putting serious effort into it. I respect red-tagging in all aspects. Not that I think that people should physically hang red tags on boulders, but I think climbers should give whoever found and cleaned a boulder some time to work a line before jumping on it.
Having seen the violent nature of cleaning new routes, it seems like the difference between cleaning and manufacturing is a gray area to the layperson. Is there a rule for what’s OK to do and what’s not among first ascensionists, or is it based more on situational awareness?
Rainey: The latter. It really depends on the crag, the quality of the rock, and what it will take to make it safe and climbable. Some areas are so clean that a developer can literally just put the bolts in, brush a couple holds, and be done; others, not so much. In my mind, sport climbing is supposed to be safe and fun, so the primary goal is to develop routes in a fashion that allows this to happen—not leaving fragile stuff behind that can potentially hurt people on the rock, and making sure there are no ground-fall potentials, death clips, ledges to hit, and so forth.
Siegrist: It largely depends on the area. Some areas require aggressive cleaning that borders on manipulation, or perhaps glue reinforcement, and this is just the way it is. Other areas are blessed with near-perfect rock and take only a wire brush to clean up. In general, you know when you’re cleaning a route, and you know when you’re changing it. When in doubt, always consult a local.
Samet: I think it’s a pretty big gray area. Unless the thing’s been drilled—you know, Bosched out with a bit—people aren’t going to know it’s chipped. By the time a route gets popular, so much chalk gets built up that it’s hard to tell the chipped holds from the natural. I have different hammers, framing and geology, and they have different heads. Is using an adze chipping? Should I use just the head? Who’s to say? Once you have the hammer and you’re banging on another tool, you’ve probably crossed a line. If you’re using a chisel or a drill bit to clean, you’ve probably crossed a line, but I think everything up to that is probably fair game. If you don’t take loose rock off routes, it’s going to hurt you, cut your rope, or kill your belayer.
Fennel: That’s a gray area for sure. I have never chipped a hold or drilled a pocket, but I have glued the shit out of some choss, and I’ve also been part of some serious cleaning efforts. I guess it would be hypocritical to say I am totally against manufacturing or enhancing holds because I spend a good chunk of my summers in Rifle, but I never see myself crossing that line.
If you had to give burgeoning developers one piece of advice as they break into establishing their own routes and boulder problems, what would it be?
Fennel: Be open to criticism.
Segal: Always check your intentions, and don’t let your ego and the desire to be the first cloud your judgment.
Rainey: Clean it well, and when in doubt, rip it off. Better to leave a huge rock scar than to leave a flake that could kill a future belayer. If you don’t agree with that, then don’t bolt it. Find a cleaner line.
Siegrist: Find a badass old-schooler that has spent years bolting and pick his or her brain. Buy some beers, sit down, and get everything out of that person that you can. A mistake in bolting can mean everything from serious injury to access endangerment. Look to the masters for advice and mentorship. They know what’s up.
Samet: Spend as much time as possible assessing a line before drilling it. If it seems difficult because it needs cleaning or is overhanging, do as much as you can on toprope or with removable bolts. You’ll save yourself more work if you do your research. I’d also say don’t be committed to putting up every route you look at. Some of them just aren’t worth it. I’ve wasted hardware on something that no one ever climbs because I just couldn’t stop myself.