This is part five of our series, The Givers, which profiles six climbers that share one common trait—they have all realized that community only works if each individual takes ownership. They have all asked, “If I don’t do it, who will?”
If you’ve climbed on a rope, you’ve probably clipped a bolt or trusted your life to one. Likely, it was a safe one, as you’re still here, reading this. However, most climbers don’t know how to inspect a bolt for safety, much less replace a bad one. The Red River Gorge local Blake Bowling hopes to change that.
Bowling lives in Beattyville, Kentucky, in the heart of the Red, where his love for Kentucky bourbon runs almost as deep as his love for climbing. And not just any kind of climbing—safe climbing.
Bowling has been climbing in the Red for over 28 years, and for most of that time his projects have included not only 5.14 sandstone routes and big walls out West but also the unending task of eradicating bad bolts from the world. At his home crag alone, he has established over 250 routes and upgraded countless bolts. “Thousands,” he says.
Back in the early 2000s, Bowling used his coding skills (he’s also the senior software engineer for the American Alpine Club) to start the website BadBolts.com, a now internationally used platform that crowdsources climbers to report on rusted or otherwise sketchy hardware for public acknowledgement and, for those willing to do the work, replacement. He sees the site as helping climbers cultivate self-reliance. It’s a genius interface that, for those eager to contribute, can provide all the information one needs to know to keep the crags safe.
Bowling advocates for knowledgeable climbers. The self-reliant climber, in his opinion, has no excuses. She knows how to keep herself safe, takes care of her crags, and doesn’t assume anyone else is going to do the job for her—and this includes maintaining hardware. It’s easy to learn how to climb these days, Bowling says, with the Internet, gyms, and magazines. There are holes in this curriculum, however: Climbers largely miss out on the apprentice-mentor experience that used to be imperative to getting started and that makes us part of the climbing community instead of just users, observers, or beneficiaries. “Find someone who knows,” Blake says, “and buy them a beer. Learn everything you can from them.”
BadBolts.com, Bowling hopes, will bring back the self-reliant climber. The website is growing and becoming a vast database. Additionally, organizations such as the American Safe Climbing Association and the Access Fund/American Alpine Club Anchor Replacement Fund, as well as local climber organizations, are getting hardware into the hands of rebolters. Much of the rusted, old ¼” and ” mank is being replaced with bomber, reliable ½” stainless steel or even glue-ins, and it’s thanks in no small part to tireless advocates/volunteers like Bowling.