“It was the best carrot I’ve ever eaten,” our friend assured us.
He had just finished spraying us with superlatives over the gastronomic sensation that was a $50 dish he’d ordered at a tapas restaurant. It consisted of a single carrot. We were flabbergasted, dismayed even. We hadn’t even spent that much on our case of beer.
From that point on, it became my goal to develop a new route which I would call The Fifty Dollar Carrot. It would be sportingly bolted on modern glue-ins, all except for the crux. This would be protected by a single machine bolt without a fixed hangar, a bolt known as a carrot. This, I reasoned, would force would-be ascensionists into the curious emotional state in which I had found myself following our friend’s extravagant revelation—confused, angered, and gripped by despair.
But wait… I've gotten ahead of myself. Although I hardly need to explain the delights of the infamous carrot bolt to Australian audiences, they remain a mystery to most international climbers. Indeed, many a visitor has left our shores with crappy dacks (a quaint piece of slang meaning that one has defecated in their undergarments) after an exciting episode with this Aussie icon. So allow me to demystify the humble Australian carrot bolt.
In simple terms, the carrot is a hex-headed machine bolt without a fixed hangar. It is filed down at the business end to form a tapered point (hence the name) and is then hammered into an undersized drill hole. Also known as “bash-ins," the bolt is pounded into the rock until a small portion of the shaft remains exposed and the internal portion is held fast by friction… or so the theory goes.
Legend has it that the carrot was invented and—for lack of a better word—perfected in the heady seasons of the 1960s. The brainchild of Bryden Allen, a living legend who pioneered a number of classic adventure routes, they were the product of typical Australian ingenuity—to wit, invention born of necessity. This was a veritable Dark Age, a time when climbing equipment consisted of hemp ropes, tennis shoes, and whatever machine parts you could pinch from your Dad’s shed. Allen was understandably proud of his contribution to the sport, an elegant solution concocted in the absence of any viable alternative.
John Ewbank, the spiritual father of Australian rock climbing and creator of the world’s best rock grading system (this fact is not open for negotiation), was also a big fan of the carrot. His admired the bolting system for its low visual impact.
“Aesthetically speaking, this is still the best system in the world,” he claimed in a speech given in 1993. “The fixed bracket European version and the ringbolt is a real eyesore in comparison.”
Given Ewbank’s legendary status within Australian climbing history, we have to respect his opinion. He may have been onto something regarding the visual simplicity of the carrot, but that’s where the simplicity ends. The practice of using these bolts for protection can be a hair-raising experience, especially for unsuspecting victims.
Any good Australian climbing store (and most bad ones) will sell you “bolt plates”, which have two purposes. The first is to make your chalk bag ludicrously heavy, and the second is that bolt plates can be placed over the head of a carrot in order to clip a quickdraw to them. The carabiner locks the bolt plate in place, and both the carabiner and plate are cleaned later. This creates a climbing experience that splits the difference between trad and sport—none of the weight or expense of a full rack, but all of the fiddly, pumpy, dack-crapping uncertainty of placing gear.
I’ll paint a scene for you. You’re six pitches into a “sport” multipitch in the Blue Mountains. You’ve rapped in to begin the climb and pulled the rope, so you’re well and truly committed. Retreat to the eucalypt forest, some 200 meters below, is unappealing given that doing so will require you to hoof it for 12 hours to reach civilization.
So there you are… hanging on trembling arms at a crux that you’re pretty sure you can’t pull, desperately trying to place a bolt plate onto an oversized head. THE FUCKING THING WON’T FIT. Suddenly, it's gone—removed from your damp, ineffective grip by the inexorable tug of gravity. It pings off your belayer’s helmet, describing a graceful arc as it plummets to the valley floor. It will never be seen again, except perhaps by the archaeologists of some advanced civilization who will regard it as the spiritual totem of a bizarre tribe of rock worshippers.
All this and more awaits the eager antipodean ascensionist. "What fun," I hear you proclaim. Well the joy doesn’t end there, my friends! Here are some more endearing features of the carrot:
- You can’t use modern wire gate carabiners. They are too small to effectively capture the bolt plate to the head, meaning the whole deal can simply rattle off. Cool!
- You’ll probably run out of bolt plates, meaning you’ll need to carry a rack of wires. If you slip a small nut down, place the wire over the head, then thread the nut back upward, you have yourself an alternative to the bolt plate. It’s not good, but it’s marginally better than free soloing.
- Variability of placements is massive. That means that bolts can be bashed in so deep that the distance between the rock and the head is too small for your bolt plate (see photo at top of page). Alternatively, shallow bolts can have a neck so graceful that they would put a swan to shame... the torque of a bodyweight placement would snap them, never mind a fall.
With all these charming idiosyncrasies, it’s no surprise that the humble carrot has been granted a seat in the hallowed pantheon of Australian Cultural Icons. Yep, it’s every bit as famous as Vegemite, the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and Steve Irwin.
OK, maybe not. But despite the demonstrably foolhardy nature of clipping carrots when reliable modern alternatives exist, it is still a common practice in our sunburned land. The humble carrot, for all its flaws, is not without its supporters. Although equipping a route with carrots is no longer the done thing, removing them from historic routes in a sweeping retrobolt campaign would be equally taboo. They are an integral part of the story of Australian climbing, a staple which seems unlikely to disappear any time soon.
Many of the current guidebooks across this Great Southern Land, from South East Queensland to the Blue Mountains to Mt Arapiles, would encourage you to embrace the carrot. Go ahead and clip ‘em, they’ll extol: They’re a part of history and should be experienced. That’s all fine and dandy, but the bubonic plague was part of history too.
The die-hards among us will continue to clip these anachronisms, and maybe you’ll be one of them. Indeed, many great routes are still equipped with carrots, classic routes which deserve to be climbed. If you find yourself on one of them, remember that knowledge is power. Suitably equipped and adequately forewarned, you may just find that you’re able to quest upward toward these rusted hexagons with a demeanor of cool, calm confidence…
But, then again, probably not. Or, as we say in Australia, “Yeah, nah…”