Equipping a route with bolts, no matter the number, size, or type of hardware, is no easy task—you still have to drill a hole in solid rock. What tool you use, however, can either ease or aggravate the already-difficult task. We pitted the two bolting options (hand and power) against each other to see which drilling method is king of the mountain.
*We compared the specs for the Petzl Tam Tam and Rocpec combo to the Bosch 11536C-1 (only the Rocpec is pictured) as two standard setups seen in many first ascensionists’ kits.
Much slimmer and more portable than a power drill. Hammers typically won’t exceed a foot in length, like the popular Petzl Tam Tam (10.4” long). The hand drill’s narrowness and two-piece setup (hammer and drill) make it as easy to stow as a couple of cams.
At 12.25” long, a drill like the Bosch 11536C-1 seems manageable when comparing its length to a hand drill, but it is nearly as large in width as well. The sheer bulkiness of power drills makes them harder to pack for long hikes to remote areas. (Imagine filling three Nalgene bottles taped together side by side.)
Can you say featherweight? Petzl’s Rocpec drill kit with the Tam Tam hammer barely registers on the scale at 1.6 pounds, about the weight of a No. 6 Camalot. Big bonus: Hand drills are much less expensive than power drills.
The Bosch 11536C-1 tips the scales handily at 6.25 pounds, which can overburden your pack on endeavors to backcountry crags. Some, like the Bosch, come with a slimmer, lighter battery, but they typically have a shorter lifespan.
It’s almost barbaric in execution. Line up your drill, and hammer it in. Twist a little, and pound again. Repeat until you’ve reached your required depth. The repetitive beating is torture on your arms and body, making continued use exhausting.
As bolting goes, it couldn’t be simpler.* Position the drill, pull the trigger, and push steadily until the hole is sufficiently drilled. Because power drills weigh more, it’s a little tiring, but it’s nothing compared to the taxing movement of hand drilling.
Its biggest shortcoming is the energy and time drilling by hand requires. By the time you sink one route worth of bolts, you’ll be so zapped that climbing the damn thing will seem improbable. Plus, it’s harder to create a hole as precise as a power drill’s, and neater holes mean stronger bolts.
You need energy, and not the kind you get from rest and a granola bar. Power drills run on batteries, and if you’re out of juice, you’re out of luck. Though battery technology is steadily improving, drills still suck up power like a camel at an oasis.
Depending on the rock type, an average hand-driller can spend upward of 30 minutes per hole.
With the right technique, you can power through each new hole in about 45 seconds.
First-timers can expect some serious arm soreness and likely some botched holes. Plus, you might give up too early (because it’s so tedious), and thus drill too short a hole. (Never an issue with a power drill: Braaapppppppp!)
Though it’s more involved than punching a screw through drywall to hang a picture frame, the same principles apply. A steady hand will yield clean bolt holes right out of the box.
If you’re allowed to bolt in an area, then you’re always going to be able to use a hand drill.
Many areas, including national parks, ban the use of power drills within their climbing zones, narrowing your options if you want to place bolts.
Hand drills don’t have moving parts or batteries—with the simplicity comes durability.
Power drills are no slouches on toughness. They’re made to withstand abuse, but like anything mechanical, the moving parts will eventually wear out and/or need replacing. Proper care and cleaning will lengthen the life of any drill.
Winner: It's a draw! Each method has its advantages. For a backcountry route deep in the wilderness—and when you’re bolting on lead—it's hand drill all the way. For an overhanging limestone cave, break out the power drill. Like anything in climbing, use the gear that the situation requires. Be mindful of your neighbors and the rules, and respect the climbing area.