“The bolts on this route are all rusty and totally sketchy. Someone needs to replace them before someone gets hurt.”
The sentiment is becoming more common. As classic routes age and our “little” community grows into a new era of heavy use, hardware can become rusty and suspect. Often these routes weren't developed with hordes of climbers in mind. I know I’m not the only one who has fought through a crux, arms bursting with a fiery pump, only to arrive at an anchor so grody and old that it made my stomach turn to weight it and lower.
So who is “someone” anyway? Most climbers don’t know the first thing about installing, updating, or replacing hardware—and that’s OK. Sure, it’d be nice if more folks carried a small crescent wrench in their crag bag for the occasional spinning hanger, but the job of updating old, manky hardware is best left to those who really know their stuff.
If anyone takes on this thankless burden, it’s most often a local climbing organization (LCO). These LCOs tend to be nonprofits run by volunteers from their respective communities. They rely on donations in order to replace fixed hardware, build trails, grow relationships with land management, etc. The American Safe Climbing Association (ASCA) is another critical nonprofit that often leads the way for LCOs by providing resources and guidance. According to their website, the ASCA has replaced over 20,000 bolts across the country. That’s about two literal tons of work. Bravo!
So, how much help do these organizations really need? How much does it cost to replace the hardware on a route? To figure that out, let’s imagine that it’s time to replace every bolt on the well-loved Horseshoe Canyon Ranch route, Orange Crush (5.10a). This single pitch route has fourteen lead bolts and a two-bolt anchor in fantastic Arkansas sandstone. Let’s assume we're paying full price for the cheapest hardware, meaning thin, short bolts, made of plated steel (substandard), and with minimal anchor gear. Here’s what our shopping list would look like (not including the tools needed to complete the task):
- Plated steel 3/8” x 2 ¼” five-piece bolt – $1.75 each
- Plated steel hanger – $3.45 each
- Plated steel 3/8” hanger with single rap ring – $6.45 each
- 16 bolts x $1.75 = $28.00
- 14 hangers x $3.45 = $48.30
- 2 hangers with ring x $6.46 = $12.90
- US domestic shipping = ~$20.00
Even while skimping on quality, updating the hardware on one single-pitch sport climb will cost us over a hundred dollars. Let’s see what our price tag would be if we used some of the beefiest modern hardware:
- Stainless steel ½” x 4 ¾” five-piece bolt – $11.95 each
- Stainless steel hangers - $3.65 each
- Stainless steel hanger, chain, ring combo – $21.95
- 16 bolts x $11.95 = $191.20
- 14 hangers x $3.65 = $51.10
- 2 hanger, chain, ring combo x $21.95 = $43.90
- US domestic shipping = ~$20.00
Whether we’re pinching pennies or pulling out all the stops, we're spending $100-$300 to update this one single-pitch route. Imagine how much it’d cost if it was time to replace the other ten classics at the crag. Or if this was a wall of multipitch sport lines! Even if we used the cheapest gear, we’d have a bill well into the thousands before we started the actual work.
Replacing bolts is no small job. In some cases, it can be as easy as pulling out the old bolt with your fingers, but in others it may require a hammer drill and specialty tools. Considerable time and care is given to preserve the original hole for reuse. It could take hours to replace just a few stubborn bolts. This craftsmanship is paramount to the new bolt’s integrity and visual impact on the wall.
There’s no getting around it, these routes are expensive. If you’re clipping bolts, I hope you feel a duty to participate in their upkeep. A great way to get started is to visit the Access Fund’s handy directory to see if there is an active LCO in your area. Remember, volunteering your time is always a great alternative if you don’t have money to throw around. Additionally, consider holding off on buying that one beer and give $5 to the ASCA instead.
If you can’t donate or volunteer to these or similar organizations, no one at the crag is going to shame you. Your partners will still give you a good belay, and you’ll still enjoy your days of climbing. However, I do think I heard a scientist once say that gravity has a stronger effect on those whose souls are heavy with guilt.
Dakota Walz spends many of his days (and nights) working in an ambulance, serving the burbs north of Denver. His recent travel-adventure book is called Everything I Loved More.