Ask an Editor: How Do New Routes Work?

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Climbing editor Matt Samet rapping in with the full drill kit at Bitty Buttress, Boulder Canyon, Colorado, in 2008, to check out a prospective new sport climb.

Climbing editor Matt Samet rapping in with the full drill kit at Bitty Buttress, Boulder Canyon, Colorado, in 2008, to check out a prospective new sport climb.

With all the furor lately over offensive route names and what the community should do about them, it got me wondering: Who determines which routes to make a first ascent of, or how do you get “permission” to do so? And how does it all come together to turn an unclimbed piece of rock into a new climb? Also, does doing the first ascent then give you the “right” to name it—even if your name’s offensive, harmful, or terrible and the community hates it?

—Michelle F., via email

Timely question, Michelle, and thanks for reaching out. Basically, as long as a cliff is on public land with no express rules about fixed hardware, anyone can walk up to it and start doing first ascents in whatever style they see fit: ground-up with a hand drill, top down with a power drill, on removable (trad) gear, free solo, highball boulder problems, topropes, etc. It’s really up to you! Certain areas—such as wilderness areas—have regulations that don’t allow motorized drills. So, for example, in Rocky Mountain National Park and Yosemite Valley, you need to bolt by hand. And private landholders, if they allow climbing, may have their own rules as well about drills, new climbs, fixed anchors, etc., as will local land-management agencies like state or city parks. But for much of the rock in America, which lies on National Forest or Bureau of Land Management land, you can just go in and start putting up climbs.

As to which routes go up, that is purely a personal decision and will depend on the climber’s “eye for a line”—what stands out to them as the most appealing way up a given swath of rock. Before sport climbing came to America in the early 1980s, climbs largely followed crack systems. So doing a new climb was, in a sense, easier—you picked a crack and followed it, cleaning any debris or perhaps brushing off lichen as needed, but generally climbing from the ground-up. As climbs got harder—up to 5.13, as with Tony Yaniro’s 1979 first ascent of Grand Illusion (5.13c), America’s first 5.13, at Sugarloaf, California—first ascentionists might yo-yo them (lowering to the ground after every fall but leaving the rope clipped through the highest piece, so you’re essentially on toprope on subsequent attempts) or, as ethics relaxed, hangdog. Before sport climbing, there were also bolted slab/face routes, climbed ground-up, with the climbers stopping at stances or maybe hanging on a hook to drill. Because of the dodgy, strenuous nature of this endeavor, these climbs were often poorly protected, with bolts only placed as needed—i.e., at cruxes—and the easier terrain left runout.

With sport climbing, you could now bolt on rappel. This opened up steeper, more difficult terrain and safer, more uniform bolting, and saw America, in 1986, get its first 5.14, the blank, dead-vertical To Bolt or Not to Be (5.14a) in Smith Rock, Oregon. Smith, a loosely bonded welded tuff, also showed that softer rock could be climbed—with some cleaning of loose flakes, blocks, scabby patches, etc. from the surface. As rap bolting and cleaning—sometimes “aggressive cleaning” and even manufacturing holds—entered the sport-climbing first-ascent repertoire, walls, caves, and even entire cliffs formerly deemed too loose , blank, or chossy to climb were now feasible. In some places like Rifle, Colorado, with its seepy, exfoliating limestone, it’s not uncommon for first ascentionists to spend days or even weeks preparing a line—a far cry from the days of walking up to a crack and climbing it ground-up onsight, but also an approach that has opened steep, wild 5.14 and 5.15 terrain that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Lots of work—and cash outlay for anchors, and bolts with sport climbs—goes into every new climb. Just think of climbs you’ve enjoyed and what they might have looked like before their first ascent. That brilliant 5.10 face might have once been a lichen-covered, dirt-washed slab that was home only to daddy longlegs before some hard-laboring first ascentionist came along. And that radical 15-bolt cave route might have been nothing but a crumbling, unappealing pile. Heck, even that brilliant, seemingly obvious 5.9 hand crack might have been filled with loose blocks, dead birds, and gravel before its FA and the cleaning that comes with traffic polished it to a four-star sheen.

I’ve been putting up climbs—sport routes, trad routes, and boulder problems—for the 33 years that I’ve been climbing. It always appealed to me to do something new, which I suspect is often the lure for other first ascentionists, too. In general, I go for aesthetics when choosing first ascents: I’ll look at a cliff and see which lines catch my eye. Maybe it’s a rounded prow or a clean orange panel of rock or a zigzagging offset seam. Or maybe it’s just one hold—say, some crazy pocket—that I want to get to. The next step is scoping to see if a route will go, which you can do from the ground with binoculars, by climbing an adjacent line and looking over while lowering (maybe placing some directional gear or even a removable bolt to stay into the rock), or, if the climb is close to vertical, simply toproping it. Your goal is to find a continuous line of features that allows free-climbing passage; you also want to make sure your route is not contrived, with no way to escape to obvious, easier terrain to avoid cruxes.

So much of what happens with a sport FA depends on the angle of the wall and the nature of the rock. I’ve had routes go up in a quick two hours, like on clean, vertical granite that required only a light brushing. But I’ve also had to spend days bolting, cleaning, relocating bolts after holds broke or new sequences were found, and so on—especially on chossy, overhanging rock. No matter what, if you’re putting up sport climbs, step 1 is to get your anchor in (usually done by rappelling in over the top of the cliff or by traversing in from an existing route), step 2 is to get your bolts in, step 3 is cleaning (you may do some or all of this during step 2 as well, for example removing large, loose blocks to ascertain clipping stances, etc.) so that it’s safe to attempt the sequences, and step 4 is climbing. If the rock is close to vertical or I’ve found good directional gear on an overhanging face, before drilling I’ll toprope the route at least two or three times and mark the bolt placements with chalk dots, and have my partner confirm that the stances make sense as well.

As for the naming? Well, it’s complicated. In the dawn of the modern era of our sport, so many large, obvious features were still unclimbed—on walls and mountains—that route names were often merely descriptive: East Face, North Buttress, South Crack, etc. Oftentimes, climbs would be named for the first-ascent party, such as the Doub-Griffith in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, established by Eric Doub and Christian Griffith in the 1980s. As sport climbing came along and entire walls of bolted routes that might otherwise be indistinguishable emerged (think of the Motherlode at the Red River Gorge or the Minimum Wall at Maple Canyon), climbers became more creative with their names, pulling from song lyrics, song names, puns, and yes, tasteless, crass, or offensive humor.

Of course, being the first to climb piece of rock doesn’t mean you “own” it in perpetuity or even have naming rights. But because we like to know how hard a route is and what it’s called before we attempt it, we have to name and rate these routes something. (Though, personally, I’d rather not; I put up so many routes each year that I get tired of coming up with new names, much less assigning grades.) Meanwhile, ways of tracking this information like guidebooks and Mountain Project have emerged, and so the names get codified. However, as we’ve seen recently, just because a climb was given one name when it went up doesn’t mean that this needs to be its name forever. A consensus is emerging that the first ascentionist and/or the community can rebrand a climb whose name has proved problematic or harmful, which is a welcome step forward in the evolution of our sport.

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