Long before he became executive director of the Access Fund, Brady Robinson was climbing in South Dakota’s Cathedral Spires and clipped a bolt likely dating from the 1940s. He tugged it twice, and the bolt pulled out in his hand.
“There I was, runout on slab with no other protection in sight,” he says. “That was the first time that it really came home to me that bolts are sketchy sometimes.”
Across Colorado, bolts decades younger than the one that failed on Robinson, many of them placed during the sport climbing revolution of 30 years ago, are also starting to show their age. That problem has local climbing organizations concerned, and the race is on not only to replace the corroding bolts before disaster strikes, but to stay ahead of land managers crafting standards for fixed gear.
“There are tens of thousands of bolts in this country that need to be replaced,” says Loren Gwartney-Gibbs, a Boulder Climbing Community board member. “At least half the routes, nationally, are probably due.”
A recent Boulder Climbing Community survey estimated there are 14,000 to 16,000 bolts that need to be replaced just near the city of Boulder alone. In response, the group, working alongside Action Committee for Eldorado and Front Range Climbing Stewards, has replaced more than 350 bolts in local areas including Boulder, Eldorado and Clear Creek canyons
“They’re not failing with a great degree of frequency, but we’re getting to a point where it’s going to start happening,” says Robinson. “There were varying degrees of junk that was placed back then, so some of it is still good and some of it is not. The community is realizing we need to self-organize and take control of this challenge because no one else is going to. And it’s certainly in our interest to have some kind of standard and make sure that the bolts that we’re placing are going to be good for a long time and we’re not just deferring the problem.”
Out with the Old
Decades ago, climbers often improvised using construction bolts purchased from hardware stores. Galvanized, or zinc-plated, steel and mixed-metal hanger and bolt combinations that are even more prone to corrosion were standard use in the past. Stainless steel is now emerging as the best replacement, but it comes at a cost (as does the newest innovation, a bolt designed to be removed and replaced using only the hand tools legally allowed in Wilderness areas).
“The guys putting up routes are trying to save money. Most of them are ignorant about the fact that these things are going to start corroding and breaking over time,” says John Byrnes, a retired engineer who’s been involved with rebolting Cayman Brac, a popular crag in the Caribbean where bolts rust even faster than in Colorado (see sidebar).
“We have hundreds of thousands of zinc-plated bolts that have exceeded their lifetime. The zinc has been consumed by natural processes and now the steel underneath is being exposed to normal rust.”
That rust is likely occurring in the crevice that surrounds the bolt inside the rock, where it’s invisible to a climber going for the next clip.
“Obviously, the climbing organizations know that this is a problem. Most people involved in bolting and re-bolting know,” Byrnes says. “The big issue, of course, is to try to take pro-active steps so that the bolts don’t get to the point that they’re dangerous and land managers start closing down climbing areas.”
After Jefferson County Open Space’s 2015 inventory of climbing routes found the number of routes in Clear Creek had doubled over nine years, the county updated its policies on climbing and now requires an application before bolting or re-bolting routes. Only stainless steel bolts (per a standard from The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, or UIAA) are to be used, and details of placement must be reported.
“[The existing] guidelines did not address the explosion of both the Front Range and the growth in climbing,” says Eric Krause, park ranger with the county, who points to impacts to parking areas and trails, as well as multiple feet of sediment lost from the base of some crags.
The solution attempts to take advantage of the growth of the sport: Once approved to re-bolt, climbers can replace a bolt as soon as they spot the need. The county is even working on getting a re-bolting kit to loan out.
“We don’t want to hinder the process of replacing bad hardware,” Krause says.
In with the New
Eldorado Canyon State Park, through the Action Committee for Eldorado, already has a process in place for reviewing bolting and re-bolting. “The golden era of climbers being too small to really show up on the radar screen of land managers is largely behind us,” Robinson says. “Back in the old days, when everyone was a renegade and dirtbag, ‘self-regulation’ was a thing climbers said a lot of times. … But self-regulation is not going to cut it as the sport continues to grow and grow and grow.”
The goal for the Access Fund is to at least weigh-in on land managers’ standards (it created climbingmanagement.org as a resource), and to steer the industry toward setting a standard. To that end, the Acess Fund will host a conference in April on the future of fixed anchors. But even getting consensus among American climbing organizations and the UIAA, which disagree over the alloy that should be required, poses a challenge.
Beyond the Front Range, the American Safe Climbing Association supports individuals who undertake re-bolting. “I’d fallen on some of the bolts that I pulled, and it’s like ‘that was so easy to get out, I don’t know how it held a fall,’” says Sam Feuerborn, who’s replaced 200 bolts in Western Colorado and Utah.
“I think a lot of the early folks out there weren’t expecting people to come back and climb these routes, and they placed bolts just good enough to get down,” he says. “They didn’t realize that 20 years later people would be coming back and rapping off them all day.”
As more climbers transition from gym climbing to the great outdoors, he and others argue there’s need for both a standard on gear and education. Climbers should, if not know how to bolt and rebolt properly, at least recognize suspect fixed gear and treat it to preserve it for the next generation of climbers to come.
—As reward for finishing her master’s in journalism years ago, Elizabeth Miller spent a winter climbing in Thailand, where she put plenty of bolts to the test.