Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bolting: What's the Big Deal?

Climbing forums and websites are often incendiary places. And there is nothing more incendiary than the touchy subject of bolts. Online arguments about this subject rage page after page after page on many different sites. Examples of such online battles may be found here and here and here and in literally hundreds of other places as well.

There are essentially four schools of thought on bolting. In this blog I'd like to talk about these perspectives without taking too much of a stand. This is a subject that you should form your own opinion on.


The traditionalist doesn't really believe in bolts. He sees them as a blight on the rock. In extreme cases he sees bolts as an acceptable option, but if they exist in places beyond anchors, he'll disparage them. If the bolts are too close together he'll belittle the route's author. And if the bolts are anywhere near a crack that might take protection, he'll throw a rod.

Most American climbers are offended by bolts next to cracks, but the traditionalist is generally the most vocal about the need to remove said bolts. In extreme cases, the traditionalist will actually take it upon himself to "chop" a route that he views as offensive.

Sport Climber:

There are many people who only climb sport routes. They have no interest in placing traditional gear at any level. As such they are constantly looking for -- and perhaps even manufacturing -- bolted routes. Usually these bolted routes follow features where it is impossible to place traditional gear, but periodically they are near cracks. Few modern sport climbers are bold. They often tightly bolt their routes to keep the falls very small.

Sport climbers would argue that their focus on harder and safer bolted climbs make them exceptionally strong. Many mock those who ignore the physical and mental benefits of climbing "safe" routes.

The most extreme sport climbers will replace bolts the moment that they are removed by a traditionalist. This may ultimately lead to a bolt war. Such a conflict involves the constant removal and replacement of bolted lines and usually ends in anger in the climbing community and restrictions from the land manager.

Average Climber:

Most climbers like bolted sport climbs as well as traditional climbs. Most like it when there's a bolt when it feels exposed and most don't like it if that bolt is close to a crack. The real losers in a bolt war tend to be the average every day climbers who are a little uneasy about too many bolts, but want some.

Average climbers tend to believe in "crag ethics." In other words, they believe that the history and bolting ethics of a crag should remain the same. If a crag is heavily bolted, it should remain so. If a crag is strictly traditional, it should remain so. If a crag is somewhere between, then it too should remain somewhere between.

Land Manager:

Land managers are often less concerned about the actual bolts and more concerned about the traffic that a bolted climb might bring. More people have the skills necessary to climb bolted routes than have the skills to climb traditional routes. As a result, new trails are quickly cut to the base of a wall. These trails may have an impact on protected wildlife and vegetation. When there is over-bolting or bolting that takes place outside the land manager's rules, sometimes bolting restrictions are put into place.

Bolting is a contentious issue in the climbing community and it is not an issue that will go away soon. Perhaps the most important thing we as climbers can do is to keep our arguments and strong opinions within the climbing community. When non-climber land managers get involved because the issue has boiled over, that's when nobody wins. When the issue is so hot, people outside the community are aware of it, that's when crags become restricted or even closed.

--Jason D. Martin

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