08/17/2022

Behind the Bolt Hanger: How to Deal with Good Bolts Gone Bad

If you’ve been climbing long enough, you’ve probably found yourself looking up at an amazing rock face, inspired to step off the ground and launch up a beautiful line. But did you stop to wonder: how old are those bolts up there? Can you trust them to hold body weight? How about a fall?

It’s easy to become so inspired by the climbing above you that you forget to think about the hardware. Or maybe you never learned what goes into placing and maintaining fixed anchors. You’re not alone—it’s difficult work that often goes unseen and unappreciated. From trade routes to long-forgotten classics, it’s tough to tell what’s behind a bolt hanger.

But our safety depends on it. And so does sustainable access to the places we enjoy as climbers.

A climber mid-fall at Smith Rock. Ancestral lands of Tenino and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. © Francois Lebeau.

It’s important for all climbers to realize that we can encounter bad bolts anywhere—even in places with dedicated rebolting volunteers and local climbing organizations. The most egregious examples come from wetter and coastal environments. But start poking around in the mountain west and you’re sure to come across incredible routes with outdated fixed anchors. In some cases, these anchors are so bad that any climber with a functioning sense of self preservation will consider other options. In others, you might not know a bolt is bad until you hang on it.

The impact of bad bolts is more than a brief moment of sadness that a rad line isn’t available to climb. This is a growing threat to the safety of climbers across the country. Lost opportunities for great climbs also push climbers toward a finite number of other routes—and toward other parties. At popular crags, this problem compounds. Over time, what started as a minor inconvenience becomes a widespread problem.

Even when fixed anchors function as intended, they still wear out in time. Bolt type, material composition, environmental factors, and regular use impact every anchor at a crag.

Around the country, the need to support fixed anchor replacement is clear.

What Access Fund is Doing

Access Fund works with the American Safe Climbing Association, local climbing organizations, and industry partners to tackle this problem. It's a big job, which is why we've broken it into three key areas: technical training, hardware grants, and on-the-ground support. Let’s dive into each of these areas in more detail.

Technical Training
Even long-time bolt replacement experts can learn new techniques. In July 2022, Access Fund convened rebolters from around the country at our third Future of Fixed Anchors conference. Attendees discussed fixed anchor policy, rebolting, and rope access, sharing best practices that everyone could bring home. They also had a chance to learn new techniques for working at height, thanks to support from the Petzl Technical Institute.

Helping rebolters operate in line with best practices is one way we’re working to keep climbing areas open. Bolt replacement can be a thankless job—but only if you let it! A simple “thank you” to these under-the-radar climbing heroes can go a long way.

Hardware Grants
Climbing hardware isn’t cheap. A glue-in bolt costs $8-12, but that doesn’t include the glue, which can run $40 per cartridge. Then there’s the top anchor set-up which can cost $60 or more for all the hardware required. Replacing a single route with 10 lead bolts and a top anchor may cost $200. Include the price of a drill, batteries, and specialized tools needed to complete the task, and it all adds up. Your support can make a difference.

Last year, Access Fund awarded $15,000 in grants to replace aging bolts. Our Anchor Replacement Fund gives annual grants to help local climbing organizations address the problem of aging fixed anchors. The fund is made possible, in part, by support from the American Alpine Club and by climbers like you.

On-the-Ground Support
If you’ve ever thought, “Somebody should do something about that bolt,” you’re not alone. There are things you can do yourself, like bringing a crescent wrench to the crag, but sometimes a situation needs professional support. That’s where our regional staff can help.

Access Fund staff live and work in communities across the country. From the West Coast to the Deep South; Texas to the Northeast, we climb where you climb. Because of that presence in our communities, Access Fund staff are always ready to connect national resources to local opportunities. Donate today to support Access Fund's work in your region.

Fixed Anchors Into the Future

Zoe Rayor in the Eastern Big Horn Mountains. Ancestral lands of the Apsaalooké (Crow), Cheyenne, and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ. © Eric Fallecker.

Usually, climbers breathe a sigh of relief after clipping a bolt on a route. Bolts mean safety, we tell ourselves. They give us the courage to keep pushing higher. But bolts can—and do—fail. As the huge number of bolts placed during the climbing revolution of the 80s and 90s reach their 30th or 40th birthdays, the stories of bolt failure are sure to increase. That’s why Access Fund is on a mission to help locals replace aging bolts.

We all have a role to play in maintaining the climbing areas we love. So whether you’re ready to replace bolts yourself or want to support that work in other ways, Access Fund needs your help.

Your support allows Access Fund to host technical trainings, give hardware grants, and sustain our on-the-ground presence in communities around the country. This work can be tedious. But thanks to climbers like you, we’re well equipped to continue addressing the needs that exist at virtually every climbing area in the U.S.