Too Important to Fail: The Problem of Aging Bolts

In August 2009, Brad Carter climbed past the first bolt on Calling Wolfgang at Index in Washington State. At the second bolt, he hung, brushed off some holds and continued on. At the third, he hung again, intending to do the same. But as he weighted the hanger, it snapped. Carter plunged, falling an estimated 40 or 50 feet and breaking the hanger on the second bolt on his way down as well. Ultimately, the first bolt arrested his fall, and he avoided a grounder—but barely.

Aluminum bolt that broke on a rock climb
One of the aluminum hangers that failed. Photo: Brad Carter

Bolt Failures

Since the first expansion bolt was placed on a rock climb, climbers have largely breathed a sigh of relief after clipping a bolt on a route. Bolts mean safety, we tell ourselves. Bolts give us the courage to keep pushing higher. Bolts also let us travel up lines that we otherwise couldn’t protect and let us take falls we otherwise wouldn’t hazard.

But bolts can—and do—fail. The examples of bolt catastrophes are mercifully rare, but they happen: rusty bolts break, corroded hangers crack, bolts installed in incorrectly sized holes pull out and over-tightened bolts snap. As the huge number of bolts placed during ‘80s and ‘90s when sport climbing exploded onto the scene begin to reach their 20th or 30th birthdays, the stories of failure are sure to increase.

The two hangers that snapped in Carter’s fall, thought to have been placed by the first ascensionists around 1990, were eventually found to be so corroded that their insides had dissolved into flakey leaves of metal. This kind of “exfoliation corrosion” can attack aluminum hangers that are heavily worked, especially in a wet climate like Index. The situation was made worse because the hanger and the bolt were made of mismatched metals, a recipe for more corrosion and one of the biggest problems with bolts today.

Can You Trust That Bolt?

Learning to evaluate bolts instead of blindly trusting them is a critical skill for any climber and it could save your life.
Bolt Basics

Learning how to replace a bolt correctly and with the least impact—or supporting others’ efforts to replace bolts—is also critical to sustaining crags and to maintaining access. Accidents caused by bolt failures could endanger access, just as replacing (and placing) bolts without regard for the best practices in a particular area can endanger it as well.

That is why the Access Fund has developed a set of best practices—developed in partnership with Jason Haas, Petzl Foundation, and ClimbTech—for maintaining route safety, removing old bolts, and placing new ones.

Fixed Anchor Resource Center

There is something here for every climber, including the basics that every climber should know in order to evaluate the safety of the bolts they encounter when climbing, as well as advanced lessons on removing and replacing aging hardware.
Resource Center

Access Fund also launched the Anchor Replacement Fund, in partnership with the American Alpine Club, to provide grants to local climbing organizations and anchor replacement groups seeking funding for fixed anchor replacement at climbing areas across the United States.