Too Important to Fail: The Problem of Aging Bolts


In August 2009, Brad Carter climbed past the first bolt on Calling Wolfgang, a challenging, aesthetic line 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

Since the first expansion bolt was placed on a rock climb—when four Bay-area climbers made the first ascent of New Mexico’s Shiprock over four days in 1939—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.

Old and rusty bolts and anchors used for rock climbing Learning to evaluate bolts instead of blindly trusting them is a critical skill for any climber and it could save your life. 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 is now unveiling a new 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. Visit the new Fixed Anchor Resource Center—there is something there 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.

Fixed Anchor Resource Center

Anchor and bolt replacement being conducted at a rock climbing crag

Access Fund also launched the Anchor Replacement Fund (in partnership with the AAC) earlier this week, which will provide grants to local climbing organizations and anchor replacement groups seeking funding for fixed anchor replacement at climbing areas across the United States.

By Laura Snider

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Blog Comments

Great work Access Fund!

Posted by: Stacy Bare | August 20, 2015 at 10:11 AM

Written in Stone...
First Ascent rules—then and now—
Should there be a different standard for Trad and Sport?
In modern rock climbing there has always been an unwritten but actually ‘written in stone’ rule about first ascents. The rule goes something like this:
The person(s) who did the first ascent of any route “owned’ that part of the cliff and the climb they established. No one could add or subtract fixed gear. This rule served a very important function—the cliffs did not constantly change at the whim of any climber who followed. If we did not have this rule climbs would constantly change dependent on ephemeral influences. A climb that had 1 bolt (or none) yesterday might have six tomorrow if left to the opinion of the next climber. I’m not positive but I think this rule became particularly important iin the early seventies when we all voluntarily started the clean climbing revolution and stopped placing pitons. Once a route had been done “clean” no one was suppose to use pins on it again. Obvious environmental degradation may have been the reason for this sea change in attitude and style but a more elegant solution was never to be found. This is an imperfect system where the possibility will always exist that a first ascent team may not put in enough fixed gear or he/she may put in to much but until bolting was accepted this never really became an issue. The reasoning behind this self-imposed restriction is sometimes subtle and perhaps because of the abnormally high illiteracy rate among aging trad climbers being lost on the new generation.
While piton scarring and constantly changing routes were some of the influences that help form this rule the basis and logic behind this system and why this rule gained traction and was accepted are worth exploring-
Perhaps the most important (valid) reason we gave that kind of respect to someone just because they did the first ascent of some nameless piece of rock was
The person who did the first ascent had taken the risk they were expecting you to take.
The assumption was they had not pre-inspected the route, top-roped the route or rehearsed the route etc—basically they were willing to take
the risk and potentially get hurt or die while on-sighting (no previous experience or beta on the route) in ground up style. If they did that they could with clean conscious expect you to take those same risk. The Bachar/Yerian is a good example of this honorable style which should be respected.
The change occurred..
In the early to mid eighties bolted climbs AKA Sport Climbs became accepted in the US. Many may disagree but I thought Sport Climbing was invented to allow climbers to concentrate on movement and less on route finding, gear placement and hazard awareness? Sport climbs are a conscious attempt to make a dangerous activity slightly less dangerous.
Today a large majority of climbers have their first climbing experience in an indoor climbing facility. Modern indoor climbing gyms go out of their way to take as much risk as possible out of the “sport climbs” they set up in gyms. If you are introduced to climbing for the first time in a gym those three variables—gear placement, route finding (ok follow the colors..) and hazard awareness are never if rarely mentioned.
There is no excuse for poorly bolted climbs today but there was a time in between when folks putting in bolts felt well..kinda guilty, they would place as few as possible to retain that spirit of adventure—kinda missing the point (or feeling to guilty) to recognize that this was different kind of animal—no one gets to place six pieces in the crack you opted to place one piece because.. there is no crack...
I’ve only been climbing for 41 years but in my experience bolted routes are often put up by folks with limited experience and with completely different style than previous generations had employed...I have yet to meet a younger climber who evens knows there is a code –except they all know the old rule-“Do not change a climb without the first ascent parties permission”.
Many bolted routes are ..well..bolted like shit because either the bolter “only had 20 bolts and wanted to put a lot of routes up” or they are 5.12 climbers who decided no one needed bolts on the first 20 ft because it was so “easy”.
How many spurt climbs have you been on that if you fell clipping the first or second or even third bolt you would hit the ground? This is bullshit.
I didn’t think much of it until this past winter, I was living in Vegas, While hiking around the Calico Hills I met a group of folks who intended to re-bolt almost all of the climbs on the loop rd at Red Rocks—I spoke to one and asked “if they had gotten any local input (not from me I’m not a local there) and perhaps were going to “fix” some of the obviously poorly bolted climbs”—
Let me step back in time for a moment—
When I first climbed at Red Rocks it was 1984 during my years at the academic bastion of knowledge known as Prescott College-anyway— during my third or fourth trip I was climbing at the Dog Wall, I think? Not exactly sure but one of those sport crags on the loop –I watched a guy desperately trying to clip the second bolt on an already popular route—the second bolt was way to high but there HAD BEEN a great clipping jug which had broken off the day before—the dude fell, landed on his girlfriends head (no fault of hers) resulting in a broken neck (her) and heli-rescue (one of the first I saw).
I relayed this story to the young fella and he said “OMG we could never change the route without the permission of the guy who did the first ascent”. The dude has since quit climbing and only actually climbed for a couple years—and I’m sure gave absolutely no thought as to how to engineer a “Sport climb” which I kinda thought was to create as safe as possible bolted climb—this is the tough part--a climb with no ego involved—obviously you cant make any climb totally safe but I do think the first ascent party has a responsibility to build as safe as possible route if they want to enjoy the privilege of “owning that portion of the rock”.
Now if there are Sport climbs which followed the original intent of the first ascent rule then they should remain and the guidebook should say –“This a Sport Climb but the bolts are positioned in a way that will get you killed or disfigured if you fall”.
Before I proceed—I enjoy Sport Climbing, have placed hundreds of bolts,’ creating’ hundreds of sport climbs and more importantly re- placed hundreds of bolts—mainly in Thailand-- ThaitaniumProject .. I have nothing against Sport Climbing but
When you think about it—
Trad climbs by their very nature are organic, there was line (a crack or series of holds with small cracks for protection) which usually allowed pro to be placed and usually removed. If you had skill to “keep it together” (or dementia) you might make it to the top unscathed. It was equally important to know your strengths as well as your weaknesses. You left the first ascent of the climb to another party if you weren’t up to the task. In an ideal world on the perfect trad climb the experience for the next party was the same as the first ascent party, because it looked untouched..
Sport Climbs are in a sense, artificial and contrived.
adjective: contrived
1 deliberately created rather than arising naturally or spontaneously. created or arranged in a way that seems artificial and unrealistic.”
Someone walks up to a blank wall—a wall no one could climb (ok-Alex Honnold) decides to put up a sport climb—they take a piece of rock that no one would have been able to climb and make it climbable—there was nothing dangerous before but now there is. They knew the rock well, they are great climbers and they put up a very dangerous Sport Climb.
Do they own the rock?
Should he/she/they be afforded the respect given to a first ascent party from a different era? An era when bolts were rarely even considered, an era when adventure was the essence not ‘sport’.
I thinks its time a national conversation is started to try and find some sort of consensus/common ground on this issue—there will always be different opinions on how many bolts any climb should have but physics and math do not lie—if you are going to hit the ground while clipping
the first-second-or third bolt something is wrong and should be changed.
To me Sport climbs should be considered ‘works in progress’ if they need to be changed a bit because everyone (the local community) has recognized the unnecessary danger, so be it. I’ve gone back many times and “fixed” something I screwed up. In my opinion the first ascent party of most modern sport climbs do not deserve the respect that was given to climbs from a very different era unless the same risk was taken by them.
As climbers almost everything is a ‘grey area’ requiring years to gain insight and we all have to use our own judgment in the long run..
Hopeful for a thoughtful conversation about this subject. Extemporaneously yours...
Tom @ Seneca
Oh, and the grading system should be changed so sport climbs have their own grading system. Few things are more dangerous than insinuating (or thinking) because you lead “hard” 5.12 sport climbs in the gym it will allow you to climb (even) 5.4 trad outside where----
gear placement, route finding and hazard awareness are actually more important skills than your climbing ability.......but that’s rant for another day..

Posted by: tom cecil | August 20, 2015 at 12:36 PM

I propose a system where first ascentionists agree that the bolts they placed need replacing (or if for some reason they don't agree things go forward anyway) on a route but rather than simply filling the old holes with new bolts, the route receives a new FA - FA2. This FA2 could be made by any team of climbers. There could be guidelines suggested by the first ascentionists like they might suggest FA2 must be done in a similar, ground up, style. New climbers might place bolts in similar locations or not. The idea is not to turn routes into sport climbs but to perhaps bring them into modern times. This is but one approach and wouldn't in anyway supplant other strategies. I am a little bit intrigued by the idea and want to try it on a couple South Platte routes. I would pull the old bolt and then either have a team lined up or make it public that the route is open to FA2.

Posted by: Bryan | August 20, 2015 at 01:41 PM

Sounds strange to me.. FA2 lol!

Posted by: Jeff Constine | August 20, 2015 at 08:35 PM

i think some rephrasing is well due because you say
"if you are going to hit the ground while clipping
the first-second-or third bolt something is wrong and should be changed."

To me, it is perfectly acceptable for a sport climb to have bolts in locations where, if you blow the 2nd clip, you can deck. This has even happened to me in a gym because when you blow a clip, you have a significant amount of slack out.

If bolts were place in locations that prevented groundfalls even when blowing the second clip, everything would be grid-bolted and it would not be acceptable.

I think what you were trying to say is that one shouldn't be able to deck without blowing clips at any point on a sport route. While I personally disagree, I am willing to accept this as a general rule for sport routes

Eli from Durango

Posted by: Eli Poss | August 21, 2015 at 07:28 PM

You are providing very helpful information.Thank you

Posted by: Gate Hanger | January 20, 2016 at 05:04 AM

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