Nearly every style of climbing requires some degree of fixed anchor placement to safely ascend and descend technical terrain. Sport climbing (i.e. bolt intensive climbing) has continued to grow in popularity since its inception in the 1980s. Unfortunately, many of the most popular traditional and sport routes have bolts that are in need of replacement.
Assortment of tools and hardware.
Originally, climbers used bolting technology developed by the mining and construction industries. The first bolt widely used for climbing in the United States was the button-head compression bolt, which appeared on the market as early as 1935. Despite the existence of bolts, pitons (pegs hammered into cracks) were the standard protection used by climbers at this time and for the next couple of decades. Pitons are generally reliable and easy to use, but they only work in existing crack systems. Finding protection for crackless slabs, faces, and overhangs was rare. In the mid twentieth century, many climbers began setting their sights on a wider range of climbing objectives requiring an increased use of bolts.
Several generations of climbers have benefited from the relative safety that bolts provide. Since climbers started placing bolts, technology and our understanding of metallurgy have advanced significantly. New bolts with greater strength, longevity, and reliability have been developed. Stronger metal alloys with greater corrosion resistance have been introduced. In the early days, climbers had to use bolts from the construction industry, often without any direction or reliable information regarding the suitability of any specific bolt for the given climbing application. This, combined with the relative isolation within which many first ascensionists operate, has resulted in a wide range of techniques and bolt types in use throughout the country.
Not only do bolts used by climbers within the United States vary widely by age, type, and condition, their effectiveness and longevity also differ due to diverse rock types and environments. With no standards or reliable data, the decisions on what bolting hardware to use were often driven by ease of use, personal preference, and cost. If placed correctly, most bolts used in climbing were reasonably safe on the day that they were placed. However, the metal in every bolt chemically reacts with its environment over time. Due to electrochemical oxidation processes, the metal composition of many bolts has proven to be ill-suited for its application. Many variables affect the speed at which these reactions take place.
Today, the quality and safety of fixed hardware ranges from very good to abysmal. Bolt failures have occurred and are likely to increase in number and frequency if they are not replaced. Climbers all over the country are using bolts without any accurate idea of their condition, which is often difficult to discern by sight alone.
The Access Fund
is currently attempting to consolidate information and establish best practices for placing new bolts and replacing antiquated bolts and hardware. Bolting products are now being made specifically for climbing and are suitable for a wide variety of environments and applications. Techniques for maintaining and replacing existing bolts are being developed and shared. This information will make climbing safer for future generations and help preserve our climbing resources.