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Drilled Pitons in the desert

Original Post
Eric D · · Gnarnia · Joined Nov 2006 · Points: 235

Hi All,

I lived in Moab a while back and never thought to ask this...

Are drilled pitons on desert sandstone face climbs as bomber as bolts (generally speaking)? Should I feel as comfortable whipping on to drilled pitons as I would on bolts at most climbing areas?


Sam Lightner, Jr. · · Lander, WY · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 2,511

No, they are not.
They are not designed to handle the loads that bolts are designed to handle, and we generate those loads often when falling.
They are not made of stainless steel and are not galvanized, so they rust.
They are tapered, so instead of getting wider under the surface, they get thinner... remember, they are designed to be pulled out as well as put in.
They are shaped in such a way that they put more of the energy of the fall onto particular spots (the edges) and thus weaken the stone faster.

In my replacement work I have found a common thread with drilled angles: they rust into place. The things sound like they are solid and then suddenly pop... you look at them and see that rust was what was holding them in with the sand. Rust is not very strong.

Some people go to great lengths to drill "good" holes for pitons, but that doesn't change the fact that the original design is not as solid as a bolt. I think we still use them for two reasons:

1. They work well for a while in a poorly drilled hole... common in soft rock.
2. Tradition.

In short, you can feel more comfortable whipping on one than whipping on RPs or knife blades in the same rock, but all fixed gear should be suspect... fixed gear that is shaped wrong, inherently weak, and made from sub-par materials is beyond suspect.

Avery N · · Boulder, CO · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 650

If I recall correctly, I think Ron Olevsky (of Zion notoriety) would argue that well-installed drilled angles have the potential to:

a) be stronger than bolts in desert sandstone
b) cause less damage to the rock over time, as the same hole can be re-used (versus having to add holes for replacement bolts)

My desert experience is rather limited, but do recall one time leaning back on some bolts at a rap station below the rocker block on Moonlight Buttress and having a bolt pull out. Just saying, that I don't know that you should always trust any fixed hardware in sandstone. Then again, some drilled angles are actually drilled upwards!

Sam Lightner, Jr. · · Lander, WY · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 2,511

Yep, he would argue that... but the facts say something else.
The reusing of holes makes zero sense. The holes become big blown-out huecos that nothing goes into. What makes more sense is a long, thick bolt made of stainless steel and painted to match the rock. That's one 1/2 inch hole that should give us 30+ years.

M Morley · · Sacramento, CA · Joined Jan 2002 · Points: 6,630

Eric & Avery (and anyone else interested), there is a good discussion on this very topic on the site at Drilling Bolts? Do Not Do This!.

Bill Duncan · · Jamestown, CO · Joined Mar 2005 · Points: 2,928

I certainly don't have as many desert tower FAs under my belt as some, but it has been my humble observation that a 1/2" (or 5/8" in softer sandstone) drilled pin will usually have a longer safe-anchor lifetime in soft rock than a modern bolt when:
- The site for the anchor is carefully selected
- The pin is placed in a 3/8" hole drilled significantly deeper than the pin is long, to account for the fracturing that will occur when hammering the pin in
- The hole is drilled at a slight downward angle, perhaps 15 degrees
- The pin is hammered in completely
The spring steel used for manufacturing the pins is very strong. Yes, it will eventually rust, but the coatings these things have is pretty durable.
I'm no physicist, but the force required to hammer a pin into the proper depth is substantially greater than the force required to expand the expansion portion of a bolt. This is particularly true for the static-force expansion bolts, where a wrench is used to rotate the shaft, drawing the cone into the bolt, thereby expanding the sleeve.
I've had to spend 10 minutes pounding on a pin to get it in all the way in good Wingate with a desert varnish. The amount of force required to compress that steel creates a very good anchor that is more resistant to the freeze/thaw process than a bolt in a cylindrical hole.
I have had several dubious encounters with shiny new-looking bolts that I could pull out with my fingers or a tug or two.

If someone were to use some epoxy or other very strong synthetic bonding agent, the bolts might last longer, but I would still much prefer to take that whipper on a drilled pin than a bolt any day. When I clip a bolt that I have not placed, I am instantly wary. I don't know who placed this thing. Did they remember to expand it? Did they use epoxy? When I clip a drilled pin that I have not placed, I feel much better about the anchor.

Just my .5 cents.

Bill Bones · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Sep 2006 · Points: 210

I Agree that drilled angles are a much stronger piece for the desert than a bolt. I have seen a great many bolts pull and wallow there way out. I have never seen a drilled angle do anything but bring a smile to my face when i pull up to a belay and see one.

Rob Dillon · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Mar 2002 · Points: 740

I know that I have a 100% success rate when drilling angles, whereas with bolts a spinner is a not uncommon result.

Stainless steel doesn't matter much when the failure derives from the hole in soft rock gradually enlarging over time and use; seems like most placements will get wiggly long before rust ever becomes as issue. We are talking about the desert, right?

If I knew that the standard bolt was at least 6 inches long, I'd feel better about them. But they're not. And I've never pulled an angle out with two fingers, as I have done with a bolt on a well-traveled Indian Creek route.

Jesse Zacher · · Grand Junction, Co · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 4,205

I agree with angles being good for soft sandstone. Even though you argue that the rust is what holds it in, when arriving to an angle you can access its condition much better then a stainless bolt. Obviously if it is rusted at the eye its probably even more rusty within the rock. It seems that a long lasting shiny bolt, and the mental association that people who do not frequent the desert have with a bolt being synonymous with bomber, equal a dangerous situation. Even if an only angle serves as a warning to a climber, or a reminder, that they are not in granite serves a good purpose. I would argue that Ron Olevsky knows his shit. Of course there will be situations where a bolt will be better then an angle, especially in good hard sandstone. Even with fixe's new double wedge bolts may be better in choss sandstone. Anyone have any experience with the double wedges?

John J. Glime · · Cottonwood Heights, UT · Joined Aug 2002 · Points: 1,165

It's all scary in sandstone, dangle, bolts, whatever. That is probably part of the beauty, if you knew that everything was safe and secure 100 percent, adventure lost.

An anchor that leaves a lot to be desired. If we assume these things went into the hilt, then there has been a lot of erosion over the last 27 years. I put in two 1/2 inch bolts, but left these relics for historical purposes.

James Garrett · · Salt Lake City, UT · Joined Jun 2005 · Points: 4,919

I agree with Sam's excellent points. I thought this was now common knowledge. Think about the design of a 5 piece Rawl (the better soft rock bolt) vs. a drilled angle piton. I've commented on it before, but Sam couldn't have said it better. Drilled angles have also about 1/2" of contact with the rock UNLESS the driller uses two different size bits...and I don't know too many people who do or take the time. In fact, I've never seen any of my partners bother. I have pulled drilled angles out with my fingers....and probably some studs as well, but a properly placed bolt or glue in ss "piton" will work much better for alot longer than a drilled angle. You guys out there still placing drilled angles are doing it for now, but you aren't doing it for the next guy. Most of Olevsky's drilled angles incidentally, are glued in and drilled with two bit sizes. Go climb the Citadel and check out the drilled angle placements....rather "holes".

Rob Dillon · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Mar 2002 · Points: 740

I use two bits.

Drill 1" with the 1/2" bit; drill the rest with the 3/8".

Jam pin in hole, insert bit through eye, and rotate a bunch under pressure until the pin cores out a more conical hole.

Never tried glue, though. If I could fit a little tube in the kit I'd use it. What do y'all recommend?

Jesse Zacher · · Grand Junction, Co · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 4,205

I do think Sam has alot of room to comment after all the bolt replacement he has done over the years. I think that the whole adventure factor, and nothing last forever is a good point as well. Whenever I set an angle I do the tiered hole at an angle.
Thanks for replacing the Mank Sam.

Stewart M. Green · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2002 · Points: 156

A lot of great points. I agree with Sam and James: in a perfect world a hefty stainless steel bolt is ideal. Sandstone, however, is imperfect with lots of variability in consistency--even within the same formation. Some Wingate is damn hard stuff, while a few miles away it's as soft as stale brown sugar.

Over the last 10 years, I've been replacing a lot of old drilled Army angles at the Garden of the Gods as well as overseeing and establishing 90 sport routes at Red Rock Canyon Open Space. Most of the Garden's routes are on Lyons sandstone, which is very compact, fine grained, and hard. An ideal rock for drilled angles. Some of the angles we've removed at the Garden, mostly anchor bolts, are bomber, very secure, and were difficult to remove...even after 50 years. Others were totally crap and came out after a few hammer swings. The lesson there is that it's hard to judge how good a drilled angle...or a in sandstone(or any rock for that matter!).

Almost all of the replacement protection and anchors we've put in at the Garden are stainless steel bolts. Most of the anchors are 1/2-inch sleeve bolts, although some are either 5/8-inch sleeves or 1/2-inch wedge bolts; 4-inches long. Earl Wiggins and I replaced a lot of drilled anchors on old routes in the late 90s with 1/2-inch, 6-inch-long stainless wedge bolts. They're still really secure in those deep holes. Some old-style routes have had fixed pitons replaced with new Army angles in the same hole. For these I redrill the same hole, only deeper since most Garden pitons were sawed off, and then fill the hole with an industrial-strength 2-part epoxy and pound the 6-inch-long piton into the hole. These are extremely strong since the glue is stronger than the rock and maintains the classic look and feel of the route. Of course, they will rust as Sam points out. To avoid this I try to avoid placing the piton where they will get much water from run-off, avoiding grooves or other water features.

Red Rock Canyon is a somewhat different matter. Most of the park's formations open for climbing are again composed of Lyons sandstone. For all the routes on these cliffs (where most of the routes are), we used mostly 1/2-inch sleeve bolts as well as a few 1/2-inch wedge bolts. The only exceptions are a few routes that Pete Gallagher opened with drilled Army angles and Chouinard angles; again to give an old-style classic Garden feel to the route. On South Pipe Route, Steve Wood used a railroad spike that I found in the canyon for the really old feeling! More than a few climbers have thought that the quarry workers put that spike in 110 years ago...

The rock on the opposite side of the canyon, however, is a very soft Niobrara sandstone. When we put up these routes we wondered how the protection would weather. In the Garden of the Gods just to the north, the same formation (Gray Rock) is fairly hard and the sleeve bolts tend to be secure and tight. At Red Rock Canyon though, the same formation is softer so the bolts we used (1/2-inch by 4-inch) tend to loosen up on the popular routes on The Ripple Wall. I was out there a couple weeks ago and retightening bolts on a bunch of routes. Almost every bolt needed to be tightened. I also inspected the anchors on each one and concluded that at some point the bolts will have to be pulled and replaced with a long stainless steel eyebolt set in epoxy. These routes get a lot of traffic and the anchors and pro bolts will wear out just like the footholds...

The up-shot of all this is, as I prefaced, there is no perfect solution for sandstone anchors. Best thing is to look and analyze the medium where you're drilling and decide what's best. For me--bigger, longer, deeper...hmmmmm, I don't want to go any farther with that allusion!

Sam Lightner, Jr. · · Lander, WY · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 2,511

I already said it, but I'll say it again. All fixed gear is suspect, but a fixed piece that is designed to come out of the rock, made from untreated materials, and (according to the manufacturer) is rated to just 12.5 kn when brand new, is a bad idea. I agree that they are useful for first ascents, but a 1/2 inch hole will give a stronger anchor if that anchor is expanded in the hole... ie a strike anchor or Power bolt (5piece).

Here are a few tips from BD on the use of angles... see if you can find a way that any of these tips conflict with using them as anchors.

"The life span of your pitons depends on
how frequently you use them.
_Pitons lose strength with continued use
and abuse. This means that the breaking
force of the piton may be reduced through
normal wear.
_Do not use your pitons if they are
corroded, cracked, badly bent, broken.
Do not trust old
pitons left behind by some other party.
All of Black Diamonds pitons are
considered progression pitons, and should
be used only for aid climbing. "

For what it's worth, 3/8 bolts are too small, and most bolts I have seen in the desert were placed too shallow... a long 1/2 incher is the way to go if you want it to last and not have to be replaced by a future party.

Sam Lightner, Jr. · · Lander, WY · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 2,511

And if you glue anything in, please make sure its stainless... otherwise, it will be a rusty pile of glue in due time.

FYI, I am not bitching at everyone who puts in angles and I'm not telling everyone what the HAVE to do it my way... I'm just saying what I have found to be the reality... angles don't last and for the long term use of the resource are thus bad (dido 3/8).

Also, I've pulled a lot of angles and bolts in the last few years. Most angles are in with rust, but it does hold. Some take 10 seconds to pull, others 10 minutes. You cannot tell the difference until you start to pull them... Also, most of the "ring" right up until they come out of the rock... this is cus the pin is adhered to the rock with rust.
Bolts rust too, but it takes longer.
Dogs make better pets than cats.
Kobe needs a point guard.

Josh Gross · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Nov 2006 · Points: 1,950

Ok the facts are drilled pitons are the wrong method for anchors in desert. This past week I helped retro build 8 routes on Potash Road.
3/8" drilled angles were coming out in lighting speed. They are old like your grandmother's hairnet!
Climbers need to wake up and not place anything in the desert below 1/2 inch and 2 3/4 long five piece bolts. Fixe rings should be the standard for anchors, no more slings or tat should be placed.
Here is something for folks to think about. This website/community is climbers, we are all the same user group. What happens when say the government steps in and says no more ugly anchors at crag X. We need to be on the same page as a community for a change! Face it, climbing is becoming a main stream sport/pasttime!

Brian in SLC · · Sandy, Utah · Joined Oct 2003 · Points: 18,543
Sam Lightner, Jr. wrote:Also, I've pulled a lot of angles and bolts in the last few years. Most angles are in with rust, but it does hold. Some take 10 seconds to pull, others 10 minutes. You cannot tell the difference until you start to pull them...
I've seen a busted SMC angle from Space Shot that snapped under body weight. Some of those drilled angles placed back in the day are rusting to the point of failure...

Greg Barnes had some interesting fixed anchor info on this thread on supertopo...…

Ditto on this site under the management plan thread in the Nevada forum. I'll ditto his comments about longer Powerbolts in 3/8" having the tendancy to become spinners more often than the shorter 2 1/4" versions, especially in stainless. I think a shorter hole causes the cone to smush less (and less likely to drag dirt with it) and bind better in the shorter lengths. Also seen that in hard rock as well. Stainless cones may just be too soft for long shaft length placements...its an interesting condundrum when you want longer for safer or more burly anchors and might be a diminishing return in reality. Also, its seems that a lot of the desert rock is much harder on or near the surface than the deeper you drill. May account for some of the problems with longer bolts not setting well.

Double expansion cones like some of the Raumers seem to work pretty well. But, might be that a tighter hole is key too. I've placed the 10mm models in drilled 3/8" holes and they seem super snuggy. I wonder if any one has tried them in the desert? Burly bolts, pretty similar to the Fixe. Relatively high installation torque, too.

Yeah, glue ins seem pretty bomber. What are folks using? I've only placed the larger Petzl model. Used Ramset/Redhead C7 if I recall correctly. The ones in Zion (canyons) seem to be holding up really really well. Glue comes available as a small derringer gun too, which, would be pretty handy for some situations.

Some of the wrap around style (one piece of rod stock that is bent around forming the eye then back together for the shaft) glue in bolts seem to have test data that show pretty good promise for soft rock. Can't recall the source, but, was Euro.

Jazz will get swepted, methinks. Hope I'm wrong but...

toddgordon Gordon · · Joshua Tree, California · Joined Nov 2006 · Points: 10,755

I have learned alot from these recent posts on fixed stuff in sandstone. I appreciate Sam and Tony's efforts to make dangerous climbs safe, and with all their testing and experience, it's facinating to me....I listen and learn....there experienc, effort, and hard work is awesome, greatly appreciated by me, and, I hope the rest of the climbing community. I have placed alot of bolts in sandstone, and alot have been drilled angles. Zenyatta Entrada and Finger of Fate need to be top notch , I suppose....but not everything. Sometimes ya just gotta use had you have and what you can come up with to keep on keepin' on....I have placed some strange stuff on sandstone;...stuff that will make you laugh when you first see it, and then cry when you have to use it....I never try to make climbs dangerous on purpose;...just was out to climb, challenge myself, get to the top of climbs, and not kill myself. I also agree with rickd that part of the fun and excitement of desert climbing, especially on the more obscure routes, is all the wierd (and yes;..probably dicey) fixed gear and anchors you see on these climbs. The routes that are getting done alot need the bomber anchors and bolts to handle the volume of traffic. Those lonely routes that are waiting to see their second and third ascents;.....well;....they have the cool funk to quicken the heartrate, frazzle the nerves, and make the adventure more colorful and rich in history, imagination, McGyverisms, and creative usage....enough to keep even the crustiest old desert sandstone addict happy and wettin' himself/herself for many years to come. ....

Sam Lightner, Jr. · · Lander, WY · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 2,511

Hey Rickd, I hear what you are saying and I agree with you and Todd G...Not every route needs to be updated with the strongest stuff... and personally, I'm not going to even attempt that. Even at the climbing area that I helped to start and then led the retro fitting effort (three different full retro fits), which is the Phra nang Peninsula, I have left some routes alone. Certainly in the desert, the harder routes can be cared for by the rare person who climbs it, and that person will no doubt have the experince to understand what is right and what is wrong. But the trade routes, which I would consider to be virtually every route on MP that is really detailed, should have the best stuff. This replacing, then re-replacing, then re-re-re-replacing of angles, has really made a mess of some of the climbs (Virgin Wool and Zenyatta Entrad to name a couple). Half inch bolts would have saved a lot of climber-created errosion. In my opinion, the new anchors are not as much about saving climbers ("Wanna be safe... dont climb in the desert"), and more about protecting the resource. But even with that stated, I see no reason for sketchy rap anchors... what a lousy way to go.

I recognize that anchors like angles, star drives, leeper hangers, and whatever have become a part of desert climbing. As a matter of fact, there was a discussion of this, so to speak, on the rebolting of the Kingfisher and Cottontail. I pointed out there that i left many of the museaum pieces in place as they are a part of the climbing.

Here is an interesting point to consider: A few years ago I had a conversation with Chris Kalous about hard aid. Chris, for those who don't know, has climbed many an A5 pitch, including in the fishers. In the conversation he said to me "A5 doesn't exist". I said it does. He said it doesn't, the logic being that it has to be proven as A5 by showing that a fall will kill you and people climbing A5 don't get killed on those pitches. "The truth is, there are only POTENTIAL A5 pitches."... and if a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it....

Well, I just retrofitted many of the anchors and 1 of every 4 bolts on West Side Story last month. I did so with three other very experienced desert climbers. THe one who led the crux pitch was not too concerned about the placing of the pieces, but did feel that the bolt ladder was "somewhere between A1 and A5". Now that pitch, established by Carter in the late 60's, was not A5 for Carter... it was A1 as it was put in with the best gear of the time. Why should people 40 years afterards climb it as a "potential A5"? Shouldn't a bolt ladder be updated to the best we currently have? ANd again, back to the resource management part, shouldn't it be made so that it doesn't have to be made A1 by every third party adding a bolt?

And i agree... the Jazz will be swept... if not, it will only be a 5 game series.
Spurs/Pistons = Spurs in 6... might as well sleep through it.

James Garrett · · Salt Lake City, UT · Joined Jun 2005 · Points: 4,919

Again Sam, Great points and I don't understand how anyone can disagree with you. I have done West Side Story on Cottontail when I believe we got probably something like the 13th ascent (according to the register?). Anyway, that is really right on thinking about the bolt ladders in the desert. They may be A1 in the guidebooks and may have been A0 or A1 for the FA, but they are often scarier than the placing of gear 20-30 years down the road. And intentionally placing spinner or poor bolt placements is weird? I remember we nailed a bit on the route back then and felt those placements were much better than the bolt ladders. I know it goes clean now. Maybe it was psychological, but I support replacing manky bolts whether it be in the desert or elsewhere 100%. If a bolt is to occupy a hole, it may as well be unquestionably bomber!

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

Southern Utah Deserts
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