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Bolt Installation   

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General Issues 

If the first crux of successful and sustainable bolting is choosing the proper equipment, the second crux is proper installation of that equipment. Proper installation includes the technical aspects of actually drilling the hole and placing the bolt as well as the more variable and subjective ethics that guide the density and location of those bolts. Thus, the proper installation of bolts does not mean the same exact thing in all climbing areas, as the ethics and regulations governing the use of bolts may be specific to individual crags and regions. Established local practices serve as the template for future development in any given area. Routes established too far outside the norm risk being criticized by the established climbing population and can endanger access.

Some bolt installation concepts are more or less constant. All bolts should be placed according to the manufacturers specs and located so that they provide the desired fall protection, ideally guarding the falling climber against contact with the ground or ledges. The bolts should be lined up with the route such that the falls avoid swinging and the clips are within easy reach of logical clipping positions. At the same time, clipping bolts is usually easier (i.e. more balanced) when the bolts are slightly left or right of center. Bolts should be placed with the shorter person in mind. A safe or easy clip for someone near six feet tall may be much more difficult or dangerous for a person closer to the five foot mark.

Rock Climbing Photo: Solid bolted anchor with rap rings

Solid bolted anchor with rap rings
Someone keen on adding bolts to rock should ask themselves a series of questions. Is bolting allowed in the given area? Is permission required before putting up new routes or replacing aged bolts? If the law or the ethics of the area do not foreclose bolting all together, how close together should bolts be and how high to should be first bolt be placed? Is a stick-clip standard equipment in the area in question? Are the runs between bolts long and heady or short and comfortable?

Some climbing areas have bolts placed in intervals similar to those in most climbing gyms, every couple of moves. Other areas only place bolts for protection from ground fall, meaning that run outs between bolts can be significant. Some crags have been established for mixed protection, where removable protection is used where possible and bolts protect the sections void of natural protection. Yet, other areas have been established with entirely bolt-protected climbs, even if the occasional natural placement is possible.

Horizontal spacing of routes also varies and can affect the quality and aesthetics of the routes. Some routes are only placed a body length apart from their neighbors while others are given much more space. Rock type and quality as well as setting and consensus guide route density. In general, routes need to be established with enough room such that the climbers and their belayers will not crowd or endanger one another when on neighboring routes. Uniqueness of the rock and the desire to establish routes of varying grades are other factors to consider when deciding on density.

At established crags, it is prudent to let the existing ethics guide bolt use. Local ethics should also be the starting point for making decisions concerning bolt usage at undeveloped crags. When deciding whether to add new routes or develop new crags, the benefit of the addition should be considered. Is there a “need” for a new route? Will the new route be of similar quality to others in the area? Will new routes endanger access by encouraging crowds or cluttering a visible wall with fixed gear? The answers to these questions are not dispositive, but they are all important to ask oneself before permanently altering any rock.

Many of the issues discussed imme are specific to establishing new routes. Though by no means an easier task, rebolting is more straight-forward in the sense that the route’s location has already been established. It is rare for a route rebolting to include placing additional new bolts. However, unless the old bolt has pulled cleanly from its hole such that a new bolt can be installed in the exact same spot, a new hole will be needed. This can be an opportunity to reposition a poorly located bolt, but the total number of bolts and general location remain the same. In most cases, the new hole should be located within easy reach of the same clipping position as the original bolt. Soft or uneven rock may change this slightly, but preserving the original character of the route must be taken into account.


After considering the local ethics and laws, aesthetics, and access, a first-ascensionist should make a game plan. This plan should begin with the type and approximate number of bolts and hangers to be used based upon rock type and environment.

Then, consideration should be given to where the bolts will go. The difficulty of this task will vary based upon the length and angle of each prospective route. Some single pitch routes may have rests and clips that are obvious from the ground while multi-pitch routes or those with more cryptic sequences can be tough to gauge. When establishing routes top down, it may be effective to climb the route on top-rope first and mark ideal clips. If it is possible to let go to tick a bolt placement, the clip is likely manageable. Perhaps have climbers of varying body compositions all conduct the same exercise in order to make sure that neither height nor reach are limiting factors. This same technique can be employed on rebolting projects that necessitate new holes. Marking holes helps ensure proper placement.

When establishing routes ground-up, especially on-sight, deciding on bolt locations may occur more spontaneously without deep consideration of important factors. Care should be taken to occasionally consider the route in its entirety to avoid over-bolting, clips entirely off of one hand, or other avoidable mistakes that can creep up when not taking a more holistic approach.

After determining the best equipment and location for each bolt placement, the first-ascensionist should make sure that they have all of the tools needed for the planned project. All of the tools should either be attached to the climber via keeper cords or carabineers or should be placed in some type of container and clipped to the climber. Tools are easy to drop and a dropped tool can be dangerous, costly, or simply a waste of time.

Ground-up versus Top-down 

While less divisive than in decades past, one of the most contentious issues among climbers within the United States has been an argument over top-down versus ground-up bolting.
Bolting ground-up on lead is considered the traditional approach. In it purest form, routes bolted ground-up are developed onsight, with little or no reconnaissance or rehearsal. The first-ascensionist climbs until, in his or her judgment, a bolt is needed. Then, without weighting the equipment, a bolt is installed and the climber continues upward. Hooks or other gear only capable of supporting body weight (not a dynamic fall) may be employed if the drilling stance is otherwise too strenuous to place the bolt.

On the other end of the spectrum, top-down bolting is done by fixing a rope at the top of the desired line and ascending or descending the rope to get to the desired locations for the bolts. The danger and difficulty of bolting is significantly mitigated by top rope. Perhaps dating back to rock climbing’s roots in traditional mountaineering, accessing a new route via the top is considered by some climbers as counter to the ideal of approaching and ascending a cliff sight unseen and without support from previous climbers.

However, top-down bolting makes bolt placement on steep or blank rock more possible where it would otherwise be extremely challenging. This allows for more frequently correct bolt placement and installation for subsequent parties. Routes can be top-roped and bolts can be placed without the physical difficulty and fear associated with being on lead. Bolting on rappel or from ascenders also lets the bolter take the time to drill deep enough, clean the hole properly, and place an adequately sized bolt.

Ironically, many at the top of traditional climbing standards in the U.S. are employing top-down tactics on new routes (i.e. TC on Dawn Wall) while top sport climbers are venturing into such steep terrain that bolting ground up, from hooks or RBs, is the only viable option (e.g. Sharma on steep limestone). Thus, sometimes the terrain dictates bolting approaches more than rigid ideologies.

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