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Climbing history and the ethics of bolting
The short, short version
by Greg Barnes ©2001

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Climbing In North America by Chris Jones
Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber by Steve Roper
Defying Gravity by Gary Arce

Please read the three books listed above for a far better and more complete history. Each of these books offers outstanding reading. The latter two books, and this short history, are quite Yosemite-centric. The history of climbing in Europe involves much of the 19th century, and is totally beyond the scope of this account.
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? – approximately AD 1300

Prehistoric Anasazis in the southwest United States drilled holes for posts and carved steps up sheer rock walls in Chaco Canyon and elsewhere, and also pounded logs into cracks to form ladders. The surviving examples are clearly in locations for use as trails. However, since the Chaco Canyon culture and others were highly advanced, it’s quite possible that even 5th class spires were ascended for recreation or religious purposes, and that the intervening centuries have erased any traces. Rock art examples are frequently found in places requiring modern 5.0-5.6 climbing to access.

1875

The hugely popular trail up Half Dome ascends a steep slab at the top, and modern hikers use large cables secured by giant bolts and steel posts. The entire dome was deemed “perfectly inaccessible” by Josiah Whitney, but in 1875 George Anderson, a trail builder from Scotland, drilled holes, pounded spikes in them, stood on them, and repeated, gaining the top in a bold feat of mountaineering (he was alone as well – no partners!). Here was the first famous case of the use of “bolts” for climbing in the U.S., in this case as points of aid as well as protection by having the rope tied into the spike below him as he went. George Anderson also did a route on Yosemite's Mt. Starr King where he used at least one protection bolt.

1911

John Otto pounded and carved his way to the top of the 350’ Independence Monument in Colorado National Monument after living at its base for five years. Installing pipes in holes and chopping holds in the soft sandstone, he made his way to the top on July 4th. Otto labored for years to attract tourists and publicize the Monument, saying “I want to see this scenery opened up to all people.” His labors paid off, and the Monument was declared and the land protected in 1911. No climber would today justify carving a vertical trail up the rock, but Otto’s achievement was amazing, and the times and ethics were quite different from today.

1933-1934

At Pinnacles National Monument, south of San Francisco, bolts were used in modern climbing for possibly the first time in the United States by David Brower, along with Hervey Voge and George Rockwood, in the first ascents of the North and South summits of Condor Crags at Pinnacles National Monument (November 1933). A year later, Brower, his brother Ralph, and Dick Leonard established the Regular Route on Tuff Dome. This route set another first, as two bolts were placed specifically to protect 5.6 free climbing. Also in 1934, the first ascent of Lower Cathedral Spire in Yosemite involved the carving of artificial holds up the edge of a flake. Unremarkable at the time, such an act would today be far more controversial than the use of bolts, and with justification, as bolts can normally be erased to the point where even a climber can not find them, while a notched flake will last until the destruction of the flake, and cannot be reversed.

1939

The first ascent of the spectacular desert monolith Shiprock is often cited as the first use of modern climbing bolts. Again, David Brower, who would in later decades become perhaps the single most influential environmentalist and conservationist in the world, was involved, and the team used bolts for belay and rappel on the desperately loose, poor quality rock. They were aware of the inherently controversial nature of bolting and hammering, and referred to themselves as “rock engineers,” a derisive term used by eastern mountaineers opposed to the new techniques being used in the West.


An immense amount of information is available on the last half century of climbing in the United States, and I’ll summarize the 40s-70s very quickly, because to do justice to this period would require way too much space. Bolts have always been controversial. They were rarely used, but even when used were questioned and debated. Bolts were used for aid and to protect free climbing. Debates raged when more and more bolts were used on big walls. The debates sometimes included chopping of “excess” bolts by better climbers on subsequent ascents (later to be reversed greatly through the addition of “chicken” bolts by worse climbers). Leaving the bolt kit behind on ascents of the established big walls was the highest statement of ethics (and dangerous!); if the team was not capable of the difficult pitoncraft or free climbing of the first ascent team, they would not reach the top. Warren Harding became known for forcing aid routes up blank faces through bolts, but he had been the first to summit El Capitan, so criticism was limited. Free climbing generally had little debate since bolts were almost universally placed from stance on lead; even the addition of a few bolts to the classic Snakedike, done with permission of the first ascent team, was seen as simply allowing the amazing route to be done (somewhat) safely by others. Some tightly-bolted routes caused stirs, especially on the rare occasions when bolts were used for aid while placing the next bolt, then the route free climbed once it had been aided. A huge debate surrounded the large numbers of bolts used on the first ascent of the Dawn Wall (aka Wall of Early Morning Light) on El Capitan; for the first time, a major route was (partially)“erased,” or chopped, by the second ascent team. But, generally, all free climbing routes were done ground-up from stance, and the inherent limitations on climbing by that method produced routes which were bold, run-out, and mentally challenging.

A major debate, and big bolt battles within the climbing community, occurred in the 1980s and to some extent continues to this day. Two changes brought this about: rappel bolting began, which allowed the pioneers to put up routes stretching the difficulty limits to new heights; and the advent of motorized drills allowed the immense time to drill a bolt to be cut by a factor of 50 (and effort by a nearly infinite factor). In a short time, these two developments also allowed less experienced and less advanced climbers to bolt routes, often drilling on rappel where advanced climbers could drill on lead. It also lowered the commitment level – instead of days of drilling and sore elbows and hands, a few hours produced a new route. Huge ethical battles, bolt chopping, fist-fights, and arguments raged. The very fact that bolts could so easily be installed by anyone in great quantity almost pre-determined that rappel-bolted sport climbing would win by sheer quantity.

By the ‘90s, large numbers of well-bolted climbs reduced the psychological component of climbing and increased the physical component in many locations. Today many climbers routinely climb at levels that they would never conceive of on traditionally bolted face climbs, and many areas have seen wave after wave of bolting consuming nearly every available section of rock. Traditionally protected testpiece face climbs of the 1980s have often never seen a second ascent. The climbing community changed in composition, and climbers began to expect that well-protected face climbs were the rule instead of the exception. Indoor gyms appeared on the scene, and the number of climbers who had no clue at all about the seriousness and danger level on traditional routes skyrocketed. The rating system grew largely meaningless as nearly no components describing seriousness, type of climbing, and commitment were used. Today many climbers are used to thinking of themselves as“5.11 climbers,” when in fact they are not even slightly prepared for the seriousness and difficulty encountered on 5.8 climbs outside. Some routes at the 5.9 and 5.10a level in Yosemite, such as Steck/Salathé, Lost Arrow Chimney, and the Crack of Doom, are more difficult and dangerous by far than the “hardest” routes in the world, currently 5.15. Since all of the latter have lots of closely spaced bolts, there is little danger commitment required - instead, ferocious power, technical skill, and perseverance are required.

However, bolt chopping continues to this day, as tightly bolted routes and new rappel stations where downclimbing was the previous norm are chopped. Debates still rage, and many climbers rappel bolt routes only to come to a later realization that they should not have done so. A tiny minority of first ascensionists continue with tradition and establish bold new routes on lead with only occasional use of bolts.

Now, the pendulum may be swinging back, as more climbers turn to no-rope bouldering, and a resurging interest in ground-up traditional climbing may be occurring. It is difficult to say however, as the simple fact is that sport climbing is much safer, and even those who carry on the traditional methods often climb sport climbs on “psychological days off.” Very few climbers are capable of bold climbing at high levels, and fewer still are capable of doing so routinely. The popularity of routes has many factors, but good protection is primary, overshadowed only by rating and perhaps accessibility. Like it or not, well-protected sport climbs draw crowds, and thus land managers concentrating on bolts do so with some reason. However, Joshua Tree demonstrates that a good 5.7 crack sees endless traffic, while a tightly-bolted 5.13 never even has the grass at its base disturbed by a single footprint.

The most ominous sign for climbers is that the surging popularity of climbing has brought land management agencies into the onerous task of trying to regulate climbing, as they were forced to do with hiking and backpacking a generation ago. One obvious method is to prohibit the use of bolts. The U.S. Forest Service announced that it would do just that in 1998, and retracted that announcement under the massive protests of climbers and the climbing industry. However, a Negotiated Rulemaking Committee was formed, and it could not agree on a compromise, so the Forest Service will shortly issue its new policy, which could entirely ban bolts, pitons, slings, and any other fixed climbing gear.

It is important to remember what David Brower said in 1999 - that bolts are tiny and easily removed, and that the land managers have no business telling climbers what to do with bolts when they routinely allow and encourage logging, mining, grazing, oil drilling, and paving the parks for RVs and tour buses. Some environmentalists claiming to hold the moral high ground while attacking the use of bolts by climbers should look in the mirror and deal with real issues like pollution, global warming, stopping development, wilderness preservation, etc. Many climbers, from John Muir to David Brower to today, are among the strongest and most vocal environmentalists. The issue of climbing anchors is a meaningless one in the overall environment, and little climbing bolts can be removed trivially easily. Having "hikers" attack "climbers" over little bolts that no one can spot without detailed directions is an obvious divide and conquer tactic by those wishing to weaken the conservation movement.

Greg Barnes

Greg is the Director of the American Safe Climbing Association. He thanks Steve Roper for assistance in editing this piece.