Bolts… why not

Bolting is unsustainable

For the following reasons bolting is unsustainable;

  • It causes significant irreversible damage to the rock
  • The ‘Decades’ of use we get out of a bolt placement is minute compared with the entire future of climbing (How many hundreds of years?)
  • It rapidly speeds up destruction of crags through higher volumes in traffic and a greater intensity of use
  • It ruins potential for new clean lines and therefore having a destructive nature on the traditional aspect of climbing. It is worth mentioning that no other protection practice has such a destructive effect on the enjoyment of other aspects of the sport.

Bolts are not necessary most of the time

The majority of bolts are on relatively easy climbs; perhaps not so much in the UK, but certainly in countries which have adopted wide spread bolting.

On these routes it is almost always possible to use natural protection instead, often ‘bolt-only’ climbers think the routes are ‘unprotectable’ when it is far from the truth. This often stems from the fact that they have not had the opportunity to learn how to place gear and therefore do not know when it is good – coupled with the fact that they are never looking for it

Yes, there are hard bolted routes – where is it hard to imagine anyone ever climbing it using natural protection. But they said this in the 1980’s and were proven wrong, for this generation this is unlikely to be any different. At any rate, the ‘elite’ end of sport climbing does a very small proportion of the physical damage done to the rock.

Bolts are aesthetically unappealing

A scattering of man made shiny items with or without a pasting of glue around it on some of our most dramatic natural features is not exactly pretty. Other people enjoy these environments and bolting it up will detract from its beauty for others. Of course this could apply to chalk, but at least chalk generally washes off in the rain and is very unlikely to cause anything like the irreparable damage bolts cause.

In some areas people might start to realise the mess bolts make, maybe not now, but in the future and use it as an argument to stop people climbing and destroying these often very ancient rock structures.

Where bolts are acceptable

On indoor walls
A great place to climb as hard as possible on longer routes without destroying the rock.

On outdoor manufactured climbing walls (Buildings/purpose made walls)
Again, a good place for bolts to exist! Perhaps it could incourage making more use of the cities, a few bolts won’t cause detriment to natural environments here.

Where bolts are more acceptable

  1. Crags where the rock is too soft to take repeated gear placements in a sustainable manner and top roping is not possible.  Where top roping is possible then the addition of top rope anchors is a far more sustainable option than bolting up routes minimising the long-term damage to the rock and leaving the climb open for ascents in different styles.
  2. On climbs or crags that have absolutely no gear and are at an extremely hard level*.  These extremely hard climbs are often cited as a be-all-and-end-all justification for bolts but, in reality, the vast majority of bolting happens far below this level of difficulty and on traditionally protectable terrain.*i.e. Top level climbers spend weeks , months or years trying to complete the moves
  3. On hard climbs with very little gear and no realistic top-out making climbing it traditionally very unlikely, preferably on crags where all the routes are similar in this nature making a crag that would otherwise be enjoyed empty and without routes.
  4. Perhaps on modern quarry rock faces – when the whole crag has been made by man, and perhaps it is an ‘abomination’ itself – but this doesn’t mean that bolts should be used when it can be climbed clean!

What is ‘no’ gear?

This raises the issue of what is ‘no’ gear. There are not as many climbs that have ‘no gear’ than people often believe. If you examine most bolted climbs you will see that they are indeed protectable, it might be less protection than we would like, however understanding, calculating and breaking down risk is a big part of climbing – making the climbs more challenging and therefore more rewarding. No gear – is as it says, no gear.

The best locations for bolted lines in reality are hard climbs with very little or no gear across the whole crag and no realistic top out. Sadly many moderate bolted climbs exist on routes where a walk off  is perfectly possible.

Responses to common pro-bolting arguments

These views are elitist!
Because something is hard, it should be made easier so it is not ‘elitist’?  If this was applied other sports, perhaps we could make a marathon less for less able runners so they all finish at the same time, or allow darts players to stand closer to the board so the challenge is less, or in gymnastics competition allow lesser able competitors more comfortable landings so they dare to make the moves etc…

This argument is poor; climbers can climb traditionally at any grade. It is not elitist in the slightest.

If a climber wants to do hard moves in safety there are many options open to them; they can do it on a top rope, take up bouldering or even deep water soloing.

Of course on a top rope it is not ‘on lead’ but in reality if the vanity of wanting to have done something ‘on lead’ is the core reason for causing permenant damage to the rock it says little for climber’s attitudes.

Bolts make ‘impossible’ climbs safe
So does a top rope only you don’t have to drill holes all over the rock. The requirement to ‘lead’ something instead of using a top rope is basically putting selfish wants over the longevity of millions of year old rock formations.

The hardest climbs in the world are bolted
Simply not true. Check the hardest bouldering problems in the world, the moves will inherently be harder due to the fact that there are less of them. Also – define ‘hard’ there is a strong argument to suggest that the hardest traditional routes are in fact the hardest routes because they require huge reserves of mental strength alongside physical.

Logically speaking, if it can be climbed using bolts, it can be climbed clean or soloed. Just because you can’t imagine it happening today – just wait 20 years and see what happens. Or, for other examples look at the hard sport climbs of the 80’s and how often they get on sighted today.

Bolts reduce accidents
Where is the evidence to prove this? – While compiling this article we have not been able to find any credible sources to suggest this one way or another.

There was a study done on children and climbing frames, and it found that by having rubber matting on the floor instead of concrete did not reduce injuries, it turns out that the children perceived there to be more safe with the rubber matting and took more risks – perhaps bolts follow a similar pattern.

Climbing is a dangerous sport, bolts or no bolts – many sport routes can be equaly well protected with traditional gear and this can be coupled with the fact that people are less likley to fall when over natural gear compared with bolts.

Bolts at belays and portaledges make sense
Rocking around in a storm on a portaledge attached to some not so great gear is going to be scary as. But on the other hand, perhaps its best to put the ledge somewhere with good gear, or accept that you are on a hard climb and this is one of the reasons why it is hard.

If you need to use bolts to put up a route you are taking the route away from someone more able who will be able to climb it without.

Bolts on ‘trade routes’ are OK
Just because lots of people use it, doesn’t mean that it should be made even more accessible, it’s a poor justification based entirely around (often guides) convenience and speed. If the route is that easy, then the protection should be adequate, if the protection is too hard, then one should just climb elsewhere until they are good enough or fast enough.

By bolting a route it will only enhance its ‘trade route’ status meaning that bolts inevitably become self-justifying invalidating the whole argument.


Historically, the ethics dictate that it’s OK

For crags that were initially aided using pegs, people might say that it is fine to drill bolts.

This is just nonsense, historically many things were seen to be OK; like slavery, torture or crapping out the window in to the street.

Just because the history of a crag is based around fixed protection it doesn’t mean that that is where the progression of climbing styles and ethics should remain forever.

See the argument about why bolts are unsustainable.

The locals at the crag feel that this is how it should be
Firstly ‘the locals’ very rarely own the rock, and again just because that is the style that has developed, doesn’t mean that it is there where climbing progression stops.

Secondly they are rarely the only people who enjoy the natural environment so having the local climbers dictate that bolting anything is OK is a misrepresentation of everyone who uses the place – people rarely take in to the consideration of people who visit but don’t climb there – these places have different visitors for different reasons.

Traditional gear also damages the rock
This one is a pathetic argument, all climbing damages the rock, it is impossible not to – but the real question is how can you REDUCE the level in which you damage the rock – and bolting is quite obviously not the answer.

See the argument about why bolts are unsustainable.

Trad or ‘clean’ climbers can simply climb around the bolts
This argument can only be brought up from a basis of general ignorance as to what traditional climbing is about and what makes it challenging. For example; if a climber is about to start on a difficult piece of climbing on a traditional climb where there is no gear for some distance, they may also be doing it in the knowledge that they may not be able to reverse the moves, to complete this part of the climb will require mental and physical strength. If there was a bolt half way up this – effectively providing an easy retreat this ‘mental crux’ simply would not exist in the same way.

Bolts, for many routes, will inherently destroy much of the mental challenge and difficulties the route presents to the climber. To suggest that it is the same to simply climb around the bolts is nonsense; and to believe it can only show a lack of understanding.

And lastly “Future ‘Anti gravity mats’ mean that we won’t need bolts for too much longer, so bolting now is sustainable
This is reminiscent of people who say they don’t mind smoke excessively because they will have something to cure lung cancer by the time they get it and equally daft only a cure for cancer is far more likely than a portable anti gravity mat (talk to a physicist to find out more).

Weak arguments against bolting

‘It’s just not ‘proper’ climbing’
What is the point in saying this? It only agitates and offends and, when the real issue is not the experience individuals have on a climb but the damage many years of bolting does. This particular argument only goes to create a bigger divide, heals dug in deeper and nice people getting upset. (And lets face it, almost all climbers are nice people)

This attitude also ensures that those who are against bolting are seen as an ‘elitist’ arrogant bunch which undermines the logical arguments that they have.


‘Sport climbing is rubbish’

It obviously is not or people wouldn’t do it in such large numbers.


‘It’s not a sport and it’s not climbing’

Ah yes, the good old rhetoric – but it is a sport and it is climbing, the big shame is the extent of the irreversible damage it does to the rock. See first point.


‘Bolts are murdering the impossible’

Although a true point it is not for us to criticise a quote from one of the worlds most impressive and accomplished climbers.

However, for the majority of people, use this phrase they forget that its not just the impossible that suffers – but also the ‘quite easy to do’, the ‘moderate’, the ‘tricky’, the ‘hard’.. and so on.  It also takes away the opportunity for many people in many places to learn climbing in a way that does not damage the rock, involves more mental aspects, can be more rewarding and gives them the skills to be able to go climbing anywhere in the world.

Part of the problem with this argument is that when taken in context; an elite climber talking to the climbing community, an audience mainly made up of lower level climbers, the first thing they are going to think is ‘well that’s ok to say if you’re one of the worlds best climbers’ and voil; the entire point is dismissed by the majority of the climbing community.

See here for some better arguments