This blog has not been written by a qualified climbing instructor and is only intended for use as a reminder of good practice. All climbers should take responsibility for their own competence and consider obtaining training by a qualified instructor prior to climbing outside. This includes how to lead climb, tying-off, striping routes and the equipment you should carry for safety. Anything written in this blog should not replace any advice given by a qualified instructor or that provided by experienced bolt fund representatives.
The vast majority of people that climb or boulder, do so indoors. There’s plastic holds and in-situ quickdraws and permanent carabiners at the top of every route. Perfect hey! But… what happens when you go outside to try sport climbing? Have you taken a course or gone out with a qualified instructor and learnt all about bolt etiquette? Have you ever given any thought as to how those bolts get there, if they’re safe and what happens if they need replacing? The Bolt Fairy sorts it out right? Wrong!
So, you turn up to the crag, you climb up your chosen route, clipping your draws all the way to the top and have a wonderful day climbing in the sun (hopefully!). Did you ever give any thought to the bolts? It’s easy to take them for granted, almost think they’ve always been there. What about the sort of condition they are in? Did you think to look closely to see if the glue or rock has eroded around them? Did you consider the integrity of the bolts at the lower off? How well-travelled the route has been? Let’s face it, how many of us do if we rarely get outside or purely haven’t given it any thought?
WHO BOLTS THE ROUTES?
Thousands of sport routes were bolted decades ago, especially where we climb in Dorset at Portland and Swanage, but this can be applied to many climbing areas. Routes were bolted by local or keen climbers, often entire crags by one person, or in the case of Kalymnos, almost the entire island by one person! These people often had no special skills for bolting but yet their love of climbing drove them to develop the areas we are lucky enough to have today. But what happens to all these tens of thousands of bolts over the years after continuous rope wear and the impact of falling climbers?
THE BOLT FAIRY
Now you’re hopefully picturing all these zillions of bolts and viewing outdoor routes in a different light. Maybe even considering who replaces old bolts and monitors the crags? The BMC maybe? Sadly not. The BMC do own and maintain a few crags in the UK, for example; Horseshoe Quarry in the Peak District. In most other cases the land is privately owned but these land owners do not get involved with the bolting at all. So, there really must be a Bolt Fairy?! Still wrong! You may laugh but it’s amazing how many people don’t give it a single thought and continue to climb in a degree of ignorance, innocently or not.
A lot of crags don’t get maintained at all. Some are looked after and routes bolted by keen climbers or those handy with a drill. Other areas are lucky enough to have designated Bolt Funds. There are many bolt funds that exist; the Dorset Bolt Fund, The Peak Bolt Fund to name a couple in the UK, and many others across the world that may not be quite so publicly known. I’ll use our local one, the Dorset Bolt Fund (DBF), as an example purely as we know them and have been closely involved with them over recent years. Now, it sounds grand right? Or at least like it’s a big organisation? Nope! The DBF is effectively one guy who has the occasional support of other keen local climbers. The person in question spends most of his time when he’s not at work, retro-bolting routes that are in a poor state, replacing worn bolts and generally keeping us safe. Please note that he does not get paid for this. Neither do any of the helpers he may be lucky enough to round up for a bolting day. The metal work (‘P’ bolts and chains for the lower offs) costs money, almost £100 to re-bolt one single route, and the ‘Fund’ is completely reliant on donations from climbers. I guess we could think of him as the Bolt Fairy, but I’m not sure he’d be happy about that label! He certainly doesn’t look like one! Other bolt funds are a similar set up with only one or two people running them essentially out of the goodness of their hearts… and maybe because no one else wants to.
Believe it or not, the DBF had three bolt failures reported in 2017, one of which was a lower off that the Pongoose Team discovered on the ground at Battleship in Portland. Now, my intention here is not to terrify you or put you off climbing outside, but to simply alert you to the fact that bolts do fail. Of course, sometimes there’s just no way you can know unless you’ve got those x-ray googles I mentioned earlier, especially when it comes to rock integrity, but there are a few things you can do.
Don’t top rope directly through the lower off bolts
As locals to Portland, we very often see poor bolt etiquette from other climbers that are less experienced outside. The most common is top roping directly through the lower off bolts or in-situ carabiners. Often the more experienced climber will lead the route, tie-off at the top so the rope is purely through the top bolts or carabiners, meaning they don’t have to re-climb it to strip it once their less experienced partner has climbed it. For those of you saying ‘what’s wrong with that?’, this is because dust and dirt on the rope acts as an abrasive and wears away the metal over time. You might have seen half worn through lower off bolts on old, well-travelled routes, particularly lower grade ones that groups linger on during a day out climbing. The correct method is to clip two quickdraws into the lower off and top rope through these. It will require someone experienced to re-climb the route and strip it to retrieve the draws again, which can be annoying when you’re tired, but hey, that’s just the way it is. Sadly, some people do not take kindly to having this pointed out but essentially, we are all responsible for the maintenance of the bolts and I’d rather politely educate people if it means extending the life of the metal work. Remember, a single lower off chain complex alone can cost up to £35!
Lower off: chain with ring vs two staples
If a route using staples has been retro-bolted, you may see a chain at the top instead of two staples or two staples with mallions and rings. If there are any of the above with a round ring on the bottom, the ring is what you are meant to tie-off through. When you get to the lower off and someone is going to top rope it after you, clip your quickdraws into the bolts and leave the rope clipped safely into them rather than tying off through the bolts/rings. When stripping it, tie-off through the ring(s). The reason for this is that the rings spin and distribute the wear more evenly than when the rope runs through two fixed staples where the rope will always wear out the same points. If you’re on a route with Petzl style bolts, you will likely have two in-situ carabiners to clip into and these will also be subject to wear so keep an eye on these. There are also other types of lower off used but the moral of the story is to always be vigilant and reduce wear as much as possible.
Consider use of mallions wisely
Mallions are a great thing to keep handy if you need to bail on a Petzl type bolt that you can’t tie-off through for reasons of sharpness, but they can often be used inappropriately. In Kalymnos, the local climbing shops sell thousands of mallions every year that get abandoned on routes, only to rust and remain there until someone cuts them off, if that ever happens. Why not use your Pongoose clipstick as suggested before? If you always have it, you wont likely need a mallion, unless you’ve got half way up and forgotten all your quickdraws!
If you’re lowering off from the smooth ‘p’ or ‘d’ shaped staples, you do not need mallions. You can tie-off directly through the staples. Please remember the mallions will rust and cannot be removed without being cut off with an angle-grinder. These can cause problems where the staples are small and tying-off can become a nightmare when you’ve got a mallion, a quickdraw and a sling carabiner all in one bolt. I personally had a complete melt down at the top of a route at Wallsend in Portland last weekend where someone had left two mallions (rusted shut of course) in the lower off bolts, which also happened to be rather small. I top roped it and Rob had left the two quickdraws in the top but then when I got to the point of putting in my sling, I couldn’t get the quickdraws out and there would have been no room to thread the rope through either. I was hanging with all my weight on the draws and couldn’t plant my feet to de-weight them to remove any of the metal work. It was stressful to say the least!
DO YOUR PART
This is just a short blog with a few points designed to help make you aware of a few common mis-conceptions and bolt blunders that climbers make when embarking on the delights of outdoor sport climbing. There really is more to it than rocking up, paying no entry fee, and blasting your way up a handful of routes.
Why not consider supporting your local bolt fund? You can even do this when you go abroad. Guidebooks often have details about the local funds in the front of the books. You pay every time you climb inside so why not contribute to keep our wonderful outdoor crags up and running and safe? Some accept direct debit donations or you can send one off contributions. If money is tight there are other ways to help. You could offer to go on a bolting day if you see it advertised on social media. Even if you have no experience, that metal work is blooming heavy and extra hands for carrying and even belaying for the drillers is super helpful. After all, there really is no Bolt Fairy, there’s just the climbing community… and that’s all of us.
By Katie Rendall.
Photography by After the Send and Marti Hallett.
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