May 12, 2016

Deputies or Outlaws: The Future of Fixed Anchors

By Jeff Achey, Contributing editor for Climbing Magazine and Creative Director at Wolverine Publishing

Standing below a superb crag in the Nevada hills, I scoped the climb above me—a nice line of pockets, runnels, and big modern bolts…each with a pale swath of zinc streaking the blue limestone. Kinda sad. Stainless is expensive, and developers at most US crags pay for hardware out of their own pockets—a scenario that has led to tens of thousands of non-stainless anchors being placed at crags across the nation, especially in the “arid” West, where conventional wisdom has held that they are just fine. This crag was obviously loved and respected by its local developers, but typical of most newish sport crags I’ve visited there was still a hodgepodge of hardware, some stainless, some inexpensive zinc-plated.

Standing below that climb, I considered my own bolting history. Drilled angles and Star-Drives on desert towers in the 1980s. “Modern” 3/8” zinc-plated sleeve bolts (supplemented by assorted fixed pins and hardware-store funk) on my first sport climbs in the 1990s. Lots of 1/2” Rawls in the 2000s, also plated steel. Most recently, 3/8” stainless-steel wedge bolts, my go-to standard for the local crags, affordable but still not the very best. Yes, I have definitely improved my game in the 35 years I’ve been bolting, but I have to admit that over the years I’d been responsible for a daunting number of sub-standard anchors. Many of these had already been upgraded and replaced by other climbers.

It’s partly because of people like me that the Access Fund organizes its “Future of Fixed Anchors” conferences, to take on big questions like plated vs. stainless and “best practices” for equipping in general. This spring the conference, sponsored by Petzl, a company that has been extremely active in the hardware-upgrade movement, convened at the Bonnie Springs resort, a quirky, convenient venue only a few miles from Red Rocks, where the annual RR Rendezvous was going on simultaneously. It struck me as somehow appropriate that the event was held at a Wild West resort and theme park—and on April Fool’s Day.

FFA 2 Conference

As 60-odd bolt geeks and local climbing organization reps from across the country discussed minutia, outside the theme-park staff was staging a mock hanging. A rogue outlaw argued his case, but ultimately, inevitably, received his frontier justice. He had his reasons for his misbehavior, citing other citizens’ misdeeds, his impoverished circumstances, etc., but in the end, a jury of his peers found him guilty. No one got strung up in the conference inside, but if you counted yourself as a renegade or libertarian in the equipping community, you could not miss the message that the times were a-changing.

Access Fund Executive Director Brady Robinson and Stewardship Director Ty Tyler gave the kick-off, starting with some good news: the scare of fixed anchors being completely banned in designated Wilderness is pretty much over. OK, not completely over, but climbing in Wilderness, along with its need for at least occasional fixed anchors, has become generally accepted by land managers at the highest levels. That said, however, in the wake of that official recognition has come more visibility and some specific rules—more and more of them. Placing bolts on public lands, Robinson noted, is a public act. With climbing now fully on the public radar, policies will come. Given that fact, Robinson stressed that climbers need to come together and set our own fixed-hardware standards. If we don’t, someone will set them for us. Soon.

What followed was a 9-5 day of presentations and discussion, with only a few short breaks, during one of which I sat on the saloon steps and viewed the mock hanging. Topics ran the gamut, from liability risks that may (or may not) face local climbing organizations that take on anchor replacement, to financing and fundraising, to hand drilling, to crag facelift organizing, to bolt-removal techniques, to success stories of partnering with land management.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 10.24.00 AM

In summary, I think it’s fair to say that everyone left the conference with a deeper understanding of the challenges, both technical and political, as well a sense that fixed anchors constitute a huge issue for climbers that’s only getting bigger. Perhaps the key message was that the equipping of American crags is now very much on the radar, and the days of self-regulation are slowly but surely going the way of the buffalo. It’s up to us whether climbers become the deputies or the outlaws.  

FFA 2 Group Shot

Here are a few of my key takeaways:

  • We have two main eras of bad bolts to deal with: the 1960s/1970s hardware on “Golden Age” traditional climbs, and, more problematically, the massive amount of rusting hardware from the sport-climbing revolution of the 1990s.
  • Bolt replacement is a huge and important challenge, but getting better, longer-lasting hardware in the rock the first time is obviously the best way forward. Ian Kirk, head of the Red River Gorge Fixed Anchor Initiative in Kentucky, has pioneered a model for subsidizing stainless-steel hardware for first ascents by allowing the local climbing community to share the cost of doing it right the first time. As those of us immersed in the activity know all too well, equipping new routes is partly a public service, partly a neurotic addiction, so subsidizing first ascents can have both good and bad consequences, that must be somehow managed.
  • There is a growing cadre of bolt-replacement specialists dedicated to “the cult of the original bolt hole.” Greg German, a climber and guitar maker from Boulder, is pioneering state of the art old-bolt extraction techniques and tools. German and a few others, including Geir Hundal from Tucson, have devised custom tools and methods to extract almost any type of old bolt and re-use the hole for replacement hardware. These guys’ ingenuity, skill, and commitment to re-use was frankly quite stunning. Oversize buttonheads, 1/2-inch sleeve bolts, beefy wedge bolts, you name it—all were pulled from the test blocks by these tenacious extractors (and even some notably unskilled volunteers) with their simple yet ingenious tools. The Access Fund hopes to make some of these tools available to LCOs—keep an eye on their website for progress on this initiative, or better yet, donate to the cause.
  • The UIAA is on the brink of releasing “materials standards” that will recommend that all bolts at outdoor climbing areas should be stainless steel or better. In a nutshell, what this means is that all zinc-plated bolt installations will suddenly be out of compliance with “best practice” standards. The online forums in the US will no doubt continue to rage about the technical pros and cons of stainless vs plated, but these discussions are now pretty much beside the point. Any land management agency looking for materials standards for climbing anchors has only the UIAA document to reference. Plated-steel climbing anchors must become a thing of the past.

Access Fund has made some videos and resources from the conference available online. Check them out.

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