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.

January 10, 2013

Introducing the 2013 Conservation Team Crew!

The Access Fund is thrilled to introduce our new Conservation Team crew for the 2013 tour—Claire Wagstaff and Eddie Wooldridge.

Eddie, a Minnesota native, and Claire, a Georgia native, most recently hail from Missoula, Montana where they worked for the Conservation Corps, leading crews across Montana and Idaho to create safe trails, maintain access to remote wilderness areas, and help to solve critical wildlife habitat challenges. Eddie&claire

Both avid climbers, Eddie and Claire are excited to begin their tour next month. “We’re both looking forward to touring the US,” says Eddie. “And we’re especially looking forward to meeting all the great folks in the climbing community who share our passion for climbing and conservation.”

The Access Fund is thrilled to bring on such an energetic couple, who are ready to expand on the legacy of sustainable stewardship projects that Jeff, Jason, and Dave started in 2011.  In addition to the standard heroic trail and rock work, Claire and Eddie will host training and education seminars at climbing gyms across the country. 

Before heading out on the road, Claire and Eddie will spend a couple of weeks at the Access Fund main office in Boulder, Colorado where they’ll work with staff and volunteers to familiarize themselves with Access Fund programs, get up to speed on current access issues across the US, and bone up on AF stewardship standards. 

Claire and Eddie’s 2013 tour will begin in February at the Hueco Rock Rodeo in Texas. From there they will move on to projects in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Arkansas, and several spots throughout the Southeast before heading to the Holy Boulders in Illinois. 

Please show Claire and Eddie some love if you see their Jeep roll into town to help improve your local climbing area!

CT Rig_compressed

January 12, 2012

Conservation Team: Life on the Road

In their first two months on the road, Dave and Jeff (aka the Conservation Team), completed eight stewardship projects from Kentucky to the California coast. Check out this short recap of their 2011 tour, and stay tuned for upcoming details on the start of their 2012 tour!

2011 Conservation Team Re-Cap from Access Fund on Vimeo.


December 08, 2011

Jailhouse gets a makeover

~Joe Sambataro, Access Director

November 12, 2011 marked a special day in the history of Jailhouse Rock. Although I haven't logged countless hours and years underneath the impressive amphitheater, this Adopt a Crag was a special moment shared with great people. The numbers are impressive: 50 fence posts, 300 tons of gravel, 3 gates, 1/4 mile of trail work, 1/2 mile of decommissioned trail, 1 waste bag dispenser, 32 parking spaces, and 1 trailhead kiosk—all in one weekend!
Jailhouse Trail
But, those numbers are just part of the story...

In 2010, Access Fund worked with the landowners, Marta and Steve Weinstein, and a team of volunteers to secure conservation and access easements in the wake of new plans for a subdivision on part of the 1000-acre property. Over the course of last fall, after a site visit in September, I sat behind my computer drafting conservation easement language, e-mailing attorneys to request legal counsel, and mapping new parking areas on Google Earth. Twenty, fourty, eighty—the hours were adding up, but this wasn't your average Jailhouse 13b project. When all of those hours finally paid off, this time last year, the perpetual easements were recorded and we had completed the most complex land conservation project in Access Fund's 20 year history. And then the Jailhouse climbing community came together (beyond any and all expectations) to fundraise for a new access point and trailhead.

This November those dollars were put into action as 45 climbers spent the day with shovels in hand to start a new era at Jailhouse, ensuring that climbers can safely park their cars at a trailhead half the distance to the crag. The new Access Fund Conservation Team organized dozens of volunteers in its most extensive project to date. Thanks to great sponsors and Tom Addison's shwag wrangling skills, everyone walked away with a small token of appreciation.

Fence in the rain
Of special note, ranchers from Kennedy Meadows worked in concert with climbers to establish new access. With the proper gates and fences installed, hundreds of pack horses will continue to graze during the winter months while climbers kneebar their way up basalt roofs above Tulloch Lake.

Local climbers are largely responsible for maintaining a positive relationship with the landowners over the last two decades, and it was this foundation that made the project possible. Our collective success at Jailhouse shows that it pays to be stewards of the land and not just users.

We owe a big thank you to everyone that made it happen. I hope you enjoy the video.

Looking to log a trip to Jailhouse this season? Visit to learn more.

November 18, 2011

Conservation Team in Bishop

Dave and Jeff hit Bishop to help the BLM restore some archeological sites damaged by campsites, then head over to do some trail restoration at the Sad Boulders approach.

Access Fund Conservation Team - Bishop from Access Fund on Vimeo.


October 19, 2011

Conservation Team Reports Back from the Red

Southern hospitality is alive and well in the Red! The feedback we received from the locals was great—everyone was very appreciative of our visit and our work. We completed a stone step project at the Solar Collector/Gold Coast approach. The project consisted of installing 15 stone steps and a stone retaining wall to replace the existing decaying wood structures. We were fortunate to find good building stone in abundance in the area, and the soils there lend themselves very well to trail work, being primarily composed of clay. We spent two long days completing the project, and overall were very pleased with the finished product. We were assisted by Matt Tackett of the RRGCC during a brief site visit in which we discussed the details of the project.

There are still a few tools that we need to acquire that would make our lives easier and our work better. I also need stronger forearms to climb in the Red. Dave's good, even without much of an index finger. So if you guys could get on that, that would be great ;).

In addition to our work at the Solar Collector/Gold Coast area we were fortunate to meet with Rick & Liz Weber, the owners of Muir Valley. Rick took us on a tour of the property, where we made an assessment of some trail work. There is an endless potential for future projects in the Red, both in the PMRP & Muir Valley. And RRGC and Rick and Liz are enthusiastic about us returning in the spring for a bigger project with more volunteer support.

We hit Rocktoberfest on Friday and Saturday nights and worked the Access Fund booth—great time. On Sunday night, we were invited to Dr. Bob Matheny's for a much appreciated post-event dinner/party.

Thanks to Bob, Matt, Rick and Liz for a memorable trip. Now on to Indian Creek!