In the past, climbers would place metal spikes called pitons into cracks in the rock to protect their climb. The climber would place the pitons as he ascended the route, so that if he fell, there would be a system in place to catch him. After the climb, the pitons would typically be removed, leaving no evidence that they had ever been there. When climbers wanted to start climbing faces with fewer cracks, they began using what we call bolts. Bolts are long metal pieces that are drilled into the rock. While bolts were used in climbing as early as the 1930’s, it was not until the 50’s that bolts started making their way into modern climbing.
Bolts are like the industrialization of climbing. A skilled climber can drill the bolts into the face of the rock and in a way, this is like manufacturing a climb. The climb is no longer only the rock and the climber. Now there are bolts, which are not a part of the rock, but do not belong to the climber either. Initially, people viewed bolts as an unnatural and unnecessary part of climbing. Bolts allowed climbers to go where no climber had been before, but it did not come without a price. This caused a sort of class separation in climbing. Some climbers view bolts as inferior because they are an unnatural addition to the rock and they make the route accessible for worse climbers.
This not only caused a lot of tension in the 50’s, but it continues to cause tension today.
The politics of bolts are complicated, but if they were inherently political, they would be considered liberal. When bolts came into play, not only were climbers able to start climbing new faces, but in time, bolts also allowed many climbs to be accessible to more climbers. Climbing had been a sport only for an elite group, but bolts brought more opportunity for climbing among the regular masses. Unfortunately, while bolting climbs has allowed many people to join the sport, they have caused different problems.
Bolts are able to protect climbs for many years, and they allow people to climb without the danger of placing their own protection poorly. In addition, bolts allow climbers to spend the time they would have spent placing gear climbing more routes. All of these consequences of bolts mean more climbers going up more routes. While this may be good for many climbers in the short term, more climbers mean the rock will erode more quickly, and bolts leave damage in the rock itself.
Bolts have not only threatened the rock, but they also pose a threat to the climbing community on the safety side of things. With the ease of access to outdoor climbing that bolts have brought, more and more new climbers are able to experience the outdoors. While this seems good in theory, when uneducated climbers are climbing on their own, disaster can occur.
While today the use of bolts is generally accepted, there are still controversies surrounding specific cases of overuse of permanent protection, and even now some climbers take it upon themselves solve the issue by chopping bolts. In the end, bolts are bringing quality climbing to a much larger group of people, and climbing wouldn’t be the same without them.