Artifact Politics – The Politics of Bolted Climbs

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[1].

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.


[1] Safeclimbing.org – Climbing History and the Ethics of Bolting

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4 thoughts on “Artifact Politics – The Politics of Bolted Climbs”

  1. I found this post very interesting I have done a little climbing myself mostly on walls and I never realized that this was such an issue. I definitely could see how the continued use of bolt could cause them to give which would be very catastrophic if someone was depending on the bolt to hold them up.

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  2. You mentioned how the bolts and increased traffic on the rocks contribute to erosion. Obviously this is humans altering nature, but I was wondering if this erosion was created solely from the climbing, or if the climbing and bolts just made the process speed up a noticeable amount.

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    1. Erosion is a natural process that occurs over time, but since bolts can allow climbers to safely climb where historically they could not climb, it speeds up the erosion. In most cases it has not been a big problem first because climbing is still a relatively new sport, and also because many outdoor enthusiasts follow what are called leave no trace principles. Those principles help teach climbers and anyone else who wants to go outside how to do what we love while preserving the area.

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  3. I think it’s interesting that you describe bolts as liberal because they give more people, often less skilled, access to this sport, but that this liberalization actually created tensions in the climbing community. Prior to this post, I didn’t know such bolts existed and have very little knowledge of the sport, but the twist in tensions arising from liberalization when often tensions arise with authoritarianism is a unique situation.

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