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Bolting Climbing Routes

April 3, 2012

This is a paper that I (Andrew) wrote for my English class. It was abbreviated to fit on seven pages, and it is a bit simplistic so that my instructor could comprehend it.I do not have a strong opinion on this subject but I had to argue a point for the assignment. Plus, I was not permitted the use of pictures or tables, so everything is explained in words. I have published it on summitpost as well, where it has been featured on the site homepage. Feel free to tell me what you think and your opinions on this issue.


This is a paper that I wrote for my high school English class. I am curious what the community here thinks of it. It is a bit simplified for my teacher to understand it, and it was shortened until it fit 7 pages double-spaced. Hopefully you enjoy it and can give me some thoughts on your stand on this issue.


Rock climbers are people who scale near vertical, vertical and overhang rock faces. Humans have been climbing for thousands of years, and one of the most curious examples is the Anasazi. The Anasazi lived in the Southwest thousands of years ago and built cliff dwellings in the Grand Canyon that could only be accessed by rock climbing. They built trails and bridges to cross sections without handholds, but may be the first rock climbing people. In the millennia since, safety equipment has been created to connect climbers to walls in case of a fall. The gear that links climbers to the rock face is called protection, or pro. The idea with protection is that one climber, called the leader, ascends a route and attaches himself to the wall with protection, while his partner, belays, or feeds rope, from below. Protection is used to guard in case of a fall. If the leader falls, the protection is supposed to stop the fall because the rope is connected to it. The debate in the climbing community is where and how this protection should be placed, and is a question of safety and ethics. I believe permanent protection, called bolts, should be placed in areas with unreliable protection and at belay stations, in order to make climbing safer, and minimize impact on rock formations. There are two categories of protection: removable and permanent.

Removable Protection

Removable protection is pro the leader places while climbing the next pitch above the belayer, called leading. The leader places protection and connects a quickdraw, or two carabiners, which are metal snap rings to attach things together, linked by rope (flat rope called webbing) to it, and connects the rope to the other carabiner. Then if the leader falls, the pieces of protection that he has placed below should hold a fall. The second, or climber who follows the leader, then climbs the pitch and collects the protection the leader had placed. Removable protection is used because it does not damage rock and because it does not require permanent protection to be placed on routes. Removable protection can only be used in cracks, so it severely limits the areas that climbers may climb on safely. An issue also arises because climbers need to have a variety of sizes of protection for varied width cracks, but carrying multiple pieces in every size would be impossibly heavy to climb with. For cracks that are consistently the same width, the leader is out of luck at times. Removable protection is broken down into two categories: passive and active.

Passive Protection

Passive protection is made of pieces of metal attached to wires, which are wedged in cracks that are narrowing. They were first created in the 1950’s to 1960’s when British climbers would unscrew bolts from railroad tracks to use as protection. Stoppers (also called nuts, chocks, chockstones, wedgies, wedges, wallnuts, rocks, offsets, and wires), are trapezoidal prisms wedged into cracks. Passive protection is reliable when placed correctly, though while a leader climbs above they have a tendency to shake out of place, a phenomenon called walking. Protection is made in a variety of sizes, to protect varying sizes of cracks. Passive protection is used to protect very small cracks, from one sixteenth of an inch to three inches wide at maximum. Smaller sizes of passive protection generally have lower strength test ratings, because they are connected with smaller, weaker wires. When a climber takes a fall (also called a whipper), the amount of force exerted on the rope, protection and climber is at maximum between nine and ten kilonewtons (9-10 kN), which can also be equated to 2023-2248 lbf (pounds of force). This is because a climbing rope is dynamic, and will stretch about 30% with the force of a fall to absorb the impact. To compare, stoppers vary in strength from two kilonewtons in the smallest size, to ten kilonewtons in the largest size (2-10 kN, or 449-2248 lbf). Protection is strength tested and may then be rated to half of the strength it performed. If a climber takes a long fall onto a small piece of passive protection, the piece could break because the piece is only tested to two kilonewtons (though it may hold for 4 kN of force), while the force of the fall could possibly equal nine to ten kilonewtons. I think that a piece is only completely safe if any length fall can be taken on it.

Active Protection

Active protection is protection that can move to conform to a crack. Devices called cams are the principle form of active protection, pioneered in the 1980’s to 1990’s by Ray Jardine and Mike Vallance. Cams (also called friends or SLCD’s) are made from a wire stem and three or more spring-loaded lobes that can expand and contract with a trigger mechanism. When a climber places a cam, he pulls the trigger mechanism, which contracts the cam lobes. Then the climber inserts the cam and releases the trigger. The lobes automatically expand to the width of the crack. The leader can then clip a quickdraw or carabiner to the cam. Active protection is used to protect cracks from a quarter inch to twelve inches wide. Cams are also susceptible to walking, as is passive pro. Cams hold falls because when they are weighted the weight on the stem forces the cam lobes to expand. This expansion creates an incredible amount of friction, which holds the fall. Strength test ratings are similar to passive protection; cams may be rated to half the force they have been tested to. Also similarly to passive protection, cams become increasingly strong in larger sizes. Relative strength for sizes is more variable for cams than passive protection. Strength in the smallest sizes ranges from two to twelve kilonetwtons (2-12 kN, or 449-2697 lbf). Strength in largest sizes varies from ten to seventeen kilonewtons (10-17 kN, or 2248-3821 lbf). Almost all cams in medium to large sizes should hold a fall, though ratings on smaller cams indicate that they should not be adequate to take any length fall.


Bolts are the other option to protect climbs. Bolts are permanent protection, and leave a permanent scar on the rock. They were invented in the 1950’s, but were not widely used until the 1980’s to 1990’s. Bolts are the most versatile protection because they can be placed anywhere. Many climbers dislike the use of bolts, because it leaves permanent ugly bolts in the wall. Many climbers enjoy the ease of use of bolts. If one gets rid of bolts, called chopping, a big hole is left in the rock. These holes are filled with caulk to make its appearance more natural, but the rock will be scarred. Climbers use expansion bolts, which expand inside of the hole they are hammered into. Expansion bolts are usually about three inches long and three eighths wide usually, and have a metal loop on the end for a carabiner, called a hanger. To place expansion bolts, the climber drills a hole the as deep as the bolt with a drill. Then the climber hammers the bolt into the hole, turning the nut on top of the bolt to force the bolt to expand in the hole. To use bolts, the climber simply clips a quickdraw to the bolt and the rope. Bolts are extremely safe when placed correctly, and most are rated to twenty-five kilonewtons (25 kN, or 5620 lbf). The hanger will break before the bolt pulls out usually.

Bolting Faces

Climbers use removable protection when there are cracks available to place gear, and where there are no bolts. Unfortunately for climbers and manufacturers of removable protection, there are many areas that it’s impossible to protect without bolts, called faces or slabs. Areas that cannot be protected with removable protection are called unprotectable, which is where most bolts are being placed. The debate now in the climbing community is to what extent bolting is acceptable. Standards and opinions that people or groups believe in for bolting and other issues in the realm of climbing are referred to as ethics. Many, mostly older traditional climbers, argue that bolts permanently scar the rock, which is unethical. The younger “sport climbing“ generation, who grew up climbing with bolts, is mostly a proponent of bolting. The debate stems from a modern focus on face climbing, which does not feature cracks; whereas past generations climbed primarily on cracks because they were protectable. Some daring individuals climbed faces without protection before bolts were invented, and some climbers believe that face climbing should be reserved only for those brave men who ventured onto unprotected slabs, because bolting is wrong. Unfortunately few of those daring men lived to see old age, and were killed in the mountains. For this reason bolts were created. Climbers ascend any surface of rock, and a lack of protection will not stop audacious attempts on climbs. Without bolts, more climbers would perish in accidents more. To those who do not care about the lost lives, bad publicity would damage the sport and cause more regulation to be passed to limit climbing on government lands, where most climbing areas lie. The idea of protection is to stop climbers from dying, and bolts are a natural extension of that idea.

Praying Monk Corner

A bolt with quickdraw on the Praying Monk.


Some climbers in the younger “sport climbing” generation wish to bolt every route, whether there is safe removable protection available or not. Despite wanting to bolt climbing routes, over bolting for convenience is a permanent choice that cannot be undone. Bolts are installed to save lives, but when removable protection can be placed that is safe and does not scar rock forever, it is not rational to go “bolt crazy.” For this reason cracks that can be adequately protected should not be bolted.

Protecting Cracks

On the other hand, cracks smaller than a half inch cannot be safely protected with removable protection, if safely protected is to mean that any length fall can be held by a piece of pro. Smaller sizes of protection have weaker wires that may break at less than ten kilonewtons (10 kN). If a climber protects cracks smaller than a half inch wide, with each foot above the last piece that a climber progresses, the more likely it is that a piece may not hold. For the reason that cracks smaller than a half inch cannot be safely protected, and the added danger of a false sense of security from being protected, cracks smaller than a half inch should be bolted. The goal of protection is to be able to protect the climber from deadly falls, and if removable pro is not adequate then bolts should be installed. Some climbers are firmly against bolting cracks, but if climbers die on routes with small cracks and inadequate protection, government agencies will shut areas down to climbing. Bolting unsafe cracks is necessary to keep climbing areas open.

Cam at Bell Rock

Cam in a crack at Bell Rock.

Protecting Belay Stations

Belay stations are also areas that are in need of bolts. When a pair of climbers ascends a route, at times their only protection will be the belay anchor. This anchor is crucial because if it fails, both of the climbers will undoubtedly fall to their deaths. Removable protection is reliable when leading because the only way the piece will be weighted is downward. Belay anchor are weighted in all directions, which dramatically increases the likelihood that the pro will walk out of place. Belay anchors are also used for rappels (also called abseils), a common technique when climbers lower themselves down a rope attached to a single anchor: the belay station.

Rappelling at Lookout Mountain

Rappelling at Lookout Mountain in Phoenix, AZ

The number one cause of death in climbing is rappelling; climbers die abseiling because their anchors fail and because they lower themselves off the end of a rope by mistake. Bolts are necessary at belay anchors because they are incredibly reliable. It uncommon for a properly placed bolt to fail, and especially so for a modern bolt to fail. The easiest way for the climbing community to invest in the longevity and accessibility of the sport is by making climbing as safe as possible, limiting the number of deaths. The small amount of bolts required to create reliable belay stations will greatly improve safety, because deaths on abseils from removable anchors are a common cause of death in climbing.

Bell Rock in Sedona

Bolt at belay station on Bell Rock.


There are many opinions on the topic of bolting climbing routes, and only with a compromise of safety and ethics can a solution be found. Safety is paramount in climbing, and bolts should be allowed in areas where removable protection could not prevent a fall of any length. This includes faces and cracks smaller than a half inch. On the other hand, Removable protection should be placed on cracks where it is reliable, as in cracks a half inch and wider. In these areas climbers should not bolt. Belay anchors, which need to be as reliable to be the sole anchors for rappels, should also be bolted for safety. With ethics and safety in mind, the climbing community will be safer and scars from bolts will be limited.


Birkby, Robert. Mountain Madness: Scott Fischer, Mount Everest & a Life Lived on High. New York, NY: Citadel, 2008. Print.

Breashears, David. High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.

Eng, Ronald C. Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. 8th ed. Seattle: Mountaineers, 2010. Print.

Perkins, Matt. “Rock Climbing Ethics: A Historical Perspective.” Northwest Mountaineering Journal 2.1 (2005). Northwest Mountaineering Journal. The Mountaineers, 2005. Web. 30 Jan. 2012.

Rankine, Andrew J.A. Finding Strength Test Ratings. 10 Feb. 2012. Raw data. Arizona Hiking Shack and REI, Phoenix.

“Vertical Horizons.” National Parks 80.3 (2006): 26. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 30 Jan. 2012.

Wallace, Wayne. “Discussion of Climbing.” Personal interview. 31 July 2011.
Webster, E. “To Bolt or Not to Bolt.” Sierra 75.6 (1990):30. Health Source- Consumer Edition. Web. 31 Jan. 2012.

Note: I collected strength test ratings from items that I found at the climbing store including items from DMM, Black Diamond, Fixe, Petzl, Wild Country and Valley Giants.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 17, 2012 18:38

    Micro-nuts aren’t that bad. You use them in conjunction with the other elements of your trad protection system as you climb. Obviously, you haven’t yet felt the immense relief of sinking a micro-nut in where nothing else would fit 🙂 The to-bolt-or-not-to-bolt controversy has been going since the 40s. It’s a fun topic. Nice job on the paper.

    • April 17, 2012 21:14

      This paper is very simplified, but micronuts are not what I described in the paper as “safe,” meaning that any length fall could be taken on one. Sure, there is satisfaction in finding a good placement, and relief as well, but bolts are important for the safety of climbing in these areas. Note, I just wrote this paper with a sport climber’s view in mind. I am more interested in trad, but it is easier for non-climbers to understand safety rather than ethics. Plus there are more facts to support it. If you look at the summitpost page that I have about this, you will see the replies to comments that people have posted, which explains a bit more.


      • April 20, 2012 07:08

        The satisfaction and relief that comes from placing a micronut is not imagined. Trad climbing isn’t quite like the bolted sport routes you’re more used to. Properly placed micronuts are usually just part of your overall system of protection as you ascent. You don’t sink a micronut, climb 20 feet, sink another micronut, etc., relying on them as if they were bolts. You’ll be somewhat runout, place a micronut because nothing else works, then advance two feet and throw a sling around a chickenhead. You can hang on micronuts just fine — and when you’re 10 feet away from that “safe” cam and need a rest on a tough 5.9 lead, the micronut can be a lifesaver.

        Ever heard of a climber dying because the micronut broke? I haven’t, (though maybe it’s happened). The safety factor is much more impacted by the way protection is placed and the competency of the climber, not the force limitations of the equipment. Micronuts are safe enough when used properly. The more you climb, the less you’ll see the need to retrobolt the world.

        Happy climbing.

      • April 20, 2012 13:09

        There are very few nuts, let alone micronuts, that qualify as what I defined in the paper as safe. Micronuts are a small part of a trad systen that I have shown can easily be potentially unsafe. The issue is not only whether micronuts are the primary pro in a system, but also whether small to mid sized cams are also capable of holding long falls. There is no doubt that there are areas with runout, and micronuts are simply not adequate. I have already mentioned that the paper simplifies the issue for lack of space and to be beginner friendly. Still, feeling safe while using micronuts or pieces with like strength test ratings is an illusion of safety. That is why many small nuts are labeled as for aid only–they are meant to only hold bodyweight. Yes, people do die that way. In comparison to safety, I could not care less about satisfaction. There is no need for you to give me fatherly advice about bolting, there are other people that I would go to for that.

  2. April 20, 2012 22:27

    Don’t get your harness in a twist. It’s just that I’ve led trad routes with micronuts, and I guarantee they can and do hold falls. In most cases, it’s more likely the nut would rip out due to an imperfect placement than a wire breaking.

    “Illusion of safety?” Whatever, man. The more you lead, the more you’ll end up in places where you know darned well an illusion of safety is going on, and you continue upward regardless. As Jonathan Krakauer wrote about his solo ascent of the Devil’s Thumb in Alaska, sometimes the whole endeavor is held together with little more than chutzpah.

    • April 22, 2012 18:08

      On a single-case basis, go ahead. Illusions of safety may be reasonable for an individual, but as a climbing community safety is the most important thing. Chutzpah may work for experienced alpinists on solo and very committing climbs. This paper is directed at local crags that the Average Joe is heading to on weekends, like the Monk or Lookout. I’m not saying that it is good to pull a Maestri and haul a compressor drill up Cerro Torre, but my point is that bolts are useful at regular crags. To show that micronuts are not safe, a 150 pound climber with 40 feet of rope out, only 2 feet above an anchor would fall at 4.02 kN of force if he decked while clipping the chickenhead aforementioned. Here is the site, take a look for yourself:
      From a quick browse of company sites, small-medium micronuts are rated to 2-3 kN generally, and are labeled as aid-only for a reason: because mathematically they should fail–even if a piece rated to 2 kN failed at double its strength test. It doesn’t matter that you got lucky; you cannot refute physics.

  3. April 23, 2012 20:39

    Physics are physics, but I kindly disagree with your definition of rock-climbing “safety” and your worse-than-Maestri conclusion that all cracks 1/2-inch or less should be bolted, (which is hopefully one of the opinions that you don’t feel that strongly about).

    When I think back to my more “interesting” moments over the years on lead, my micronut placements (which I knew had limitations) don’t even make the top 20.

    • April 24, 2012 15:54

      I have clearly shown with physics that cracks smaller than 1/2 inch (approximately), cannot be safely protected, even demonstrating that a mere two foot fall is enough to blow a micronut that you would rely on. Even though I do not feel strongly about most of the things in this paper except for belay stations, that does not mean that you can discount my position without a single fact and expect me to not say anything. If you wish to continue in your ways, go ahead, but realize that the facts do not support it. The good news is that you have about a 50% chance of surviving the 40 foot fall once your micronut breaks, depending on the surface you land on.

  4. April 26, 2012 20:30

    Half an inch equals 12.7 mm. Black Diamond micronuts sizes 3-6 range in size from 5.1 to 10.4 mm. The BD Web site ( gives kN force ratings of between 5 and 8 kN for sizes 3-6. Micronuts sized 3-6 — placed well — should easily hold my four-feet lead fall as I miss the chickenhead clip.

    Using the force calculator, you can see that a 150-pound leader could place a No. 4 micronut in 1/4- to 1/3-inch crack, run it out 50 feet, take a whopping 100-foot fall with 150 feet of rope out and still be under the piece’s theoretical strength limit.

    BD also makes Camalot C3s, of which the 00, 0 and 1 sizes protect cracks between 9 and 12 mm and have kN force ratings of 6, 7 and 10, respectively.

    But those facts are not the only reason your opinion on what “should” be bolted can be discounted. There are many others.

    For instance, reasonable climbers disagree on what’s “safe” in climbing. Your position that “a piece is only completely safe if any length fall can be taken on it” nearly rules out rock climbing altogether, because you can never be certain an anchor will hold “any length fall.” Sometimes, rock conditions make even bolts a sketchy proposition, which is why you’ve probably heard it’s unwise to rappel off one bolt.

    Your position on what should be bolted is a slippery slope. If small cracks should be bolted, what about places that you think are too run out?

    Don’t forget, also, that gear evolves. Bolting the rock leaves a scar today, but a new device or material that holds higher kNs of falls in cracks may be sold tomorrow.

    One last thing: You wrote that “bolts should be allowed in areas where removable protection could not prevent a fall of any length.” In fact, I’m only aware of one place in the Valley where new bolts are not “allowed,” and that’s the Superstitions, which is a federal wilderness area. Only your ethics will prevent you from applying your conclusion about 1/2-inch cracks to the real world.

    • April 27, 2012 10:41

      Micronuts made by Black Diamond may hold your fall, but Wild Country Mini Rocks, DMM Micro Wallnuts, Trango Chockstones to 1/2 inch, and many other nuts smaller than 1/2 inch cannot take more than 4 kN of force. These are just a couple examples. As for cams, this was not the point that you originally wished to mention. But, there are many cams, such as every Metolius cam to 1/2 inch that can only take 5 kN–and some that cannot even take that. You procede to make the point that climbing is not safe at all if judged by my definition of safety. True, a piece may not hold its tested rating because of poor rock quality, but this is even more reason why bolts need to be installed. Modern bolts are undoubtedly safer and more secure than removable pro, regardless of rock quality. Though theoretical strength test ratings are not perfect, they are better than blindly–and occasionally incorrectly, hoping that a piece will hold a fall. At the end of the day it is all climbers have to rely on. As for run out, that should be decided by the first ascensionist, which I have mentioned on Summitpost already. Gear evolves, of course, but for now all climbers have to work with is what is currently available. When a new piece of pro comes out and revolutionizes trad climbing then I will revise my opinion; for now it stands. By “allowing” bolting I mean that the climbing community should consent to it. I am against the bolting ban in the Superstitions, especially since the existing bolts are dangerous 1/4 inch bolts that cannot hold a big whipper. When I get the money for a new drill I may have to head out there and replace those old bolts myself (after seeking permission from first ascensionists), for now I cannot be bothered to hammer away for a half hour for each bolt.

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