Monday, October 6, 2014

To Bolt Or Not To Climb

Since we've been rock climbing at Mount Arapiles, I have, naturally enough, been thinking more about rock climbing, particularly the somewhat sad state of rock climbing in Australia. Coincidentally, back in Canada, the festering bolt wars resurfaced to a small degree with the recent (unsanctioned) addition of a bolted cable leading down the second class ledge into Mulvey Basin (widely hailed as "dumbing down" the mountain environment). In a related but strangely non-controversial incident an anonymous individual bolted four rappel stations on the class three route up the Copilot near Squamish claiming that it was a "5th class rock climb," presumably implying that all fifth class rock climbs (even the ones that are really third class) require rappel anchors.

But what does bolting rappel anchors on scrambling terrain in the alpine in Canada have to do with climbing in Australia? Well, in both cases, relatively easy routes were made much, much easier by the addition of some hardware that will undoubtedly increase traffic in those newly bolted areas by lowering the standard of skill required to safely navigate the terrain. And traffic, measured by climber participation is exactly what Australia does not have. I don't have hard data, I suspect no-one has hard data, but, as a proportion of the population I am convinced that rock climbing is much less popular in Australia than it is in North America. You can rock up (pun intended) to any one of the most popular climbing areas in Australia (as we have done) mid-week and the place will be deserted. Come the weekend, a few people will arrive, more if you are closer to a large urban area, but not many, and the climbs will be a long, long way from crowded.

In Europe, where via ferratas, mechanized access (e.g. the funicular), and safety bolting is much more prolific so is the participation in climbing activities. As retro-bolting, upgrading of routes, rappel bolts, and other safety improvements become more widespread and accepted in North America, so has the popularity of climbing increased. When I started climbing over two decades ago, sport climbing did not exist, long run-outs on easy (even hard) routes were the norm, and consequently learning to climb was difficult indeed and required a degree of tenacity that not many folks possessed. Now, if you want to learn to climb, you can take any of a number of courses, join a climbing gym, hook up with (hopefully) more experienced folk via social media, and safely and happily begin clipping bolts at any one of the number of excellently equipped sport climbing crags spread widely throughout the country (unless you happen to live in Australia, of course). 

 Doug on the stunning corner pitch of Siren

I've always thought I knew roughly where I stood on the bolting debate. Don't bolt cracks that take good gear, but, do bolt the run-outs in between cracks to a standard whereby a climber leading at their grade is reasonably safe from death falls (even if the route is only 5.6/Ewbank 13), bolt belays on multi-pitch climbs only when gear belays are unsafe, unreasonable (e.g. in the line of rock fall), the route is very popular or the descent involves rappelling the route. Install proper anchor bolts at the top of popular climbs at popular crags - there really is little point in every climber building a gear belay on every 5.10 (Ewbank 18) clip-up at the local crag.

The bolting that we've seen recently in Western Canada where easy (under class 4) routes were bolted by unknown "climbers" is harder to judge. I've always thought that, at some point, a certain level of competence is required in the mountains and, if you don't have that level of competence you should either lower your objectives or raise your skill However, if you extend this same argument into technical terrain run-outs on easy (say 5.8 and under) terrain would largely remain unbolted and consequently unclimbed.

My "rules" for bolting made a lot of sense to me, until I thought about what people actually do in practice. Consider the mixed climb, where you bolt the run-outs between cracks, which sounds like a really good idea, but, in practice doesn't work all that well, at least on single pitch climbs. For years there were a couple of Davey Jones' routes at Skaha (5.8) that were incredibly popular (most of Davey's routes are good), but which required the placement of a couple of pieces of gear on each route because Davey (at the time) did not bolt protectable cracks. But Skaha is a predominantly a sport climbing area (although there are some good gear climbs) so people always climbed these routes with just a handful of draws thus having a couple of long run-outs. Eventually, succumbing to popular pressure, but not perhaps not logic (a couple of chocks or cams covered the run-outs) a couple of extra bolts were placed to make the routes true sport climbs. On the one hand, it can be a pain to lug a full rack up a short climb simply to place one or two pieces of gear, but, it is easy enough in the guidebook description to specify which pieces of gear you need. There is a place for mixed routes, they are a good stepping stone for sport climbers moving into trad climbing, but that place in modern climbing is quickly becoming lost.

Need protection, place gear

A few years ago, Doug and I developed a little climbing area near our home town of Nelson, BC, that instantly became incredibly popular because the routes were all under 5.10b (although one route was recently upgraded to a 10c from a 10a in the new guidebook). In total, we put up about 16 new routes, half of which were gear climbs (a couple were mixed climbs). I think I was proudest of the gear climbs because easy to moderate trad climbs are hard to come by in the Kootenays. and it is hard to get into alpine climbing - where you must place gear - if you can't practice on smaller climbs first. The crag we developed in the Kootenays was sorely needed when I learned to climb all those years ago. While it was gratifying to see so many people enjoying the climbs we'd put up, it was also dismaying to discover how few people climbed the gear routes. Trad climbing is getting lost as much as mixed routes.

Again, I guess you are wondering what all this has to do with climbing in Australia where bolts are not well accepted at all and the ethic that "real climbers suck it up (long run-outs)" still prevails. Well, these attitudes contribute directly to the low level of participation in rock climbing among the general populace. Australia is where Canada was 20 or 30 years ago, when sport climbs were virtually unknown (or only really hard routes had bolts) and climbing was not very accessible to the general public because the risk of serious injury or death was, for most, unacceptably high. So, maybe there is a reasonable argument for bolting easy routes, reducing run-outs, and making climbing just generally more accessible. 

 Clean solid rock, great gear

I'd be all for bolting some easy routes in Australia as long as the top-anchors were put in a position whereby climbers had to lead the route to use the anchor. One of the really bizarre, and frankly irritating, things about Australian climbing is that routes are not well set-up for leading (long run-outs, dodgy carrot bolts, poor to non-existent protection, high possibility of ground falls), but, instead of fixing the route by slapping in a few ring bolts and making it amenable to leading, the answer seems to be to whack in a dodgy top anchor way back from the top of the climb so that people can top-rope the route. There is nothing inherently wrong with top-roping but real climbing is about leading.

Which finally brings me full circle back to Mount Arapiles, arguably Australia's most popular climbing area which, strangely enough, just isn't that busy. I'm not sure whether that is because there are virtually no clip-ups at Arapiles or because poor crag/route development has stymied the growth of rock climbing as a sport. Ironically, Mount Arapiles is actually one of the safest areas I've climbed because the rock is so solid and the gear placements so plentiful.

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