This is a paper that I wrote for my high school English class. I do not have a strong opinion on this subject but I had to argue a point for the assignment. 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 into 7 pages double-spaced. Plus, I was not permitted the use of pictures or tables, so everything is explained in words. 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 overhanging 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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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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.
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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.