Bolting Climbing Routes

Bolting Climbing Routes

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Trad Climbing, Sport Climbing, Toprope


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

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 CornerA 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 RockCam 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 MountainRappelling 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 SedonaBolt 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.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-14 of 14

gliderman - Apr 8, 2012 4:55 pm - Hasn't voted

Good PR

As a retired college prof, I'm pleased to see a student 1) having an instructor provide the opportunity to talk / write about a hobby / passion, 2) share information about a hobby that can be educational for the general public. There are so many misconceptions about action sports by most people. Keep up the good work, rankinesoccer! Enjoy your passions safely, and you can go far in the world. And, be thankful that you have a dad that can share some of the good time with you.

Andrew Rankine

Andrew Rankine - Apr 8, 2012 6:21 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Good PR

Thanks for the support! Fortunately my teacher did not realize that I was interested in rock climbing, because she stated after that she should not have allowed me to write this paper had she known. It does make researching much more enjoyable if you are interested in the subject you are discussing, so I had no problem procrastinating on this assignment. Enjoy your adventures as well!



gliderman - Apr 9, 2012 3:19 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Good PR

I would think you probably learned a lot in researching this topic. As I am much more of a "hiker" getting to the top of high peaks than a technical rock climber, I have no great expertise to comment on the accuracy of your article, although it seemed pretty well done to me. It will be interesting to read what any rock climbing experts have to say about your findings.

Being a Phoenix, and much of the rest of Arizona, hiker in winter time, I note we have shared many vistas. The San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado, where I spend summers, have a lot of pretty good ones, too. With your interests, you have a lot of "natural highs" ahead in your life.

Andrew Rankine

Andrew Rankine - Apr 10, 2012 1:59 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Good PR

I'm much a much more experienced hiker than I am a rock climber. I have gotten more into rock climbing...I realized that rock climbing was an essential part of technical mountaineering. I read a lot about climbing, more than I probably climb. I learned a lot about the physics of climbing with fall factor and other things, most of which I didn't have space to explain in the paper. Arizona is a great state, and I am happy to call it home for most of the year; I spend the summer in Europe and Washington most years. I will have to head over to Colorado more, to climb a few Fourteeners.


Scar - Apr 10, 2012 5:11 pm - Hasn't voted

Different "sport"

It seems to me that your paper gave short shrift to the anti-bolt perspective. Mentioning in an off-hand fashion that bolts mar the rock and that some old folks think bolts are bad is not sufficient. Trad climbing and sport climbing are different "sports" in my opinion. One presents a more intellectual challenge, a give-and-take with fear, while the other is a more physical endeavor. To capture this aspect of climbing, why not include some reference to the respect the climbing community has for first ascentionists? For example, if the FA of a given route did it without bolts, then so it should remain. Not because it is safer, but because they established the route, and they should control its future.

In order to progress as a trad-climber, you have to make decisions as to what risks you are willing to take. If, for example, you are unwilling to do an 80-foot runout, you avoid certain climbs. For some people, a long runout presents a desirable mental challenge.

I don't think trad climbers who are opposed to bolts are necessarily wishing to exclude younger climbers, but rather recognize climbing as something different. Something dangerous and exciting that younger climbers should experience before paving over with steel.

Andrew Rankine

Andrew Rankine - Apr 10, 2012 6:15 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Different

I appreciate your point here. I would love to have had more space to explain more details of sport versus trad climbing, but I ran out of space. The paper needed to be 7 pages or fewer, and I wrote to the last line on the seventh page. Unfortunately some things had to be left out. In the future I will write a more in-depth paper than fully encompasses these topics. As a paper designed to be read by people who have never climbed, I feel that the paper does that job well. Given, there are some things that are simplified such as fall factor, dynamic versus static rope, etc...
I don't think that sport climbing and trad climbing are completely different sports, but they are distinct activities that fall under the umbrella of rock climbing, each with its own uniqueness and set of skills. As a cyclist, the same thing goes for different types of racing, from time trials, road races, and criteriums, to track cycling and brevets.
I agree that first ascensionists should decide the fate of routes.



bajaandy - Apr 11, 2012 8:53 pm - Voted 10/10

Nice work...

Tell your teacher to log on to SP to see that not only did you fulfill her required assignment, you even had the initiative to take it a step farther and post it as a legitimate article on a fairly widely accepted climbing forum, and that you wanted it to be reviewed by members of the climbing community. Well done!

Andrew Rankine

Andrew Rankine - Apr 11, 2012 9:41 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice work...

Thanks!!! I have published a couple trip reports hoping that they would be featured. This is the first piece of mine that was. I will ask my teacher to take a look.

Jukka Ahonen

Jukka Ahonen - Apr 13, 2012 6:48 am - Voted 10/10

A good argument

Thanks for the read! I think you did a good job on the assignment, and you argued your point well. From a purely climbing article point of view, it may be a bit one-sided (in terms of bolting vs. trad climbing), but if I understood your assignment correctly, that was what was expected of you.

Keep up the good work, get good grades and climb even higher grades ;)

Andrew Rankine

Andrew Rankine - Apr 13, 2012 1:30 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: A good argument

Thank you! The assignment was to argue a point, so it is one sided on purpose. While I was supposed to counter opposing arguments, the idea was to be a proponent of bolting in most places. I am not a big fan of sport climbing, my focus it to get into trad and alpine, but facts such as safety issues are easier to explain to novices and are more relatable to the masses for sport climbing. I hope to keep up my grades in school, and I especially hope to climb higher grades and higher mountains in interesting areas. Soon I will begin a comprehensive article about pro in rock climbing with just the facts and little opinion. I have exams to study for first.
As my cycling friends say, "keep the rubber side down." I think it can apply to climbing and hiking too. Enjoy your adventures.


Sierra Ledge Rat

Sierra Ledge Rat - Apr 17, 2012 4:04 pm - Hasn't voted


"Forgive me, Father, for my sins, for I have placed bolts. If there is any consolation, I placed the bolts with a hammer and drill on lead. I have never committed the unforgivable and cowardly sin of placing bolts with an electric drill.

"For my penance, I promise never to bolt again, and I promise, oh heavenly Father, to kick anyone's ass who I catch placing bolts.


Andrew Rankine

Andrew Rankine - Apr 22, 2012 12:04 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Penance

I was wondering for a few days what to reply to this. All I can say is that it is unnecessary. Not needed, not called for, not relevant.

Sierra Ledge Rat

Sierra Ledge Rat - Apr 24, 2012 12:26 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Penance

I am honored that you spent a few days wondering about me, and I truly appreciate your considered response!

Oh, P.S.
Another thing I hope that you learn in high school: if you don't want to hear the answer, then don't ask the question ("...give me some thoughts on your stand on this issue...) Dilligent studies (or the School of Hard Knocks) will accelerate your learning experience.

Andrew Rankine

Andrew Rankine - Apr 24, 2012 5:01 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Penance

Your response was not actual facts and reasonable thoughts about this issue. If you are against bolting--state it. State your opinion and support it with facts. I asked for insightful views from people, not snide commentary without substance.

Viewing: 1-14 of 14