Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Phil Brown on Climbing: To Bolt Or Not To Bolt

Last weekend, Josh Wilson led my friend Mike Virtanen and me up a historical rock-climbing route on Rooster Comb in Keene Valley. Fritz Wiessner, one of the best climbers and mountaineers of his era, pioneered the route in 1949 with Jim Goodwin, his frequent partner on Adirondack outings.

The Old Route, as it’s called, is rated 5.4 in the Yosemite Decimal System, which is easy by today’s standards, but Weissner availed himself of a variety of interesting features as he meandered up the cliff: a ramp, a narrow chimney, corners, ledges, and wide cracks.

Wiessner was involved in the first ascent of at least eighteen rock-climbing routes in the Adirondacks. The hardest, on Noonmark Mountain, is rated 5.8. That’s considered moderately tough, but it doesn’t come close in difficulty to many routes put up since Wiessner’s heyday. Josh, for instance, has climbed 5.11 routes. III Fire, the hardest climb in the Adirondacks, is rated 5.14a—which once would have been thought impossible.

So are modern climbers that much better than Wiessner?

Not really. Changes in footwear have enabled climbers to ascend ever-harder routes. In the old days, climbers wore boots or sneakers. Today, they climb in lightweight shoes that resemble ballet slippers with sticky rubber soles. These shoes allow climbers to get a purchase on steep slabs and tiny nodules of rock.

Protective gear—“pro,” in the sport’s lingo—also has greatly improved. In Wiessner’s day, climbers hammered metal pitons into cracks to hold their rope in the event of a fall. Nowadays, climbers carry lightweight nuts and cams that can be wedged into almost any crack. The new technology makes climbing difficult routes safer.

On Rooster Comb, we saw three or four old pitons on the Old Route. We wondered if they had been pounded in by Wiessner himself. Although no longer needed, the pitons are artifacts of a bygone era and should be left in place.

Pitons may be relics of the past, but steel bolts are not. Like pitons or other pro, fixed bolts are used to hold the rope in a fall. They are usually found on blank faces where it’s impossible to place pro or at the top of a cliff or pitch where climbers clip in the rope to rappel.

Since they alter the natural environment, bolts are controversial. Don Mellor notes in his book American Rock that attitudes toward bolts vary among climbing communities in different parts of the country. Climbers can get quite worked up over the issue. Mellor once told me, after we climbed Wallface, of a guy who used to carry a hammer to destroy any bolt he encountered.

In the Adirondacks, climbers frown on the overuse of bolts. Dominic Eisinger writes in the guidebook Adirondack Rock: “For existing routes, no additional protection or fixed anchors should be added without the consent of the first-ascent party. Fixed anchors have been installed by the climbing community where necessary for safety and preservation of fragile terrain and trees” (since they obviate the need to wrap slings around trees during a rappel).

But the guideline is not always followed. Tom Rosecrans, a longtime climber, complains that routes he pioneered on Rogers Rock years ago have since been bolted.

Some might ask whether it’s ever appropriate to fix bolts to a cliff in the forever-wild Forest Preserve. It’s a legitimate question: state regulations forbid defacing “any tree, flower, shrub, fern, fungi or other plant like organisms, moss or other plant, rock, soil, fossil or mineral or object of archaeological or paleontological interest found or growing on State land.”

Nonetheless, bolts do happen. Of course, many forms of outdoor recreation—whether hiking, snowmobiling, or camping—leave an impact on the wilderness. The question is whether that impact is acceptable.

Eisinger says Adirondack climbers strive to minimize their impact in all respects, not just in their bolting practices. “Scrubbing lichen from holds, cleaning dirt from cracks for protection, breaking the occasional branch to squeeze by a tree, or removing a dangerous loose block are all accepted practices,” Eisinger writes. “Scrubbing an 8-foot wide swath and cutting trees are not only illegal but aren’t accepted by the climbing community.”

In truth, no one but climbers will see a bolt on a cliff. And most climbers don’t mind a well-placed bolt. So the aesthetic impact is negligible.

Bolts are to modern climbers what pitons were to early climbers: an occasional necessity. And what climber would not take delight in seeing a piton put in by the great Fritz Wiessner? It’s a reminder that the sport hasn’t changed that much.

Photo by Phil Brown: Josh Wilson on the Old Route on Rooster Comb.


Phil Brown

Since 1999, Phil Brown has been Editor of the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack.

Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing.

He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.

Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.




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