The Real Problem with Bolts in America

And what can be done about it.


Carl Bullock clips some funky bolts in Lover’s Leap, CA.

There’s been a lot of press over the last couple of years given to the state of bolts in the United States, specifically in regards to how many of the first sport climbing areas are reaching that point where the original bolts are nearing the end of their presumed lifespan. Massive efforts have been undertaken (and are ongoing) to rebolt our beloved crags, with donations from places like the ASCA (American Safe Climbing Association) and Anchor Replacement Fund (a joint effort by the Access Fund and American Alpine Club) helping to ease the financial burden of upgrading the aging hardware.

From time to time, you see threads pop up on internet forums asking about what kinds of bolts to use for certain areas, and of course many people recommended stainless, though there are always a few who claim plated steel is fine in dry environments, like the Utah desert. The stainless disciples will have none of it, even though the cost of using stainless can be substantially higher, depending on what bolts are being used.

And this gets to the real problem with bolts in America. Right now, in most places, developers are paying for this stuff out of their own pocket. In a country that idolizes places like Wal Mart and Costco, is it any wonder that we approach the crags with the same what’s-the-lowest-price-I-can-get mindset?

For the sake of comparison, let’s say I have a sweet twelve bolt sport climb I want to put up. I need fourteen total, including two for the anchors, and let’s not even worry about the quicklinks, chains, lowering ‘biners, etc. If the rock is hard, I can use stainless wedge bolts, the cheapest stainless option available. Hilti KB3’s are $3.42 for a 3/8″ x 3” bolt. (For Fixe wedge, you’ll pay about $5). Stainless hangers are about $3 each, so this set up would cost me around $90. If we are talking about softer rock and have to use stainless Powers ½” x 2 ¾”, you are looking at $7.90 per bolt. So for the same route, the cost would be around $153. Plated hardware for the same climb would run around $62, almost $100 cheaper. And that’s just one route. Put together the numbers for an entire new crag, and you can see where this goes very quickly. (I didn’t mention glue-ins at all, which I don’t think should be used in choss when bolting a route for the first time. Many will probably disagree with me on that, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Hilti KB3, an affordable stainless option for hard rock.

Hilti KB3, an affordable stainless option for hard rock.

The financial incentive to go with plated is significant, and then there is the elephant in the room, which we’re not really supposed to talk about and which I might rile some feathers by mentioning here, but all the cards need to be on the table with this debate. Why bolt with stainless when you can use plated for a fraction of the cost and then the ASCA, ARF, or whoever will provide stainless to fix it in 10-20 years? Play now, pay later, it’s the American dream!

Stainless 5-piece powers. Pricier than sushi in Aspen.

Stainless 5-piece powers. Pricier than sushi in Aspen.

So what’s the solution? A friend of mine has talked about the need for organizations that would be able to supply developers with good hardware from the outset, and in my opinion, that’s the only way this situation will change. That, or making plated steel illegal, but we can’t even give up assault weapons or high capacity magazines, so plated steel probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. To my knowledge, this approach has been tried in places like Rifle and the Red River Gorge, the latter offering perhaps the most promising model in the Red River Gorge Fixed Gear Initiative. One of the things this organization does is “offer both stainless steel expansion bolts and glue ins to developers at a reduced price that allows continued development with more sustainable materials.” They aren’t fully subsidizing it, which could be another way this could work, but taking some of the bite out of the cost out of stainless is a major step in the right direction.

There are certainly some concerns that would need to be addressed doing it this way, but it would basically be what the ASCA is already doing, just the first time around so it could be done right. These could be nonprofit organizations, funded by climbing companies, local organizations, etc. who would get the tax write off of for donating to these nonprofits, as well as the goodwill of the community from supporting route developers.

Recently we were climbing in Maple Canyon and met some guys that were putting up new routes. They mentioned how much one new multipitch cost them, and I said that amount was cheap for stainless. They said it was actually plated steel, but I didn’t chastise them. These guys were working hard to develop new climbing, and doing the best they could. And until the financial burden of new routes is assumed by the community as a whole, this will likely continue to be the status quo.

For my own part, I use stainless wedge bolts for most of what I do. They work well in the rock types we have around here (mostly harder stone, except for the F-Pan), and can now be removed thanks to the ingenious tools being developed by an industrious few. If we had more soft rock I’d be in a tougher spot, as stainless Powers are absurdly expensive for one person to afford.

What do you think, are organizations like this a real possibility? How would it work, nationally like the ASCA, or at the local level like the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition?

10 Responses to The Real Problem with Bolts in America

  1. If only we could simply follow the Europeans, particularly in high traffic areas that can bring in significant quantifiable tourist traffic(read: money) hire do we get Uncle Sam to fund our choss bolting?!

    Sam Feuerborn July 22, 2016 at 10:06 pm
    • No kidding, wouldn’t that be nice?

      BJ Sbarra July 28, 2016 at 10:34 am
  2. Should commercial AMGA guiding companies pay a fee, to climb on bolt routes that individuals have put up at their own expense, because they are making money off them.

    Rick July 23, 2016 at 5:03 pm
  3. Glue-ins not for choss? Maybe not fractured choss but no bolt belongs in shattered choss. I don’t know if you should be writing about bolts if you think glue-ins shouldn’t be used in softer chossier rock.

    Grungy July 23, 2016 at 7:11 pm
    • My issue with using glue-ins the first time around in choss is that holds break, clipping stances change, etc. and with other bolts it’s easy to move things around. Not so with glue ins, which are much more permanent. Obviously they are great for soft rock (not the same in my mind as chossy rock, but perhaps just a difference in semantics?), and at some point I imagine every sport route in Red Rocks will be glue-ins.

      BJ Sbarra July 28, 2016 at 10:34 am
  4. Finally! Someone has the initiative to propose something like this. I’ve personally dumped thousands of dollars worth of bolts, hangers, and lover off gear to crags in California. Almost all of it is stainless, without any financial help from the community. We don’t have a local climbing non profit here, but I would gladly accept a bucket of gear if this ever gets going.

    Thanks BJ

    Matthew schutz July 25, 2016 at 4:02 pm
    • I’m in the same boat, and while I enjoy the process as much as the end result, it IS a community resource we are paying for. Occasionally people do throw down some money for new hardware, which is always really cool, but most of it comes out of your own pocket. And then it gets funky depending where you are bolting, maybe it’s at a new cliff no one’s heard of and needs to stay secret for awhile? People prob wont pay for that, versus a new route at Rifle or the Red.

      BJ Sbarra July 28, 2016 at 10:36 am
  5. Excellent article! Many excellent points here, and even more to consider. Could the author please email me?

    Erik Sloan July 26, 2016 at 6:51 pm
  6. Always a good discussion. I’ve some of the guys on SC discuss their ideas on the Enormocast in the past as well. While not a Stainless absolutist, I do advocate for them strongly and think the justification for PS is overblown in MOST cases. I want to be clear that I’m in no way downplaying the financial investment developers put into new routes and crags. It’s an expense no matter what and does add up. However, I think the numbers put out there are need a bit more inspection. Numbers quoted for SS often on are on the high side to help bolster #s. Since the goal is to reduce costs as much as we can, lets be honest and look for sale pricing if we can. With that, SS hangers can often be found around $2 – $2.25ea on sale (Fixe does 100 packs all the time and CT has bulk deals as well). So with a KB3 we’re talking $5.50ish each. PS Hangers will run you $1.80 and 1/2×2.75” PowerBolt is $2.65ea so $4.45ea. (I’d hope we’ve moved past 3/8” PS 5 Pieces which are more and more, an artifact of the past for many/most) So for hard rock, lets say we’re looking at $1 more per bolt. That’s say, $12 MORE for SS for a 12 bolt route (arguably on the longer side). Soft rock does get a bit more murky as we loose the KB3 option and SS 5 Pieces are stupid expensive. However, the push back against Glue Ins is a bit off. A 316L SS Glue in from Bolt Products might run you $4.50 including glue if you’re efficient with the glue gun. I’ll go all the way to $6ea with glue if you’re burning through nozzles. The equivalent PS 5 Pieces w/hanger are only slightly less at around $5.25ea. Your concern for choss changing a bolt location is valid but how often is that REALLY an issue? If every bolt on that route has that concern, is the route really worth it? If there’s a specific bolt where that’s a concern, use 1/2” PS there by all means but why do the whole route that way when costs are so close? What I’m getting at is the difference between SS and PS in soft rock is MAYBE $10/ route if glue use is inefficient and could be NOTHING if you’re good with the glue.
    So for now, let’s say per route difference is $12 .
    My next issue is the idea that some how one HAS to bolt a certain number of routes and as such, there is a fixed cost associated with doing so. There’s typically a low star route or two that could be left for another time when you really need to fill in an area. The savings covers your SS. Lets say however,that there’s a reasonable new crag with 12-14 4-star routes available. At $12 per route you’re looking at $150 difference for the WHOLE crag. Not insignificant but also, not the $1200+ dollars more implied in the article.
    I rather like the idea of active developers getting a subsidy to move up to SS (the long term benefits, both labor and costs of rebolting are undeniable). I think the subsidy would be far less than implied however.

    Matt August 6, 2016 at 8:57 am
    • Hey Matt,
      Thanks for chiming in on this, you make some good points. A couple things to add to the conversation. I think you make an excellent point about glue ins being the happy medium for not breaking the bank when dealing with softer rock types. However, and I’m generalizing and stereotyping here, I don’t think most folks who are using plated are going to take the time to use glue ins. In my experience those tend to be people who are putting in a bunch of bolts and are looking for the cheapest, simplest option. Also, in regards to how often bolts need to get moved, it happens around here all the time. Many of the routes that have been rebolted in Rifle have had bolts moved, as the originals were in hollow rock, the clipping stances changed, etc. So when you’re dealing with choss, this is actually a legit concern.

      It feels like things are moving towards a community supported development model, but that will really vary by area in terms of what it looks like.

      BJ Sbarra October 10, 2016 at 10:59 am
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