Rebolting at the Crags

A Look Into Rebolting and What it Takes to Keep Our Climbing Areas Safe

by Kevin Machtelinckx

The next time you take a big fall on that sport-climbing route that pushes you to your limits at your favorite local outdoor climb spot, take a moment to think about the forces that are being exerted on that little steel bolt keeping you from eating some serious dirt. Topher Dabrowski talks a little bit about what goes into monitoring and replacing those anchors that we all trust with our lives when climbing outdoors.

Donate to the "Portland Rebolting Fund" at mazamas.org/donate today and help keep our favorite routes safe.

When people think of outdoor volunteering, they often think of cleaning up recreational areas, trail maintenance, removing invasive plant species etc. What activities are the equivalent in the climbing community?

Those are all valid volunteer activities within the climbing community since our climbing areas aren't immune to trash and vandalism. They require maintenance for access trails/roads and, of course, need the same attention for the removal of invasive plants, although some of that happens on much steeper terrain. However, there are some unique opportunities specific to the climbing community. One of these is climbing route maintenance, which encompasses bolt and anchor replacement, route safety assessment, and annual route cleaning. Many climbing routes utilize bolts and pitons as fixed protection, but these can be quite old and have been compromised by corrosion, thermal cycling and various types of loading. In addition, pitons are susceptible to expansion and movement of the rock itself. Volunteers will access routes and make assessments for the health of the anchors and whether or not they require replacement. At the same time, we will also clean out cracks that may get chocked with dirt and vegetation, trim tree branches that grow into route lines and fall zones, inspect routes for loose rock and risks associated with any potential rock fall, and replace rappel slings and rings.

Why is what you do important to the community? What is the current state of bolts in Portland/the Gorge/Smith Rock/other areas? 
Unless one is free soloing, climbing anchors are an essential part of the sport. Climbers use them as a backup should they fall while ascending a route and as a means to facilitate a retreat. An effective anchor is one that doesn't fail under the anticipated loads associated with climbing, falling and descending and it should do so over a given period of time. Many of the anchors that we climb on have been installed anywhere from 30 to 50 years ago and, given the materials that were available, the anchor design and the environmental exposure, are reaching or have passed their reasonable service lives. Time has come to replace these anchors, as it keeps us all safe from injury (or worse) and minimizes accidents associated with anchor failures. Accidents and rescues cost money and can often give justification to land managers to shut down a climbing area for fear of responsibility and liability.

Each climbing area is unique in terms of the quality of aging anchors and much of that is due to the environmental conditions that can affect corrosion and hence reliability of anchors. For instance, climbing areas adjacent to maritime regions are strongly affected by corrosion due to the salt content in the air, which can attack anchor materials. The accelerated corrosive actions can render a bolt useless in just a few years, whereas in a dry desert environment, such as Joshua Tree, some of the original anchors show very little sign of corrosion and can be almost as strong as the day they were placed. Rock composition also affects anchor reliability for reasons not related to corrosion but due to the strength of the medium in which the anchor is installed. For example, compare bolts placed around the same period at a local area such as Ozone to those at Smith Rock. At Ozone, the rock is a very hard basalt whereas at Smith the rock is made up of layers of basalt over ash and tuff. The rock at Smith is much more variable and typically has a harder casing over a softer core. Bolts at Smith tend to become loose much faster, as the material around the anchor crumbles and disintegrates under repeated loading and thermal cycling. Evidence of this is the number of "spinners" (bolts with loose hangers) one comes across at Smith. We don't see that same issue as often at the crags in the Gorge, but we have seen faster rates of corrosion due to increased humidity and routes with anchors located in seeps. Let's just say that given the number of questionable bolts that we have pulled at local crags, it’s timely that the current rebolting projects are well underway.

What is rebolting? How long can it take? What is involved (tools, techniques, hardware, glues, epoxies etc)? Does one need to be certified in order to rebolt?
Rebolting is the act of replacing existing climbing anchors on a route after determining that the anchors are no longer functionally safe. The actual process of rebolting a climb depends on where the climb is located (local vs. remote crags) and how many bolts need to be replaced. On the one hand, I have spent a whole weekend to address a route (Barad Dur on Wolf Rock) which involved 8 pitches of climbing and carrying the necessary kit while ascending (bolts, drill, bits, wrenches and related gear). On the other, rebolting a route at a local crag can involve simply rapping in and having the route rebolted in a couple hours. The basic process involves either climbing or rappelling the route so that one can hang in the area where the replacement bolt will be placed. The rock quality around the current anchor position is assessed and a spot for the new anchor is chosen. Sometimes we can utilize the original bolt hole. Other times we have to place the replacement bolt somewhere in the region of the original bolt. If using the original bolt hole, the old bolt is removed, the hole is drilled out and cleaned, and the new anchor is installed. If a new location is going to be used, a new hole is drilled, cleaned and the new anchor is installed. Once the new anchor is in place, it is tightened to the correct specification using a torque wrench so that an adequate preload is placed on the anchor. This helps set the anchor into the rock and minimizes the likelihood of a loose hanger. There is also another "bolting" technology, which is not mechanically fastened in place but is adhesively bonded to the rock. These are called glue-in anchors. They are phenomenally strong if placed correctly, but are more sensitive to installation errors and can lose 90% of their strength if installed incorrectly. Our group uses a mix of mechanical anchors and glue-ins for our replacement work.

Currently there is no certification process for bolting climbing routes and that is very concerning to me. Anyone with a pocket full of cash can go purchase a drill, buy a bag of bolts and start bolting routes. Perhaps it's a testament to the strength and robustness of climbing anchors that we don't have more issues with failures from bad installations. Then again, maybe climbers aren't falling as much as we anticipate; but I have certainly come across more than enough anchor horror stories. Our local American Safe Climbing Association (ASCA) Group that is actively replacing anchors is quite adamant about making sure that those who are rebolting are educated and knowledgeable about the process, following installation guidelines, and have access to the right tools. In realization that there is no formal certification, I am currently putting together a seminar that will be offered through Mazamas and will be required if one wants to volunteer with our local ASCA rebolting group.

Who organizes these outings? Are there different groups? Is it on an individual basis or are there established groups? Does Mazamas have a dedicated group?
The rebolting parties are managed through our local chapter of the ASCA and with support of Mazamas. The local chapter basically handles most of the southern Washington, Columbia River Gorge and local Portland area climbing areas, but we will extend our efforts to other areas in Washington and Oregon as needed. There are other groups in the Smith Rock region and a team of rebolters in Hood River that also initiate their own local work parties. We are grateful to all the volunteers that come out to help with the rebolting projects. The limiting factor up to this point has been that our group has only had access to one drill with the exception of those individuals who donated their own equipment. Our recent fund raiser has addressed this issue and we now have three bolting kits.

How do you raise funds? 
Fundraising activities rely heavily on the climbing community for support. Our local ASCA group has a fundraising campaign underway currently to raise $2,000 in the last quarter of 2016. This will go toward assembling rebolting kits, which will help us have more efficient rebolting parties and will support volunteers who don't have their own gear. The most costly items are the rotary hammer drills, which can run between $500 and $600 each. This fundraiser is asking for donations which can be made via the donations link on the Mazamas website (mazamas.org/donate). When you make a donation, please note "Portland Rebolting Fund" so the funds are directed to the correct account.

Fundraising also happens once per year by the ASCA Head Office and is strongly promoted and supported by Planet Granite who matches all the funds raised annually in the month of October. These funds go directly to the purchase of bolts and glue-in anchors which are then distributed to the local chapters on an as-needed basis giving consideration for the national efforts of all the ASCA chapters.

How can one pitch in and volunteer in climbing-related activities? 
There are a number of organizations that organize volunteer opportunities including the Mazamas, ASCA, Access Fund, American Alpine Club, and Washington Trails Association. Check out their websites for more information. If one wants to specifically get involved with the local rebolting they can contact us via our Facebook Group "Portland Vicinity ReBolting Effort" or via Adam Baylor at Mazamas.

To whom should one report sketchy bolts?
If one has issues with anchors that they have come across on a route, they should provide as much information as possible to help us identify the location of that anchor. This information can be submitted to the Facebook Group "Portland Vicinity ReBolting Effort" or via Adam Baylor at Mazamas. I personally also post information on Mountain Project to help get the word out on sketchy anchors. Information that helps in identifying the anchor in question should include date, closest town, climbing crag, route name, bolt number (starting from the ground), and a description of the issue.

Donate to the rebolting fund today at mazamas.org/donate.

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