Wednesday, April 10, 2013
I posted this photo of my friend Chris leading at Carderock a few weeks ago, but this recent post on the Mid Atlantic Climbers blog and a couple of discussion threads on Facebook brought it to mind again. In case it's not apparent from the photo, he's about fifteen feet above a small nut, with two cams in a flake below that, running it out toward one final placement before the anchor. Many Carderock regulars discourage climbing on trad gear there, saying that the makeup of the rock makes it unsuitable for holding cams and other active pieces. A bit ironic considering many of those same regulars tend to dispense with ropes altogether and solo many of their favorite routes! Still, advisable or no, Chris knew the risks he was taking and accepted them fully as he tied in that day.
A couple days ago, it came to our attention that others have been attempting to break out of the toprope-centric monotony of Carderock, albeit on bolts rather than nuts and cams. Specifically, two newly placed bolts were found on one of the area's more obscure routes, both of which were easily removed by hand.
For the record, it's situations like this that make me feel safer doing trad than sport. I've led five sport routes, none over 5.9, and have never felt comfortable with the idea of falling on bolts unless I know who placed them and have seen them used. While I understand that many areas do have well-placed bolts, and that I'd be opening up a whole new world of climbing to myself by getting over this anxiety, the fact remains that trad gives me a greater feeling of control. I know what to look for in my placements, and know from experience that my gear will hold my falls.
I'll never be able to say the same of bolts, but that doesn't stop what's probably the majority of climbers out there from blindly trusting the work of unknown others as they clip and move on. To an extent, I think there's an assumption that whoever is equipping routes has the necessary experience and judgement to do so in a way that will make them safe for the masses. Again, the two bolts in question were removed by hand with minimal pressure. Two bolts that many climbers, not knowing any differently, might have clipped and trusted to hold their falls.
Even had the bolts been placed properly, the fact remains that they shouldn't have been there in the first place. I'm not referring to the long standing feeling in Maryland that bolts are inherently evil, a feeling that many already challenge as our current anchoring practices continue to contribute to tree damage and clifftop erosion. Instead, I'm referring to the fact that the placement of bolts was a clear violation of park regulations, let alone the mess that would have resulted had those bolts failed during an actual fall.
Whether we agree with them or not, it is in our best interest as participants in a fringe activity to comply with existing regulations. To do otherwise is to jeopardize access not just for ourselves, but for everyone else who enjoys our local resources. This means not bolting in areas where bolting is not allowed, not climbing in areas where it is specifically prohibited, and in general trying to convince land owners that climbers are a responsible user group who can leave an area in better shape than they found it.
So what happens if we think the regulations are unfair or short-sighted? What if we think the addition of bolts will ultimately lead to less environmental damage than current practices? What if we disagree with climbing being prohibited in an area, when activities with equal impact such as fishing and horseback riding are allowed?
To start, we need to avoid taking unilateral action when organizations exist that can add weight to our arguments. Specifically, groups like the Access Fund on the national level and the Mid Atlantic Climbers in our area have been instrumental in helping climbers work with land owners and managers to keep climbing areas open and accessible. No matter how good an individual's intentions or ideas, they will only grow more powerful when backed by groups with documented records of promoting responsible climbing and encouraging volunteer service at local climbing areas. That's why these organizations exist. They're made up of climbers like us, for climbers like us. Maybe they won't be able to grant all of our wishes right away, but at least they can help prevent impulsive actions from making bad access situations worse.
For anyone looking to get involved with MAC or get to know some of their members a little better, come on out to Rocks State Park on April 27th and lend a hand at Rockfest, and keep an eye out for more great events throughout the year!
Edit 4/11/13- It's been brought to my attention that the two bolts in question were placed at the top of the climb to be used as toprope anchors, rather than as protection along the route itself. While I apologize for not having my information straight the first time around, I'm actually not sure whether this makes me feel better or worse. On the one hand, anchor bolts are less likely to experience outward pulls than protection bolts, somewhat decreasing the chance that they would have wiggled free during use. On the other hand, protection bolts are only weighted if the climber falls, whereas anchor bolts are weighted during any fall as well as lowering, leading to more possible opportunities for failure. Ironically, even though I have a hard time trusting bolts I encounter along a route, I am for some reason more likely to trust bolts that I find as part of an anchor or rap station, perhaps due to the idea that they are more frequently used and evaluated. Whatever the specifics or ramifications though, the point remains... don't bolt where bolting is illegal, and if you choose to bolt a climb, please make sure you know what you're doing!