"Are you the guy who bolts the routes?"
is the title of this cartoon from Claudio Getto's book of climbing cartoons. This cartoon sums up the position of the route setter, tired and weighed down by both climbing and gardening equipment, as the bloke in the middle asks him, "The route I just did isn't 4b and the one next to it is more than 5c but not quite 6a. In any case the bolts are too close together, though some are too far apart, the grades aren't written at the foot of the routes, the rope gets dirty on the ground, you should plant some grass and provide some litter bins, and the third bolt of the fourth pitch of one route is a bit loose and another one you could have put 6 inches lower down and why can't we download the topos from internet...
His friend asks, "Why's he waving the machete like that?!"
Yes, for a lot of the time route setting can be very hard, thankless work. I have only learnt how to do it over the last year and, although I'm still very much learning, since many of the visitors to The Lemon House ask how bolting works, I thought I'd write up a short overview of what I've learnt.
Firstly, when there's as much undeveloped rock around as in Sardinia, especially around where we live, you need to decide what it is that you want to create. We are currently working on 3 main projects: a SW facing crag with middle-grade (6b to 7b) routes for the autumn, winter and spring; a cave with mainly steep, hard (6c+ to 8a+ so far, many routes will be harder) routes particularly for the summer months; and bolting easier (5 to 6a) routes for the many visitors who've specifically asked for them. All these are within 1 hour door-crag from where we live, and represent significant additions to what the area offers, rather than being replicas of what already exists. It's important to choose crags where you can have a good number of routes, say at least 15, since very few people will walk 20' if there are only 3 routes at a place. You don't need to ask permission to the local authorities - nearly all the crags are on public land - but it is wise to avoid places where bolting or climbing might create problems, eg where you might knock rocks down on people or property below, or natural monuments where you'd get into trouble. Fortunately, our part of Sardinia has so much rock to develop that such restrictions hardly ever apply. You need to worry much more about reaching a critical mass of good routes and having a relatively-easy access (short, easy path if possible from convenient parking), as well as obviously making good-quality routes.
Secondly, you need to get some help if you're just starting. I'm fortunate that Maurizio Oviglia, who's bolted more than 1000 routes and writes the guidebooks, helps us a lot. You couldn't get a better teacher or guarantee of quality, and at first I was more than happy just to hold the rope and pass up stuff, though now that I've got the kit I do more of the work myself, particularly on easier routes. I would add as well that the people who bolt the routes need to be able to climb that standard of route, so that they can devise the best line, and understand where you would clip from. I currently onsight up to about 6c, so I can bolt up to about that level. For harder routes I get help, and offer my labour willingly, as well as providing the bolts from The Lemon House's bolt fund to which our guests contribute.
Thirdly, you need a drill (about €450), hammer, some skyhooks and adjustable slings to anchor them to you (the straps to attach stuff to a car roof rack work fine and are cheap), and the bolts themselves, plus some chains and maillons and krabs. For the moment we use 86mm-long 10mm-diameter stainless steels expansion bolts, about €2,5 each, since you can use them for bolting both bottom-up and top-down, whereas the slightly-cheaper glue-in bolts are only for top-down bolting. The drill we chose is usable both top-down and bottom-up as well, since it is quite light.
Cecilia climbing The Lemon House's most popular route, Siamo Solo all'Inizio, 6c. This route was bolted top-down by Maurizio after a hair-raising climb up the gully behind to get to the top, and Peter made the first RP
Fourthly, when you get to the crag you pick your lines and actually set about bolting. The easiest way to do this is top-down, where you manage to get to the top of the crag (this is in fact the most dangerous part, often involving scrambling and climbing on steep, vegetated rock if it's a new section of the crag) and make a stance, and then lower off this. Or once you have one stance you can tension-traverse sideways. You then top-rope the route, marking where you'd put the bolts, and then you abseil or get lowered down, drilling the holes, hammering in the bolts and tightening up the nuts. The skyhooks are used to hold you in, particularly if it's overhanging. You also have to clean off loose rock and vegetation, and often this takes longer than the actual bolting, particularly on more easy-angled routes which can have a lot of vegetation. You can then re-climb the route to get an idea of the grade, either with the top rope or you can go for the redpoint. Ah, did I forget to mention - of course, if you bolt the route you can never do an onsight ascent, so forget about that! Also, just after cleaning, there's likely to still to be some slightly dodgy rock, and the holds are covered with dust from the drilling, and you're tired, and maybe some holds you didn't clean perfectly may break, and because the route has been cleaned the holds you had when you first top-roped it may no longer be there, so your chances aren't the highest... I have had one sprained ankle from a foothold breaking off during an early ascent, as well as several "spankings" on routes that I would easily have been able to climb once they were clean, it's all part of the game. If you can't set the stance up first, you have to bolt bottom-up, which involves climbing, cleaning and holding yourself on with skyhooks or nuts or Friends while you drill above your head. I haven't yet done this, since the top-down bolting is difficult enough, though I am just about knowledgeable and confident enough to do it now. The whole process on a new cliff is bloody knackering and you come back absolutely drained, from the mix of physical struggle with bushes and undergrowth, carrying all the stuff you need (see the cartoon), the effort of drilling and hammering, and the tension of making sure you don't burn yourself with the drill bit, or drop the battery while you change it fifty feet up, or that you have made the stance correctly before you lower off it, or that the skyhook won't pop off while you are drilling...
Having done all this if you have any energy left, or a couple of day's later (here in Sardinia it hasn't rained since mid-June, so there's no point waiting for the rain to clean the dust and earth of the routes) you go and climb the route, either RP or top-rope, and try to estimate a grade. The more people you can get to estimate the grade the better, since no-one will try a new route if it doesn't have a grade, and no-one at all will thank you if the grade isn't reliable. They curse you just as much if the route is undergraded as if it's overgraded...see the cartoon above. You then publicise the new routes, voila!
So, if it's also so thankless, why do people bolt routes? From my own experience, it's very satisfying when a route you bolted is a very good route, irrespective of grade, and it's immensely gratifying when someone phones you up and says, "We went to The Lemon House crag...We did the routes just across from the pinnacle, they're great!" and you can then listen quite philosophically to their comments about the grades, maybe even modifying the grade if there's a consensus. It's a real end-to-end experience when you discover crags as I've done, involve other people, bolt routes, try to climb them and fail (I am currently in this process with several routes...) and finally do them. And, not least, you meet lots of people you'd never have otherwise met. A couple of weeks ago Bubu Bole, one of Italy's really good climbers who made early repeats of Hotel Supramonte and Mezzogiorno di Fuoco, turned up unannounced on our doorstep and asked for details of the new cave we're bolting, Su Telargiu Oro. Off he went to try some of the routes and liked the place. Or I now find myself in mailing lists of people selling bolts, along with the Greatest Names of Alpinism like Patrick Gabarrou...you become part of another of climbing's subgroups, one you wouldn't have realised in advance existed.
Also, you can participate in the creation of some pretty cool routes, as in the photo below on a route bolted yesterday at the Su Telargiu cave.
Jan working the boulder problem to reach the chain, "Yorkshire Tosti",
est. 8a+ at the Su Telargiu Oro cave, a couple of hours after bolting the route bottom-up
f anyone wants to help with bolting, offers of help are gratefully accepted!
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