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BOLTING! Here we go again…

May 3, 2013

“It is the nature of the climbing community worldwide that the vision and art of the first ascensionist is respected and celebrated, because it is a tangible reflection of the potential of that human at that moment in time. It is up to us to live up to that or to put it aside as a wondrous point of inspiration or a mirror for humility—most often both at the same time.” —Duncan Ferguson

I first saw the above quote on the AAC’s excellent (hopefully not defunct?) Alpine Briefs, and I think it really sums up my feelings behind this post.

It’s no secret to my regular partners that I don’t get out rock climbing as much as I get out wielding my ice tools, at least not these days.  But when I do get out to old haunts and familiar rock routes, I like knowing that, broken holds and natural rockfall aside, not much has changed.  If it is the ephemeral, dynamic nature of frozen waterfalls that attracts me so much to ice climbing, it is the near-permanent nature of rock climbs that keeps me coming back to favourite local classics every spring.  I guess this dichotomy is essential to practicing the sport year-round.

As of late, I have certainly noticed that the fundamental respect for first ascentionists’ style in establishing local rock climbs seems to be diminishing.  I suspect this is due, in part, to the massive increase in the number of local climbers and subsequent fragmentation of the local climbing community.  Not everybody knows everyone anymore, and perhaps the history of local route development and climbing ethics has become lost among the latest generation of local climbers.

Recently, the old sport vs. trad debate has reared its head again at some of our popular local crags, and I can’t help but wonder if some context, a bit of history and a personal anecdote or two might be in order.  Besides, everyone else has been posting opinions online and in emails, why not me?

One thing has that has become readily apparent to me is that when a transgression to the local ethic has occurred, it has rapidly become accepted as the new norm if left unanswered.  That, combined with our rapidly growing community, and a lack of connection between recent generations of local climbers, has had an impact on our local ethic.  To that end, here’s my take on our local ethic – or at least some background on how my own ethic developed:

A (possibly completely biased) brief history of our local ethic (as I have experienced it)

I consider myself to have been fortunate to begin climbing when I did in this area (and like many, wish I had discovered climbing when I was way younger!).  While I newbied my way through learning to climb, a handful of folks were developing what is arguably some of Ontario’s best rock climbing in Orient Bay.  Some of their climbs were (and still are) over my head, but I gleaned a lot from them in terms of the local style and ethic.  This despite their only letting me tag along with them a couple of times.

For the first couple of decades or so of climbing in Thunder Bay, that ethic was a fairly strict ground-up approach to establishing new climbs, and even recently most of the new routes in Orient Bay were opened that way (which I think says something since they are big and fairly difficult/committing for the most part).  Additionally, the approach has always been to minimize climbers’ impact on the rock by minimizing the use of artificial protection (bolts), and generally avoiding it altogether where adequate natural protection is available.  This might be summed up as clean trad protection first, pitons or other fixed gear in natural cracks second, and finally bolts.

This view evolved somewhat as the tremendous freeze-thaw cycles during our epic winters frequently result in unsafe pitons, and replacing them tends to create further rock damage or blown placements.  Accordingly, a good, stainless bolt goes a long way to actually reducing impact here in the long run (I still carry a piton hammer with me from time to time to test or reset placements on routes I know have fixed pins on them for this reason).

My early mentors informed me that for a long time locally (long before my time), sport climbing was in fact sneered at and most local crags were predominantly trad, with perhaps the odd belay or lone protection bolt on a “mixed” trad/sport pitch.  If one of my mentors is correct (and some preface material in an early guidebook to the area seems to back his claim), the development of climbs like Record Body Count, Stairmaster and the Black Stallion Arete at another popular crag established sport climbing in the area, but not without controversy.  Eventually though, even the most crusty old-school tradsters accepted it as a new and worthy addition to the area’s climbing, and there is no doubt it dramatically raised local standards.

What is important to note, though, is that these pioneers seemed very careful about avoiding creation of sport climbs where a clear trad or mixed-protection climb might exist (the aberration here seems to be Positively 4th Street, which I understand led to tremendous debate among locals due to the obvious good trad protection on the upper half of the route).  In fact, they went so far as to preserve some fairly bold trad lines as well (right beside a good sport route in some cases) to ensure that all styles of climbing were in fact accommodated there and, I like to think, to show respect for the abilities of their friends.  An example here is Greco, which has a fairly hairy start without much in the way of gear and has seen an injury or two from falls low down.  Still, the route was trad and nobody even considered adding bolts after the FA had been done as such as far as I am aware.  It became accepted as is by subsequent generations of climbers.  Interestingly, some recent attempts to bolt it (that have been dissuaded) have stemmed from comparatively new climbers who had never lead it.  The idea of bolting it never even occurred to one climber I know that was banged up on it – his remark in hindsight to me was that he should have waited until he was better before trying – or in another words, get good enough to meet the climb on its terms, rather than bring it down to his level.

This brings another important point home in terms of “a” (not “the”) local climbing ethic, one that my mentors brought to me and one that I have adhered to – always respect (and celebrate) the style and vision of the first ascentionist.  Read another way, if you can’t climb the route in the same or better style than the first ascentionist, climb something else or come back when you can.  If you’re considering adding additional permanent protection to an existing route, seek the blessing of the first ascentionist before proceeding.

I bring a further story to the table, again as some history and again because I think it goes to show just how far local climbers have gone in the past to minimize impacts on the resource.  Quite some time ago, a major event was planned for the city that was to include rock climbing at a local crag for its participants.  Shockingly, the organizers proposed (and unbelievably had approval) to bulldoze some of the trees in the vicinity of the most popular area, drill huge bolts a ways back from the cliff edge, and establish large, permanent chain anchors at the top.  Fortunately, members of the local climbing community intervened and instead installed a small handful of bolted TR anchors at the top of the climbs, deeming it the lesser of two evils.  Since then, bolting at that crag has largely been strictly limited to TR anchors, and usually only done where trees at the top of popular climbs either die, through old age or vandalism, to avoid stringing lengths of webbing across popular hiking trails.

At least one hard sport climb has been established there, but I’m not clear on why it has damaged/missing bolts.  Certainly, attempts to bolt popular headpoint routes and boulders like Galaxion (yes, that is actually a boulder problem to some folks!  And an exciting headpoint to others) have elicited a hostile response, and at one time the climbing community accepted that minimal fixed anchors were a good idea here given how public the crag is.

Not our first bolting conflict

A decade or so ago, some folks new to our spectacular area took it upon themselves to start drilling and equip many popular TR routes, and a few trad ones, as sport routes.  Not surprisingly, the reaction from long-time local climbers ranged from not caring to hostile.  After some time, and a brief bolting war, these same people came to respect and even celebrate our local ethic.  A consequence though was that a few of those routes were forever changed, and as they were not chopped to avoid further damage, they have become accepted as the new norm and part of our local ethic – to the point that others have arrived, seen the examples, and established routes in the same, more liberally-bolted fashion.  Sometimes they were innocent enough – unaware that these climbs might have been done on gear – other times they just did not seem to care.

So, if you don’t like the bolts don’t clip them right?  

The above remark in the current debate about a certain route at our only sandstone cliff prompts me to tell a personal story.  Like many people, I have always been attracted to the unique sandstone climbing we have (one of only two sandstone crags in Ontario that I am aware of, and as I understand it this one is far better).  Early on, I enjoyed the sport climbs but once I had done them all I started paying more attention to the less-popular, more obscure routes and discovered an exciting (if committing and sometimes risky) collection of stellar trad climbs.  One climb in particular called to me, and that was Wild Child – which at the time had NO bolts on it.  The regular 5.8+ route that traverses under the roof is an area classic, and is even featured in Ontario’s Finest Rock Climbs as a classic trad pitch (as it is in the original crag guidebook).  I ticked this without much fuss; though it does have some exposure the trad gear was quite good where it counted.  But what really grabbed me was the 5.10+ variation directly over the large roof.  With some mucking about projecting on TR, I found some solid gear placements to the left, but falls were potentially going to be big and it took some effort to work up the nerve to commit to going over the roof on lead.  Never mind that the route was at the very limit of my technical ability at the time.

Unfortunately for me, the day I thought I might finally send, I showed up and saw a contrived line of bolts a couple of feet left of the crack, and a big shiny bolt directly in the roof that I had been working up the nerve to pull.  I still tried, but the presence of that bolt no longer demanded my best commitment and when fear got the better of me (remember, I thought the fall was huge but safe with the solid gear out left), that bolt was just too easy to clip and I lowered off instead of allowing the commitment to bring out my personal best.  I left feeling a little hollow.  Sure, I could choose not to clip that bolt, but its presence did remove the commitment the rock alone would have brought by deciding to move out the roof, past the point where someone of my ability could reverse the moves.

In all fairness, I had not done the route yet, and therefore did not see that I had a leg to stand on when it came to opining about those bolts – someone with a different creative vision got there first (before anyone had ever freed it on gear to claim a first ascent in a different style) and added the bolts.  Fair enough (though I do question how necessary the lower bolts were a couple of feet from the usual trad route).

A then a near miss…

Fast forward a few years, and a friend and I were updating and replacing a few fixed top anchors at the crag and we found ourselves on Everything Goes Green, an uber-classic 5.10 top roping route.  We did add a new top anchor there for two reasons.  One was the existing cliff-top anchor bolts were aging and one of them was in a depression that actually caused a mild cross-load on some styles of carabiners; second because there had been a much more popular TR anchor slightly lower on the cliff that consisted of a slung boulder behind a tree with rap rings.  This met its demise one spring from frost heaving … kinda spooky that, when you think about how many people must have used it over the years.  After replacing the anchor, we actually did consider bolting the climb as a sport route, purely out of convenience.  No question it would have been a nice sport pitch.

Fortunately for my personal ethic, before we could get back up there, we ran into two strong local trad climbers who were psyched to inform us that they had actually been leading the route on all natural protection.  I immediately felt like crap for even considering bolting it – on one count because of my experience on Wild Child and not wanting to steal a potential experience from others (even though they had already bagged the route – there would no doubt be others when word got out).  Second, I’d nearly inadvertently done something against the local (and largely worldwide) ethic of respecting the style of the first ascentionist – even if it had been innocent enough by not knowing about the recent trad ascents.

I drew inspiration from the young guns, both of whom were clearly climbing circles around me despite my decade-plus more experience than they had.  I immediately set about sussing the gear placements on TR, and on a fine fall day sent the line myself (and for a time it even became a spring tradition for me).  The experience was incredibly rewarding for me in the end, and I know it has been since for others.

More food for thought?

I have had the great fortune to climb with, and make close friends of several out of town climbers, both unknown and well-known.  Most incredibly more talented and better-travelled than my 5.easy self.  I have always enjoyed playing tour guide on the local crags, bringing them from classic to classic at many different areas.  I have brought quite a few of them to our sandstone playground, and we nearly always climb Everything Goes Green, either on gear or top rope.  After the usual remarks about the awesome climbing community we have here, and the quality of our climbing, they nearly always make two comments that make me proud to be a Thunder Bay climber.   One is that we appreciate our traditions and generally adhere to a strict local climbing ethic of respect for those that have gone before us.  The other comment many make, and often cannot get over, is how two contradictory styles of climbing have coexisted respectfully at the same crag for so long.

Often, they say they wish it were the same at their home crags.  I’d hate for us to look back in a few years and find ourselves saying the same things when we visit other areas.

So what?

It should be obvious this local history has had a strong, and to my mind, positive, influence on my own ethics and style choices in climbing – as it has on others.  I hope I’ve shed some light on why things are the way they are around here…or at least why they were they way they were…

When it comes to sport vs. trad, and what’s best for a particular route, I am certain your own ideology will dictate your finding facts in here or elsewhere to support either point of view.  Certainly, if you think I’m wrong, you’re quite possibly right.

You guys have it all wrong Daddy.  All this talk about climbing instead of climbing is making me sleepy.  You know what else sandstone is good for?  Zzzzz...

You guys have it all wrong. All this talk about climbing instead of climbing is making me sleepy. You know what else sandstone is good for? Zzzzz…

One more afterthought, specific to the current debate.  Route developers should do well to consider that this crag is our ONLY sandstone crag in the region.  And yep, it ain’t as great as some of the southern sandstone, but it’s still our only one.  Why can’t we try especially hard to preserve at least a few quality routes of both styles on it’s nicest wall?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Duncan permalink
    May 4, 2013 22:35

    I really enjoyed learning more about the history of the area. Thanks for sharing such a genuine perspective. I especially enjoy the wonderful blend of traditional and sport routes in the region, and appreciate you highlighting that point.

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