Letter To The Editor - Retro Bolting
Since the demise of The Climber magazine and its Letter To The Editor pages, there hasn't been an official club forum for discussing the contemporary issues of climbing. As noted in the letter below, Facebook has become a default location for this, but is not necessarily the best place. For this reason, we've revived a Letter To The Editor location here on our website, where we hope to publish thoughtful letters from members on thought-provoking topics.
We welcome letters in reply to this one below from Alec McCallum, as well as letters on other topics relevant to climbing. For those who don't want to write a letter, there is the opportunity to leave short comments below. If commenting, please be polite and constructive.
Retro bolting has always been a contentious issue in climbing. One which needs to be discussed more in our community. By retro bolting, I mean to add bolts to an already established climb. Not to be confused with re-bolting, which means to replace the bolts, without putting in any additional bolts.
The latest and arguably juiciest drama in the Christchurch climbing community has been regarding the retro bolting of a number of traditional style routes at Gibraltar Rock in the Port Hills. This was done without first consulting the first ascentionists of the routes, or the wider climbing community. Almost immediately, the bolts were removed by another individual and a post was made to Facebook which sparked fierce debate in the comment section. This was eerily reminiscent of the Lyttelton Rock retro bolting—when multiple climbs at the crag were retro bolted in 2022 and a post made on the Christchurch Climbing Facebook page collected thousands of comments, in an explosion of vile internet debate. Before the recent Gibraltar Rock thread could reach the same infamous heights of its predecessor, it was removed by the admins. As with the Lyttelton Rock debate, while opinion was split on the matter, most seemed supportive of the retro bolting. The retro bolting, along with the perceived community perception on the issue, seems to me to represent a shift in climbing culture which is taking place in New Zealand, with less importance being placed on history/ethics and more focus on inclusivity/accessibility.
What makes climbing so amazing is that there is something for everyone. There are so many different styles, with such a range of difficulty, that people can choose to push themselves as much as they desire, in many different ways. One way which some climbers like to challenge themselves is through bold climbing—pushing themselves mentally on climbs where falling off can hold serious consequences. Climbing these bold routes demands so much more from you than a well-bolted sport climb. They require a level of technique and control to execute safely. The satisfaction from completing these bold climbs can be immense and is entirely different from climbing a route which is solely challenging due to the physical difficulty.
In most cases, retro bolting these old traditional style routes is very much a case of bringing the mountain down to the man. Instead of leaving them as climbs which force people to rise up to the challenge, they are brought down to a level that just about any climber can at least attempt. If more and more of these bold routes are retro bolted, climbers who would like to become more competent in that style would lose the opportunity to do so. The majority of climbers have no interest in climbing bold routes. Even the majority of “bold” climbers would prefer to climb safe, low stress routes most of the time, which is just as well, as the vast majority of routes in the Port Hills are safely bolted sport routes. The climbing community is losing so much more than they gain from having a handful of extra, well bolted climbs. While bold climbing is no longer as prevalent as it was in the past, it would be tragic if the community were to lose this aspect of the sport completely.
Many make the argument for inclusivity when it comes to retro bolting, saying that by adding bolts to these bold climbs more people will have access to more routes. However, in most cases people can access the anchors of these bold climbs to set up a top rope—either by walking around to the top of the crag, climbing an adjacent route, or sending up a more confident friend to set up the rope. This allows people to safely try these routes, without taking away the opportunity for others who would choose to try them in their natural state. The experience you will have top-roping a route will be fairly similar to climbing a route which has a bolt every meter, which many of the routes retro bolted recently do.
I have seen many comments on Facebook arguing that people should just skip the bolts on routes which have been retro bolted, and that if people would still like to experience the route in its original state they should just ignore the new bolts. I believe that having the bolts on a route, even if you choose to ignore them, completely ruins the experience of climbing a bold route. Having a safety line available throughout the climb removes a lot of the risk you take on when you embark on these routes, dramatically affecting the experience. It would be like arguing that we should chip jugs up hard sport routes to make them more accessible, and that people should just ignore them if they desire the original experience.
The bolts take away the natural beauty which a lot of these traditional style routes have. There is something amazing about climbing something using only what nature has provided, rather than using what nature has provided, plus whatever some old bloke with a drill has decided to put in the rock.
When these old traditional style routes are retro bolted, our community is losing an important part of our history, as well as our ability to experience this history. Early pioneers of the climbing scene, such as John Allen and Dave Fearnley (whose routes were retro bolted at Gibraltar), paved the way for climbing in Christchurch. It feels vastly more meaningful when I repeat a route established by a legendary figure such as these. A big part of what made these routes groundbreaking achievements back in the day, wasn’t just that they were extremely difficult, but also very dangerous! It would be regrettable if we lose the chance to climb these routes in the same state they were first climbed in (albeit with much better equipment!).
In some cases I believe retro bolting can be appropriate. For example, if the rock on a traditional climb is too soft to safely take gear, and the crag is predominantly a sport crag, adding bolts could be suitable. I think this should be done on a case by case basis, with the main factors to be taken into consideration being the quality of the rock and the style of the crag. However, in most other cases I would still argue against retro bolting. I disagree with retro bolting a traditional route with good quality rock that can safely take gear, if the sole reason is that it’s one of the few traditional routes at the crag. If traditional routes are in the minority at the crag it should be all the more reason to keep those few routes, so those interested in climbing them do not completely lose the opportunity to do so. I believe adding bolts merely for the sake of convenience to be an unhealthy approach—one that will surely have a negative effect on the character of our climbing areas.
If anyone would like to debate the matter with me, feel free to reach out, or talk to me in person when you see me around!
Thanks for a nuanced look at this issue Alec. You say there used to be more bold climbers. I doubt it. There are just a lot more climbers now. I’m also unconvinced by appeals to history. What I agree with completely is the importance of a wide range of climbing experiences. That includes toproping a route you’re too scared to lead - which I’ve done more than once. It’s an ‘experience’ that’s added to not detracted from my climbing life.
Hey Alec, thanks for taking the time to pen this article. Good points well made from the perspective of one of the boldest climbers of his generation. I agree with your argument, and also with the voices who point to the advantages, inevitability even, of retrobolting some routes. I'm not going to weigh in on this, but instead make a suggestion for a solution.
The best point you make is that there is nuance and that rebolting and retrobolting needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. I think that this shouldn't be made by individuals, and some of the train wrecks that we have seen at the crags attest to this. Nor should it be by the masses, with their "vile internet debate". Instead, I could imagine a local group with diverse representation, elected with a mandate to make the calls on our behalf. You might be the kind of person who could be part of this.
This kind of committee probably doesn't fit within our current club structures, but as climbers we need a full rethink of how our clubs support us and this might be the kind of thing we want to consider when we do.
Thanks for this constructive contribution Sefton. Solutions are needed and a kind of representative democracy is an interesting idea. I definitely agree that the nuances involved here suit a case-by-case decision-making basis too.
Another idea might be to do it crag-by-crag. We could have three different levels of protection, or status for crags, along the lines of 'historic/legacy', 'established' and 'developing'. Whereby the first shouldn't be tinkered with unless with prior wider community approval, the second allows for some changes but these should be run by local climbers and first ascentionists first (kind of the current default) and the third is newer crags where there is a general acceptance of new routes being added. This would allow for changes to be made to existing routes at all crags, but have different levels of community consultation depending on the age/status of the crag. Hopefully that might minimise the bureaucracy to a practical level?
We might be able to use ClimbNZ as a way to do this via a straight democratic system, where we have temporary links to surveys to collect opinions on how individual crags should be treated, or make use of the comments sections for people to discuss the merits of each crag.
There will always be positives and negatives that will come out of any conversation or argument regarding the ethics of our sport.
There are numerous locations around the world which can be classified as naturally protected crags, which host numerous naturally protected routes. Whilst the heritage of New Zealand climbing is heavily unique, we did not have the same influences as the likes of those in Yosemite, Smith-Rock, France, Germany, and the UK. All locations who's history was and will continue to be, more developed than New Zealand's climbing history.
Though, these routes that were climbed by John Allen, one of our major climbing influences of the time, and others whom were influenced by him, we must take into contrast as well, without these influences, do we believe at that this point in time in New Zealand was there anybody else at the same level to chance across and ascend these routes, or would have they become bolted by the next generation?
We now live in a time were numerous routes around the world are been retro-bolted. From the famous sea cliffs in South-Wales to the likes of our our very own crags in our small corner of the world. At this point in time, we must discuss what is the future of these routes that are been retro-bolted? How often are they been climbed? How many repeats have they had in the previous decade? What is the purpose of keeping a route unbolted vs bolted?.
As I have seen much of lately, our sport is progressing and growing, and as I said previously, we live in our small corner of the world. Ethics of old still closely follow us, its time to decided what the future of New Zealand climbing will become.
I believe we must maintain diversity of experience in climbing. If we don't we will lose some very important experiences. We don't chip a hold when it is too hard we just move along to the next one. When it is too bold do the same. All of these recent controversial rebolts in the port hills are disgusting vandalism of climbing culture and possible future experiences. In all recent cases it took away an distinct climbing experience that was and is still sort by climbers and replaced it with an experience that could be found on hundreds of other climb in the port hills (The was probably middle ground to just add a single bolt this was never done! Perhaps this might be the democratic consensus on some routes?) There are still many people who either seek or respect these experiences. The future isn't paved in stainless inclusivity that reduces the diverse range of experiences open to any climber. Maintain the diversity of experience. Sling a top rope, enjoy and respect. Have fun.
The routes The Wasteland and Private hell were equipped with a bolt apiece in the late 1970s early 80s when the climbing ethic of the day was to toprope and rehearse the route and then lead it.
The idea that we should never alter a route once it's had its first ascent, that so called historic routes should be climbed the way they were originally done deserves to be treated in the same way as if you were told you have to climb the Eiger North face with 1930s gear.
The idea of toproping a route simply because the first ascent was done that way (it would have been rehearsed and led) deserves to be questioned by all climbers.
The small handful of climbers who would like keep these two climbs in this style for their own satisfaction are climbing 10 grades harder (give or take) than the actual grade of these climbs.
Given that they're climbing so much within their ability you could argue that it's not even that bold a climb for them.
Meanwhile anyone actually leading grade 22 has to settle for a top rope to appease a handful of climbers who probably make up less than 1 percent of the climbing community.
There isn't a great deal of high quality rock on the Port hills and Gibraltar rock doesnt have much, but what these routes are on deserves to be more than some neglected museum.
The aforementioned bold climbers could go highball bouldering or even better go mountaineering for their kicks and then rest of us could lead climb on sanely bolted climbs on what is some of the best rock on the Port hills.
Tēnā koe Richard. Having recently returned from the home of bold trad (the Peak District) I've witnessed what a respect for a limited resource of rock looks like. The grit is almost entirely devoid of bolts, including anchors. The result is a climbing area with a unique and historic climbing culture. I would not argue that Aotearoa has a climbing culture of the same depth as our UK colonial overlords. I would however argue that the influence of original gritstone climbers down here cannot be ignored. The influence of people like John Allen has sunk deeply into our lore hungry generation and more young climbers are seeking out bold climbing.
Climbing styles come in waves; when I started climbing at Castle Hill bold climbing was in a lull and it is now surging in popularity. Retro bolting seems incredibly short sighted to me, simply because trad climbing is in a lull, it will not last! Just as much as the generation who sold their vinyl for pennies are kicking themselves, we will in the future if we sell out on traditional climbing.