Rebolting is the practice of updating and replacing protection on
sport climbing routes. That means inspecting the bolts on
established routes, removing any that are too old or otherwise untrustworthy, and installing strong new ones in their
Bolts merit this special concern because they're a
communal resource. All the rest of a climber's
equipment is his own personal responsibility-- from his shoes to his rope to his helmet-- but the bolts are a
permanent fixture installed by a stranger. Climbers trust life and
limb to the strength of each bolt, so even though the majority are
quite safe, the unsafe minority could cause injuries or death.
a sport route is established, the first ascensionist (or "FA")
installs the series of bolts for use by later climbers. However there's
no such thing as a license to place bolts, or even a universal class
that one is required to take first, so it's possible for the FA to make
mistakes. A few potential problems can lead to unpleasant surprises for later climbers.
Sometimes a route will be set up with the wrong type of bolt, which
usually means the FA was a cheap jerk. Real climbing bolts are
very tough chunks of stainless steel or titanium, tested to
withstand upwards of 20 kilonewtons (two tons!) of force, and
they cost something like US $5 to $10 each.
A cheap jerk may instead go to the local hardware store and buy
ordinary machine bolts for a buck apiece. Generic bolts are made of
steel, are of inconsistent quality, and have lower strength ratings
to begin with. When such a bolt is stressed by the sudden force of a
hard fall, the metal might simply come to pieces.
times the correct bolts are used, but installed incorrectly. Expansion
bolts must have the appropriate torque, neither too tight nor
too loose. Glue-in bolts must be used with the proper type of
epoxy, mixed and applied in the right way. Each bolt hole must be of
certain size, depending on the size and type of the bolt. The holes
must be drilled in stable rock, far
enough away from cracks or flaws or other holes. If any
of these aspects of the installation are wrong, then when the bolt is
weighted in a fall, it
may be pulled right out of the mountain.
the perfect bolt in the perfect setting will not last forever.
Since they are outdoors, the bolts and the mountain are constantly
exposed to the elements, every day for years at a time. Steel will
rust, rock will erode, and general wear and tear will take its
toll. Eventually the equipment's strength will degrade so much that it
is no longer safe to use.
Whatever the reason, if a
bolt fails during use, the climber depending on it will take a longer
fall than expected-- possibly all the way to the ground.
This is a Bad Thing. Unsafe protection
gear is worse than no gear at all, because the danger is seldom obvious
to a casual glance. Climbers may tend to just clip the gear and
trust their lives to it, unaware that it may give out when needed.
This is where the "re" in rebolting comes in. Enterprising climbers with strong bolting skills investigate
sport routes, concentrating mostly on ones that are aging, or that were
placed by their less experienced fellows. When
they find unsafe gear, the rebolters spend time and money to
remove the old crap, and install new, safe, full-strength anchors.
Equipment for a rebolting project can vary widely, depending on the
Pulling the old bolts may call for pliers, a crowbar, a
funkness device, a "carrot killer", and/or a Y-shaped wedge called
a "tuning fork." Enlarging holes and drilling new ones takes a
cordless electric hammer drill and spare batteries (or a hand
drill, a hammer, and plenty
of arm strength). Epoxy is used to patch old holes,
and to anchor glue-in bolts. Expansion bolts require a torque wrench.
Small brushes and a blow tube clear the dust after drilling. On top
of all that, the rebolter needs a full set of climbing gear just to get up where the bolts are,
plus of course the new replacement bolts, and he must be able to
carry and manage all of it while dangling from a rope 'way up in
Taking all this gear, the rebolter will either ascend a route on
top rope or rappel down
from above. As he reaches each old bolt he removes it, installs a new
replacement, and moves on to the next. This may not sound terribly
complicated, but the devil is in the details.
For instance, choosing the placement for the new bolt can be
something of a black art. Ideally it would go into the same hole the
old bolt came out of, but that's not always possible. The existing hole
could be unusable because it is oversized, or fractured, or in the
wrong orientation, or has a broken remnant of the old bolt wedged
in it, or for various other reasons. A new placement must be found that
is close enough, and situated similarly enough, to maintain the same
aesthetics and difficulty of the route; yet it must be far enough
away not to weaken the rock. Then the old hole must be patched, and
camouflaged with rock dust to avoid leaving an ugly scar.
And that's not to mention the difficulty of actually drilling the hole and doing the installation.
Rebolting takes a lot of skill, practice, and dedication.
There's no glory in it-- not even the small amount that would come
with getting one's name on a brand new route. People put an awful lot
of effort into it anyway, even organize themselves into nonprofit
groups like the American Safe Climbing
Association, to save the lives of strangers they will never meet.
(Just to be clear: this node is absolutely not an instruction
manual for doing any of this yourself. If all you know about climbing
bolts is what you read on the internet, please do not go out and mess
with them, because someone will die.)