Bolts, ethics and more bolts

On Wednesday night, 23 February 1994, a discussion took place in Kennedy's, Dublin over a couple of the finest. The plan was to talk about bolting issues in light of the then recent MCI meeting and the impact indoor climbing would have on our crags. The initial intention was to include the results in the program for the then upcoming National Bouldering League Final, however the material obtained proved to be on a much bigger scale. Now after some of the heat has died down we reveal the details of this clandestine meeting!

Participants were Terry O'Connor (TOC), Connor O'Connor (COC), Ronan Browner (RB) and Howard Hebbelthwaite (HH).

Interview by Tom Corcoran (TC). Recording by Niamh Hanafin.

Bolting and traditional crags

TC What is the position regarding bolting in Ireland?
TOC I would say that at the (recent MCI) meeting there was a very definite decision that bolts in Dalkey Quarry are out, it was a consensus.
COC It wasn't as such that bolts anywhere were out, it was as vague as traditional crags could not be bolted, specifics were left out. Now, what's a traditional crag?
TC So Dalkey Quarry is a traditional crag?
TOC Calvin (Torrans) made a point about Dalkey Quarry that it's used by so many beginners, it would give the wrong idea to beginners to go ahead and bolt all over the place.
COC Well the quarry was set aside as special and then there were traditional crags.
HH "Traditional crags" is open to a lot of interpretation. They don't want to see bolts in Dalkey Quarry, Fairhead, The Burren and Glendalough; those are the main areas really.
TOC Well everybody does have their own particular soft spot for a certain crag.
COC But those particular crags are climbed on by a lot of people. If someone does a new line it'll be a very bold line. You could bolt lines in Glendalough that haven't been climbed and do them readily enough. But would you do them with the exposure, without the bolts, no you wouldn't. But somebody will come along and do them, that's the way it's progressed though the years. It would ruin crags like that which are climbed on regularly. That's why I am against bolting as such.
HH Certainly, I would be against this myself as well.
TC Taking Calvin's point about giving a bad example by bolting in Dalkey, what is the problem, when Dalkey is man made anyway?
HH It's always had a traditional bold approach.
TOC The thing about Dalkey is that it is no longer a quarry as such and hasn't been for a long, long time, it's now a park. But if somebody like Roadstone moved out of some place yesterday and they don't want it anymore, I don't see a problem bolting anything like that.
TC What about the quarry in Kilkenny?
TOC It's the only crag they have and they are the only people who use it, so if everybody down there wants to bolt it, who are we to tell them not to bolt it. It's a quarry after all, you know, it's been blown up to bits several times.
TC Has anybody done the bolted routes in Derrygonnelly in Sligo?
HH I've spent a fair bit of time up there. There's definitely potential up there, but it's very packed limestone, no features on it. So it would lead itself to hard bolt protected routes.
COC It was recognized that there were a number of crags around the country that would require bolting. No one said specifically, apart from Monastir Sink.
HH Well that's different, I think Monastir Sink doesn't have a tradition as such, there's very few local climbers.
RB There's quite a few routes there, about 30, one bolted route, you could call it a traditional crag.
HH Yeah, I agree you can, but it doesn't have a major tradition of climbing.
TC A traditional crag without a tradition.
TOC It's not a particularly high profile crag compared to Dalkey quarry. I think there are areas that have yet to be discovered or are discovered and will never be climbed extensively by a lot of people. They are in out of the way locations, they are possibly on bad rock. I could see a good reason why they should be bolted, as long as there isn't a mass local objection.
COC You still have to be careful about the mushroom effect, whereby like the experience in England, it got out of hand.
TOC I don't think you'll stop bolting anyway, but I think there seems to be a majority of people against bolting on a general basis. I think all this negative thing about bolting makes people think twice about it and lessens the frequency of bolting.
HH There's actually plenty of routes to do without it anyway, on natural gear, and hard lines as well. So it's not a major big deal.
COC There is, there are lines and if you are feeling good you'll do them and if somebody sticks a bolt in they don't have to feel good. I'm just saying that you are more inclined to approach it mentally, I mean certainly in Glendalough there are some lines, they are not lines, they are faces, that put a bolt in you'll do them, you know you are going to come down on something safe.
RB Well it's an awful lot of hassle and expense, you really got to want to put them in and the line has got to be worthwhile before you will do it.
TOC I don't think there is a problem with people putting up V. Diffs or Severes or whatever, there's not a worry that people are going to start bolting new Severes or VS's. It's just too much hassle it's not worth it.
HH It would be nice to have some hard bolted routes for those who like to climb harder routes. If you bolted Dalkey Quarry you'd get a few routes, but not many really.
RB 15 good routes.
HH Yeah, you might get that many, but that's not many really and it's not what the majority wants. You'd get phenomenal routes if you bolted Fairhead. I mean, don't get me wrong, I wouldn't like to see it happen, but you would get phenomenal routes, but there's enough to do without that.
RB You are going to have to have bolted routes, this country has to have some hard bolted routes, some sports climbing.
TOC I think that hard bolted routes do push the grade up and I think the grades in Ireland have stagnated a little bit. Bolted routes can tend to upgrade climbing ability.
HH But then you need the rock which will provide routes which are hard enough. And there are a limited number of places in the country where you get that and Dalkey is not really one of those.
TOC I think a lot of people are comparing Ireland to Europe and I don't think you can. You can't compare bolted routes in Ireland to bolted routes in Europe as we don't have the same amount of rock. I think that we have so little rock the bolting question is never going to be the same as it is even in England.
HH The way ahead is to develop new crags for bolting but only on crags which are going to provide routes at least up in the continental 7's. I don't think there's any need for any less than that really, there are so many E3's and E4's that can be naturally protected.
RB I wouldn't have a problem bolting easier routes. It shouldn't just be exclusive to the hard routes of the day, it should be whatever you want to bolt in that (selected) area.

Climbing on bolts:

TC How about putting a bolt at the unprotectable crux of an otherwise traditional climb?
RB I don't believe in that, it's a bolted route or it's not.
COC It depends on the mental aspect, to be safe, if it's exposed, the problem is dealing with that exposure. If you are going to climb at that level, you should be mentally ready for it.
TOC You get some routes in Chamonix, ok lower grade routes, they would say it's bolted but it would only be bolted at the crux.
RB You shouldn't have runouts on bolted routes.
TOC I climb to get frightened you know.
RB Not on bolts you don't.
TOC Yeah, well I climb in Ireland.
RB Why should people have to pay a lot of money to go abroad to climb when they should have it (bolts) here?
HH There's plenty of climbing here, you go for the weather. I go to Spain because it has good weather in the winter, I don't go because it's a bolted climbing area.
TOC If it had natural quality gear routes I would still go. It's pretty guaranteed of getting some sunshine.
RB So you would rather climb on natural gear, would you rather never to have to clip a bolt in you life?
TOC I enjoy climbing when it's not bolted.
COC Yes.
TOC Well if you are asking me that question you might as well say make all indoor walls naturally protected. Of course there are times when I'm training. I'd rather to have it (outdoors) protectable with gear because I get a better buzz out of climbing. But I mean I like climbing in the Verdon and it's bolted.
RB But would you prefer never to have to clip a bolt in your life?
COC It's a strange question.
RB I would like to go somewhere to climb on bolts, full stop, just to climb on bolts. Be perfectly safe on the limit of your ability all the time, climb as hard as you want with no danger of hurting yourself.
COC But the situation in climbing is that so much depends on up there (head), so go to an indoor wall.
RB Even on bolted routes, it's all up there oftentimes.
COC It's not the same, there is no way you can tell me that putting your own gear in or not being able to put your own gear in is the same as doing a bolted route, regardless of the distance between the bolts. If the bolts are 20 feet apart, you know you are working to a particular point, but if you are doing a route on sight you don't know where the holds are, where the gear is, that's pleasure, it's different altogether, nothing compares to it.
RB There are people who climb exclusively on bolts, like in Malham Cove and there are people who climb exclusively on gear and there are both.
HH I disagree with that, it's not so much that they like climbing exclusively on bolts, they like climbing steep limestone. It's not that you like clipping the bolts, I don't care what sort of protection there is, I like the actually climbing, going upwards in an exciting situation and if it so happens that the rock doesn't lend itself to natural gear, it's nice to have the bolts there. The type of protection is irrelevant.
COC No one is saying that in situations like that bolts aren't required, because otherwise you'll just fall and hit the ground and there's no point doing that to yourself.
RB These people enjoy climbing hard, to climb the way they want to climb, bolts are necessary.
COC In areas that specifically lend themselves to such things.
RB Not as such lend themselves, you can't climb on the very limit of your ability on nut protected routes.
TOC I know people who climb routes in Dalkey quarry that are at the limit of their ability and unprotected.
RB Very few, you'll probably find that they could climb a bit harder if they were protected. People like that are few and far between.
RB If they were safe they could climb a bit harder, it would make a slight difference, give them an edge.
TOC I think the fact that it's unprotected is one of the reasons that they are climbing these routes.

Bolting ethics

TC There is an argument that the first ascensionist of a bolted route isn't worthy of it, that it could be done in 5/10 years when the standard is higher.
RB I think people say that if someone could do a move without using the bolts they have a right to chop it, I would agree with that to a certain extent. If someone could come along in good style and do it on-sight, solo or using natural protection, fair enough chop the bolts. But if you work the route, anyone can work a route eventually, that's different.
TOC There's an awful lot of people who have looked up at routes over say the last 10 years and said that'll never go and someone might come along in a year's time and say that'll go if I bolt it. It might open up crags, if they bolt on smaller crags it will give a bigger variety of crags.
TC Will people be able to keep themselves to these crags?
TOC I think they will, this country is too small, the climbing population is very small, it's very traditionally based in its attitudes. I think there are people with strong enough feelings that they will chop bolts and you'll find that when they are chopped they'll start saying this is not worth the hassle.
HH It's already been done anyway. There were bolts placed in Fairhead and they were chopped within a week, and in the Burren.
TC What about retro-bolting?
COC Retro-bolting was out, everyone agreed on that. It doesn't apply here all that much.
TC How about Spain and all the retro-bolting over there?
HH Continental ethics are totally different.
RB In Zilcheck (anyone know where he means?) there's a brand new 6C with a bolt on hold in the middle of it. With ethics like that you can't compare a climb like that with one over here, there's just no comparison at all. Over here would never get like that.
TC How about replacing pegs?
TOC There wasn't a problem with that, you know. And then people say "what about replacing pegs with bolts?". These are gray areas and it wasn't got into. Howard, I'll ask you a question, you put up the Green Fool and put the peg in. If it breaks off you wouldn't get another in.
HH You would be lucky to, yeah. I would consider it (retro-bolting), I'm not sure, it would probably be worth considering. That's not the only route that's like that, there are other routes on Ghost Slab, like the Haunted, that rely on pegs which are pretty manky looking. So it's another difficult issue.
TC How are bolts different from pegs?
RB Pitons are far uglier and for me more dangerous.
TOC I think a piton in the right position is just as safe as a bolt.
RB Bolts are a lot stronger than pitons, if you actually test them.
TOC Ok, fair enough.
RB It's a fact. But, ugly, you can discuss that. If you have a rusty streak going down a piece of rock that's ugly, whereas bolts tend to be a lot cleaner.
TOC That's true but I have walked in the bottom of the Verdon Gorge and you can see nothing but bolts lying on the ground, that's ugly to me.
RB Pitons tend to rust and they stain the rock, bolts are a lot cleaner.
TOC It's a small thing really.
RB It's irrelevant, but to me people should have a lesser problem with bolts that pitons.
TOC If they are going to have a problem it's not because they are unsightly.
RB I don't like the attitude that pitons are far more ethical than bolts.
TOC I don't think anybody is saying that, that's not really the argument.
RB I know it's not, but it's being brought up, which it shouldn't be.
TC Why do people (anti-bolters) tend to overlook pitons?
COC I think that it's a dying feature anyway.
TOC Yeah, because generally if you can get a piton into a crack, you'll get a bit of gear in, that's the theory.
TC So is it because pitons can go into cracks and bolts can go anywhere?
TOC Yeah, that's one of the reasons.
TC From an aesthetic standpoint, has the bolt debate any similarities to the chalk debate? Aesthetically is chalk not worse than bolts?
TOC I think the thing about chalk wasn't about it looking bad, it was that the fellow coming behind you knew where every hole was.
HH It's not about aesthetics anyway it's about ethics.

Indoor climbers

TC With all the new climbing walls do you think there is going to be a new breed of sports climbers that won't want to climb without risk outdoors? Are they going to approach the crags as sports climbers?
COC We don't have enough rock for that.
HH We don't have suitable crags for that.
TOC That's true, but I think any of those people who are that into it will stay indoors.
COC I think indoor climbing is a totally different sport basically to outdoor climbing, there's no comparison, you do different moves, you climb differently.
TC But how long will they stay indoors? It's a different sport but then you have the indoor people who want to try the same sort of stuff outdoors.
COC You won't see them doing that, they have to stop and put in gear, when they are outdoors, that's different.
TOC I don't think they will go to the bother of bolting just for that. I don't think that's why you see bolting going on. The only reason people bolt outdoors is because they have a line that they think is unprotectable and it's a hard route. I don't think you are going to get indoor climbers coming out and saying "let's riddle this face so we can do sports climbs".
TC Will the new indoor climbers convert to traditional climbing?
TOC They will but badly. I would fear that people who have been brought up on indoor walls will come out and start climbing routes that are too hard for them and they'll start falling on gear that they are not used to placing. I think you are going to see a lot more accidents outdoors.
TC They won't be prepared to work through the grades.
COC No, some of them won't. But some of the do, some of them are extremely nervous on very easy climbs, surprisingly so.
TOC When you're climbing on an indoor wall you don't even think about "will I let go", you just let go. If you have gear in and you know it's good, you're still not going to let go, unless you are really hilt.
HH Well, I think that you'll find that the people who enjoy climbing indoors will actually find that is quite exciting to do more traditional climbs, putting in runners. I don't think going to the climbing wall categorizes people; I go to the climbing wall to get fit, so I can climb well over the summer.
TOC It'll be a whole new step up for people who come from indoors, it has to be, it's a buzz for people who start. That's why a lot of people climb, it's not because there's bolts, it's because of the exposure knowing that your gear is 4 feet below and it isn't even in right, but it's the only bit you could get in. I like to climb on bolted routes, but I'll go to Spain or the South of France for that.

Irish ethics

TC Getting away from bolts, what are the ethics of Irish climbers, what are the unwritten rules on for example, pre-placed gear, red-pointing, hanging on gear?
RB Whatever you want (general laughter).
COC Where are you climbing? Holding on gear, red-pointing, I've never tried any of it. I've never held onto gear looking for a shagging hold.
RB No you have never tried it, but you can look up at the E5's, the E6's in this country and at the style in which they have been done. They have been chipped on, red-pointed, dogged, whatever you please.
HH The routes have not been dogged, they have been red-pointed, there's a difference. The hard routes have been red-pointed, otherwise they have points of aid on them, if they have been dogged, they have points of aid on them.
RB Some people would say red-pointing is dogging, some people would say it's either a clean ascent or you dogged the ascent.
HH Anybody who is climbing knows the difference really.
RB For a route anything goes, but to claim a route you have to get from the bottom to the top clean. There's a lot been top-roped, gear pre-placed, moves worked, whatever. You may not believe it happens but that's how they are done.
COC People have always worked the hard moves on any route they have set up, they have always done that. But to say that anything goes, I don't think that's the attitude across the board.
HH Anything goes up to the red-point, but you still have to red-point.
COC Then you are climbing if you are getting up there without hauling on gear, you are actually climbing, other than putting your knee on the rock.
RB The thing is the end product is an ascent, an ascent is an ascent if you got from the bottom to the top without hanging on gear.

...and so we continued, downing a few more beers in the process and naturally getting more vocal. In some pub right now it is no doubt continuing.

This issue is not going to go away and will always provoke an argument. Will Ireland remain the last bastion of traditional climbing in Europe? Will a sports climbing guide to Ireland ever be published? What happens hopefully will reflect the wishes of the majority of climbers as well as respecting our tradition. Outside of the main all-loved crags it should arguably be considered a local issue.

Note : Previously submitted to Rock Climber but never published.