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I've always wondered about the permanent "hooks" (it seems the proper term for them is "anchors" — pitons, bolts, etc.) that are placed in the some rock climbing routes to help climbers. Since they're fixed in the rock and used by everyone, I wonder, who is responsible to put them there and make sure they're secure? Are there regulations that need to be followed when placing them, e.g. minimum distance, stress tests, etc?

While searching around for this, I found three Wikipedia articles (First ascent, Sport climbing and Aid climbing) which contain some related information, but don't directly answer the question. I expected the Climbing route article to also provide some information, but most of it is about the naming of the routes, rather than how their anchors (if any) are placed.

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Pitons and bolts are distinct things. Pitons are like nails. They're hammered in to a crack by a leader and usually removed by the follower. Sometimes they're left permenantly. The climbing community mostly switched from them to less destructive gear (nuts and cams) 30+ years ago. Bolts are more permenant, and fixed in holes bored with a drill. Bolting is a major undertaking, and probably less than 10% of climbers have ever placed one. Climbs that are protected totally by bolts are usually called "sport climbs", although sometimes a handful of bolts will show up on traditional routes. –  DavidR Aug 3 '13 at 1:46
    
Bolts look like drywall hangers used in construction, which the oldest ones probably were. –  DavidR Aug 3 '13 at 1:52
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You may want to read the books "how to climb" by John Long or "Mountaineering: the freedom of the hills", they're both pretty comprehensive introductions to this stuff. –  DavidR Aug 3 '13 at 1:57
    
Mountaineering is an excellent book, it has a lot of information on everything from protection, to rope technique, snow/ice climbing, expedition management, avalanche/snow conditions, weather, and everything in between. Its a must own. –  crasic Aug 12 '13 at 17:52
    
Typically, every specific area has its own "climbing community", usually dedicated locals or enthusiasts. A lot of route maintenance, planning, and other decisions are done in a semi-collective manner in this community. Climbing is freedom, there are few laws preventing you from placing a bolt in a rock wherever you damn well please, however if you place a bolt in an established route, don't expect it to last long, it takes much less time to cut a bolt than it does to place one, and the same right to place gear applies to the person removing gear –  crasic Aug 12 '13 at 17:55

3 Answers 3

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There are two distinct styles of free rock climbing (with, as always, some grey areas).

In "trad" (= traditional) climbing, the team carries their own removable gear. The leader places protection points whilst climbing and the second climber removes them again. There might be the odd piece of permanent gear - pitons or bolts - but the climbing team is basically responsible for arranging their own protection.

In sport climbing, bolts are pre-placed by somebody, usually a local enthusiast or group of enthusiasts. How stuff is funded/maintained varies a lot from area to area, but it is almost always voluntary efforts of some kind. Formal standards don't exist, although most areas have best practices that are generally understood and adhered to by people putting in or maintaining fixed equipment. Exactly what these best practices are vary a lot from area to area depending on type of rock, proximity to salt water etc. IANAL, but from what I've read there might be some question of legal liability if people putting in fixed gear blatantly violate local best practices.

Bolt spacing norms in particular vary a lot from area to area. One of my local areas is the Frankenjura. There the locals generally bolt the routes so you won't hit the ground, but they don't care how scared you are. So you might be looking at doing hard climbing much further above a - solid - bolt than you are used to or comfortable with. A couple of hours in the opposite direction is Nassereith in Austria, where the bolt spacing makes some climbing gyms feel terrifying. (Sadly the climbing and scenery there are nowhere near as good as in the Frankenjura)

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Is it common for the first ascensionist to define the route and place the bolts (particularly for very hard climbs)? Does he merely define the route and bolts are placed afterwards? Or none of the above? –  waldir Aug 6 '13 at 13:18
    
on sport routes, the first ascensionist and the bolter are sometimes / often different people. The person placing the bolts defines the route, and he/ she may or may not be athletic enough to be the first one to climb it cleanly. Of course, its bad manners to try and climb a new route without the bolter's permission, if they haven't had a fair chance to get a first ascent. –  DavidR Aug 6 '13 at 15:08
    
@waldir depends on area and style. On established routes in traditionally trad areas (like yosemite), all fixed gear is usually placed by the first acensionists or the first few followers (for old routes). Pitons and other old iron may have been accidentally or purposefully fixed by early parties and have remained (often replaced regularly) as "part of the route" even if not officially done by the FA. On aid-routes, semi-fixed hardware like copperheads accumulate quickly, often a pitch that went A4 by the FA becomes A3 or even A2 as bashies accumulate and features expand to fit pitons/cams –  crasic Aug 12 '13 at 17:45

As far as I know there are no general authorities for the placement of fixed gear and bolts may have been placed well or poorly. There are however organizations that provide safety guidelines for placing and replacing bolts.

Understand that while good bolts rarely fail there is always a good measure of faith involved. You should learn how to inspect bolts and check every one that life or limb will depend upon, though that's easier said than done in many cases and you may have to trust guide books and beta from other climbers as to the suitability of bolts along a route.

It is my understanding that bolts are often not professionally placed, that is those placing them often have no specific training or certification in their correct application. A likely reason for this is liability mentioned on this Allied Climbers of San Diego page:

San Diego is plagued with outdated and dangerous climbing anchors. Most of San Diego’s climbing areas were established in excess of 30 years ago and are in desperate need of updating. Due to insurance and liability reasons, ACSD regrets that it cannot, itself, engage in climbing anchor replacement.

That page continues with specific warnings starting with:

Any 1/4” bolt is a time bomb. Most come out by simply tapping a knife blade piton between it and the rock.

The 5/16” bolts that have been removed were sound. However many were installed with Leeper, Leeper look-alike, or SMC hangers – none of which are safe. The thin steel has a tendency to crack where the steel was bent, especially the older, thinner ones (there are 3 generations of Leeper hangers).

Some safety tips:

  • Do not belay or top rope off a single 1/4” bolt or one of these older hangers.
  • Do not count on one of these to keep you off the ground lead climbing.
  • Do not trust an aluminum hanger, one swing of a hammer will break one off.

Much more detailed information is available from the American Safe Climbing Association. They have a collection of articles on the subject of bolting and bolt inspection, such as: Dangerous Bolts - Bolts to Avoid, and How To Rebolt. Some images are provided, sadly low resolution such as:

Bad Bolts

bad bolts good bolts

The type of bolts you may encounter are at least to a degree region specific and you should familiarize yourself with whatever you are likely to come across.

Safer Cliffs Australia has a Bolt Guide with lots of pictures, as well as a page of photos of some of the terrifying stuff you might come across.

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This varies by area. Often a local climbing group will manage anchors and route safety. In other areas it may be park management or a local council.

There are no fixed regulations as to position etc either - but teams will generally follow generally accepted good practices.

Maintenance is also variable - in some areas volunteers cover this, in others, donations are accepted from climbers in order to pay for regular maintenance. Usually local info is available to let you know about the management of routes and climbs.

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