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In indoor gyms, lead climbing routes would usually have bolts spaced around 6 feet apart. However in outdoor routes, something like 10 feet seems to be the norm, which is quite perplexing given that falling in a gym is a lot safer than falling outdoors, all other things being equal.

Why is this the case? Is it because there aren't enough funds to maintain sports routes so they try to use bolts sparingly?

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  • If you fall in the gym then it's the gym's fault. If you fall in nature, well let's just hope it's not a severe injury...
    – MonkeyZeus
    Jul 27 at 18:21
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    @MonkeyZeus That would seem to imply bolt spacing would be more conservative outdoors than indoors. Jul 27 at 22:29
  • @MonkeyZeus yeah, I’m pretty sure you’d have signed a liability waiver making it clear the gym is not responsible at all for any falls and injuries you experience.
    – Darren
    Jul 27 at 22:32
  • @Darren based on conversations with gym employees in the US, the primary fear is not that you'd win in court but rather the lawsuit itself. Unfortunately its hard to fully recover attorney fees even if you end up winning. They do have liability insurance for this reason but this insurance comes with a lot of conditions from the insurance company to minimize lawsuit risks. In countries without a lawsuit culture (Czech Republic is one example I'm aware of), gyms care a lot less about safety. Jul 27 at 22:36
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    @AzorAhai-him- Why? Who are you gonna sue for improper bolt spacing in nature?
    – MonkeyZeus
    Jul 28 at 12:30
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Bolting an outdoor route is an example of a cost and risk analysis.

Each bolt/hanger combo costs on average $10. The anchor will add in around another $30. So for a typical 80 foot pitch with 10 bolts plus anchor, the cost could be around $130. Sport routes are typically bolted by young people that don’t have a ton of disposable income. There is a solid reason for the stereotype dirtbag climber camping in a late model VW and only working the occasional dish washing job to fund the next climbing trip. For this person, $130 is a big investment which means trimming that cost to absolute necessity.

Routes are mostly bolted by competent climbers that are more willing to accept a longer spacing between bolts, and on easier sections the bolter will skip the bolts all together. For example, my area has a 5.10 route, 100 foot long, where the middle of it has about 30 foot of 5.6 climbing. The bolter saw no reason to protect this section, as the likelihood of falling is very low.

Sport routes can present the occasional option to also use trad gear, so the routes are referred to as mixed. This is true for many routes in my area, and this situation can often surprise visitors or new climbers where they encounter unexpectedly long run-outs that were meant to be protected with one or two trad pieces between the bolts.

Placing bolts back in the day before rotary hammers (power drills) was a very difficult process. Hand drilling one bolt can take 15 to 30 minutes depending on the type of rock and size of bolt. Swinging a hammer for that long is very strenuous. You gotta be a Popeye to do that for 10 bolts.

Also, power drills are prohibited in federal wilderness areas of the United States, and many state parks also ban power drills, so swinging a hammer is the only option. One route with 10 bolts is a full day of work.

Power drills make the process easier, but a drill and bits are expensive ($500) and the batteries don’t last forever. Newer drills are probably more efficient, but way back in the day, you might get 5 bolts into granite out of one charge, so longer routes mean either buying spare batteries ($$$) or coming back another day to finish the bolts. Again, for all dirtbag climbers that I knew out there bolting routes, that meant a lot of time washing dishes.

Finally, many areas have a somewhat controversial ethic, that routes should only be bolted on lead, which adds another level of risk and difficulty to the whole process.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Rory Alsop
    Aug 2 at 8:16
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To a considerable extent, this is for historical reasons, because of the way the sport evolved. I'll talk about the US, which is what I'm familiar with. In the US, roped climbing was introduced ca. 1930. The standard at this time was that you tied the rope around your waist (there were no harnesses), people climbed in boots or tennis shoes, ropes were made of hemp, pro consisted of pitons and natural pro, and the standard belay was either a hand belay or a hip belay, often just from a stance rather than an anchor. Pitons were initially only in thin sizes. There were no belay devices, and the Munter was not used for belaying.

Given this technology, it was extremely dangerous to take a fall. A rope couldn't be trusted not to break when there was a hard lead fall. There was a saying, "The leader must not fall." If you could get a piton in to protect a difficult move, that was great, but the expectation might be that you would spend a whole day climbing a multipitch route and place three pitons. At a place like Tahquitz (the birthplace of the YDS), people would sometimes place a piton in a certain belay and intentionally not remove it, for the safety and convenience of other climbers. Other than that, a belay would often just be a belay where you stood on a ledge and braced yourself.

So because there were so many other weak points in the safety systems, there was no realistic expectation that all falls could be protected against, and to some extent that remains true today for trad climbing and mountaineering. For example, it's often impossible to protect against falling and hitting a ledge.

At some point people started placing a small number of bolts on certain routes at Yosemite, Tahquitz, and Joshua Tree. For example, if there was a slab pitch that couldn't be protected with pitons (or, later, chocks), someone might put in one bolt half-way up it (example). The ethic was that this should not be overdone, and all bolts should be placed from a stance, not hanging on the rope. So even when people did start placing a series of bolts on a slab climb (example), they would be pretty far apart, because there just weren't enough stances.

Sport climbing was a later evolution of the sport, and was initially very controversial. The defining characteristic of sport climbing is that people bolt the routes on rappel rather than from a stance. This makes it possible to place lots and lots of bolts, which means that people can attempt harder climbs without unacceptable risk.

Bolts in the gym are placed even closer together than for outdoor sport climbs. There's no reason not to do so, since the walls are uniform and you can have a bolt hole anywhere you want. Gyms need to pay for insurance, and inevitably they will get some climbers who are insufficiently experienced and mess something up. To maximize safety for those people, it helps to place the bolts pretty close together. However, this additional safety is in large part imaginary. Until you make about the third clip in the gym, there's considerable risk of falling to the mat regardless, especially if you clip at your shoulders rather than at your hips. After you make the third clip, the close spacing of the bolts doesn't really help with safety. It just helps psychologically and makes it so the fall factor that your belayer has to catch is lower, which is easier for them.

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Most of the existing answers seem to be approaching this question from a standpoint of why outdoor routes are sparsely bolted, rather than addressing the other half of this comparison: climbing gyms are overly-safe by design. They are purpose-built to be a low-risk environment for training, being insurable, and generating profit.

Asking why outdoor sport climbs are more sparsely bolted when compared to gym climbs is a question of the same nature as asking why outdoor bouldering areas don't have established foam pits at the base of every bloc, or asking why hiking trails aren't as smooth as the local bike path. A variable outdoor environment will never be as manicured as a manufactured human one.

In addition:

  • While sport climbing has more or less won the bolting wars of the 80s and 90s, we should remember that every bolt fundamentally and permanently alters the stone. If we aspire to Leave No Trace ethics as stewards of the great outdoors, then the placement of every bolt should weigh heavily on our conscience.

  • Climbing gym routes are set to be roughly the same difficulty for the entire route and can have a clipping hold conveniently placed near every draw. In contrast, few outdoor routes will have a convenient clipping jug every 6 feet. Additionally, the difficulty of movement will often vary greatly over the length of a single pitch, with easier sections naturally requiring less protection.

  • Having closely spaced bolts leads to its own annoyances of constantly dealing with ropes and clipping draws, rather than actually climbing. Consider the extreme of having a bolt every single foot of a route--would this really be any safer? Would it be more enjoyable? What about every 2 feet? 3 feet?

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Largely it depends on where it’s safe to place a bolt. In indoor walls it is easy to place bolts regularly spaced apart, outdoors it depends on things like the quality of the rock (no good putting a bolt into shattered rock). Drilling too many holes also has the effect of weakening the rock, which is not something you want.

Also, bolts will often be placed in key locations to protect a tricky move - necessitating bigger or smaller gaps from the last bolt - whereas in a gym the routes around the bolts get changed all the time while the bolts stay where they are.

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The larger question which has been argued and fought over for decades is why don’t we just grid bolt everything. Earlier, I presented an answer that addressed the technical and practical side of the issue. But I made no mention of the the spiritual side of the issue, which is far more important.

I consider myself blessed, having grown up in the Northern Rocky Mountains way before everything was sanitized, paved, and plastered with warning signs. Learning to climb meant simply getting out and doing it, which allowed me to develop self reliance and the skills for risk analysis, problem solving, and keeping a cool head in danger. I am envious of the pioneering climbers that went before me and had the opportunity to be the first on top of a peak way before the timid and fearful masses came along moaning about the risk and crying about safety.

I am saddened by the mindset of the latest generation of climbers that every climb should be brought down to their level instead of allowing future generations the privilege to rise to the challenge. Where is the reward in dragging a climb down to your mediocrity?

You might perceive that you are alone in your endeavor but the reality is that you are just one in a vast mob with pitch forks and torches pounding on the castle gate and screaming for the death of the monster. Most castles have fallen and the monsters have been killed. And soon so will yours because everyday more people join the mob. There are so few monsters left and I fear that my kids will only know them as legends.

For those looking to add bolts to routes, I would urge you to pause and reflect on the situation first. The number of closely bolted routes in all grades is already growing exponentially. Perhaps you could grant a reprieve to the quickly shrinking number of routes that challenge your standard. Think of them as the grizzly bear or wolf. I would rather one of them had the opportunity to feast on my carcass than we eradicate them from the face of the earth.

Finally let me leave you with a quote from Edward Abbey.

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.

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