Blog – Bert’s New Bolts: an ethical debate

Ryan Siacci brings the chisel of reason to a recent bolting controversy in Queensland

An unusually polite debate erupted on the threads of the ACAQ’s Facebook page on 7 August 2016. Although there were echoes of the vitriolic retro-bolt wars that can be found deep within the dusty archives of many Qurank forums, this argument was uncharacteristically mild. Even so, it was a protracted debate that alluded to deep rifts within the ostensibly tight-knit climbing community and collars, which if not hot, were at least a little warm.

Lucy Stirling on One Alien, Four People and a Tree (24), Tibrogargan. Image John J O'Brien

Lucy Stirling on One Alien, Four People and a Tree (24), Tibrogargan. Image John J O’Brien

Some months ago, a local climber was surprised to happen across shiny new bolts protecting the Traverse to Cave 4 on Mt Tibrogargan in the Glasshouse Mountains. His report was the catalyst behind a debate that pierced to the core of climbing ethics. These ethical principles bind not only climbers in South East Queensland, but those across the globe.

But hang on… we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How could anyone lose sleep over a mere pair of bolts on a grade 2 traverse?

The route is one of great antiquity – especially by Queensland standards. Also known as the Bertie Salmon Traverse, it was pioneered by the eponymous legend himself in the Ye Olde days of Glasshouse exploration. Heavily involved in the heady seasons of the 1920s and ‘30s, Salmon was a key figure in the fledgling SEQ climbing community. His influence cannot be overstated. Australian climbing historian/oracle Michael Meadows describes Salmon as ‘the driving force behind the birth of rockclimbing as a mass sport in Queensland and beyond.’

A line climbed by Bert Salmon is therefore no mere route. The term ‘classic’ doesn’t go far enough, what we have here is a historical artefact. On the surface this was the reason folks were bent out of shape when two bolts mysteriously bloomed from the rock like post-storm fungi. But the true reasons go much deeper than that.

Mr Salmon was no great admirer of ropes. In the absence of reliable systems for belay, a lead fall was more likely to see a belayer pulled to mutually assured destruction rather than arrest the leader. This, coupled with Salmon’s penchant for British climbing literature, are likely the primary motivators behind ropeless travel in this neck of the woods.

Lee Cujes footloose and fancy free on Creationism (?). Image by John J O'Brien

Lee Cujes footloose and fancy free on Creationism project, Summit Cave. Image by John J O’Brien

‘It seems highly likely that people like Bert Salmon and his cohort were influenced by the ethics of British gritstone climbers Dean Frankland and Fergus Graham, renowned for their preference for soloing climbs in the Lake District around this time,’ explains Michael Meadows in his book, The Living Rock.

Whatever the reason, the original climb and much of the subsequent traffic was unroped and, until recently, unprotected. Modern parties have been able to locate passive placements in characteristically dubious Tibro cracks, but the inclusion of bolts marks a departure from the spirit of the first ascent.

But again, what’s the big deal? For those of you who are currently experiencing skyrocketing cortisol levels and a powerful urge to charge the battery for your angle grinder, the casual abuse of a ‘what’s the big deal?’ response to this ethical dilemma is tantamount to treason. And yet, even with all this historical information, there remained voices of dissent who maintained  such bolting improved the experience for all.

Yep, we’re about to go into the rabbit hole here, folks. Hold on to your hats.

The example provided by the Bertie Salmon Traverse represents a wider issue, that being the historical significance of classic routes, especially those done in a particular or unique style, and the importance of protecting these routes in as close to their original form as possible.

‘I see the Bertie Salmon Traverse as a piece of living history,’ explains David Reeve, President of the ACAQ. ‘That history adds value to what would otherwise be a very ordinary scramble.’

You’d think such sentiments would be regarded as universally true, an assumption which proves to be far from the case.

‘I can’t help but to feel there’s a touch of elitism and a teaspoon of ego behind whatever odd rationale it is that says routes shouldn’t be bolted just because they weren’t when you first sent it,’ argued a member of the ACAQ page. ‘Assuming the bolting job is done well, what’s the actual problem here? (and your hurt feelings don’t count, because nobody owns the crag).’

Ahhh, now we’re getting closer to the root cause of dissent…the age old (well, decades old, at least) tribal warfare of sport versus trad.

Any argument that uses matters of the ego as a lever is thinner than the crux of Somalia. Ego is a two-way street. An indictment of elevated egos is merely the calling card of a bruised one and accusations of elitism only enable that elitism by dividing the community into disparate castes. Instead, as climbers, we should seek to protect rather than diminish the various niches of the sport and regard the terrain specific to each as valuable.


Neil Monteith on the first ascent of High Definition (25), Summit Cave, Tibrogargan. Image John J O’Brien

Given that the ACAQ functions as a climbing access body, not as a climbing club, it has little time for ego stroking. It endeavours to eschew such trivialities in its mission to legitimise the climbing community as stakeholders in plans impacting outdoor recreational spaces. Its involvement in the legislation, administration and management of these areas, what the ACAQ calls ‘the boring stuff that allows climbers to climb’, attempts to focus on the greater good rather than the motivations of individuals.

‘Roll forward 20 years, 50 years, and what do our crags look like?’ asks David Reeve. ‘Surely we want them to have improved, not declined in terms of their recreational and natural values? This simple thought experiment sweeps all current actors off the stage –  pollies, public servants, climbers and certainly myself… gone, and their egos with them. That which deserves attention is the stage, not the actors upon it.’

The idea that parks and crags should not be diminished governs how we should act within them. But it still leaves  grey area as to the interpretation of ‘improvement’. Many would argue bolting provides safer access to a wider range of people. In the narrowest sense, this proves true, but everything has a cost.

‘Bolted sport climbs, should they become popular, bring heavy recreational traffic,’ says David. ‘If the traffic levels aren’t sustainable, I’d suggest that neither the climbers nor the land managers want those bolts there.’

As well as an environmental toll, laissez-faire bolting also has the potential to deal the deathblow to climbs of historical and cultural significance. Before anyone jumps up and down, I’m not advocating for the abolition of sport climbing. What I am advocating for is the preservation of the myriad disciplines of climbing, from bouldering to alpinism and everything in between, and respect for the terrain needed for each. There is plenty of room for all and we diminish one or the other at our peril.

‘If you consider the real estate which makes a good sport climbing crag, and that which makes for good adventure climbing, the two couldn’t be more different,’ explains David. ‘In the case of the old trad routes on Tibro, especially the very old ones like The Caves Route and the Bertie Salmon Traverse, sport bolting them would add nothing of value to the sport climbing estate, while substantially diminishing the limited estate available to adventure climbing.’

What we’re talking about is a simple comparison – style versus ethics. The way I understand it, style is how we climb as individuals, and ethics is how we climb as a community.

Morag seconding one of Tibrogargan's classic trad rambles, the North-East Buttress (11). Image by Ryan Siacci

Morag seconding one of Tibrogargan’s classic trad rambles, the North-East Buttress (11). Image by Ryan Siacci

Style gets thrown around a lot. Consider your own style. What do you like to climb? Do you enjoy sport or trad? Perhaps bouldering is more your thing? The discipline from which you derive the most stoke goes a long way to determining your style, but it goes much further than that. Style is more about how you climb than what you climb.

Take sport climbing. The purest style would be a chalkless, naked, barefoot free-solo. This is neither practical, safe, nor legal, so we find a more realistic gold standard – the ground-up onsight. But on the other hand, there is nothing stopping you from stick clipping each bolt, aiding upward on jumars, and calling it an ascent. Nothing, that is, save the withering (and well-deserved) castigation of your fellow climbers.

But the point at which style crosses the thin, blurred line into ethics is when your actions have an effect on others. The deterioration of our climbing areas, whether by chipped holds, discarded rubbish, human waste or, I don’t know, let’s go out on a limb here and say unauthorised bolts, is rarely unnoticed and never tolerated. Rogue bolting of established trad lines is as morally indefensible as the chopping or retro bolting of established and esteemed sport lines – both detract from or irreversibly alter the nature, character and historical significance of those climbs.

‘I maintain that climbers wishing to alter the historical and cultural value of established routes are not free of the obligation to consider all aspects of the values mix,’ says David. ‘A far wiser course is to add new to existing old and thereby, through cultural continuity, built something of lasting value. If we look at the availability of real estate for different styles of climbing, it isn’t that difficult to see how a balance might be achieved.’

The vitriol that often meets these incursions can seem extreme, especially when the ostensible aim is to ‘improve’ or ‘make safer’ a climb. Does not a bolt prevent needless tragedy, some may ask, and many resent the first ascensionist’s authority in enforcing the rules by which subsequent climbers may ascend ‘his/her’ route.

There is a kernel of truth in the idea that FAs can be unreasonable to the point of tyrannical in the ownership of their particular fiefdom… or at the very least are sometimes perceived in that manner (the saga of the bolted rap anchors on Ben Lomond springs to mind). But the reality is that the community, not the FA, maintains an ethical standpoint that is unique to that location and time period. The FAs are influenced by the ethics of the community at the time, and the community in turn protects those ethics.

‘The kick-back from the members of the community seems disproportionate to their level of personal engagement,’ explains David Reeve. ‘This is because they speak, not so much as an individual, but as with the concerted voice of their tribe. A climb, once established, is absorbed and owned by the culture..’

Another reason that this defensive reaction can seem inordinate is the greater threat that such actions pose. It’s basically a ‘Slippery Slope’ argument, one based on the realistic and well-precedented notion that soft or confused ethics can lead to the debasement of a crag. No, the plural of anecdote is not data, but examples can be taken from Kangaroo Point and many NZ crags where pure cracks were alternatively bolted and chopped with zeal. Further abroad, there are examples of access issues and the wholesale closure of crags when ethical standards are not maintained, as occurred in Idaho’s Castle Rocks when chipping holds to manufacture climbs came controversially into vogue.

The ACAQ maintains that, in the case of SEQ, unauthorised bolting does not pose a threat to climber access. It doesn’t call for the regulation of bolting, but rather the historical, cultural and environmental sensitivity of would-be route developers. In encouraging this forethought and consideration, it is hoped that so-called ‘rogue bolters’ can be kept within the fold.

‘Command and control will drive the new-routers well below the radar, where any hope of instilling conservation values is gone,’ explains David. ‘If you want to influence these adventurous spirits you need to draw them closer, not push them away.’

Yep, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, but that doesn’t mean that we have carte blanche to throw a bolt in any old wall. The key, as always, is balance.

In South East Queensland, the prevailing ethic has always been largely traditional – if it can go trad, it doesn’t get bolted. But we can boil that down even further to a concept that goes beyond a mere division of disciplines and speaks of loftier ideals.

‘There is a notion that has permeated all styles of climbing over many generations, whether mountaineering or rock climbing,’ says David. ‘Simply, you don’t bring the mountain down to your level, but instead you rise to the challenge.’

South East Queensland is not an area blessed with fantastic rock. Rather, we are blessed with fantastic variety. The myriad of climbing styles and rock types on offer is our strength. We gain nothing from diminishing that variety, and everything from preserving and enhancing it.

‘There are two ways in which we can degrade what we have. A) homogenise the climbing experience and B) damage the natural environment,’ says David. ‘Like it or not, we as climbers are stewards of the public good, and our actions should flow from this.’
Ryan Siacci



One thought on “Blog – Bert’s New Bolts: an ethical debate

  1. marty

    >‘There are two ways in which we can degrade what we have. A) homogenise the climbing experience and
    >B) damage the natural environment,’ says David. ‘Like it or not, we as climbers are stewards of the public good, and our actions should flow from this.’
    Very well written article – but I am interested that damage to the natural environment didn’t come up more. A lot of talk about “ethics” – but what about environmental ethics?
    As a rock climber who enjoys going to wild areas, it would be hypocritical to claim that I would never clip bolts on remote cliffs.
    If there are beaten walking tracks, hand rails and National Parks signs hammered into the ground, bolts may not be out of place.
    But often we are the only people that visit remote climbing places. Imagine if you found someone had stuffed beer cans in all the cracks in a true wilderness area. To me there isn’t much difference between placing bolts in the cliff (much harder to remove than beer cans). Or clearing vegetation from cracks. Or smearing chalk all over cliff faces. Some wilderness should stay wild. Not every chunk of rock needs to be climbed.


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