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Bolts: Check Your Safety!

posted by dpm on 05/07/2013

Unless you carry nitro-glycerin in your climbing pack, you probably didn't learn too many valuable climbing lessons from the 2000 blockbuster climbing thriller "Vertical Limit." Maybe you learned that after jumping across a 60-foot crevasse that both crampons and ice axes have to stick the ice at the same time or that sometimes a free-solo, all-points-off dyno to stick a cam placement is the only way to survive. We all know that nitro-glycerin explosions cause avalanches and a whistle is the only way to signal impending disaster, but the most valuable lesson of all comes in the opening scene when "amateurs at 12:00" come flying down the wall and rip off the entire roped party below them. All five of them dangle from a single anchor and the smartest in the bunch screams, "Check your safety!"

Yeah, what he said. Seriously, check your safety.

Need more safety tips? Click the image to watch the Vertical Limit Guide to Safety then never do anything they do in the movie. 

Recently, there have been some stories popping up in the news regarding fixed protection bolts, specifically the 'bad apples,' the ones that are unsafe for climbing. Unreliable fixed pro is nothing new. Ever since the first protection bolt in America was placed on Shiprock, New Mexico in 1939, subsequent climbers have had to make decisions regarding how much faith they place in that old hardware. Many of the bolts we use at our crags today were placed in the '80's or 90's and much of it is becoming unreliable after 25+ years of weathering. How can you recognize dangerous fixed gear and make an educated decision on its relative safety? First, let's look at some recent examples.

 

Red River Gorge and Arkansas: Bolts pulled from the wall.

From Tyler Wilcutt, founder of the Action Fund, a non-profit organization with the goal of removing dangerous bolts and replacing them with safe ones:

"When talking to many companies and organizations about the Action Fund and the need for fixed anchor maintenance, most old school guys reply with 'it's not like bolts are just pulling out of the wall.' In the past ten days, two bolts pulled out of the wall at two popular areas. The Red River Gorge, KY (RRG) and Invasion Wall in AR."

Tyler goes on to explain how a bolt pulled from the wall on the popular RRG route Kaleidoscope. A climber reached the anchor of the route and when the rope came taut it applied gentle outward pressure to the last protection bolt of the climb. The entire bolt and sleeve anchor came out of the hole.

After analysis, a local climber hypothesized that the bolt had become loose, disengaging the wedging properties of the expansion bolt. The gentle outward force allowed it to be pulled from the hole without engaging the wedging properties. This incident could likely have been prevented by simply tightening the bolt back down with a wrench to the specified torque. More on that later.

Nick Duttle, two clips away from a bolt that would pull out of the wall two years later.

Kaleidoscope (5.13c) Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Photo: Mike Williams/DPM

 

Cracked Bolt Hangers

On April 25th, pictures of two cracked bolt hangers were posted within the rockclimbing.com forum. The hangers show cracking of the metal which creates a completely unsafe hanger for climbing use. The original poster outlined the details of the hangers as:

Placed on granite (ex quarry), with water run off from the top of the crag
Hanger was in place for about 6 month (bolted around Nov 2012)
This is one of 2 that shows crack. Another one is cracked at the top between clip-hole and bolt hole.
other hangers of this brand shows more tarnishing/rust vs. other brand that is being used locally (fixe, petzl)
DON'T KNOW if there were abnormal loading on these hangers

The two photos showing cracked ClimbX hangers. http://imgur.com/a/WlmXr

The reputable and knowledgeable Jim Titt chimed in to say, "Chinese stainless steel, it does that." Which was followed by the manufacturer, ClimbX, stating:

This is the first report of a possible hanger problem.
Climb X produces both steel and stainless steel Hangers.
We have requsted
(sic) the hangers in question be returned for evaluation and testing.
Testing is also in progress on other productions of hangers, our brand and others. No problems can be found with the current stock other than the indoor hangers will corode
(sic) more rapidly in a wet or salt/coastal enviroment (sic) (not intended for outdor (sic) use)
Both styles of hangers have been on the market for several years. Steel for indoors and stainless for outdoors.
The report our office recieved
(sic) stated one hanger but showed several photos of the hanger.
The Hangers are produced in Tawian
(sic) where many other hangers are produced. Some of the other hangers are mentioned in this thread. Taiwan materials were used.
The question was what can cause this? Lots of possibilities. Steel hangers could have been unknowingly used instead of stainless. Often bolts/hangers in Asia are hammered to keep people from being able to remove/steal them, a material flaw, exsessive
(sic) load, they could have been tampered with, production issue, missuse (sic), reaction between the bolt and the hanger, these are some of the reasons. We will post again when we have useful information.
We have posted a warning on our website for people purchasing Hangers to only use the stainless for outdoors. The Heat treated steel are for indoor/gym use.

ClimbX suggests in their statement that the current batch of stainless steel being used for the production of their hangers has been tested and not shown to be a 'bad batch.' They also suggest the possibility that a standard steel (not stainless) hanger was used which corroded more quickly and caused the cracking. They suggest the possibility that the hangers may have been hammered to prevent theft, though neither hanger nor bolt show any signs of hammering. They suggest that both hangers may have received an excessive load, though it's hard to imagine a load that could crack a hanger without further deforming or breaking it completely. It seems clear that ClimbX doesn't currently know what caused the cracking, a potentially fatal flaw that could get unaware climbers killed. 

It's been nearly two weeks since they made their statement on rockclimbing.com and there is still no further public word from ClimbX regarding their action being taken. An email to ClimbX was not immediately returned. Hopefully we'll have more on this story later but until then, use sound judgment when encountering ClimbX hangers based on the information presented here.

Update 5/7: Joe Garland, owner of ClimbX, responded by email stating: "The information we have so far is that steel hangers were used instead if stainless (still no samples) The area was prone to excessive water run off. the hangers have not been recieved yet at our offices. We woukd prefer to get the facts and samples before making statements."

"We have tested the current stock. Verified materials with our suppliers and taken other steps available to us given the limited information and lack of samples." 

We'll post more info as it becomes available. 

 

As far as I know, this is the first publicized instance of a 'modern' stainless steel hanger cracking in this manner, though this isn't the first case entirely. In 2004, the manufacturer Leeper recalled 95,000 of its alloy steel bolt hangers that were produced between the years 1962 and 1984. The hangers had shown signs of stress corrosion cracking causing catastrophic failure. They noted that, "hangersthat looked good have fallen apart in a climber's hand when clipped into." They also estimated that 20,000 to 40,000 hangers were still in place in America at the year of the recall. Most of these hangers have been replaced but you may still encounter some of these potential time bombs if you're really venturing off the beaten path.

The Leeper hanger. Photo: Mountainproject

 

Kalymnos, Greece: Stress Corrosion Cracking

The South African website climbing.co.za recently ran an article warning climbers of dangerous bolts on the Greek island of Kalymnos, one of the world's top climbing destinations. They posted some pictures and cited stress corrosion cracking as the cause of bad bolts, bolts that would fail if fallen on. They conclude the article by likening the area to other seaside cliffs that have had problems with stainless steel bolt failures saying:

"In Kalymnos they have a guy who is rebolting 100 routes a year; it’s his full-time job. But he’s replacing old stainless bolts with new stainless bolts and perpetuating the problem. In Thailand new stainless bolts broke in as little as 9 months; in the (Cayman) Brac 18 months. So only climbing on new looking bolts is just a guess, and with almost 1,700 routes on Kalymnos, your chances of choosing one with bad bolts is pretty damn good."

This opened a whole can of worms with multiple educated and reputable bolters commenting including the materials engineer at the UIAA Safety commission and  Aris Theodoropoulos, who has "spent a good part of the last fifteen years bolting and rebolting routes on Kalymnos." Aris calls bullshit on everything stated in the original article saying that it was he who took the picture of the broken bolt shown below and that it was a non-stainless bolt, a rare exception on the island and one that he replaced with a stainless one like the one he was hanging from that didn't need to be replaced.

The photo of Kalymnos bolts. Photo: climbing.co.za

The second photo shows significant corrosion around the bolt and hanger. Photo: climbing.co.za

Aris claims the other photos that show stress corrosion cracking weren't even taken at Kalymnos. He addresses the issues of using titanium bolts, which seems to have solved the problems of quickly corroding stainless steel in Thailand and Cayman Brac, then states that standard stainless wedge anchors have proven to be adequate and effective at Kalymnos.

The forum thread is worth reading as multiple experts on the subject discuss their beliefs and experiences with using different metals and types of protection bolts. It drives home the point that even among the most educated bolters and rebolters, there is still a great deal of disagreement on the best methods for bolting and which materials to use.

 

What's Being Done?

As stated previously, the issue of aging and defective fixed hardware is nothing new. Much has been done to replace old bad bolts with shiny new ones. There are multiple grassroots organizations across our country that address the issue at their home crags, often raising money for new bolts and then installing them. There are also national organizations that raise money for the installation of new hardware all of which is installed by volunteers.

I work closely with our local climbing advocacy group here at the New River Gorge, West Virginia, the New River Alliance of Climbers. Over the past years we have faced challenges with the National Park Service who owns and manages our crags. Last year, when a new chief ranger was introduced, we had difficulty conveying the urgency of hardware replacement as well as the methods of installation and the standards for safety. We both scoured the internet compiling test results and data and sharing the information to come up with a standard for safe, long-lasting rebolting practices. We were striving to find the balance between longevity of the new hardware and ease of installation which wouldn't dissuade volunteers from installing it. After much research, the conclusion was that there was so much widely varying data on bolting practices that a national standard simply didn't exist. At some point an idea was tossed around that we should host a conference and invite bolting experts, metallurgists, and geologists to come together and discuss best bolting practices.

While it never panned out here at the New, our friends at the Access Fund took the reins and this past fall hosted the weekend conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.  The "Future of Fixed Anchors" conference drew together approximately 80 route developers, advocates, and industry representatives from around the country to discuss best bolting practices. From the Access Fund's wrap up:

Saturday was filled with presentations and panel discussions covering a range of topics including: European bolting standards; federal policies relating to fixed anchors; how to organize and fund re-bolting initiatives; metallurgy 101; and hardware specifications, and bolt placement/removal techniques. Sunday was the demo day where attendees got the chance to view and share different methods of placing and removing bolts. Although this was just the beginning of the conversation, a few important lessons were gleaned from the Conference.

  1. The “Golden Era” of bolting totally under the radar is at an end.
  2. Mixing metals (i.e. stainless with non-stainless or aluminum) causes galvanic corrosion and should be avoided.
  3. Stainless steel lasts longer and is generally preferable in all but the most arid climates. The downside to stainless is the cost and possibility of over-torqueing which can compromise strength. The Europeans have accepted stainless steel as the standard whereas the US does not yet have such a consensus.
  4. In solid rock, modern properly-placed 3/8” mechanical bolts are typically sufficient. In medium density rock, modern properly-placed 1/2" mechanical bolts are typically sufficient. In soft rock, glue-ins are typically the best option, but longer mechanical bolts can be effective.
  5. Maintaining bolts is an expensive, thankless job that requires organization, funding and knowledgeable volunteers.
  6. Developing positive relationships with land mangers is the single most important way to protect climbing access.

The information gathered at the "Future of Fixed Anchors" conference can be used toward creating a national standard for the safety and longevity of the fixed anchors we use for rock climbing. This information can be presented to land managers like the National Park Service to help them understand that the bolting practices taking place on their land are not dangerous or irregular but instead, a national standard.

The crew at the "Future of Fixed Anchors" conference. Photo. Access Fund

How can you protect yourself?

It's scary to think of climbing a sport route and having a bolt fail which could result in your own death. It's also very important to recognize that this potential does exist. All climbing can be dangerous and keeping yourself safe is about minimizing risk, not eliminating it. Start with awareness and education.

Awareness

Climbing outdoors is not like climbing in a gym environment where the hardware is constantly maintained. The fixed hardware you trust with your life may be 20 years old. It may be 40 years old. It may have been placed by someone who had no idea what they were doing.

Make a constant effort to maintain awareness while climbing. When you get to a bolt, even if it has a fixed draw, as you clip the rope: Check your safety! It only takes a casual split second glance. Is the rope end carabiner sharp? Is the sling/dogbone new or is it faded and frayed? Is the bolt end carabiner grooved and ready to break? Does the bolt look safe and shiny or more like a Titanic relic?

It only takes a second to survey the scene and a further second to decide whether to back down or engage the next sequence. Make it part of your routine, like checking your knot, and soon enough it will become almost mindless allowing you to maintain focus on the climbing at hand. It's always your judgment call and only you are responsible for your own safety. Do not clip fixed gear blindly.

Education

The ability to recognize dangerous fixed gear is not easy if you don't know what to look for. Start by learning about the different types of bolts and how they work. If you know how they work, you can recognize what could cause them to not work.

There are generally two types of bolts you will encounter while rock climbing: Expansion bolts and glue-in bolts. Both are extremely strong and safe if placed correctly in the correct rock type.

Glue-ins

The exposed portion of a glue-in bolt is oftentimes an eye-shaped opening. They can also be recognized by their lack of any type of hex head or nut. Glue-in bolts are installed by drilling a hole in the rock, filling it with glue and then pressing the bolt in. The glue must cure for some time before it reaches its full strength. This type of glue is not your typical Elmers, it's a two part epoxy that creates a chemical bond that is sometimes stronger than the rock it's placed in.  A glue-in bolt has no moving parts and should not move in the rock at all. It should never spin or wiggle in the hole. If it does, it should not be used and regarded as extremely dangerous.

A common glue-in bolt made by Petzl. 

Expansion Bolts

Expansion bolts use the power of the wedge to stay in place. You'll generally encounter two types on the rock. A sleeve anchor is recognized by its hex head. No threads are visible. A wedge-type bolt is usually composed of three pieces: a stud, a small sleeve, and a nut. You can see the threads of the stud and the nut holding the bolt to the hanger. Both work by tightening the bolt (or nut) and forcing a wedge upward into the sleeve. The sleeve is pushed outward and wedged against the inside of the hole.

A common three-piece wedge anchor. Note that you can see the threads and nut which holds the hanger onto the stud.

A sleeve anchor. The Rawl five-piece shown here is commonly used for rock climbing. Note the hex head bolt design. 

 

It's common to encounter a 'spinner.' Have you ever gone to clip a bolt and been dismayed to find that the hanger spins freely? This is not necessarily an indication of a 'bad bolt.' It might simply need to be retightened. You can use a small wrench to retighten the bolt and in most cases this fixes the problem. Make sure you don't over-tighten it though. Stainless steel is very brittle and it's possible to shear off a brand new bolt if you over-tighten it. Manufacturers recommend different torque specifications for installing their bolts and since you likely won't know those specs, make sure to err on the side of under-tightening it. If you have any hesitation about your knowledge and ability, report the problem to someone more educated. What you do to the bolt can affect the next climber.

Rust

The mysterious dark lord of decay, rust is one of the most unreliable and erratic conditions to assess. Some rusty bolts turn out to be bombproof while others that appear shiny have rusted to dust on the inside. The contact between two differing types of metal can cause galvanic corrosion, an  electrochemical process in which one metal corrodes preferentially to another when both metals are in electrical contact and immersed in an electrolyte. It would take a chemist to explain it properly but it causes rust. A stainless hanger on a non-stainless bolt will increase the speed of corrosion. Watch out for rusty relics and don't always assume they're safe just because the last one that held your fall was.

A terribly rusty bolt. It's probably not a good idea to trust your life to this bolt but it's your call. It's always your call. Photo: Supertopo

 

For further information about bolts and how they work, watch the videos below. The more you learn about fixed hardware, the better you'll become at assessing risk when you're out at the crag. Keep in mind that both of these guys in the videos below are experts. These are not necessarily instructional videos. There is a lot more to learn about bolts and bolting before placing them yourself. 

Click here to watch Rifle, Colorado bolter Dave Pegg place a common expansion bolt. 

Click here to watch New River Gorge bolter Kenny Parker place a glue-in bolt.