Sunday, July 14, 2013

Born Again Bolting - A Discussion On Ethics (article in Climber)

My wife Shelley and I recently headed up to my hometown of Whangarei, to visit my father and chase a few waves in the winterless north. While there, we decided on a climb at Ngahere Drive, a local crag of oversized limestone boulders that I helped develop many moons ago.
Walking down the driveway to Top Rocks, I noticed some new bolts high up on the first prominent face, just left of Creaky Tree – a tricky-start 21 I had established way back in 1992. 'Sweet,' I said to Shelley. 'Must be a new route. Great to see there's still interest here.'
I walked a little further, and then noticed all the other shiny new bolts added. Someone had almost grid-mapped the crag with them. Most of my old routes' bolts had been replaced (a good idea as many are 20 years old), but then further bolts were added at the beginning and end of the routes. The easy access scramble had been bolted. A decent crack line had been bolted. I felt sick! It was like looking at vandalism.
Now I'm no Dave Fearnley, and none of these climbs were even remotely approaching death clip-ups. Sure, some had a wee way to the first bolt, but given they were a grade 22 or 23 climb and the first three metres of climbing were grade 15 moves to a good stance to clip from, I figured that was prudent bolting. And then there were other, even older climbs than mine which had also been overly retro-bolted. Previously I had replaced the bolts on these climbs, but only after approaching the person who put them up, and being careful not to alter the nature of the climb. In my mind they were part of the crag's history, and I just wanted to continue that.
I tried to tell myself that all the shiny new metal didn't matter, but after a few moments of bouldering past them I gave up and left, angry. I didn't risk having a look at the Main Crag to see what might have been retro-bolted there.
I later found out who did the bolting and asked them why. I won't mention the person's real name, but let's call him Matt. Matt said that, sorry, he didn't really think about it and was only trying to encourage climbing in Whangarei by making the routes more user-friendly. It seemed he wasn't particularly interested in the area's climbing history – he just wanted an outdoor gym. But then the last thing that really got me was, while Matt had consumer-ised my and others' routes, his own new route still had a highball start. There was no shiny first clip almost within reach from the ground.

You're right for thinking I'm sounding bitter. This guy's actions really annoyed me. I'd always thought that the dos and don'ts of re-bolting were pretty clear cut. So should I be getting over myself and my oversensitive, ego-driven thoughts on routes put up two decades ago? Hell, maybe I am related to Fearnley after all.
Take a glance at the forum section of The Climber website, or the NZAC Facebook page, and you're likely to see this scenario being played at at various crags around the country. Recent examples include Christchurch where earthquake damage to crags has seen a number of old routes being retro-bolted, and Dunedin where there is also pressure to add bolts to runout classics. Discussion about bolting and re-bolting ethics may be, as The Climber editor Kester Brown puts it, 'like flogging a dead horse', but it seems the discussion is never-ending and clearly still relevant.

Another example that caught my eye was the recent surge of development on the Sebastapol Bluffs, not far from Unwin Hut at Mount Cook. I remember thinking that this was a great idea. I'd always felt that, apart from Red Arete area, the rock climbing potential was underutilised. Many of the old routes had been forgotten and hence overgrown. A spruce up was certainly needed.
But then it was reported that one route, Paul Aubrey's 45 metre 22 - Drug Abuse, was extensively retro-bolted. What used to have five bolts, some sketchy natural pro and apparently a 10 metre runout now has 16 bolts. I'd never attempted the climb due to its minimal protection and high scare factor, but certainly appreciated the 'ballsiness' of it. To my thinking it was one of the crag test-pieces.
The pros and cons of whether the nature of Drug Abuse should have been altered so much have since raged over forums on the internet. Reasons given in support of the retro-bolt include that the route was never going to be climbed in its current condition, it was 'dangerous' with so few bolts, and by making the climb safer not only would it get more traffic, but more quality pitches further up the rock face could also be accessed.

As I'm writing this piece, the arguments continue on Facebook. And what one protagonist rightly points out as a 'storm in a teacup' has highlighted the extremely varied views of this. A lot of the discussion is pseudo aggressive, finger-pointing talk that quickly deteriorates into vitriolic personality bashing rather than dealing with the issues themselves. There's more than a whiff of excessive testosterone, climbing politics and even old scores being reignited. This, or course, helps no one and clarifies nothing.
So – despite the obvious risk of entering the fray – what are the issues, not just for Drug Abuse but for bolting and re-bolting our crags and mountains? Is a one shoe fits all approach even possible?
The NZAC Bolting Position seems a good place to start. Created in 2010 by a working group comprising Pete Barnes, Ross Cullen, Phil Doole and Sam Bosshard (as part of the NZAC Recreational Advocacy committee), a document was released after consultation with NZAC members and the wider climbing community. What this consultation involved I'm not sure, but after reading the document (which is available online) I feel the NZAC Bolting Position is middle of the road in terms of guidelines.
The Bolting Position document states, and rightly so, that the NZAC seeks to preserve the adventurous nature of climbing and mountaineering where possible. The uncertainty of the outcome is considered a key part of the overall climbing experience. I think many serious climbers would agree that their most memorable experiences tend to occur at the sharp end of a rope when things get spicy. What I may have hated at the time (who likes being scared?) has been character building. My sense of achievement felt stronger afterwards. Those testing moments taught me a lot about myself and about my climbing, whether high up in the mountains or at a local crag. That's not to say there aren't plenty of days when I'm happy clipping pleasantly spaced, stress free bolts – this broad spectrum is something I love about climbing.

Climbing requires a certain level of risk assessment and management. This is when we learn what our limits are, and how we perform when we're testing them. There's self responsibility when standing at the bottom of the route and deciding whether to try it or not. The decision over whether it is too hard or too risky is ours.
Obviously, this is a particularly subjective measurement which depends on a climber's ability, drive and propensity to risk exposure. For me, this is where the different types of climbing begin to diverge. Intrinsic to mountaineering and traditional crag climbing are adventure, constant risk assessment and management. Nature and the climbing objective are experienced on its terms, without any permanent, artificial protection. Whereas sport climbing is more the pursuit of athleticism in an environment where risk often greatly reduced.
These different climbing values are influenced by what Kester Brown refers to as the 'style' of a route. Brown has climbed at a high level right across the climbing spectrum, from bouldering to Himalayan expeditions, and I think his approach to this topic is both well considered and low key.
Brown points out that style depends on who did the first ascent, and can differ route to route, crag to crag. 'If Dave Fearnley was around now putting up necky crag routes, he’d probably receive some very pointed criticism these days,' Brown says. 'Things have certainly become more safety conscious. But then trigger-happy developers still get a hard time for routes with a bolt every metre. Is there a happy medium? I don’t know. I think diversity is good, but I also think rock is actually a valuable resource, especially at popular areas.'
Brown reckons it's a good thing that this topic is being discussed by climbers. 'Retro-bolting and the impacts are of little interest to anyone but climbers, and it’s important that we’re able to debate, discuss and try to resolve conflicting points of view amongst ourselves, without inviting anyone else (like DOC) on board,' he says.
Brown understands why some people want to retro-bolt so-called dangerous routes on good quality rock that rarely gets climbed. 'If the routes were more agreeably protected, more people would climb them, he says. 'But I also think climbing history is important. I value a bold style of climbing, so while I might curse Dave Fearnley when I’m shaking and whimpering on one of his awful run-outs, I also value that experience, even if it is usually well afterwards.'

According to the NZAC Bolting Position, bolts are appropriate in sport climbing areas and on alpine rock climbing crags where no natural protection is available. 'In some mountain situations, the advantages that bolt anchors can provide to safety, reduced congestion and/or aesthetics will outweigh their disadvantages. NZAC believes that the weight of opinion in local and national climbing communities must be considered before deciding if bolting is acceptable. Each situation is unique, and the issues outlined above will have differing degrees of importance. It is not possible to satisfy every user group at every site or on every route.'
Trying to satisfy every user group is a crux issue, especially if the Facebook thread is anything to go by. For Brown, it comes down to the quality of both the route and the crag. 'Some areas just suit run-outs and boldness, some don’t.'
In an effort to provide guidelines, NZAC suggests the following bolting principles:
  1. Bolts should not be placed on climbing routes where good natural protection is available and the rock is sound.
  2. Bolts and retro-bolting are only justified if they provide significantly greater benefits than costs to the climbing community.
  3. Bolts on frequently used mountain access routes may be justified if they provide significant safety benefits and ease of access.
  4. Representative views of the relevant climbing community and other stakeholders must be sought to determine if bolts are in harmony with the values of an area.
  5. Prior consultation with the first ascentionist is advocated before any route is retro-bolted.
  6. Bolting on private land must only occur with the approval of landowners or their agents.
  7. Bolting on the conservation estate and other public land must be in accordance with the relevant management strategy and/or plan.
  8. If bolts are used, they must meet NZAC bolting technical guidelines of the time.
  9. Climbers assume personal responsibility for the safety of any bolts that they use.
Longtime climbing activist, and NZAC member, Richard Thomson accepts that this policy has its limits, and is probably in need of looking at again. 'It was initially developed in relation to mountains,' Thomson admits. 'The crag and sport climbing stuff was added afterwards.'
Thomson highlights guidelines number 2 and 5 as needing particular attention. 'Personally, I'd remove retro-bolting from the second principle, and beef up the need for consultation with the first ascentionist and the local climbing community in number 5.'
Judging by the comments on the internet forums, it's pretty obvious some climbers resent any form of guidance. Part of the climbing attraction to some people is its anti-establishment attitude. But this shouldn't detract from the NZAC focus on attempting to steer climbing culture in what its members see as the right direction.
So, generally speaking, bolting or not bolting a route is up to whoever is doing the first ascent, whether natural protection is available and the style of other climbs around. When I ask Murray Judge – an absolute legend in New Zealand climbing circles – to comment on this issue, he is rather reluctant. He does mention that other climbers have approached him after the Drug Abuse saga, asking that their routes nearby also be made more safety conscious. 'In one instance, this was following a fall last year resulting in serious injury from a bolted pitch,' Judge says. 'I think there is a more recent approach that putting in bolts does involve responsibility to those who later do the climb.'
Brown agrees that there is a trend towards making climbs safer, and stresses the importance of diversity and quality in this approach. But the real sticking points seem to be how, or if, to upgrade old routes. As a young South Island climber who doesn't want to be named points out: 'At the end of the day these historical routes are affecting developments which I think are in the interests of the climbing community. There needs to be a balance of preserving the past, but also looking to the future. What is the problem with putting more bolts on a route if it is actually going to be climbed. These old, dangerous routes just don't see any traffic. It's a waste of good rock.'
This climber is referring to ethics, an age-old climbing chestnut that has invigorated and continues to invigorate many a campfire discussion. Take Queenstown climber Daniel Joll. One of the strongest alpinists in this country, Joll is focussed towards pushing his own climbing boundaries, but has also been busy lately encouraging other climbers of all abilities. He has been instrumental in setting up the very popular Queenstown Ice and Mixed Festival, and recently helped establish a mentoring programme for young climbers.
Joll is very clear about his own climbing ethic, an ethic he thinks should be widespread. 'What we're talking about is pretty simply really,' he explains. 'This is about two seperate issues. Firstly is it okay to re bolt old or replace a bad bolt? The answer I think everyone agrees on is yes. Replace them with another bolt in a similar position. There is no need to consult over this. The other issue that has everyone wound up is whether someone should change a route just because they find the prospect of leading it too scary. No, it's not. Leave it in the style of the first ascent.'

But not all climbers take as quite as strong a stance as Joll. Ed Nepia is an old(er) climber who, in the past, has been active in putting up new routes. He believes that, in certain situations, there is a place for retro-bolting. 'But I strongly believe it's worth thinking very hard about the merits of each route on a case by case basis,' he says. 'Yes, in some places retro-bolting may be required, but it should be a measured approach. I just find it bizarre to be part of a climbing community which on one hand gets endless milage out of recycling old climbing history, retelling old stories and admiring top end achievement. Yet on the other hand there are folks banging on about elitist attitudes, and altering historic lines to meet the new safety-first ethic. Does history count any more? Do people see a benefit in pushing themselves mentally any more?'
So where to from here? What do we value about climbing, and what direction do we want it to head in? There is certainly room for a variety of routes and a divergence of views. But it's clear from the more than 250 comments on the Drug Abuse post that consultation with the wider community might have been a good idea before all the extra bolts were placed. How this consultation should be facilitated and measured is another issue, and I guess something that the NZAC needs to consider how or whether to be involved in. My feeling is that it certainly should be.
And what about Drug Abuse? Nepia climbed the route before it was retro-bolted. 'It was certainly an exciting and runout line, bold but not lethal,' he recalls. 'I would like to have seen the route cleaned and just the old bolts replaced to start with. Then it should have been climbed. This seems like a sensible way to assess the character of a route rather then just assuming it was a death route. It could have been a route to aspire to, not just another sport route to tick.'

I can't say I'm unbiased in this topic. For me it's about the pursuit of good style and an aspirational ethic that, while we as climbers might not be able to match all the time, we at least recognise and understand what it is. Surely this is the direction we should be encouraging the next generation of climbers towards.
So, I'll leave the final words to yet another aging rock jock (who occasionally also ventured into the mountains) Mike Rockell: 'Different climbs will always have different levels of risk associated with them. This is one of the things that makes rock climbing great. Having been climbing for 35 plus years and coming from an era when bolts were to be minimised, and danger was a real factor, it is interesting to see that there seems to be a recent trend to think that every rock climb should be made safe. I think this is a reflection of our risk averse society. Managed risk taking is an important facet of life, and we are in danger of taking this away. Sure it's good to have a number of climbs that are safe. They are fun and pleasant and good for skill development. But, when I think back, the climbs that I remember best are the ones that had some spice. The ones that required mental strength, self control, careful assessment of what I was getting into. It would be a tragedy if this element of climbing was lost, and that is why we need to defend this aspect carefully and not let the creeping proliferation of additional bolts on routes continue unchallenged.'

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

'Almost' - article in latest 'White Horses' magazine

The waves are like pit bulls – not particularly big but meaty and bristling, fracturing noisily under a listless, sepia-toned sky. Despite it being summer, there's a bite to the air. The surf isn't perfect, certainly not for here, but it's still good enough for my mate Paul and I to head out.
This place used to really crank when I last lived in Dunedin. The sand would accumulate just so, creating waves in the cove the measure of anything I've caught in the islands. Admittedly, the water here is at least 10 degrees colder – having a rubber fetish helps. And then there are the visits from inquisitive sea lions, hungry leopard seals and various big fish with pointy teeth. 'Crowded' has a different meaning in the cold waters of Otago's remote and fractured coastline.
But while I was living up country, the sand started to build up at my favourite southern break, until eventually the river mouth became blocked off. A local with a big digger cleared a new channel. It clogged up again. According to my friends who were still trying to surf the cove, its sculptured bank disappeared within the space of a few weeks. The beach is still okay, but I haven't surfed here much since moving back south – I guess mainly for nostalgic memories of the good old days.
But today the wind direction and swell size means there aren't many other options. Paul and I suit up at a muddy car park near the top of a hill, a kilometre from the break. A brisk southerly rustles the sabre-shaped leaves of cabbage trees around us. Unshorn sheep bleat from the paddock across the road, sheltering in the lee of a large flax. A camper van slowly draws past, tourists negotiating the long, winding gravel road while trying to find and photograph another 'must-see' local attraction; no doubt puzzled by the sight of two half naked men wrestling into rubber suits on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Paul and I follow the fence line down a steep slope through the bush, catching glimpses of the beach below. I love this part – the feeling of remoteness, the anticipation of what's ahead. Some guys take the lazy option, parking at the other end of the beach and walking back along the sand, but I wouldn't trade this approach. Plus, slogging back up the hill afterwards helps to warm numbed extremities. There's nothing worse than having to drive home in your wetsuit because your hands are too cold to grab anything.
We pause at the top of a sand dune. 'Doesn't look too bad,' Paul says. A decent south swell bends back on itself around the headland, turning into the wind that has chased it up the coast. Wads of water contort over shallow sand bars, thickset A-frames moulded by the offshore. 'A bit chunky,' I reply, 'but we're here now'.
My first wave is what I've come for, not quite double overhead but hollow and well-formed. A half-stall sets me up for surfing's spiraling world – Stephen King would call it his Dark Tower, his nexus. Tube riding allows such a mindlessness of flow.... Time does what it does. I re-emerge, cruise over the crest of the dying swell, flop onto my board with that intense feeling of wellness that all of us know – and wear the next set on the head.
Whoever suggested to age gracefully had no idea what they were on about. Of course when you're young, you try not to think about getting old. Then it starts to tease you, a back twinge here, dodgy knee there. The unrelenting sagging begins. But then there are the between the eyes king hits, the sudden realisation that shit you're not 18 anymore sunshine. You've got less fitness, less resilience, less time. An expanding waistline, grey hairs and a penchant for morning lie ins with coffee and a good book aren't worth a damn at the sharp end of a watery shellacking.
My board gets torn from my grasp as I try to duck dive the first wave. I fumble around down there waiting for the surge to pass. Back to the surface for a breath and then down again – everyone knows the routine. Ping my leg rope breaks. I swim back up past the bubbles, breathe, note the next wave is somewhat bigger, and dive back to the dark. Time does what it does. The turbulence doesn't seem to lessen. Running out of air, I get desperate, start swimming and smack into the bottom – at least I know which way is up now. But by the time I reach the surface, another wave is unloading. My gasp for breath is filled with the salty burn of seawater in my lungs. The next attempt to dive is half-arsed. Near panic sets in. Fighting back to the frothy surface, at least I get air this time. But I don't have energy to get under another wall of whitewater. It tumbles me over in speed contortions. Three middle-aged waves without a leg rope and I'm wondering if this is it. My wife will be pissed. I can see her face: 'You've been surfing how long? I thought you would have it sorted by now!'
I seem to keep fighting just enough, and eventually the waves let me go. It's the end of the set. Floundering, I look around for Paul but he's out there somewhere, hidden between the swells, unaware that I've just avoided drowning. Pathetically, I half-swim half-float towards shore, like someone who hasn't spent the last 35 years of their life learning the water arts. By the time my feet hit the shallows I'm puking salt water. My surfboard is lolling around in a hole, but I don't give a shit. It can make it's own way in. More water purges from my lungs. I start to wonder about secondary drowning. My windpipe feels like I've poured a bottle of chili sauce down it. I'm relieved and angry. Christ it's not even big out there!
My board rides a small wave into knee-deep water and I shuffle gingerly down to retrieve it. Sitting near the high tide mark and pushing fingers into the sand, I think about what if. Paul has drifted down the beach and doesn't appear to be getting many.
Another surfer comes walking along the beach, a young guy looking fit and keen. 'Pretty heavy out there by the looks,' he says.
I shrug my shoulders.
'You get a few, mate?
Holding up what remains of my leg rope, I see his eyes widen a little.
'Bugger! Bit of a struggle getting in I bet.'
'Yeah... a bit.'
He looks out to sea, watching another solid set unload, and then back at me. 'Hope it wasn't before you hooked into any of those.'
'Managed to get one,' I reply.
'Worth it?'
I smile thinly and nod my head, not sure what I'm agreeing with.
'Guess that'll have to do then,' he says before wading off into the shallows.