A Conversation with Steve Grossman Ė December 27, 2001
Part 2: Bolting Ethics
Steve: The antithesis of that style is clipping bolts where you are only really worried about your movement, about the moves that are there. That sort of climbing, sport climbing, has a narrower focus in terms of overall challenge. Thatís a big difference. I like both types of climbing but I find traditional climbing to be a lot more demanding and therefore rewarding. Kind of on the old adage, "You get out of something what you put into it."
Bolted sport routes have increasingly become part of the climbing scene in Tucson. The low impact style is really something that doesnít exist here anymore. I knew early on that if you were climbing at 5.12 or an easy 5.13 standard, you could climb anywhere. So essentially, the issue really became, does every piece of rock that is climbable, need to be climbed and bolted? Is there a place for a top rope ethic? This whole perspective kind of came to a head when the Beaver Wall up at Windy Point was being developed For the first time, there were heavy bolting grids that were going in. There were sport climbs that were being done that were very difficult and therefore worthy of respect. That whole low impact aesthetic of trying to push and not create something that would be ugly to somebody walking up who wasnít a climber kind of got turned on its ear.
Consequently, in one of the great knee jerk incidents in Tucson, myself, Scott Ayers, and John Fowler decided we had kind of had enough and we needed to air some dirty laundry. So we went to the Beaver Wall, rappelled down, and essentially pulled every bolt that we could without chopping any of them. This caused a huge uproar. We got a meeting together to discuss what the future of climbing in Tucson was going to be at the time. That meeting was very significant. A lot of people came to the meeting and they were essentially of the opinion that, "Hey, I donít really mind having some bolted routes here. All the routes that are bold are very demanding, are not necessarily within my scope." Some more bolted routes isnít necessarily a bad thing. It kind of became a question of extent. Unfortunately, because of the personalities involved, there were threats and counter threats and a lot of nonsense happened between certain people that led to a more destructive second phase of that bolt pulling incident where bolts were actually chopped, holds ended up getting damaged. There was areas where holds had been glued in place and some of the glue was chipped off. Some rock scarring had occurred. Unfortunately, it also created a big division in the climbing community at the time, which wasnít good. There was a lot of conflict based on that. One faction of climbing versus another. From my own perspective, I look at the entire episode as a referendum on the future of Tucson climbing.
What year was that?
Steve: It was right before John Steigerís guide came out. It was in the early Ď80s. That was right about the time that sport climbing was getting popular.The writing was on the wall. "This is the way things are going to go." As the guidebook hits, there are going to be a lot more people coming in, there are going to be a lot more people climbing routes. "Is this what everybody wants?" It was kind of a difficult thing to see. I left Tucson in 1987, partly because I knew there was going to be a lot of bolting going on and I didnít want to be around to see it. That was kind of a hard core attitude at the time. Coming back and seeing the bolting that is going on really isnít nearly as upsetting as I thought it was going to be at the time. A lot of us thought that sport climbing was going to be the end of the world. It took a while to come down to earth and realize it wasnít.
So Scott Ayers was anti-bolting at that time?
Steve: Yes, oddly enough, he was against that level of impact and development in those days. A lot of that bolt pulling incident was done on principle. The bolt chopping, the hold chopping, and the destructive aspect was just plain old immature personality conflicts and I didnít have anything to do with that. It was just kind of a point where the climbing community was splitting up. In a way also, people were dissipating, going on to do other things. It was kind of the end of the naïve golden years of climbing here.
Were there outside people involved in some of that bolting? I had heard Todd Skinnerís name mentioned at one point in time.
Steve: Yes. Tucson had become a destination area for cold weather sport climbing. There were a lot of people coming in and establishing routes that were climbing at a high standard. I wasnít climbing 5.13s, but it wasnít hard to see that the rock lent itself to that kind of climbing. Thereís been a lot of really good, high quality, high standard, sport routes put up here. It was really a difference in style. These routes that were going in could not be climbed reasonably from the ground using conventional methods. John Steiger, Ray Ringle, and quite a few people who were traveling then, that had seen Tucson as a venue where putting up routes meant they were really raising the local standard through using sport climbing techniques. I wrote an introduction for the Tucson climbing guidebook that pushed the low-impact ethic. John Steiger, by virtue of his position at the time, found it unacceptable to print it.
Thatís too bad.
Steve: Yes. Unfortunately it got lost. It was pretty vehement. We had some very serious lines drawn. And of course, Scott Ayers has gone on to do more bolting than anybody else in this area, arguably. We are close friends but I do tease him about becoming my worst nightmare with respect to drilling.
Preserving the visual and aesthetic character of the climbing experience was a widely held goal. For quite a while actually, until I moved up to Seattle in í87, I also climbed without chalk. At one point in time, I bullied, badgered, and intimidated almost everybody in the whole Tucson climbing community, with the exception of Mike McEwen, into giving it up. Mikeís safety was in his hands and his techniques. He refused to have anything to do with climbing without chalk. It was a big issue. I tried to push the low-impact ethic as far as possible. Now that seems moot, very moot. The pressing issue now is keeping existing routes intact and not having people lower the bar by adding unnecessary bolts or creating holds.
Recently, some bolts that have shown up, placed by Ben Burnham and other people on existing routes and itís caused quite a controversy. Itís nothing new. There have been bolts added to routes here by certain individuals wanting to climb those routes, wanting to lead those routes, all through the history of Tucson climbing. I heard about it and was concerned about the visual damage and the damage to the rock through immature cycles of chopping bolts and putting them back in. Rather than coming into town on my Christmas holiday and go chop the bolts, I thought I would be constructive about it and mature about it. Sit down with Ben Burnham and try to figure out why he was adding bolts to existing routes
He and I and Ben Morin sat down together to discuss the situation in a respectful fashion, rather than getting into a yelling match. That kind of testosterone rich, bolt war was something that I really wanted to avoid. Mostly because it causes a lot of rock damage and it makes the climbing community seem really idiotic in the eyes of land managers. A lot of land managers really have big concerns with balancing different peopleís use. If they see unnecessary bolt showing up on climbs that havenít been bolted before, my concern was that it might jeopardize access for all of us. They are charged with protecting the environment and balancing use. If there is too much iron showing up on climbs, then other people that use the area will have their experience diminished by that.
So essentially we sat down to talk about bolting issues and impact. My feeling has long been that if somebody climbs a route and does it in a certain style, that style should be respected by people that come after. The first ascent principle in a nutshell. Bolts are really a very different type of protection in that they are permanent, they are lasting, and they really change the experience of the next person that climbs the route. To have an individual make a decision to alter the route and change the protection scenario, and change the experience of all those that come after by adding a bolt, is a fairly significant thing. There are a lot of climbs that have been done in Tucson and thereís no shortage of bolted routes because, generally speaking, there are not a lot of crack systems here. So thereís a balance between existing traditional climbs that have been put up boldly, like some of my routes, gear routes, and bolted sport routes. So essentially there is something for everybody. The upshot from that discussion with Ben and Ben Morin and myself was that Ben agreed to not add bolts to existing routes without talking to the first ascent party or otherwise attempting to get some consensus - the same with mid-pitch anchors.
The first time a mid-pitch anchor showed up was quite a long time ago on "Bee Line" down in the Stronghold on Cochise dome. A lot of people were pretty upset about it, but nobody removed the bolts. Ben Burnham took that to mean that there was no real objection to them being there. Even though he took a lot of heat for putting them in and people were expressing their dislike of that fact, because it does definitely alter your experience climbing that route. The bolts werenít pulled. I told Ben that I had every intention, the next time I was down there, of pulling those bolts. He didnít have a problem with it. Putting in a drilled station for convenience sake where it didnít exist on an established route was another big issue. He had put in a couple of those sets of anchors on some routes on Chimney Rock and essentially, my point of view on it was that the bolts were ugly, the mid-point anchors were ugly, and that it really diminished peopleís experience.
I made a similar point about adding bolts to the regular route on Hitchcock Rock. Ben had decided that because that route was a route that a lot of people led as their first lead, that it needed better protection than was currently there. So he added a couple of bolts to that route.
Is that the only route that you know of that Ben has added bolts to?
Steve: He has also pulled pins on a couple of Rupley routes up on the mountain, up high on the Ravens and replaced the pin placements with bolts if there wasnít an adequate nut placement. I didnít really grill him about the specifics of how many routes he added bolts to because we were dealing with things on a theoretical level. The only one that I really knew about was Hitchcock Rock.
The clincher for me really was that if you lead the regular route on Hitchcock, there are horizontal cracks and you can get protection there if you want to. That doesnít necessarily mean somebody whoís trying to do their first lead and is a totally inexperienced climber is going to be able to place that gear and get that protection. The main concern that I had with retro-bolting routes, adding bolts to existing routes, mainly is that it changes the nature of the climb Ė it makes it much less of an adventure. If somebody walks up to Hitchcock Rock now with those bolts in place, additional bolts in place, has a very, very different experience than somebody who climbed that route in the way it was originally put up. That route is probably one of the most significant routes historically in this area. It was climbed by Bob Kamps back in the Ď50s. It was one of my first leads, it was my first lead. I have a strong sense of connection to that climb and to Bob Kamps who is one of my heroes. In the same way that if you go climb the Kor route in Sabino Canyon you have a sense of connection to history, a sense of connection to Layton Kor and those people that came before you. Having those routes made easier by adding bolts to them, changes that historical connection considerably. While thatís kind of an esoteric point, and it is not something that Ben is really personally interested in, he acknowledged that it was a legitimate concern on my part. So we kind of saw eye to eye on that.
Talking to the first ascent party is something that I think is necessary. There are certain routes that get put up that might be a more popular or better route with some additional bolts. Several of the routes that I put up on Mt. Lemmon could use additional bolts. Whatís important is that thereís a dialog there, that thereís respect, actually. That somebody is not acting in an isolated way to change a route because they specifically want to climb it, but not in its current state. The commitment issueís involved in climbing a route that is very committing, you can deal with in a variety of ways. If you are really are unsure about the moves, and you want to lead the route, you can always top-rope it. You can always find out what is up there and cut some of the unknown out. While that is not a popular approach to climbing, it is a way to mitigate some of the challenges if you want to climb something thatís bold.
The other issue, of course, is that if a route is too bold for you, donít shoot yourself in the foot, you may become a better climber and that route may come into your scope at some other point in time. So really, it is a patience issue. Right now, the diversity of climbs on Mt. Lemmon is a very important thing. A lot of what goes into the first ascent principle really hinges around the challenge that you leave to the next person. When I do a first ascent and it doesnít have any fixed protection on it at all, essentially the next person that comes along to do that route is faced with entirely the same challenge. The only thing that they know is that somebody like myself has climbed that section of rock and that the climbing is going to be no harder than the approximate grade that is on it. All the mystery, all the demands that are placed upon you by working out the moves, all the protection and everything else is exactly there, and it is exactly intact. That is one of the reasons why I value those climbs very highly. For someone else to come along and decide, "I like this section of rock, Iíve top-roped it, this would be a really fun thing to climb with a line of bolts up it," ignores that experience. It ignores that challenge thatís left there, a gift if you will, albeit a double-edged gift thatís there for the next party. It makes it rather difficult to warrant bolting all climbs. Thatís sort of the logical extension argument. If it was a bolt ladder up every single rock climb everywhere, would that be a better thing than it is now? The climbs, yes they would be safe, yes you wouldnít have to deal with protection issues involved, but you lose something very valuable. What you lose would be the adventure.
There is not a lot of adventure in sport climbing and thatís part of the attraction for some folks. The adventure is, "Can I managed to link these moves together without falling off of this thing?" It is a much narrower level of challenge than, "Can I link the moves together? Can I arrange the protection? Can I psychologically deal with the demands of not knowing whatís up on a route? Climb it from the ground and put that all together in one experience?" A typical case in point is when you go sport climbing for the day, you go climb all these sport routes and someone will ask you, "Well, what did you do?" And youíll say, "Well, I climbed, uh, that line of bolts," and you start thinking about the features of the routes that are there, and you donít remember very much because you donít have to pay that much attention.
They are interesting routes, but if you go climb one of my routes, for instance, that are very run out and very bold, itís going to leave an impression on you. Youíll remember the individual placements, youíll remember a lot of the moves because you really have to put in a lot more in working them out. It is something that I have received some criticism for because you are climbing in a way that excludes other people from climbing those routes. My response usually is, "Well, you can top-rope them if you want. If you really want to climb that section of rock and thatís what you are interested in, you can take a lower commitment approach." Beyond that, if you want the lead that section of rock, then you will have to prepare for it. I would look at some of these climbs for years and years before getting up on them. Especially some of the more run out, very difficult climbs like "Coherent Excitation" and a couple of the routes that are down in the Stronghold that are really very bold climbs and require a high level of commitment. A lot of my ability to deal with that kind of climb has a lot to do with preparation. I used to free-solo a lot of things. I used to climb a lot of routes and forego protection so that I would be able to deal with the run outs on routes when I would go climbing. Without that kind of preparation, without that sort of feeling very, very solid, in and of your ability, getting up on a route like that would be a huge mistake. So itís a matter of preparation. Not all climbs are for all climbers. They can be. If you really want to climb something, you can prepare for it and you may spend a lot of time doing that.
So thatís really the issue, but thatís not all the climbs that I have done. Some climbs, a bolt or two here and there would make a big difference in terms of being an accessible climb. I want to go on record as being open to that. If you are seriously interested in adding protection to a climb or changing a climb, as long as you contact me or the people that put the route up to see what their feeling is about it and have a dialog. I think it is an acceptable option. A great many of the climbs that I did in bold style, I would do that way because I wasnít interested in personally in putting the visual impact into them to bolt them up.
That brings up the Mike Head meeting where your routes where your routes were declared sacred. Is that correct?
Steve: Thatís what Ben was saying. That there was some kind of a meeting to decide about how to go about replacing bolts or making climbs safer, adding bolts. I didnít get a lot of the details of that meeting. I guess the consensus was out of respect for me or my legacy, that my routes wouldnít get retro-bolted. While I appreciate that, whether you feel it is acceptable to add fixed protection, to add bolts to an existing route or not, it is something that should hold for all routes and they shouldnít just be Steve Grossman routes. That is something that should stand on principle alone.
I guess from my view, on the historical side, is that I donít like to hear you say, "Well, maybe we could add some bolts to your routes." I would view it as unacceptable.
Steve: Yeah, believe me, by having said that, it doesnít mean that I throw open the door to bolters. If somebody adds a bolt any of my routes without talking to me about it, I will immediately pull it. I will find out who they are and lay into them. It is unacceptable behavior. So that is not at all giving people license to bolt. I will be totally clear about that. Thatís something that I feel very strongly about because a lot of those routes mean a lot to me in terms of experience. It is much more demanding to climb something from the ground on sight. It is much more committing to climb with no bolting gear at all and head up on something and see if you can do it. It changes the game.
By extension, doing big wall climbs, one of my best El Cap experiences was doing the Muir wall without a hammer. In terms of adventure, itís probably more adventuresome than other routes that I have done that are much more difficult because the outcome was in doubt until the last pitch was finished. We had no idea whether we were going to be turned around on any given pitch. Limiting the extent to which technology is relied upon to overcome the challenge presented by a route raises the level of adventure in success. There is a sense in which technologically giving in to the need for security gets in the way of the very quality of experience that we may be seeking. Few pieces of equipment can provide security as readily or arbitrarily as a bolt. None have as much immediate impact.
The issues of bolting tend to get somewhat nebulousÖ