Bolts and Canyoneering on the Colorado Plateau
by Tom Jones
"By the time we reached the crux section of the canyon, we had been enveloped by a blizzard; the snow that whipped through the canyon stung our eyes and froze our hands. The crux was truly a mind bender; the narrow slot gave way to an abrupt drop over the 155-foot-high mouth of a huge cave. We spent an hour rigging our ropes. With no secure anchor points, we ended up burying a sling under a pile of rocks at the bottom of a large pothole and attaching the rope to it.
"I went first, carefully sliding out of the slot and into a vertical void, the floor of the canyon invisible in the swirl of snow. Would the rope be long enough? The question was answered when I was halfway down: the rope was long enough but my trajectory would have taken me through the limbs of an oak tree and into a large pool. Not good! With some gentle swinging I managed to hit a dry landing zone. Ginger took her time lowering packs over the fifteen-story drop. From below I saw that the brunt of the storm had descended on her. The rock was now plastered with rime ice and, perilously perched on the edge of the abyss, every move on her part had to be carefully executed. A mistake could have meant the ultimate splat. At long last I saw Ginger's legs emerge from the slot; she slowly spun down the rope, afraid a sudden jerk would dislodge it from its precarious anchor. There were no further obstacles below. The Mind Bender Fork was a done deal."
Admirable? Valiant? Foolish?
In reference to the Mindbender Fork: "This is going a bit far. I'm planning on placing 2 bolts. S.A. can chop them later"
"And thanks again for the Neon info... best canyon of the whole trip. I think everyone liked the technical and tricky stuff in Neon best. It's more fun when you have to do your own problem solving instead of just clipping into the bolts conveniently placed at each drop."
"Just because you have the power, doesn't mean you should use it"
If there is one issue that tears at the fabric of the canyoneering community, it is the use of bolts in the wilderness canyons of the Colorado Plateau. Bolts allow the placement of secure anchors at pretty much any point in a canyoneering descent. Bolts degrade the wilderness character of a canyon, desecrate the pristine stone with a human artifact, and decrease the ingenuity and creativity required to successfully descend the canyon. On the other hand, bolts allow secure anchors where nature provides none, and allow canyoneers access to incredible places without risking their lives.
There is a religious nature to the debate. You either Believe, or you don't. Heathen or zealot. High priest or desecrator. Let's hope we don't get to human sacrifices.
Let's review what we can agree on:
1. The canyoneering community includes a wide variety of people. Let us respect all members of the community. Hype aside, we all descend these canyons for the same reason - because it brings us joy.
2. Whatever our differences, we should work them out through civil discourse and not involve land management authorities.
3. We will probably disagree about fundamental aspects of the sport. When we do, let's do so with honor and civility.
And that's about it, but I think those are the important points to agree on. Those of you who are (ahem) mature and climb will remember that civility and respect were not part of the "bolt wars" period in climbing.
Personally, I am an agnostic. I'm not very interested in putting myself at risk, but I take pride in having advanced anchor and judgement skills, developed by decades of failing to kill myself climbing. A few bolts here and there don't bother me much, but I definitely prefer to find canyons as God made them. And while I admire greatly the high standard of purity established by Steve Allen and others, I do not feel the same overwhelming sense of disappointment that those guys do, on seeing metal artifacts in our canyons.
But where I stand is not the point. The point is: given that we all share this amazing public lands playground, What should you and I do, regarding bolts, when doing descents?
We should avoid placing them.
First of all, we should avoid placing bolts because they are not necessary. We should hone our anchoring skills, carry a variety of tools, descend with strong partners, develop strong team-climbing skills, consider other options, etc.; because we can. Not because placing bolts is "Wrong", but because placing bolts is impolite and unnecessary. Some of the wilderness nature of each canyon is lost when a hole is drilled and filled.
Secondly, there's another reason that we all can share - because it is more fun to descend a wild canyon. Descending by walking along and clipping a fixed anchor at each drop is too easy. Besides, there are a handful of popular and well-publicized frontcountry canyons that provide this experience. Venturing into the next tier of canyons should require a higher standard of skills, and bringing forth the ingenuity and creativity required to safely descend canyons without resorting to the drill is an exciting and enticing game. Rumor has it all these canyons have been descended without bolts - can you do it too?
This latter point works better for me, by invoking my competitive instinct. Yes, I'll probably still carry a bolt kit, but now that I appreciate that all of these canyons have been descended clean, I must now consider placing a bolt a failure. I am neither as bold nor as skilled as some canyoneers, but I do claim to be on the clever side, so the "game" of descending clean appears to me as a worthy adversary. Once you have done a few canyons and have started to venture out a little more, consider taking on the clean ethic as a worthy challenge.
Using natural anchors need not be Mind-Bendingly dangerous. I'm pretty sure Steve plays up the drama in the MindBender quote. My evidence: he does this stuff all the time, and he is still alive. Gravity has a way of dealing with those who exercise bad judgement on a regular basis.
Lest I be accused of duplicity, I'm only proposing this ethic for the wilderness canyons of the Colorado Plateau, with specific emphasis to the Escalante and Robber's Roost areas. I do not include canyons that are "frontcountry" - already discovered and popularized in one of Kelsey's guidebooks - and canyons in Zion, where bolts are a well-established part of the canyoneer's toolkit (though not without dissent). I have placed inappropriate bolts in some of these canyons, and I hope you'll forgive me. Arriving with a climbing viewpoint, I have only slowly come to appreciate the need for a no-bolt wilderness ethic. The ethical problem is not the same as in climbing, and the ethical solution should be different.
In all areas, it is up to the local canyoneers to develop an ethic appropriate to themselves and their environment. Given the dispersed nature of the canyoneering community and our adventure-seeking anti-regulation natures, building an ethic will require effort, compromise and good will on everyone's part. You might actually have to go canyoneering with people that you disagree with - nothing builds community like human to human interaction. The reward is peace in our canyons, matching the tranquility that has been there since the beginning of time. Be safe, be clean.
Editorial is a column for discussion of issues facing the canyoneering community. Dissenting and alternative viewpoints are encouraged. Viewpoints expressed do not necessarily represent those of Canyoneering USA magazine or the American Canyoneering Association.
All Content © Copyright 2001 Tom Jones. All Rights Reserved.