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Bolting for Canyoning

Wet or dry, keep your slots well protected

The Bolting Bible

The Book of Canyoning

Welcome to our free course as our way of contributing to the bolting community. It's nice to understand what you are clipping and trusting with your life, even if you never plan on installing or removing bolts. Also, if someone is going to spend their time and money to bolt something, I assume, they probably want to do it as good as possible. Hopefully, the Bolting Bible gives you the tools you need to do a great job. Get it?

Our courses are A-Z content in blog format, glued together with an overarching blog we call a textbook. A blog format is easy to read, easy to update, and easy to translate. Be sure to begin at the TEXTBOOK and at the end of each episode we'll point you to the next.


A huge thanks to Brent Roth & Adolfo Isassi for contributing so much information to this section


Is Bolting Allowed?

Bolting in wilderness areas falls in a gray area currently and legislation is trying to include bolts in the definition of "installations," which currently are things like buildings, fences, and pipelines which are illegal to have in wilderness areas. Different areas have different rules, so just make sure you can legally-ish install a bolt before you do it.

Should YOU Bolt That Canyon?

Do you know what you are doing? Have you practiced in your backyard (more than 3x) or gone with people who know what they are doing?

Are you from the area and will be a steward of maintaining those bolts? There are micro-communities and micro-cultures around every groove in the earth.

Learn who is who and what they think AND WHY they think what they think to holistically make bolting decisions. Sometimes supporting the people doing the work already is going to achieve better results. Sometimes people have good intentions and want to control everything and everyone but nothing happens so you just have to do your own thing, but do it with as little ego as you can, as much information as you can learn and think as big picture as possible before changing stuff that has been around for a gazillion years and everyone wants to enjoy.

To Bolt or NOT To Bolt

Cool. It's legal, and it won't piss off too many people, and will help the community at large. Now let's make sure we stop long enough to ask, does it need bolting? Assuming people want to descend a canyon what are the options?

Ghosting by Adolfo Isassi

Grooves not only leave impact but get gear stuck

It is great if you can rappel and leave nothing behind. Not every place has something you can wrap your rope around like a tree or boulder but if that's an option, should everyone just “ghost”?

Retrievable Rigging and Retrievable Anchors, together known as “ghosting” have become a point of pride in some SW canyoneering circles. These are great techniques for explorations, first descents, and low visitation routes, in areas where natural anchor opportunities are scant. But their level of risk and required training is just not scalable for high visitation.

For a remote location, an A/B rated route getting descended a handful of times a year, with canyon sections where there are only slick walls and sand, probably yes, ghosting is still the right answer.

As a route gets popular and gets more traffic, the intended “Leave No Trace” principle behind ghosting techniques, starts to lose its effect. With enough traffic, even ghosting techniques start to leave traces. There are some spots that get grooves in the sandstone from rappelling with sandbags and pulling the rope down that might benefit from having bolts a bit higher up that reduce the scarring on the rock.

These popular routes might start to deserve a few carefully placed bolts with low environmental impact in mind, and offering safer visit for people without ghosting skills.

Consider “ghosting” as a micro-community and micro-culture that deserves consideration when making bolting decisions. You should weigh this consideration against the lowest possible Environmental Impact and Safety for the current levels of visitation. Which in turn, requires that you are very familiar with the dynamics of the area.

This isn't pro ghost or pro bolt, but just considerations you need to look at before bolting.

Natural Anchors

If there is a tree, why not just put some webbing and rappel rings on it? There is totally a time a place for that but it looks pretty manky after just a season or two, people get sketched by it so they add webbing and starts to look unsightly. And if debris from a running canyon gets caught in it, that's just creating more plastic trash in the beautiful places we are trying to play in. Are two stainless unlinked bolts that could last for many many years less impact than a clump of webbing?

Rope grooves
The grooves in the rock are cut by ropes. Once the groove is deep enough, blocking devices will get stuck. Definitely not leave no trace.

A good example of natural anchors

First Descent vs Trade-Route Canyons

The first descent of a canyon can be a tremendous amount of work often done by a few people. Not only is it a lot of weight to carry, the cost of hardware, tools and equipment can be a burden as well. Some do it for glory, some to scratch the itch of exploration, some want build something great for a community. Whatever the reason, respect is owed to the first descent team. The first descent of a canyon may not be the best descent that could be made. Bolts may be only placed as needed and the best location may not be identified until the canyon is run a few times. Some canyons may not be worth going back to. The first canyon descent does not include a bolting plan. This is where experience and the local canyon community comes in. How much will this canyon be run? Who will be running it? Who is responsible for rescue options? Should there be a standard anchoring system for easier maintenance? These are questions that should be considered when a canyon becomes a "trade route" and should include a bolting plan.

Tools - More Than Just The Drill Bit Tips

Metal - Make it last a long time

Stainless! If you get nothing else from reading the bolting bible, please use stainless steel. Zinc-plated bolts corrode in wet environments but you can get away with them in some of the most arid deserts. Just because it's hot when you install it, doesn't mean that the annual moisture that bolt sees is 0. Don't go cheap creating a ton of work down the road.

Bolt Type - Think About Maintenance

Mechanical bolts are great when they are great. Hard and solid rock doesn't need glue ins and mechanical bolts are half the work to install and require half the tools. Glue ins eyes can have ropes run through them unlike sharp hangers minimizing the need for more stuff (rappel rings) risking getting caught in debris, but if they get smashed by the debris, they are much harder to maintain/replace in an ever changing environment. There are several hangers that could allow for ropes to be directly threaded into them but that's not essential as the rappel rings allow for multiple clip in points.

The best bolt to use in an area that could be damaged by debris is one that is easy to replace. Wedge bolts are some of the cheapest options but if those threads get smashed, you can't get a bolt remover on it. Coeur Pulse bolts are not intended for this purpose and are not recommended for canyons. Fixe Triplex are removable and some of the easier bolts to maintain. Concrete Screws are probably the easiest

Let's talk about other holes, assholes. There are people who like to damage bolts for a variety of reasons that is covered in the Book of Ethics chapter. You could try to install something more permanent and bomber if your hangers keep getting stolen but 10 seconds with a hammer and a bad attitude can lay them over and render them useless, making it really hard to reinstall another one with an unsightly nightmare. You can also swing the other way and make it really incredibly easy to remove like concrete screws so it's just a matter of putting a new bolt when you show back up. If it's a constant problem, then you have to get into concealing anchors which is not part of this chapter.

Post by Adolfo Isassi

So, you came across your first set of removed bolts

Recently someone came across a set of removed bolts. Luckily, they were able to sort the situation out and exit the canyon safely.

Sadly, if you canyoneer long enough in the American Southwest, you are bound to find chopped, cut, removed or otherwise disappearing bolts from rappel stations.

Sometimes they are just crudely cut/chopped, sometimes they are painstakingly removed and the holes beautifully filled-in and patched with matching sand color and epoxy. But no matter how hacky or artfully done, now, you may be stranded in the middle of a canyon.

Through the years I've learned that there is nothing that people can do or say to stop this.

The state of the sport is such that bolts are installed under the cover of anonymity, and also removed under the cover of anonymity.

If you are wise, you will learn to carry tools and skills to deal with these situations.

Extra webbing, extra rapides, a toggle-stick, maybe even some sand bags, and the knowledge on how to use these tools and construct dead-man and cairn anchors.

In a twisted way, that is what bolt-choppers want: For you to canyoneer flintstone like.

They fetichize and glorify these tools and methods.

These tools and methods are exploration and first-descent tools. They are great for that, and for remote canyons that are visited a handful of times per year. I have them, and use them.

You will be surprised to learn that some of the same people who have chopped bolts...have placed bolts themselves. So, it is not so much that there should be absolutely no bolts, but that they get to decide which canyons are bolted, and which ones are not.

Through the years, I've been trying to understand this arbitrary behavior. I've come across several justifications. The first one can be described as a diatribe of "First Descent Ethics".

Kind of the same concept in rock-climbing of sending a first ascent: All following rock climbers should follow the route and mimic moves done by the first ascender.

Regardless of how much stock you put into this contrived notion of ethics, you will also be surprised to learn that "first descent ethics" subscribers have removed pitons in canyons placed by first-descenders. So, so much for respecting first-decent-style. So we are back to square one on what they mean is that they get to decide what ethics are acceptable.

The next justification from bolt choppers explaining their motivations, is that you should canyoneer and "Leave No Trace" (LNT). But this does not cover or explain webbing on natural anchors, or rope grooves by pulling rope from deadmans, cairns or pulling sandtraps.

With enough human traffic, canyoneers will damage rock even with some of these flintstone practices. There is a slim set of tools that fulfill the LNT goal, but coupled with the canyoneering ethos of self-learning, and trial by error, it is a worrisome prescription as a standard canyoneering practice.

When a canyon gets publicized enough, and gets high visitation, the most LNT thing canyoneering can do is to install bolts that protect and minimize traffic impact. But this needs to be done by people with experience and know-how.

Bolting has been such a taboo subject in the SW, that bolting know-how, and bolt proper location is on arrested development. There are instances of bolt removal due to bad installations and/or poor locations. So learning how and where to bolt while in a canyon is not the answer.

  • If you frequent canyons that you know are bolted, next time you go through them, ask yourself at every rap station: What would I do if there are no bolts?

  • Hone your natural anchoring skills

  • Alert community members by posting a trip report where the canyon's public beta resides

  • Document stations and removals with your camera

  • Do not grab a bolting kit to learn how to bolt by trial and error in a canyon