Bolting for Canyoning

Bolting for Canyoning

“Going down is more fun when you know what you are doing.”

The Bolting Bible

Bolting for 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. We believe that if someone is going to spend their time and money to bolt something, 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?

This book is in a blog format. The main blog points to all 17 chapters, and at the end of each chapter, it points you to the next. A downloadable pdf is available HERE.


A huge thanks to Brent Roth and 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, with 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?

Do You Now Have More Questions? Good...

Some of the best place to go for answers is the local community. In Washington state we have three primary places you should visit:

  1. The Washington Canyon Coalition is a collaborative of recreational and professional canyoneers who live in the Pacific Northwest and actively canyon in Washington State. Our focus is safe & responsible access to canyons, partnership with land managers, and care and protection of the natural resources. Be sure to check out the ACCESS page if you plan on bolting in WA.
  2. The second place to start is by talking to the community. There is a very active FaceBook group you should join and start asking your questions... Pacific Northwest Canyoning
  3. Check out the RopeWiki page for Washington and do some research about the canyon. Look for any notes or trip reports that may paint a better picture of what is going on in a particular canyon.

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. And is micro plastic in our waterway's an issue? Are two stainless unlinked bolts that could last for many many years less impact than a clump of webbing?

The grooves in the rock are cut by ropes. Once the groove is deep enough, blocking devices will get stuck. Definitely isn't leaving no trace.

A good example of natural anchors. Bolts don't make sense here.

This is so much better than 2 well placed bolts (sarcasm)

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.

Luckily We Could Escape... by Brent Roth

A small group of us decided to run a canyon in spring. This was an established canyon with beta about being bolted, but not run often. There was no snow to be seen on the ground during the approach. At the first glance of one of the lower waterfalls, we could see a bunch of downed trees indicating something had happened here during the winter. We scrambled in on one of the lower access points to take a closer look. What we found was this section of the canyon was still full of snow. A LOT OF SNOW. The snowpack was full of trees and debris indicating this was the remnants of an avalanche.

The water had cut a good size tunnel through the tree-laden snow, but we knew that was a bad idea to go into it. The snow bridge was clearly unstable and had various holes in the top. We scouted around, took pictures, and found a route around the snow carnage and could see the end of the blockage. We decided to drop in below the snow, about 300’ down the canyon, for the last two rappels and hike out the creek. I mean we hiked all the way up, why not get some canyon in? After some downclimbing, we came to our first rappel. We were not clear on which rappel it was but could start to see the runout of the canyon below, so we know we were close to the last 100’ drop (R12). This was our first clue of the damage that was done and the type of rigging in the canyon. The hangers were bent over, linked with webbing through the hangers with a rusted quick link and bail-out ring on it. The bolts being on the canyon floor provided no protection, as well as a difficult pull. There was limited visibility for the person on rappel which was in the flow.



Here is a view looking down the canyon from the location of these bolts. We added quick links to the hangers but because the rope pull through the links on this bolt location would be very difficult we replace the webbing and extended the anchor.





We continued down the canyon…

5 piece Powers Bolts

When I got to the last rappel station this is what I found…

One bolt was missing and the other bolt I pulled out by hand. This was the 100ft rappel with no options for natural anchos.

At this point, we started looking for an escape and were able to scramble our way out.

Not something I would repeat by choice.

Let's dive into 3 lessons to be taken from this story...

  1. Bolt location
  2. Linked vs Unlinked bolts
  3. Stainless Steel Hardware

Location, Location, Location...

The biggest difference with bolting in a canyon from climbing routes is why we place the bolts where we do. Since moving water is a primary element in all canyons at some point, moving water needs to be considered for bolt location. Water levels change regularly and in some areas extremely. Bolt location is also key in canyoning for pitch management, rope recovery, and longevity of the anchor.

5 piece Powers Bolts

Pitch Management - What could go wrong? Lots. there are a few things to consider when placing bolts for managing a canyon pitch, here are two:

1. Line of Sight - Can I see the person on rappel for the length of the pitch? This is extremely important in swiftwater canyons when a rescue (lower) is needed and time is not in your favor.

2. Work Positioning - Is there room for two? The less dancing around at the anchor the more efficient and safer the transitions are. When people become entangled at the anchor the urge to unclip or make a mistake increases.

There are often groups of people traveling down a canyon, try to make the location people will be getting on rappel or managing the anchor a place they can stand or get to safety. If they can't get to the bolts without a great risk of falling off a cliff or into the flow, you may have to put traverse line (hand line) anchors in.
Rope Retrieval - The most underrated part of canyoning. There have been many incidents in canyoning that we caused by a stuck rope. Since we are not going back up and we don’t pack a rope for each pitch, retrieving your rope is the key to a safe descent.

1. Reduce abrasion points (Alpine Technique). The more abrasion points the more friction the more difficult it is to pull. Not to mention the damage a rope does to soft rock.

2. Bolts near the edge reduce the places the rope will fall and catch on when pulled. Ideally, you want the rope end to fall to the ground.

You need to be able to pull your rope down after rappelling so try to have the anchor in line as possible from where you will pull and not 30 feet back from an edge out of sight.

Longevity of the Anchor - More than just bolts made of stainless steel.

Water will flow over this rock and these bolts are protected

1. Place bolts out of flow - You need to understand a little bit about hydrology and how water flows around objects. Some canyons are smooth and may not provide any rock formations for eddies to occur. This is where installing unlinked bolts is key to their survival! Think about where you would want to hide if an avalanche came down the canyon. That might be a good place to put the anchor.

2. Think about the water levels at different times - In wet canyons, water levels change A LOT and if you are placing bolts during a low flow, your anchors might literally be under the water during a high flow. If the canyon is descended at higher flows more often, the bolts you placed may not be useful.

In wet canyons, water levels change A LOT and if you are in a high flow, your anchors might literally be under the water and if the water is really low, you may not be able to reach the anchors installed during a high flow. Good luck!

In wet canyons, try to place bolts where heavier flows won't hit the bolts, The down canyon faces of rock, not the top or side, is a good start. Under a small down canyon overhang is even better. Just don't make it too hard for other people to find or they will just place more.

Linked and Unlinked bolts

Bolt Configurations

There are two configurations of bolts used in canyons: Linked and Unlinked

Linked

  1. Why? Easier rigging, already redundant
  2. Why not? Debris can catch it and destroy the bolts
  3. Types - Chain, webbing, cord/rope

In canyons that never see water, you can have two bolts configured however you want and they are typically spaced about 12" apart. They can have chain connecting both of them into a single quicklink. However, if you do this in a wet canyon, it can catch debris and rip the anchor out.

Chains hanging from the bolts loosely without a quicklink connecting them wont' catch debris, but can smack around and scar up the rock and trash the chain itself. Two rappel rings right next to each other can intro a metric ton of twisting in the rope when you pull it down.

Linked Anchor Examples - In areas out of seasonal flow

Unlinked

  1. Why? The best anchor location is in the season flow
  2. Why not? Requires more knowledge of rigging
  3. Types - Hangers and Quicklinks, Ring Hangers

The abridged version of using unlinked bolts is feed the rope through both rings/quicklinks and block a knot or descender up against one of them. If people don't know how to set up their rappels on these, will link the two bolts with a piece of webbing and a quicklink that they leave behind. If you come across unlinked bolts, DO NOT LINK them. It could rip out the anchor later. You can see the different ways of rigging rappels on them including pre-built-in rescue systems in our CANYON ROPES COURSE.

Quicklink just on standard hangers

When quicklinks are just added to standard hangers they will lay flat against the rock. This will induce rope twist when pulling the rope through them. When this happens when setting up the rappel, the twists will end up on the bag side of the rope. This will be a problem if you need to lower someone.

If the rope is not threaded correctly, the rope can get pinched preventing your retrieval.

Using ring hangers or adding rings to hangers with quick links will make yours, and everyone else's, life easier and safer when pulling your rope.



Unlinked Anchors - Don't permanently link these



Don't do this...



Here is an excellent resource that gets more into this topic


Metal - No Plated Steel

Stainless! If you get nothing else from reading the bolting bible, please use stainless steel. Zinc-plated bolts corrode, especially in wet environments. It last longer in deserts but not forever and just because it's hot when you install it, doesn't mean that the annual moisture that bolt sees is 0. Plan for 200 years, not 20. Don't go cheap today and create a ton of work and cost down the road.

Use stainless, please.

Tools - More Than Just The Drill Bit Tips

In the wet type C canyons, you'll need dry bags for the drills and batteries and tethers on most of the tools as you may not be able to yard sale next to the area you plan on bolting. A drill sized rain jacket is also important to protect it from splashing.

Keeping the bit cool

Keeping drill bits cool by squirting water on them as you go is a luxury as most other sports don't have an infinite water supply next to them. Bring a squeeze bottle to not only keep the drill bit cool but also to clean the hole out. WARNING: Don't drill an entire hole dry and then dip your bit in water. Rapid cooling can make your carbide tip literally detach from the bit. Just keep it cool the entire time and you'll be super good enough.

Keep it cool the entire time or you risk losing your tip

Is Water Bad for a Bolt?

Read the chapters about INSTALLING GLUE INS and INSTALLING MECHANICAL BOLTS as all that applies here. Don't worry about the water. Stainless can handle being in fresh water and you don't have to worry about water getting into the hole. You can install glue ins or mechanical bolts while the hole is wet, just keep in mind that glue can take twice as long to cure. Clean the hole well and you are good to go like normal.

Bolt Type - Think About Maintenance

Mechanical bolts are great if you got good rock. 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 the glue in gets 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 having rappel rings allow for multiple clip in points.

Fixe triplex are removable making it easy to replace them if damaged by flow

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. Petzl Coeur Pulse bolts are not intended for this purpose and are not recommended to leave in canyons. Fixe Triplex are removable and some of the easier bolts to maintain. Concrete Screws are probably the easiest to remove but the hole can't be reused more than a few times.

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.

Mr (or Mrs) Fix It

If a bolt gets damaged here are some ways to deal with it.

  1. Don't do anything if you don't know how, post online that it needs to be changed or tell someone you know who has experience bolting.
  2. Just replace the hanger
  3. Pull out the bolt and install a new one (See Book of Pulling Out )
  4. Cut the bolt off and patch that spot and install a new one

The Numbers

Here are some of the forces your bolts will see. Gear is rated in kilonewtons, and for our examples below a person is 1kN or 225lbs/102kg.

  • Your bolts are rated to at least 20kN if not 60kN and there are usually two
  • Rappelling straight off the bolts and not moving gets 1kN
  • Rappelling in a jerky manner doing tiny shock loads to the anchor gets 2kN
  • If you rig off two bolts in a stone knot. One bolt has the knot smashed up against it and that will see 1kN and the other bolt that has a 90 degree angle redirecting the rope down will see 1.4kN.
  • If you have a V shaped equalized anchor, each bolt is seeing half or 0.5kN

See how strong these are

  • If your anchor is over an edge at 30 degrees, the friction reduces the force down on the anchor to .75kN
  • If your anchor is flat on the ground and you have it going over the edge at 90 degrees, the friction reduces the force down to 0.5kN
  • If you are being counterweighted by your partner and they lower you while you rappel, the anchor sees both your weights or 2kN
  • If you rig a guided rappel assuming a 45-degree angle, the top anchor sees 4kN and the bottom anchor sees 3kN, and if you need to go out and rescue them double those forces
  • If you do the same thing but your anchors are level, you will get 4kN on both. Never tension something like that with a toothed device! The bolts are fine though.

Put in good bolts and it is super good enough. Don't drown!

They're Gone!?!? by Adolfo Isassi

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.

Chopped bolts. Now how do you get down?

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 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.

T he 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.

SO, WHAT TO DO?
  1. 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?
  2. Hone your natural anchoring skills
  3. Alert community members by posting a trip report where the canyon's public beta resides
  4. Document stations and removals with your camera
AND, WHAT NOT TO DO:
  1. Do not grab a bolting kit to learn how to bolt by trial and error in a canyon
  2. Do not engage in behaviors that will result in canyon closures. For land managers, it is easier to close canyons than sort out community conflicts and disagreements.

Take this aspect of the sport, as....growing pains.

More information about the going on in Southwest canyons can be found on the Canyon Collective webpage

Some photos on this page are credited to folks on the Canyon Collective

A Good Model To Follow...

The NZ Canyoning Association is a non-profit, incorporated society run by volunteers.

The NZ Canyoning Association is a non-profit, incorporated society run by volunteers.
The Association is lead by a committee, aiming to represent the strategic objectives of the club, as well as represent the main canyoning areas in New Zealand.
To get in touch either with the committee or if you have ideas for the NZ Canyoning Association in your region, click the button below.

The NZCA Bolting Code of Practice is another great document you should look at before investing into bolting. You will see a lot of overlap from this page and maybe you will see what is important to know about canyon bolting.

Sexy Canyon Photos

THE END


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