Saturday, April 27, 2013

Cracked Bolt Hangers and Other Nightmares: The Future of Fixed Anchors

Can you imagine clipping this? (Via

If you have been climbing for a while, you may recall encounters with fixed protection that was well past its sell-by date. Drooping,twisted soft-iron pitons with rings, rusted-out angles, rotten lost-arrows and a spectrum of lame bolts and half-assed hangers were par for the course. American ambivalence about fixed protection resulted in quite a variety of unsafe and ineffective methods and tools for installing bolts and pitons. In some areas, the ever-present threat of chopping made many reluctant to invest in high-quality protection. In the 21st century this began to change as an older generation and attitude gave way to a more pragmatic approach to the realities of the climbing environment. Things seemed settled for once.

A cracked hanger (image via Gripped and rockclimbing,com)

Now comes word of cracked bolt-hangers from a poster at who put up some photos on one of the forums and then had the story picked up by Gripped Magazine's website. Obviously this story will develop over the coming weeks but the primary issue is that this failure, if confirmed, is in a device that is in many instances absolutely mission-critical, non-redundant and much less subject to the variables and stresses that say, an actual bolt in the rock or a cam might undergo. In other words, a modern hanger failure simply should not happen, ever. This makes me wonder about what's next.

As climbing expands as a sport, the likelihood of ever-increased use of fixed anchors expands as well. Now there is a UIAA standard for "rock anchors" that focuses on materials and strength tests. There are probably others that can be added such as the CWA and so on. However (and this follows only a cursory search) there appears to be a remarkable lack of publicly available rigorous current research on the subject of placing, assessing and maintaining fixed anchors in the field. Given the fact that there are many freelance bolters out there operating in a diverse range of rock types and environments, it seems logical that there will need to be a serious empirical field-based study of the performance of fixed anchors and any accessory gear including fixed draws, links etc to ascertain future best practices in the manufacturing, installing, and maintenance of these now-essential tools. Will there be a problem  commissioning and funding such a study given its potentially controversial findings? As with the integrity of fixed climbing anchors themselves, only time will tell.

If you have suggestions on where to find publicly available, scientifically rigorous research as opposed to anecdotally-based accounts, please let me know. The ASCA is a good place to start but there seems to be room for improvement in terms of resources.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Layton Kor 1938-2013

Galen Rowell's iconic portrait of Kor at the top of the Salathe Wall

It's a cold snowy day in Boulder Colorado and I just learned this morning about the death of Layton Kor at the age of 74. I am going to go out on a limb here and describe his passing as the first of the legendary American climbers of his era. If there was vote over who was the defining presence in American climbing in the 1960s, it would be a choice primarily between Royal Robbins and Layton Kor. For many, there was Kor's manic irrepressible drive to climb all that there was to climb, his deeply working class roots (he was a stone mason and never enjoyed financial prosperity in his later years  as did Robbins or Yvon Chouinard) and his sudden disappearance from the scene after the tragic death of John Harlin on the Eiger Direct; all this was the stuff of legend. If you are a climber in the environs of Boulder Colorado, you somehow climb in the shadow of Kor, always.

Stories abound of a larger-than-life personality driven by equal parts comic genius and raw determination. Among the best is by far Pat Ament's account of his first venture with Kor into the Black Canyon, a failure as far as the climbing was concerned, a triumph for climbing literature as it captured an essential portrait of the man at his prime. In Colorado, he simply dominated the climbing scene as no climber has since, lending his name to classic routes on too many significant walls and peaks to count. Eldorado Canyon has become synonymous with Kor, whose routes (and their names) have been enshrined in legend. Indeed one of the contributions of Kor was his names for climbs, by turns comic, dramatic, or comprising achingly bad puns, puns that might well mask desperate unprotected free climbing and precarious aid.

In a time dominated by serious California climbers who strode across the Yosemite Valley landscape like colossi, Kor came in and simply went to work, fearing neither the steep smooth granite nor the insular social scene. In a sense, he was a spiritual cousin of Warren Harding, ready to poke fun at those he perceived as too full of themselves and tough as nails on the rock as the situation demanded. Though ironically I know many people who knew Kor well, I never had the opportunity to meet him myself. There is no question in my mind that he shaped an era in American climbing that is passing away and that will never be seen again.