There has been a lot of chatter online over the summer about bolts. There always is, and there probably always will be, but this time a lot of the attention was drawn to our region – South Wales.
The history of climbing in our region is as varied as our cliffs and as such has led to the development of a wide range of climbing styles that have become one of the area’s best climbing attractions. In recent years more and more climbers are heading out side to sport climb at bolted venues. The bolted venues allow climbers to climb on fixed protection in a similar way to the lead climbing you do at Boulders. This is not a new phenomenon. In fact it has been going on for years across the UK. What is new, especially in South Wales, is the volume of climbers heading outside at every dry opportunity. This is in a large part due to climbing centres like Boulders introducing people to the sport and encouraging them to take their climbing beyond our indoor ply wood walls.
I’ve been climbing in South Wales for almost 20 years and I can honestly say it’s still really refreshing to meet others at the crag and see people getting so much out of this great sport. All sports evolve over time and fashions within sports change. Recent fashions along with the new volume of climbers means a lot of people are sport climbing.
I believe climbers should be able to follow their passions and ambitions in whichever of our diverse disciplines they enjoy – from DWS (climbing above deep water with no ropes for protection) to Ice Climbing (yes believe it or not every winter many of us enjoy climbing the waterfalls that freeze over all across South Wales.
Bolts V Trad?
So what’s all the fuss about? Why the do the forum debates regarding South Wales rage on? It’s never simple and there’s no straight answer. The UK has a rich heritage of traditional (trad) climbing. This is where a lead climber uses protection such as small metal wedges (known as wires or nuts) and their skill at placing them in cracks and the like to safeguard themselves in the event of a fall. This style of climbing is hugely rewarding and the British are famous for it. When a route has been bolted the need to protect it with these traditional techniques is removed. It’s no longer the same challenge for the trad climber. You could still climb the route using trad techniques and equipment, but the undertaking would no longer be the same, there would always be an option to clip a bolt if the going got tough so the commitment and severity changes. To trad climbers this takes away something at the heart of their discipline. When these two disciplines; sport and trad, meet one looses out over the other and frequently it’s the traditional character of a route that vanishes. This summer the friction caused when these disciplines met was highlighted around South Wales.
Ogmore is a magnificent traditional venue near Bridgend with a history of epic stories and adventures. I myself can testify to the result of over ambitious undertakings at Ogmore and the serious consequences climbing here can have.
As a traditional venue, placing a bolt here is frowned upon, but this summer climbers noticed some bolts in the top of the cliff. This led to concerns that the traditional climbing venue of Ogmore had been bolted and in doing so trad climbers had lost a cherished venue. At about the same time Adrian Berry and I went public with a bolt fund aiming to raise money to pay for bolts that would be used to equip routes at a new venue on the Gower. Online forums hummed with the news and occasionally conclusions about our intentions and the bolts of Ogmore were drawn. The buzz raged on until both stories unfolded. Fortunately Ogmore had not been bolted. The bolts had actually been in place for many years. They had been there to take the place of stakes that climbers use to safeguard themselves at the top of the crag in areas were there is no other option other than digging your heels in the soil and hoping for the best! Although it is hoped that this does not become the norm it is has been accepted locally, only where necessary, as a sensible way of dealing with a problem that enables the venue to keep it traditional character.
The other crag, the one on the Gower is owned by the National Trust and had been associated with a desire to be bolted and had no apparent previous history of trad climbing. Before any bolting could commence a long process of communication to seek permission and to ensure no harm came to the environment had to take place with the National Trust. The notion of this crag being bolted gained support and eventually all concerned parties agreed a bolting policy. The development took place and a crag of real sport climbing significance for South Wales was born and has since attracted climbers from all over the UK.
A follow up proposal to bolt a wider area was put forward causing a great deal of on-line controversy. The controversy caused a stir within the National Trust, causing them to become uncomfortable with the idea and they started to distance themselves from it. More talks ensued and after the involvement of the British Mountaineering Council a bolting policy was agreed. The development began straight away and continues today bringing by its proposed end routes between F2 and F8b. This promises to be a great sport venue across all grades.
These two stories at opposed ends of the bolting policy spectrum stirred the passions and emotions of climbers in South Wales and wider. Strong opinions for both sides of the argument were voiced and a degree of mudslinging was witnessed!
But, this brings us to the point of the article. With so many opinions and heated passions a need arises for a balanced debate to ensure protection and development can coincide. The cliffs we climb are not ours to do with as we please. Behind every venue there is a tangled web of issues such as land ownership, climbing traditions and environmental protection that need examining on a case by case basis.
Thankfully the BMC provide a forum for this debate. A regional meeting is run by the BMC for climbers to discuss and debate all matters connected to their local venues, where voting decides outcomes.
A few weeks ago one such meeting was held at Boulders. High on the agenda was the future direction that local climbers wanted the bolting policy to go. The turnout was fantastic and it was wonderful to see climbers involved in the development of our region. A balanced debate was held and long standing contentious issues decided upon. This process has been a hard fight for a few volunteers over the past years and it is important that it continues. If you are climbing outside on bolts or trad your opinion matters. It is important and it can only be heard if you attend. The climbers of South Wales need to contribute to our region’s future by continuing the debates.
The next meeting is on the 21st November at Aber Rocks, Abergavenny. It would be great to see you all there!
In the mean time, if you have an opinion about bolting we want to know about it. Where do you stand on bolts? Let us know below.