The following is a chapter from my big wall bible Higher Education.
The knowledge of how and why bolts and rivets are employed on a big wall is of vital importance, whether you’re making a first ascent or the hundredth ascent. All teams will attempt to keep the number of bolts and rivets to an absolute minimum - the hole count - knowing that to over drill will both reduce the difficulty of their route as well as undermine how others view their skill as climbers. The knowledge of how to drill bolts and rivets is not only vital for first ascensionists, but also for big wall emergency and self-rescue, as bolts and rivets may need replacing, or new ones may need to be placed, to bridge the gap between missing features and blank sections.
WHY NOT GO FOR NATURAL BELAYS?
The natural belay is always the most preferred belay as it’s fast to build and take down and does not require invasive drilling. The problem with natural belays is that very often they require key pieces of equipment that may be needed on the next pitch, or may have been used already on reaching the belay. The Nose, for example, could feature all-natural belays using just wires and cams, but this would mean a doubling up of gear and extra weight.
Another factor is that by bolting belays you aid a retreat, vital on very steep lines as well as popular ones. If The Nose was cleaned of belay bolts then retreat would probably be impossible from high on the wall, a whole rack needed to safely get everyone and everything down in one piece.
There is also the problem that very often natural features do not make ideal belay positions, that creating a belay in a vertical crack bunches up everything and everyone, where two bolts set a metre apart does not. There is also the safety factor of drilling into solid rock rather than trusting flakes, cracks and features that can - and have - proved to be unsound. The deaths of Finn Daehli and Hans Christian Doseth in 1984 on Great Trango has been put down to catastrophic belay failure while descending, a crushed cam evidence that the rock may have moved or broken away.
There is also something in the neatness and construction of a route, to make very long technical pitches that lead to perfect belays that are ideal for camps and hauling, the bolts part of the artistry of the leader.
Climbing big walls is primarily about searching out the impossible, using as little as you can to ascend the hardest, blankest walls you can find. The second you get out your drill you are admitting some kind of moral defeat, and so drill- ing is viewed as one of the most serious actions on a wall, so consider the following points:
Murder Of The Impossible: Messner’s rage against the ‘murder of the impossible’ was a rage against the bolted direttissima, where hundreds of bolts were placed, by both hand and machine, in order to scale the blankest walls, turn- ing a high skill game into DIY. Routes like the now de-bolted compressor route on Cerro Torre were great examples of man’s arrogance and hubris, but such climbs have also served as an example to excess, a valuable message that success at all costs, costs too much, costs your reputation, costs the route you create, and costs the mountain, its walls littered with piercings.
Should We Drill?: So the first question we need to ask is; is this necessary? Well the answer on many big walls is yes. Due to the huge loads involved, the black nature of the rock, the lack of gear to create highly complex natural belays when they can be found means that bolted belays are pretty much a necessity. As for lead bolts or rivets, if you’re creating a route that’s a work of art then sometimes it is necessary to link small features together when climbing new routes, or drill blank sections when a feature is ripped off the wall. On most new routes a hole count is kept and this is set beside the climb to determine if massive bolting was justifiable, as with enough drill, bolts and battery power anything can be climbed.
Big Wall Junk: The world of bolting and drilling is a very complex one, big wall bolting even more so, with a long, complicated, and often murky past, leaving behind tons of crappy and dangerous bolts and hangers. In the past climbers used what bolts they could find, or make, as well as homemade hangers sawn from bits of steel, iron or alloy. These time bombs were often deadly even when they were placed, and although ancient, even now you can come across junk protection like this on popular walls. Some people feel that crap gear is part of the game, that when you come across a machine head rivet and you don’t know if it goes in 30 threads deep or only 5 then that’s OK, it gives the pitch spice. But the first ascensionist knew, they placed the junk, so it’s creating false jeopardy, like planting a field full of mines then asking someone else to walk across it. The same goes for a whole pitch of bat hooks, again scary, but not so much when you’re drilling them, know where they are, know how deep they go.
If You Drill It Fill It And Fill It Good: And so instead of this cheapskate approach of the past, climbers are now taking the issue of bolting routes more seriously, using high end, high strength and long-lasting hardware that will last decades, if not centuries. The idea of placing shoddy mystery machine heads has been replaced by using stronger button head bolts that are tested and their length easily judged, or 8 mm stainless stud bolts, hardware that can be viewed as full strength.
The Weight Of A Bolt Is On Your Shoulders: Placing time bomb bolts, or bolts drilled with the wrong sized bits, or the wrong bolts in the wrong rock type, can lead to the death or injury of future climbers. You are personally responsible for any anchor you create, morally and also potentially legally, so you cannot be slap dash, flying by the seat of your pants, making it up as you go along. Like shooting a gun, you must have your shit together and know every step of the process.
Be Respectful: It’s vital that climbers take the time to fully understand what the current thinking is on bolts in their area, both how bolts should be used and what bolts work best. For example, a climber was killed in Australia when an 8 mm bolt pulled out as he aided on it, leading to a fall that cut his rope (and also maybe saved the belayer, as the belay bolts could also be pulled out by tugging on a quickdraw). In this situation climbers from another country had used bolts that would have been ideal on granite, on very soft sandstone, meaning the bolts were time bombs.
Adding Holes: Adding any new holes to an already established route is wrong, as the route was made the way it was for a reason. Drilling to make it easier is not acceptable, and 99.99% of the time there is a way on unless something else has changed. I also think adding bolts to belays is wrong, but rebooting and updating bolts is advisable as long as the old bolts can be removed, and not just yet another bolt added.
If rivets break the old idea was ‘like for like’, but you’re not going to place another crappy alloy dowel when you break one, but rather an 8 mm bolt or 1/4 button head. On hard walls, there is always enough scary climbing to keep your attention without trying to make the rivets hard and scary as well.
If you feel a bolt is needed, say a head placement has been destroyed or a flake has broken off, then you are adding something extra to that route. The opportunity to go down and contact the first ascensionist is not really an option and leaves you with a dilemma; do you place a bolt and reduce the grade of the pitch (an 8 mm bolt in the middle of an A4 section will make it much easier), or do you drill a deep bat hook hole and maybe make it harder, or do you trench a new head? Of course, there is no real answer as each one is problematical. If you’re on a Bridwell route and he’ d found a blank section he’ d have done one of these three as well, but in the 21st century what do you do? The moral answer is you’re drilling so you should fill it with a high-quality bolt, but the moral option might just be a get out of jail card.
What I set out below is not a general coverage of all bolting techniques, covering every kind of bolt out there, but what I feel is the right way to go for big wall climbers today, some of which may be a little controversial.
HAND BOLTING GEAR
I’m not going to cover power bolting here as it’s beyond the realm of classic big walling, and instead focus on hand drilling. The beauty of hand drilling is the fact it’s a monumental pain in the arse, as well as hands, shoulders and biceps. This means that no one is going to go on a Warren Harding bolting bonanza and instead will keep bolting to an absolute minimum.
Bolting is an art, especially if you’re talking about the bolting of free climbs with power drills, but here we’re talking about big wall bolting, which tends to be hand drilled and kept as simple as possible. I will cover the tools for drilling first and then the bolts and rivets:
Drill Bits: The technology of rock drilling has advanced dramatically over the last few decades, with climbers in the past having to file and modify rock bits for hand drilling, some placements eating up several broken bits before a bolt could be sunk.
These days we have SDS bits that are ideal for drilling holes in rocks and better still are the ideal design to slip into drill holders. SDS bits come in many sizes, metric and imperial, and it’s VITAL that you match bolts to bits (for example, US bolts will not work with Euro drills). SDS bits come in long and short sizes and the short ones are of the most use to climbers, plus having your driver closer to the rock makes it easier when high stepping.
There are quite a few people making SDS bits but I would stick to Hilti and avoid cheap bits you find in hardware shops, or Chinese eBay bits as more often than not the carbide tip will just fall out! The best bits to buy feature an X style carbide (TE-CX) tip rather than a single carbide tip as this gives you more cutting power, and both SDS and SDS plus bits will fit any holder.
The wear rate of bits varies dramatically depending on the skill of the climber and the hardness or softness of the rock, but as a rough guide, I’d be conservative and go for one high quality 10 mm bit drilling 10 holes, although for some you will get five times that many out of it. Never have only one bit as they can get dropped, broken or stuck, so always have at least two in your bolt bag.
On a wall, your default bit is the 10 mm short SDS, as this will do you 10 mm bolts, emergency bat hook holes and drilled edges. For new routes, you will want to add 8 mm bits for rivets or 8 mm bolts, and drilled edges.
Modified Bits: In the past climbers would take standard high-speed bits (HSS) and file the tip to a chisel point, as a standard bit was pretty ineffective at chipping down into rock. This has continued for some, with the SDS bits also being modified, the aim to achieve a more effective and speedier bit. My thinking on this is that people like Hilti know more about drill bits than I do, and although hand drilling is not quite the same as power drilling, they’re manufacturing bits that balance out speed of penetration, low binding/sticking, and bit longevity. When you sharpen a bit to a chisel point yes you do get a faster hole, which could be important for bolting on lead, but the bit dulls much faster, and on a wall, you’re often not able to be filing and taking care of your bits. And so for general use, I would stick with high-quality unmodified Hilti TE-CX bits.
The Driver: The driver is the bit holder and handle for the drill, the bit inserted and locked in place by a sprung catch or sometimes a collar or Allen bolt. The holder tends to have a rubber grip that helps in twisting and protects your hand from the hammer, as well as having some way of attaching the driver to yourself via a wrist loop (this loop should always be clipped into a keeper sling /cord). The driver tends to feature a steel insert in the handle as a striking surface to stop the end becoming deformed, and there is often a little play in the bit to help the bit ‘bounce’ as it’s struck. All SDS bits feature a universal base diameter meaning one bit should fit into any holder, and the Petzl Rocpec driver also features an insert that allows an 8 mm self drive bolt to be used as well.
Blow Tube: This is used for blowing the dust out of your holes, and although not vital is good to have, especially if you’re using longer bolts in soft sandy rock. This tube tends to be a short length of flexible plastic tubing that is narrow enough to fit in your bolt holes. Make sure you tape a clip loop on your blow tube so you can keep it close when drilling.
Bolt Bag: This is an important piece of kit and holds your bolts, hangers, driver, blow tube and bits. This should ideally be a bag designed for purpose (Yates make a very good bolt bag, with Petzl and industrial companies offering other designs), featuring a bomb proof clip loop, one-handed draw closer, internal pockets and bit holders. Attaching a long cord or sprung leash from your bag to your driver can reduce the risk of dropping it, and any drill bit changes are best done with the driver inside the bag. Bolts and hangers are best separated into stuff sacks inside the bag, with only enough carried for the day’s climbing if doing a new route.
Hammer: I’ve covered hammers elsewhere and I guess it doesn’t need saying that a hammer is an important part of drilling holes. Some climbers think a very heavy hammer is needed for bolt drilling, but I find a medium hammer works well and is less tiring, which is vital when drilling high above your head.
Spanner: You will need a good-sized spanner that will allow you some torque on the bolt’s nut, and make sure it has a lanyard taped to it so you don’t drop it. If you drop your spanner then bolts can be tightened by hand but view these pieces as passive protection until you’re able to tighten the bolt.
Brush: A small stiff brush designed to clean out drilled holes is worth carrying if you want to do a good job, with the Fixe bolting brush being a good example.
Spares: Always carry spare nuts, washers and hangers (stainless), as well as some rivet hangers and wire cinch hangers (thick and thin). These should be both metric and imperial. I would carry one of each of the following nuts threaded onto a piece of cord; 8 and 10 mm, 1/4, 3/8, 1/2. Another piece to carry is a Petzl 8 mm ’ Vrillee’ self drive hanger as these are often found on belays for portaledges or as chicken bolts (there is one on the triple cracks on the Shield), although they can be hard to spot, as the hole is flush to the wall. Removable bolts (Russian or Petzl) may also be worth carrying if teams have used these in the past.
The bolts a climber might place on a big wall may be different to the bolts a climber may place on a sports climb. The reason for this is that a big wall will get very little traffic, in fact a sports route might get more ascents in a day than a big wall climb gets in a year, or a century!
The standard for bolted sports routes is the glue in bolt, which will last for hundreds of years, and after that the 12 mm five-piece bolt, both able to handle endless use without degrading. But these bolts are always placed using power drills, not by hand, and with the gear and conditions needed to place them perfectly (they are rarely placed ground up).
On a big wall you’ll be placing a bolt by hand and often in extreme situations, maybe while hanging on some skyhook or funky head, and so you don’t have the time, the energy, or the balls, to drill a solid 12 mm five-piece. Instead, you go for super strong hardware, but hardware that’s appropriate to the climbing, lighter and quicker to place, and still lasting for a hundred years, but only for routes where the traffic will be light.
I’m going to cover the primary bolts that may be in your toolbox.
Bolts - Hard Rock
These bolts are suitable for granite, quartzite or limestone.
10 mm Stainless Stud Bolt Short (66 or 70 mm)
Although you can place 12 mm bolts, such bolts are best saved for trade routes that get tons of traffic, where many rescues take place, and people have the time to drill them. For everything else, the 10 mm stainless expansion bolt is the default belay and lead bolt, being very, very strong and long lasting.
The basic concept for anyone who’s not seen one of these is that you drill a 10 mm diameter hole to a depth halfway down the threaded section of the bolt, insert the bolt, place on its hanger and nut and tighten. As you tighten the bolt the expansion collar binds on the bolt’s shaft and locks it in place. In good rock, this provides a very strong anchor suitable for the highest loads.
Usage: Belay and lead bolts
Strength: 25 kN (15 kN pull out)
Drill Bit: 10 mm SDS
3/8 Powers Power Bolt Short (2.4 inches)
This is the standard US big wall bolt, and is both high strength and long lasting, and easier to remove when re-bolt- ing, although I expect these bolts will last 50+ years anyway. When using powers bolts you should always use the washer, placing it between the hanger and the nut.
Usage: Belay and lead bolts
Strength: 20 kN (21 kN pull out)
Drill Bit: 3/8
8 mm Stainless Stud Short (50 or 55 mm)
This is what I view as the modern ‘alpine’ bolt, or modern rivet, being very light, small and compact and quick to drill, while still providing a good level of protection on lead (10 kN which is the same as a climbing nut). Unlike self-drives or button heads the quality and component parts of these bolts is assured and will last for a very long time if matched to the correct stainless hanger. If alloy hangers are used on an alpine wall then these should be removed to avoid corrosion, but a Moses Stainless steel hanger only weighs 24 grams, meaning bolt and hanger weigh only 50 grams, so just do the job right.
Usage: Lead bolts and rivets
Strength: 10 kN (10 kN pull out)
Drill Bit: 8 mm SDS
Petzl Pulse 8 mm Removable Bolt
Removable bolts have been around for a long time but they have either been inappropriate due to the need to drill a deep 12 mm hole, or in the case of non-commercial designs, because they either fell out or broke while being used, or became fixed when loaded!
The Petzl Pulse is the first practical removable big wall bolt, and is a game-changer for big walling, the 8 mm hole being easy to drill and the bolt itself being high strength.
The removal of the bolt removes the problems of both corrosion and basic wall junk, and offers the chance of having a virgin pitch free from rivet heads and hangers. Being full strength you can get high on these pieces when drilling rivet ladders (which would become hole ladders), with a small rack being used both for protection and progression.
The downsides with such removable bolts are that if you were to retreat you would need to use up your supply of bolts, plus you will need to supply a detailed description of pitch lengths and bolt counts, as finding empty holes can be a very tricky business, especially under snow and ice.
Personally, I would stick to 10 mm bolts for belays and use these for lead bolts, hanging portaledges, and rivet ladders.
Usage: Lead bolts.
Strength: 15 kn
Drill Bit: 8 mm SDS
Bolts - Soft Rock
In softer rock a longer bolt is advisable, and by long I mean as long as you can get (a glue-in is the ideal but you’ll not have that option on a big wall) as the surface strength of soft rock can be very poor, especially if saturated. In very soft rock even these bolts may fail to lock in place, the rock compressing instead of the expansion sleeve, meaning the bolt is ‘wobbly’ and may even be pulled out with the fingers, creating a torque anchor little better than a drilled angle (where a hole is drilled and an angle peg is hammered into it). The difference between a long 10 mm stainless bolt and a drilled angle is the bolt will retain its strength much longer. All bolts in sandstone should be viewed as highly suspect, no matter how much of a trade route you are on, and so should be equalised and backed up with cams and nuts.
12 mm Stainless Expansion Long (100 mm+)
Usage: Lead bolts and belays
Strength: 30 kN (28 kN pull out)
Drill Bit: 12 mm SDS
1/2 Powers Power Bolt Long (3.75 inches)
Usage: Lead bolts and belays
Strength: 30 kN (26 kN pull out)
Drill Bit: 1/2 SDS
Bolt hangers come in many styles but if you’re using a mixture of sizes then you can use a larger hanger on a smaller bolt, meaning carrying 10 mm hangers for both 10 and 8 mm bolts, but using a washer if you have to put larger hangers on smaller bolts.
Walls can often take years to get a second ascent and so I would also always add a washer in between the hanger and nut to give it that extra little grip, and always check hangers are tight when climbing. Standard twist hangers are the style mostly used on walls, with bolts placed on belays either left plain or if you think it’ll become a trade route you can have ring hangers or leave maillons fixed to them.
Overloading hangers can be an issue and Raumer make a twist hanger for aid climbing and big walls called the Alien (27 kN / 57 g), that features two clip in holes rather than the normal single clip in point.
Most hangers are made for either industrial applications or for decades of intensive use, able to be fallen on perhaps a hundred times a day for years on end. On a big wall you may only see an ascent once a year, or even less, meaning that a full weight 33 kN hanger, three times the strength of the bolt it’s hanging from might be overkill. Lightweight hangers for 10 and 8 mm bolts, often described as being for caving or canyoneering, are ideal for big walls. For example the Petzl Coeur 10 mm hanger (22 kN) weighs in at 65 g while a Kop De Gas Montsec 10 mm (20 kN) hanger weighs only 20 g, meaning a saving of 900 g if you carry 20 hangers in your bolt bag, a significant amount if you’re carrying it.
SELF DRIVES (SPIT)
Self-drive bolts are a dying breed of bolting tool. Designed originally for caving they are an integrated drill bit and bolt, a toothed point chipping away the rock surface until the whole bolt is buried into the rock. At this point the bolt is removed and a cone inserted into the end and tapped home, expanding the bolt’s tip and locking it home, at which point the driver is removed and a hanger replaces it. The most widely used self drive is the Petzl Perfo Spe matched with the Cheville Autoforeuse 8 mm bolt.
This is a very simple and light system and was the default method for decades on alpine walls. The system is fast (I can drill a self-drive in 10 minutes in limestone) and light and easy to master, with all the parts cheap and easy to buy. The only problem is that the bolts themselves are shit!
The combination of steel bolts and alloy hangers means they corrode badly, and I’ve seen self-drives that literally flake to dust when you go to clip them. They are also weak (some have pulled out at 3 kN), the actual integrity of the bolt down to an 8 mm nut that only screws into the body by about 10 mm. The cone system is also problematic, as in soft rock you can fail to achieve full expansion, and I’ve placed self-drives in poor rock that could be pulled out by hand and were only held in place by torque of loading.
One major risk when drilling with these self-drives is that if the driver becomes untwisted just a few turns (easy to do), you can snap off the threaded tip of the driver, rending it and all your bolts worthless (unlike an SDS system).
As you can guess I’m not a big fan and would like to see this system disappear mainly as it’s just not future or climber proof.
Usage: Belay and lead bolts
Strength: 15 kN (0 kN pull out)
Drill Bit: The bolt
DRILLING THE HOLE
To drill a hole in rock is never that easy, but it’s also never that hard and simply requires the tools, the time and the patience.
Bolt Metallurgy: Before you start drilling make sure you have the right hardware. You should only use stainless steel bolts, ideally from recognised climbing companies such as Fixe, Petzl, Powers, Kong, Raumer, not cheap plated Chinese bolts off eBay. These bolts should also have all parts matched, so all stainless steel, from hanger, nut, bolt to washers, as mixing and matching, say a plain steel washer, alloy hanger, coated nut and stainless bolt will lead to a corrosive mix. Remember that you’re creating a work of art here. Don’t be cheap.
Basics: The basic principle is; hit the drill bit, turn the drill bit, hit the drill bit, turn… etc. When you hit the bit you’re making a hole, when you turn it you’re removing the debris from the hole and resetting the bit’s cutting edge, taking the bit out now and again to blow the hole clean and see how far - or not far - you’ve gone. The real art comes from digging a bit more into detail, such as how hard do you hit, how often do you turn, when do you blow the hole clear?
Pick Your Bolt And Your Bit: Make sure you have your bit and bolt matched as to put a bolt into a hole that’s too big is highly dangerous, while a hole that’s too small is a big waste of time! Try and keep your bits and bolts clearly marked so that someone who ends up drilling a bolt knows you can’t put a 10 mm bolt in an 8 mm hole!
Pick Your Spot: Make sure the rock is clean and solid and at least 30 cm from any cracks or other bolts. Make sure the rock is flat and not in a depression as this may interfere with the bolt hanger or even interfere with the belay, and you can check this by placing your bolt hanger on the rock before you start drilling.
Pilot Hole: Place the drill bit at 90 degrees to the rock and give it some hard strikes to create an indent to start. It’s vital that you begin very carefully and make the first 5 mm clean and create a sharp starting hole. Once you feel you’ve set the starting hole you can speed up.
How Hard?: The art of drilling the hole is to understand that you are not drilling away like a power drill does, or smashing the rock, but instead chipping the hole, each strike of the hammer breaking a few grains of rock away, like you’re a sculptor, each twist positioning the focus of the drill somewhere else.
Look at the tip of an SDS bit. It’s pointed and chisel-shaped, each blow focusing down the driver to the bit and down to that tiny point, the tip of the spear. If you hit too hard you’d destroy your bit, your driver, your hammer and your hand, as you’re basically just hitting the wall with your hammer. Tap too lightly and the bit will not be able to break the grains of the rock apart and you’ll never drill any kind of hole.
Instead what you need are hammer blows that are up to the job of chipping the rock, and that are sustainable and rapid, the death of a thousand taps, not one bit breaking blow. When you start off you should be able to judge the right kind of hammer blow you need by looking at how the surface of the rock reacts to the bit.
How Many Taps?: The number of taps before the drill is rotated is important as what you want is for the bit to chip away as much rock as possible but without binding, drilling a slot into which it sticks. You also need to factor in rhythm, as it’s the huge number of small taps that will get the hole drilled. I tend to vary between 5 medium taps then twist, and two hard taps and twist, it comes down to what suits your style, but as a guide, you want to be getting about 60 strikes a minute.
How Many Twists?: The twist is both changing the position of the bit so it has fresh rock to cut as well as allowing the bit to remove some of the rock dust inside the hole, which can cause the bit to bind and stick. When it comes to twisting, try and imagine the face of a clock. You insert your bit and imagine the long chisel running vertically from 12 o’clock to 6 o’ clock. Now twist the drill around the clock in hour intervals, so a twelfth of a turn at each turn.
How Often Do You Remove The Drill? You tend to remove the drill to blow the hole clean or to check the depth to see if you can stop drilling and bang in your bolt. The natural movement will remove quite a lot of the rock debris, but blowing the hole clean every few minutes gives you a chance to rest your hands (have your blow tube close if you’ve got one). If you don’t have a blow tube then you can spit on the end of the bit and clean the hole out this way. As for depth, it’s a good trick to put an elastic band on your bit and position it for the depth you’re aiming to drill (or pre-mark it with tape), as this reduces the number of times you need to take the bit out and check the hole (one good thing with self-drives is that they have a mark on the driver which shows when you’ve hit the correct depth).
How Deep?: When hand drilling a stud bolt you will be tempted to drill the hole short and call it good - don’t!
A stud bolt requires a full-depth hole in order for the stud to expand the end cap, meaning that if you only drilled to the bolt’s first thread then tightening the bolt would not engage the stud at all, and you would only have an unsightly passive bolt, like a piton hammered in a hole. Having all the threaded parts sticking out makes clipping karabiners more awkward, can be a snag hazard for haul bags lifting from the belay, and a hazard on lead bolts, as falling into them or over them can cause nasty puncture wounds.
If you want to drill a shallow hole then make sure you drill to at least a depth that will take 50% of the bolt, but ideally the whole length of the bolt, minus the hanger, washer and nut. This means once tightened you will only have 3 mm of threaded end showing. In reality hand placed bolts tend to be placed in shallow holes.
The Drill As Pro: Sometimes you might be in a position where you are on a time bomb piece, and trying to drill a bolt, rivet or bat hook feeling the seconds counting down. If the piece you’re on fails, you’ll fall onto the drill handle, which is clipped into you somewhere, which will probably see the bit bend and break. If you’re desperate and just need to keep calm and keep drilling, then you can attach a #2 or #3 rivet hanger to the bit, and try and keep it as close to the rock as possible, clipping your daisy chain into it as short as you can. If you fall, and the drill is in the hole, you have a small chance of being held by the bit.
Placing An Expansion Bolt: Now you’ve got the hole, it’s time to place the bolt. The following is for the standard stud bolt:
- With the hanger, washer and nut screwed onto the bolt, tighten the nut until it’s a few threads from the end, but not flush, as you don’t want to damage the nut or threads when you hammer the bolt into the hole, hitting the end instead.
- Making sure the hole is clean, insert the bolt, pushing it in as far as you can by hand, which should not be far. If it slides in easily then you have a problem as you’ve perhaps used the wrong bit, or if in soft rock your drilling has created too large a hole.
- Once pushed in, hammer the bolt home until the hanger touches the rock. The bolt should go in with some resistance but should not require major bolt bending force.
- Make sure the hanger is orientated correctly, and begin to tighten the nut, turning it until you are unable to tighten any more (do not use the hammer to hammer on the spanner).
- If the hanger is off centre then tap it back into place with your hammer. You’re ready to go!
Practise, Practise, Practise: The first time I had to place bolts on a route I was a third of the way up a new route on the Troll wall, solo and in winter. I was using bolts I’d never used and a system that was straight out of the bag. Mid pitch, hanging from a sky hook I tried to place an 8 mm button head bolt, whacking on the driver for all my might, thinking at the time that this was a game of violent penetration.
I’d only ever placed one bolt before, a self-drive in a small rock in a car park so was pretty much clueless, the articles I’d read giving me just enough knowledge to be dangerous to myself. When the hole was finally drilled I fished out the button head bolt and began to tap, the tip going in tight, millimetre by millimetre, until it got to the bolt’s thicker part, the part that would need to be compressed to lock it into the wall. At this point, it stopped moving, and so I hammered a little harder, but instead of going in it just bent over like a cheap penny nail. I tried to drill three more bolts on that wall, and all went the same way, a bent middle finger towards my lack of preparation and overconfidence, and in the end, they were my undoing, the dream and the wall undone by a simple lack of skill.
It is vital that all big wall climbers have a basic understanding of how to drill, how to rivet, how to place a bolt. This, of course, should not be done on any crag but on small rocks and boulders in your garden (a rock that won’t rock around and move when being drilled is ideal). A granite rock is ideal for practice but any good-sized block is fine, and you should practice with different drill bits, hard and soft, fast and slow, to get an idea of how it works. If you’re climbing in a new location, such as on sandstone walls or strange alien granite, then consider just drilling a hole somewhere to test how fast and easy it is as this may affect your choice of line, as some rock can be hard like steel while others are soft as sand. Once you’ve place a bolt and rivet try taking them out again, another skill you may need.
If you’re planning on doing a new route then how many bolts should you bring? Well if weight is not a problem, but you aim to climb very long pitches to keep the hole count down, then think about one 10 mm bolt for every 20 metres.
This means for an El Cap sized wall you’d start off with fifty bolts, giving you an average of a two bolt belay every forty metres, where in reality some belays would be natural, while some would be longer or shorter, or only feature a single bolt. For rivets this would depend on what kind of wall you’re looking at climbing. For a big wall like the Nose you may not need any lead bolts or rivets, but for some futuristic route you might want to take fifty 8 mm bolts.
Of course these are traditional bolt numbers for traditional belays, and instead you might want to employ a mix of removable bolts and 10 mm bolts, perhaps only having one 10 mm bolt per belay and an 8 mm removable bolt, and bolt ladders using 8 mm removable bolts with a few 8 mm bolts as protection, cutting your bolt load by over half.
Belay Bolt Positioning: Always place bolts with total focus on their practical positioning. Placing bolts at head height when standing on a big ledge may be easy for you, but not practical for the hauling later on, the haul line running over the lip of the ledge. Would higher belay bolts be better (on a narrow ledge), or would a belay placed off the end of the ledge be more practical (you can place extra bivvy bolts on the ledge later)?
Think about where the bags will be coming up when hauling, and ideally you want to position bolts where the bags will be free hanging all the way. A great example of bad belays and good belays is the Peanut ledge on Zodiac, where you can set up two different hauls, one where the rope is running down a slab (easy to set up but horrible to haul), while the other has the bags free hanging the whole way (harder to set up but easier to haul).
Remember you’re creating a work of art here. If you’re drilling bolts or rivets for a big portaledge camp (2 portaledges), remember that unless you want them to hang side by side (ideal, but not easy to drill for unless you have a natural ledge to stand on), then having the second ledge bolt placed a little over half a ledge away, and hanging that ledge a little lower, is fine (as stated, drilling bolts six feet apart on a blank wall isn’t easy!).
Where To Bolt Your Belay: I would advise that leaders try and bolt at the very end of their ropes, making pitches as long as possible. This increases the sustained nature of the climbing, reduces the hole count, and makes hauling faster. Often this will not be possible, as features will come up mid pitch that demand a belay be taken, so try and factor these into your plan, say having two thirty five metre pitches instead of one sixty metre pitch then a ten metre one to a ledge. When picking an actual spot to drill take into account the follow details.
Are You Drilling Into The Mountain?
Bolts must go into the heart of the mountain, not just into its skin or some flimsy flake or feature. Be very aware of just what it is you’re drilling into as it’s easy to end up with everyone hanging on some house size flake that’s only attached by a skin flap of rock. As with expanding or loose rock use your hammer to check that features are sound and check around for hairline cracks.
Where Does The Next Pitch Go?: If you’re pushing a hard line and the next section is twenty feet of birdbeak tips, do you want to be belaying right in the lead- er’s fall line when you could have had a belay just out of the danger zone? A fall into space is much safer for everyone than having someone smash into your head or having a haul bag check your fall.
Is It Loose?: Loose rock is the biggest danger to everyone on a wall, both leader and belayer, so if it’s possible having a belay set out of the danger area is vital. If you’re climbing a crack and need to drill a belay, going left or right of the crack might mean the difference between life and death.
Roofs Are Good: A belay set under a roof provides protection from storms and runoff, rock fall, and sun, and so is an ideal place to build a belay. This must be balanced with the next pitch, which may have to be shortened due to the drag of crossing a roof.
Is It Classic?: Some belays are just meant to be where they are, and can be counter-intuitive, such as the space station on the Sea Of Dreams, situated on the lip of a roof, so your legs hang down, your knees banging as you haul. It’s a stupid belay, but also funny and memorable.
Ledges Are Always Good: Any ledge, no matter how small, is always welcome on a wall, be it king-sized or foot sized. Just remember to drill your bolts high enough so you can stand on it when hauling (you can lower your haul point but you can’t lift up a belay).
How Many Bolts Does A Belay Need?: In good rock, two bolts should suffice, as a single 10 mm bolt should be strong enough to hold the whole team, so two provides some redundancy. Bolts should be placed around a metre apart so that the belay can be kept as uncluttered as possible, but if a metre is too difficult, then just drill the second bolt as far away as you can comfortably drill.
For bivvy belays you will need three bolts in order to spread everything out, with two being for the belay and the third being for the portaledge. This third bolt can be a modern rivet, but a bolt is better. Remember you may have two portaledges hanging from that single point (backed up from the belay).
If you’re climbing capsule-style and can make a mixed belay with one bolt and one piece of trad gear, then do so, as you will then be able to fix ropes to the bolt as you progress and reduce the number of bolts used on the climb.
EMERGENCY BOLT KIT
An emergency bolt kit us carried by climbers on walls where they may find rivets or lead/belay bolts have been damaged or are missing. This kit is usually carried deep in the haul bag and stays there unless all other options are exhausted.
The size of the kit varies but a good kit would include:
- 1x Heavy duty bag with clip in loop
- 1x Driver (Petzl Rocpec)
- 2x 10 mm SDS bits (50 mm)
- 2x 8 mm SDS bits (50 mm)
- 2x 10 mm short SS bolts + hangers
- 5x 8 mm short SS bolts + hangers
- 1x Blow tube
This is the bare bones of a bolt kit, with the 10 mm bolts used for belays and the 8 mm bolts used to replace rivets (the fact a rivet is missing probably means someone fell and ripped it out, so maybe a full-strength 8 mm bolt is advisable), or add rivets to span a feature that may have fallen off (5 rivets plus two main bolts and the odd drilled edge should span most blank features on existing routes).
An even lighter kit can be put together using a long SDS bit without a driver, the handle formed by wrapping thick finger tape around the shaft of the drill bit (attach a 3 mm clip loop via prusik knot around the bit, then taped over). This kit is small enough to fit in a small pouch in the main haul bag pocket and would comprise of:
- 1x 8 mm SDS bit (150 mm)
- 5x 8 mm SS bolts + hangers.
- 1x Blow tube
If using an SDS without a driver you must be careful not to drive it too hard with your hammer and clean the hole regularly, turning the bit after each strike.
The more obscure the route the higher the chance of coming across some junk bolts, and so it’s important to know how to remove and replace them. It’s beyond the scope of this book to talk about full-on bolt removal practices, but practical bolt removal. The simplest specialist tool, say on a wall you know you will be replacing bolts on (i.e., you have bolts to replace old bolts) is a tuning fork.
This is a long thin lost arrow with a 12 mm notch ground through its centre. By placing the tip between the hanger and the rock and hammering on it you can get the bolt to pop out of the rock. If you don’t have a tuning fork then a long thin lost arrow without the slot will also work, but you may have to wiggle it out several times and tap from different sides (make sure you have the lost arrow clipped off to something as it can easily spring free when being hammered on).
Some bolts such as Cassin bolts can often be pulled straight out of the rock with a funkness device or tapped out with a hammer. Petzl self drives and spit bolts have very low pull out strength but can suffer from their soft alloy hangers deforming, so having an 8 mm self-drive bolt fitted to a small steel hanger makes this easier.
To repair holes in the rock (if you leave a hole someone may well fill it with some other junk), then use epoxy putty, ideally sealing the hole with rock dust to make a neat job of it.
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Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram