Sport climbing is facing its greatest predicament yet. This dilemma isn’t whether short or tall climbers have it easier, or if Pure Imagination is 5.14d, 5.14c or 5.14b. The real crux is what to do about all the exponentially deteriorating, increasingly dangerous fixed gear found at virtually every sport crag around the world?
What’s so scary is that there seems to be no coherent plan to address the deadly situation, climbers are reluctant to accept certain hard realities, and all the usual egos are standing in the way of a solution.
But first, let’s take a step back and talk about me, glorious Me, and my inglorious climbing season in Rifle this year. It was significant, though not for sending, unfortunately. Quite the opposite. I took more falls than ever, yet I climbed on the same rope the whole time without needing to cut the rope ends.
I only realized this after a recent trip to Spain where, after just eight days of rather tranquilo cragging, mostly at Santa Linya, I needed to lop off both ends of my new 80-meter rope when my gordito ass failed to send even the warm-ups
It was just a few years ago in Rifle that I would easily burn through three or four ropes in the course of one full climbing season. My quickdraws were nearly as dispensable. If I left draws on a project, in less than a month or two, many carabiners would get filed down to razors due to all the other people climbing on “my” project with me. In this project style of sport climbing, you just can’t believe how quickly this stuff can wear out.
This helps explain why you see so many routes sporting abandoned aluminum draws—which then become so-called “permanent” fixtures on the wall. Because when a climber’s quickdraws have been turned to garbage, detritus, MANK, by the wear and tear of a dozen handogging bottom-feeders, it’s apparently often not worth it for the original owner to reclaim them.
In the past, my strategy would be to wait for some other guy—ideally an overly ambitious weakling—to hang his draws on the climb I wanted to do. Then I could keep my own gear in good nick and essentially climb for “free,” making this poor rube bear the expense, in terms of worn gear, of my redpoint efforts. I suppose the dirtbag gene is hard to shake.
In recent years, though, Rifle climbers have created a certain culture, one that takes pride in removing dangerous aluminum “fixed” draws—those that seemingly belong to no one—by either stripping the route clean or replacing them with steel perma draws. The thought process here is that these routes are going to have fixed quickdraws on them, one way or the other. And if they’re going to be there, they might as well be safe.
Now, about 30 to 40 percent of the 350+ routes in Rifle have longer-lasting steel. Not all of those routes are “projects.” Many are warm-ups. This is because some popular warm-ups will get between 50 and 100 ascents per weekend. Sure, everyone could place, then clean, their own draws every time they warm up on Rehabilitator (5.11d). But having perma draws on this route is just a simple matter of convenience that gets everyone climbing quicker and helps with the high-traffic flow of this route.
These days when I choose a hard route to project, especially if it’s a classic line (soft rating + big number = classic) and I know a lot of other people will be climbing on it with me, I will consider installing a rack of steel ClimbTech PermaDraws. To me, spending ~$150 to equip what will surely, sadly, be a longterm project with safe, durable steel is money well spent if it adds what many (but certainly not all) climbers appreciate as a community service. Plus, the cost isn’t much different than that of a new rack of quickdraws—which is what I’d likely need if I were to leave my own draws hanging.
The Rifle Climbers’ Coalition has set procedures for establishing new routes, replacing bolts and equipping existing lines with perma draws. To be clear, there’s absolutely no intention to fix the entire canyon with perma draws. Most routes don’t need them. In fact, the RCC has turned down numerous requests to perma draw routes based on what amounts to the board’s subjective aesthetics and that which it deems to be “necessary.”
Rifle, however, is the exception to the state of fixed gear at most sport crags. Due to the canyon’s small size, which makes it relatively easy to manage, and an unusually active climbing community, Rifle boasts hardware that is in much better shape than major destinations like Santa Linya and the Red River Gorge. Many major areas have really bad fixed gear. And in my observations, climbers appear content to continue climbing on this frighteningly dangerous mank.
The perma-draw issue presents some tough questions, important yet nuanced, with some really arbitrary, highly variable answers. The sport-climbing community needs to address this issue right now or else we will continue to see tragic real-world consequences. Last fall, Mario Luginbühl—a Swiss mountain guide, geologist and president of the Ratikon Climbing Club—became the first known fatality that resulted from a worn carabiner (see Accident Report, page TK). While working a route, Luginbühl dropped onto a sharp aluminum carabiner; his rope cut and he fell 80 feet.
I’m actually amazed that it took this long for someone to die. In the past three years, there have been at least six accidents in the Red River Gorge where climbers’ ropes were partially severed by sharp carabiners. It says a lot about the strength of ropes that not more people have died.
A couple of factors point to impending disasters.
First, sport-climbing is exploding in popularity, especially in the last 10 years. Consequently, the rate of wear and tear on fixed gear—bolts, fixed draws, anchors—is growing exponentially too. Climbers from 20 years ago may not understand or appreciate just how quickly this stuff is wearing out.
Yet at Santa Linya, I climbed a number of routes outfitted with sharp(ish), dangerous(ish) pre-hung aluminum quickdraws. Sometimes I’d be onsighting a difficult section, and I clipped without much more than a cursory glance at the hardware. Other times, I’d be working a route, hangdogging and falling on a quickdraw, and could see my rope slowly but surely abrading. But after feeling the biner, I would decide that the quickdraw wasn’t sharp enough to actually sever my rope and that I could “get away” with more falls. Worse case, I’d have to trim my rope end after the burn.
Further, because I wasn’t at my home crag, I didn’t feel responsible for replacing the manky biner with one of my own. I would probably never, ever do the route again. At my home crag, I’d have no qualms about stripping some bad gear. But like 99 percent of the other climbers at Santa Linya that week, I was a visitor.
I’ll bet a new 80-meter bicolor rope that those draws are still there, and that dozens of other climbers have since done the same thing I did. Eventually, the crux biner will get bad enough that someone will have to swap it out—likely with another aluminum carabiner. Hopefully this happens before there’s that one time—when the climber is heavy enough, the fall is big enough, the rope is worn enough and the carabiner is sharp enough—that you don’t “get away” with one more ascent.
The perma-draw debate inevitably wages online. It’s something that every community with a popular sport-climbing area has had to discuss. I’ve noticed people using the term “perma draw” incorrectly: to mean both abandoned fixed aluminum quickdraws as well as fixed steel quickdraws. Let’s define some terms:
“Project Draws” mean regular quickdraws—with aluminum carabiners and nylon slings—that sit on a route for so long that, like a hippie squatting on your couch, they seem to have become “permanent” fixtures despite being as easy to remove as unclipping a carabiner. Sometimes, Project Draws seem to belong to no one. They are there for all climbers’ convenience and are maintained in a piecemeal fashion, with climbers swapping out old biners or slings for newer ones as needed.
Project Draws, however, often belong to an individual actively working to redpoint the route. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are in good condition. Always be suspicious of any carabiner, especially aluminum ones, you find on a climb. Inspect anchors, crux clips and the route’s first quickdraw as those are often in the worst conditions.
A “Perma Draw” has a steel quicklink on the bolt, a steel-swaged cable or chain and, most important, a steel clipping carabiner. (ClimbTech makes a product called the PermaDraw, and these are becoming standard at most crags—but the generic term perma draw can mean any clipping apparatus comprised of steel.) These draws are here for climbers’ convenience and are often much safer than abandoned project draws because steel carabiners are much more durable. However, perma draws wear down too, and eventually need to be replaced (anywhere from two to 15 years). In that sense, they aren’t “permanent” either, and can be removed or swapped out by anyone with a wrench.
It should be stated that it makes no difference in the eyes of certain land managers whether you hang a perma draw or project draw. Assess each situation to avoid access problems.
The biggest danger right now are abandoned project draws. The solution here seems pretty simple: Take. Them. Down. (But don’t take down project draws that actually belong to someone actively working the route; that’s called stealing and isn’t cool.) This responsibility—for knowing which draws belong to which climbers, and how long draws have been hanging—should fall under the jurisdiction of the “local” climbers (no matter where they live). Locals must be responsible for staying on top of managing all fixed gear—whether it’s abandoned Project Draws, Perma Draws, and even aging bolts. Crags without tight, active, knowledgeable communities of locals are at great risk.
Consider my time at Santa Linya. I was responsible for myself insofar as I never climbed on anything that I deemed sharp enough to cut my rope, yet I helped wear down the fixed aluminum gear by hangdogging and lowering off it.
It’s easy to agree that abandoned aluminum project draws have no place “permanently” hanging from a sport crag. Although climbers should be free to temporarily hang their draws on a route that they want to redpoint, assuming it creates no access issues. Project-style redpointing is the very essence of sport climbing; it’s how all rock climbers have advanced their abilities for the last generation, and it has been the major force behind most advances made in climbing in general. In my opinion, it’s an aspect of the sport that must be preserved and pre-hung quickdraws (project or perma) are the necessary byproduct of this style of ascent.
History has revealed the unfortunate inevitability that, without perma draws, aluminum project draws tend to appear on certain routes; once abandoned, they belong to no one and climbers continue to use and abuse them, shirking the responsibility of their upkeep to the next guy. Obviously, in a perfect world, this wouldn’t happen; but we live on earth, with other humans, and nothing is perfect.
So, the solution seems to be that, for certain routes, installing Perma Draws is a necessary evil and a sane response.
Then the real questions arise: Which routes? Who decides? Who pays for it? These are the real bitches of the issue.
Ian Kirk has been climbing in the Red River Gorge since 1998, when he moved from his native Toronto to Ohio. He is currently leading the charge to remove bad project draws and replace them with steel Climb Tech PermaDraws, with an initiative called “Yank the Mank,” partially sponsored by Climb Tech. Kirk and Michelle Ellington have also started the “Mank Bank,” run by redriverclimbing.com, where climbers can donate money online and help buy more community steel. Kirk et al. are also hoping to partner with the Red River Gorge’s “Team Suck,” a loose organization focused on replacing bad bolts, but otherwise avoiding the quagmire that is fixed gear.
Because, big surprise, not everyone likes perma draws. In 2011 a gang of renegade locals called “The Crew” stripped the Undertow Wall in the Red of its recently equipped steel PermaDraws. Members of the The Crew cited their reasons on redriverclimbing.com:
“The Red has become whored out and has turned into everyone’s outdoor climbing gym,” wrote Zac Sands.
“In my opinion, the Red is at capacity; it can’t handle many more climbers, especially unaware, irresponsible ones. Perma draws are proven to attract this type of climber, period,” wrote Zach Romero.
We already rely on bolts placed by someone else when sport climbing; I don’t see perma draws as being much different in terms of how we exercise personal responsibility while sport climbing. Philosophically and experientially, at least to me, it isn’t a huge leap.
Ideally, perma draws would only be there to prevent situations where abandoned project draws will pop up. Or if the community decides it wants the convenience of an outfitted warm-up that gets a lot of traffic.
That said, I adamantly don’t believe that every route should have perma draws. Not all bolts, nor all routes, are equal. Every situation, cliff, route is different. In some places, perma draws would severely change the character of the cliff for the worse. I don’t think there is any neat way to outline when perma draws should be installed and when they shouldn’t. Further it would be counterproductive to do so. It should be determined by experienced, knowledgeable locals on a case by case basis.
The elephant in the room, of course, is why do we even need perma draws? And the honest answer is …
All of these issues would be solved if climbers never left their own quickdraws on climbs, and never climbed on quickdraws that weren’t their own. Put your draws up before your redpoint attempt, then take them down at the end of each day. Problem solved.
But this is honestly unrealistic for increasingly many rock climbs. Due to the volume of ascents certain routes get over the course of a single day. Due to the fact that we want convenience. And, more than anything, due to the fact that projecting with pre-hung draws—getting on a route that’s over your head and pushing yourself on it—is the very backbone of sport climbing.
Which leads me to a very uncomfortable point. Single-pitch, roadside sport climbing is closer to gym climbing than any of us really would like to admit. But … it’s true. I know. I don’t like it either.
Of course many more things make outdoor sport climbing feel more adventurous and wild than climbing inside, which is why it’s a superior pursuit. It’s the Real Thing.
I don’t think that any of that joy or richness of experience that I personally derive from sport climbing is compromised in acknowledging that what I’m doing is closer to gym climbing than to traditional mountaineering. In fact, gear is really the last thing on my mind while sport climbing. It’s all about enjoying hard moves at my limit, outside, with my friends.
But we still have to face the reality that, every day, more climbers are out at the crags climbing on gear that is getting older and more dangerous.
So, what do we do?
This article originally appeared in “Tuesday Night Bouldering,” Rock and Ice magazine. Please support the best climbing mag there is, and subscribe today.