When Do Aid Climbs Stop Being Aid Climbs?

When Peter Croft and Johnny Woodward first freed the Moonlight Buttress in 1992, they rated it 5.13b, making it one of the hardest big-wall free climbs in the world.

Over the next decade, the perennially popular “clean aid” route saw a handful of free ascents by a crop of well-known crushers, and, ultimately, consensus pegged the Moonlight Buttress down to 5.12d.

Nowadays the Moonlight Buttress is a casual day outing for people with 19-inch forearms who’ve never even placed a cam. A few climbers are starting to think the Moonlight Buttress might only be 5.12b—and if so, that makes it a full number grade easier than it was during the first free ascent.

So … what has changed since 1992? Were Croft and Woodward just a couple of grade fluffers compared to today’s dime-a-dozen bone crushers?

Me thinks gnomes. After 24 years of aid climbers crawling up the Moonlight and bounce-testing every single textbook cam placement in the relatively soft Navajo sandstone, subsequently gouging out the 1,000-foot splitter one hang-dogging fat-ass at a time, the finger locks have meow gotten much easier.

At this rate, the Moonlight Buttress will be a super fun 5.9 hand crack soloed by every Honn-abee in hand jammies.

To stave off this obscene destiny, can we all just please agree that the Moonlight Buttress is no longer going to be an aid climb?

Or … can we not agree to that?

This is the question du jour. Must we climbers be open, encouraging, and accommodating to every whimpering gumby who wants adventure like they want their Burger King orders—their way?

Here, that conflict is illustrated, perhaps, by the fact that Mountain Project lists two different pages for the Moonlight Buttress—one for clean aid, and one for free climbing.

Two worlds, not colliding online … but very much colliding in reality.

What’s interesting about the Moonlight Buttress is that the “clean” protection ethic that was best first articulated in Doug Robinson’s seminal 1972 article, “The Whole Art of Natural Protection” didn’t account for what “clean” protection such as cams (not that cams were even around back then) would do to sandstone splitters after 20+ years and thousands of ascents.

If you’re one of those climbers who thinks, “Hey, we’re all climbers and it’s all good, bro!” then you aren’t thinking hard enough. Now that more and more people are interested in taking their sport-climbing-honed skills up onto big cliffs like El Capitan, I predict this discussion/conflict will define the next five to 10 years of climbing.

A discussion pertaining to this issue erupted on the Evening Sends Facebook page. Some of the most relevant voices in climbing chimed in about how fixed gear will begin to play a role in this unfolding conflict, particularly on El Capitan, which is a veritable 3,000-foot Christmas tree of shiny, fixed ornaments.

The question is no longer as simple as whether or not metal of one variety or another should be used. It’s about answering a multitude of questions, beginning with is this route going to be primarily used by aid climbers or free climbers, and what kind of experience would improve the quality of the climbing on the route while remaining true to the original style in which it was first climbed (aid or free)?

Here are some highlights from the Facebook debate:

James Lucas: Maybe Valley climbers will remove bullshit fixed gear and replace it with bolts. At least people are starting to freeclimb more on El Cap.

Marc André Leclerc: I thought the bird beak protected climbing on Corazon was awesome. Would’ve been lame with bolts. You could rip a pitch and hit nothing but air anyways.

James Lucas: yeah…I’m not into it. If you’re gonna alter the rock, it should be long lasting. A good beak for you might be shit for the next ascent. Punching holes in flakes on the top of Golden Gate, the fixed hexes on the Enduro pitch of the Salathe, the numerous pins, they should either be pulled and climbers should use the large variety of removable protection we have at our disposal (c3s, huge cams…) or bolts should be placed. People need to forget some of the traditional tactics and consider the future of the crag. If there’s been tat on a bolt for fifteen years, the bolt shouldn’t be given a permadraw, it should be moved. Set El Capitan up to have minimal impact. Climbing gear is good enough now that the pro should either be non-damaging and removable or it should be a bolt. Putting heads and pitons in the rock harms the rock more than a bolt.

Max Jones: A few years ago, Mark [Hudon] and I cleaned about 100 heads/deadheads from the first two pitches of Mescalito. In some places there were two or three stacked on top of each other. When removed many small cam placements appeared. What was odd is the crack, with all that copper, has essentially been sealed from damage by pins until beaks and good small cams were invented. Why would anyone want to clip their way up a time bomb head ladder when you can use ones brain and place gear. I think I agree that on the free routes bolts are better than placements that will blow out a crack.

Justen Sjong: James Lucas, If this is the case we are going to have so many cool new free lines on El Cap! I’m all for protection that lasts but not just adding bolts for sheer convenience. There is a fine line that we are walking but I strongly believe that most of us can make the right choice. Just think long and hard about the long term impact on the rock. Love seeing El Capitan getting so much free climbing traffic.

Dave Allfrey: There isn’t a blanket rule to be applied here, Marc likes it, James doesn’t, but I think there is a difference between a pitch that takes good beaks and, for example, the hammered in stoppers on the Enduro pitch on the Salathe. The wires are rusting, they are poorly placed and old, I doubt they would hold a substantial fall. Maybe Totem Cams would fit those weird flares, but Camalots wouldn’t. It’s a tricky, and perhaps slippery slope for making this changeover. I do think that if some of the fixed hardware were replaced with permanent gear (bolts) the climbing would be more fun and aesthetic. And, as important, we need to update some of the old, crappy bolts that litter the mountain (like the ones on ‘The Move’ pitch of Golden Gate, one already pulled out straight from the hole). It’s too bad there isn’t a way to receive a permit to power drill so that mass updates could be made and higher quality glue-in bolts could be added to anchors and routes on El Cap to preserve them once and for all.

Marc André Leclerc: The beaks on corazon are in an A1 seam, there are RP placements in between at times. I thought it was quite safe and added an adventure element. I’ve never been on Freerider, and admittedly the A5 traverse is a bit of a mess with long shitty slings hanging and stuff. I’ve definitely been put off by the slings hung so you can clip from low down. They rot, look like shit and are kind of weak sauce. The two routes I’ve done (Muir, Corazon) have none of it thankfully.I just don’t think every pin or head needs a bolt slammed in right next to it. That’s been done on routes in Squamish and it makes for unnecessary bolt in poor stances and takes away from the aesthetics of the route. A good example of this is The Great Arch, which goes naturally on good wires, but had original pins swapped one for one with bolts and is a mess.As a general rule if I place bolts in favour over leaving pins I put then well spaced with good clipping holds for good engaging climbing with airy runouts. Like the Underfling on the grand wall, which used to have pins and now has bolts, but significantly less bolts than the original number of pins.

Fixed pins and ancient bolts. Kevin Jorgeson on the Dawn Wall. Photo:  Corey Rich
Fixed pins and ancient bolts. Kevin Jorgeson on the Dawn Wall. Photo: Corey Rich

Bolt All Of It? Some of It? None of it?

When Tommy Caldwell established the free Dawn Wall—as in, when he pioneered where the free route would go, which took place well before he actually got around to free climbing it—he made a number of prudent, tough decisions about where to place new bolts.

A big part of that consideration was leaving the original aid climb intact.

Caldwell reportedly placed no bolts on any pitches that were/are part of the original aid route. As a result, many of the free pitches that overlap with the aid climb are quite spicy, as confirmed by Adam Ondra’s recent ascent of the Dawn Wall.

During his initial ground-up ascent, Ondra, on pitch six, a 5.13c, took a 40-foot fall after several copperheads and broke a sling.

“I didn’t know how to place copperheads, so I didn’t want to rip any more of them out of the wall,” says Ondra. “So I aided up and tried to top-rope the pitch.” (Obviously, he later led the pitch clean during his successful free push.)


Adam Ondra top-roping on the Dawn Wall. Photo: Pavel Blazek
Adam Ondra top-roping on the Dawn Wall. Photo: Pavel Blazek


Here’s a great scenario to consider. This is a situation in which the gear is inadequate to protect free-climbing lead falls; replacing the copperheads after every fall would damage the rock, perhaps needlessly; and, subsequently, the use of aid-climbing gear results in using headpointing/top-roping tactics for free climbers, which arguably makes the experience more lame.

One solution, of course, to a situation like this might be to add in a few well-placed bolts. However, even a few extra bolts on a copperhead pitch detracts from the challenge and aid-climbing experience.

So, who wins?

As of 2016, there are only three people in the world who have freed this pitch. Obviously there are way more aid climbers out there, so should preference be given to aid climbers?

Or can we safely assume that, 20 years from now, there will be 300 people free climbing the Dawn Wall? And after all that traffic and nailing, will some of these pitches drop a full number grade—as they have on the Moonlight Buttress?

What do you think?

Thanks to Corey Rich for the opening photo of Tommy Caldwell on the 19th pitch of the Dawn Wall (5.13c/d).

  • Neil Wachowski

    A complicated topic, to be sure, especially when considering more fragile climbs like Moonlight. It’s one of the only trade routes in Zion I haven’t done yet, in part because of the crowds, but also because I am considering saving it for a free attempt. Currently, if I were to try to free Moonlight it wouldn’t be pretty, and potentially cause more wear to the rock than a C1 push. So when is it acceptable to try? What if someone makes a dozen free attempts while pursuing a redpoint and takes a ton of whippers on it? Are they more of a jerk than a careful C1 climber?

    It’s clear that many consider Moonlight to be a free climb now. But why not LunarX, Touchstone, and Spaceshot (among others)? Because Moonlight is a better free climb? How good does a climb have to be before it is considered off limits to aid climbers? I was considering giving The Hallucinogen Wall a shot at some point (aid of course), but noticed that, on the MP page for Hallucinogen Free, Josh Warton encouraged climbers forgo aiding it to mitigate the risk of damaging holds via hooking. I don’t bring this up to challenge it, but rather to note how interesting it is that a climb can potentially transition from a historic aid climb to free-only so soon after the FFA. While on Desert Shield, I thought about how lucky I might be that I got to climb it before someone comes along, snags the FFA, and declares it off limits to aid climbers.

    Ultimately, I think that condemning aid attempts may discourage a few parties, but most people will continue to do what they want regardless of the noise made. Every time I’ve been to Zion I’ve seen at least two parties aiding and hauling on Moonlight, and the call to stop aiding on that route is perhaps louder than any other. It’s currently too difficult to enforce since the specific criteria are extremely vague. If you ask your average person when an aid climb should become a free climb, their implicit answer will probably be, “once I can free it, but not sooner.” Whether by free or aid attempts, these fragile climbs will get destroyed eventually. Sometimes, when I’m climbing one, I’m just happy that I got a chance to do it in a form that somewhat resembles its original state.

  • steve

    Great article summing up the different and difficult aspects of this issue.

    I’m no aid climber but my preliminary thoughts are that adding some bolts to an aid climb is less destructive than damaging the rock over and over again into an endless future with continued aid placements. Whilst bolts may detract from the aid version of a route (for some climbers) continued aid climbing has the potential to no only change a free route but possibly to completely destroy it. All it takes is for one key hold to disappear.

    Perhaps another style of climbing could be recognized for such hard long routes. That is the German style called ‘all free’. What this means is that all the moves on a route are done free but the pitch is done with rest points. This is obviously a good bit easier than redpointing a route and so it would open a route up to many more climbers who could try the route without further damage to the rock.

    The story of Moonlight buttress sounds like a great loss since the historical perspective of Croft and Woodward’s ascent can never be appreciated by actually doing the climbing. Was it really 13b back then, or was it easier or maybe even harder? We’ll never know. Tragic.

  • alex patten

    I think we all just need to accept that El Cap is the best chipped crag out there.

  • Jon Rhoderick

    Nice article Andrew, I really enjoyed all the different viewpoints. Stumbled upon Jonny Woodward’s comments on the Moonlight Buttress and they should be mentioned:

    “Friends of mine who have done the route on numerous occasions over the years tell me that the crack in the crux corner has widened substantially from use. Back in 1992, on the thinnest part, there was a 15′ section where I could just force the first pinky knuckle of my right hand into the crack and the rest was nothing more than a tiny bit of first joint flesh and fingernail. My hands are those of an average male.
    It is an indication of just how we affect these sandstone routes of the desert SW simply by being on them, and the methods we use for our ascents have various levels of impact on this soft rock. We usually make these choices of our own free will and thus each one of us determines the long-term outcome of the routes over time. Without intending to pass judgement I must make the following observation …. with a paved descent trail coming within 100′ of the top of the climb, choosing to rappel the route is one of those high-impact decisions.”

  • Apocolyptica

    “have meow gotten much easier” ? Meow?

    • Levi

      He’s quoting “Super Troopers”. Look up “meow police scene” on youtube.

  • Arthur Debowski

    Evolution in all likelihood should always favor a “better style”. My limited understanding was that a free ascent was the ultimate way to get up something, certainly better than aid or TR. Likely you wait for a tipping point until you reach consensus.

    How long did it take for Astroman to supplant the East Face of Washington’s Column or the N. Face of the Rostrum to become just an amazing free route? Certainly aid ascents were still taking place after those lines went free.

    Weren’t we all taught that if we couldn’t free something, to leave it to future generations? Rise to the level of the climb, rather than bring it down to our level. If I don’t get to climb some aid lines that have gone free, tough shit, looks like I wasn’t there in time to get on it when it was just an aid route. I don’t complain about the fact that I have to hear the Doors on my iPhone because I wasn’t around to see them live. Times change, mythologizing the past gets us nowhere. Free c
    climbing has turned the page on these historic aid climbs.

    • Martin Chin

      Sport Climbing is neither. If you aren’t placing the bolts on lead you’re a chuffer.

  • brucehildenbrand

    While the author states examples of climbs getting easier with traffic(whether it be an aid ascent or someone “working” the route for a free ascent), there are just as many examples, especially on limestone, of routes getting harder because of use.

    Let’s face it. Climbing is becoming more and more popular and more and more people are climbing routes of every grade. Trying to put a limit on climbing traffic goes against the whole “Freedom of the Hills” ethic under which many of us were raised.

    Frankly, I don’t think anything can, or should, be done to limit climbing traffic. Anyone who climbs outside at a popular crag on the weekends knows that crowds are now just part of the experience. We will all have to learn how to deal with it in our own way.

  • brucehildenbrand

    With regard to replacing fixed pins/heads, etc, with bolts to make free climbing safer…..

    Currently, way more climbers are capable of aid climbing the routes on El Capitan than doing them free. Because of this I think it would be wrong to take an A5 pitch away from an aid climber just so a very few number of people can try to do the route free.

    There is clearly an evolutionary process here. Astroman was freed in 1975 and is now considered a free climb by just about everyone. The same cannot be said for the routes on El Capitan. The Nose sees way more aid + free ascent each year than pure free ascents. The same can be said for the other El Cap routes except for the West Face and East Buttress. Over time that will undoubtedly change, but right now it is better to leave these routes as aid climbs for the many than free climbs for the few.

  • Milan

    Wow.. What a topic.
    Bolts damage the rock pretty much, by damaging us- we get used to being safe while climbing, and logically, we want more and more safety, always and everywhere. Of course, it’s better to clip bolts than old “junk” in the rock. Or shove our pitons inside, too.
    So, repeat old routes as the first climbers did, or free (without drilling anything), and find your own if you want to bolt it all- the world is not so small :)