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Point Break: Fight Over Fixed Draws

In many areas, fixed gear has fallen outside of anyone’s responsibility, which has caused the disputes regarding safety, aesthetics and access.

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Johnny Groppenbocher sped through the first few bolts of Pinch Fest (5.12b) in the Ruckman Cave at Rifle Mountain Park. It was 2006, and I belayed as he entered the big moves on slick crimps. He looked strong, but at the crux he started to redline. Groppenbocher was iron-crossed between two holds with elbows chicken winging when his right foot popped off.

As I caught the fall, a thunk resounded above me and the rope momentarily slackened before sucking me up into the air.  I caught Johnny just as he violently swung into the wall above my head.

“What happened?” I asked, the two of us dangling 10 feet off the ground on either side of the rope.

“The draw snapped!” he said. The rope-end carabiner hung on his rope just above the knot on his harness.

Near-miss accidents like this—involving gear failure from “fixed,” heavily worn draws—are a relatively recent but increasing phenomenon. In 2010 (see Accident Report, Rock and Ice issue 191) a climber fell at the Red River Gorge onto a sharp, rope-grooved biner, which sliced his rope. The climber hit the deck from his fall at the second bolt, fortunately suffering only relatively minor injuries. These days dozens of areas have high concentrations of “fixed” or “perma” draws—terms that are used to describe everything from chains and steel-cabled quickdraws with steel carabiners, to regular quickdraws with aluminum carabiners—that have been left on a route, simply donated or abandoned.

Fixed gear isn’t just a safety issue, but one that has threatened access and even changed the nature of climbing itself. Last May, 2012, the landowners of Roadside Crag at the Red River Gorge closed the area in part because someone had installed homemade perma draws without the owners’ permission. On, one of the crag owners, Grant Stephens, lamented, “Perma draws encourage weaker climbers to get on harder routes because they know they need not worry about cleaning their draws.”

There are no clear solutions to this complicated issue.  The ethics and aesthetics of fixed draws are murky and biased, with no consensus about what kind of, or even whether, fixed gear should be allowed. Yet many climbers find it practical to have fixed draws on certain routes—and if the draws are going to be there, shouldn’t they be safe (made of long-lasting steel)?

In which case, whose responsibility is it to manage fixed gear, and who gets to decide which routes are worthy of being fixed?

Brady Robinson, Access Fund executive director, calls the fixed-draw debate the “ethical question of our day.”

Last summer Bill Morse, of Portland, Maine, spent $1,600 outfitting a handful of routes at  Shagg Crag with Climb Tech PermaDraws—steel-swaged cables with steel bent-gate carabiners on the clipping end, and quicklinks on the bolt end. Shagg Crag is a tiny, secluded granite wall known for its excellent 5.12 sport climbs, just a 30-minute hike down a dirt road from civilization. However, in recent years the climbs had collected multi-colored slings and aluminum carabiners left there from year to year—essentially “permanent” gear.

Morse is a strong climber who has redpointed routes as hard as 5.13d, a parent and a middle school special ed teacher, who still manages to get up to Shagg more than once a week.

“I love Shagg,” Morse explained in an e-mail. “It is my second-favorite place on earth, right behind Indian Creek … and the reason I am happy living in Maine.”

Morse first got the idea to outfit Shagg after visiting Rifle Mountain Park, in Colorado, where an estimated 600 steel perma draws (including chains) have been installed. He raised money through the Maine Climbers’ Coalition and bought 80 PermaDraws. Morse sent out an e-mail to local climbers and invited them to come help hang the new fixed gear. A backlash arose within the niche New Hampshire/Maine climbing community that resulted in heated discussions, both through e-mail and in meetings.

“My first response was to e-mail people and say I don’t want [fixed draws] and see who agreed,” says Eric Eisele, a North Conway climber who was among the first to oppose the idea of PermaDraws at Shagg.

“Bill is a great guy [and] I think he has the best of intentions. But he comes from a different background than I do.”

Patrick Olson works toward a fixed chain draw on Where is My Mind (5.13c), at the Secret 13 Wall, Red Rocks, Nevada.
Patrick Olson works toward a fixed chain draw on Where is My Mind (5.13c), at the Secret 13 Wall, Red Rocks, Nevada.

Eisele points out that North Conway is well known for both its drama and trad ethics. But for Eisele, who works as a reporter at The Conway Daily Sun, the conflict became stressful. Once a Portland, Maine resident, he valued the wilderness getaway Shagg provided. He remembers, during the time of conflict, getting a knotted stomach on trips to Shagg thinking about who was going to confront him.

“It’s a really small climbing community,” says Eisele, “and I’m not going to turn into Democrats and Republicans and say I’m unwilling to discuss. I don’t think I have the right to say there should be no draws, but by the same token I don’t think people should have the right to say there should be.”

For his part, Morse was “caught off guard” by the opposition, including people who didn’t frequent the crag. “Everyone wants to get their nose into every part of the climbing world that doesn’t necessarily pertain to them.”

Morse believes that many climbers with traditional views don’t recognize that these situations aren’t a forum for attempting to return to climbing’s contentious ethical landscape of the 1980s.

“Hanging fixed draws is about dealing with a situation,” says Morse, who notes that ideology doesn’t always align with reality. “It’s like taking an evolution that’s happened over the past 15 or 20 years and trying to turn back time and change ethics,” he says. “You just can’t do that.”

But Eisele, who says he thinks short-term “project draws” are fine and sees some fixed draws as necessary in very select circumstances, believes fixing Shagg changed something very basic about its appeal. He viewed Shagg as a backwoods sport crag and not the “sport park” he felt it would turn into with fixed draws.

“I really look at it as a gym-mentality-goes-outside and clashing significantly with those who believe [climbing is] about being outside and not great athletic feats,” says Eisele. “There was a lot of name-calling and childish crap. Get over it. We’re just going climbing.”

Ultimately, the community compromised, and some routes were updated with PermaDraws while others were stripped. Perhaps most important was that the fixed nylon slings with aluminum carabiners, which had been in place for years and were getting dangerous, were removed.

Eisele still thinks there is no reason for fixed draws at Shagg. The rock, he believes, just does not require it. Before the PermaDraws, he and his friends thought about cleaning the routes but still climbed on the in-situ draws and left them up because they weren’t theirs to take.

“We weren’t so brazen as to assume there was no one who would disagree with us,” Eisele says. “I had no connection with the players in the other camp, and they didn’t know about us … It took the fixing proposal to introduce the two sides.”

Although he was a “zero draw” supporter, Eisele says he “advocated for a discussion between factions to determine what all members of the climbing community wanted.” Fixed draws didn’t stop Eisele from going to Shagg, “even if new additions are less than ideal.” But he would have liked to see the cliff returned to its pristine state.

Morse, however, still believes fixed draws are part of a changing, growing sport.

“It seems inevitable to me,” he says. “If you’re fighting fixed draws, you’re fighting a hopeless battle.”

Leaving quickdraws on a route was once believed to diminish an ascent. Sport climbers of the 1980s used to take down their quickdraws between attempts because back then an ascent wasn’t considered proper unless the draws were placed on lead—a rule borrowed from trad climbing, where placing gear is part of the climb’s difficulty. To “redpoint” meant to place gear, or clip quickdraws to bolts, on lead during a successful ascent, while the term “pinkpoint” was conceived to define leads where draws/gear were already hanging.

Russ Clune, one of America’s elite climbers in the 1980s and ’90s, recalls working La Nuit des Lezards (8a+/5.13c), at Buoux, France, with a group of friends. A group of Germans approached the crag and joined in.

“One of the [Germans] sailed it first go,” says Clune. The climber had been working the route for a time and the draws hanging on it were his.

“When he got to the anchors, he lowered off, proclaiming that he must now redpoint the route,” says Clune. “I was astonished, but proceeded to watch him do so.”

According to Clune, the delineation between pinkpoint and redpoint soon “faded into obscurity” because the concept was too contrived. When this distinction was dropped, pre-hanging draws became more common.

“As steep rock came into vogue and got bolted, it was going to happen,” says Clune, “especially since no one cares whether or not you hang the draws yourself.”

Clune notes, “I don’t think [pre-hung draws] were thought of then as ‘fixed’ so much as left behind for an aspiring redpoint.”

In the United States the practice of leaving draws on sport climbs didn’t really take off until the past decade, with a new (and populous) wave of climbers. The 1980s and ’90s had been a period when America’s emergent sport-climbing zones were both found and developed. The Red River Gorge, New River Gorge, Virgin River Gorge, Smith Rock, Rumney, Rifle and Jailhouse were
steep, hard destinations, destined to become the popular areas they are today. But in many cases, developers at the time didn’t even know whose land the crags were on, or whether what climbers were doing was legal. In general, developers strived to keep a low profile, and part of that meant not leaving obvious draws on routes.

“Sport climbing was still connected at the umbilical cord to its traditional roots,” says Matt Samet, a former magazine editor and a longtime climber. “Quick-and-easy lowering anchors [and] fixed draws were the farthest thing from people’s minds.”

A broke college kid at the time, Samet used cut-rate bolts from local hardware stores and a mish-mash of hangers. “I probably only had about 12 draws total to my name,” he says. Spending the extra cash to fix a route with draws was the last thing on his mind.

“It was all so new, and pure-bolt routes were so novel,” Samet continues, “that notions about convenience anchors and fixed draws had barely entered the conversation.” The first sport routes he climbed in New Mexico’s Cochiti Mesa weren’t even equipped with top anchors until the early 1990s. Instead of lowering off fixed anchors, Samet would top out and walk off or anchor to a tree to belay a friend up.

“You treated a sport climb like any other lead, meaning you were responsible for building the anchors, if need be, and cleaning your gear once done.”

As sport climbing evolved, the focus of climbers shifted from finding and developing crags to going to established areas and repeating classic lines. In the last decade, it has become common for multiple climbers to work on sending a single route—all sharing each others’ draws. Some climbers can take multiple seasons to send their projects. With quickdraws sometimes left in place, the line between long-term project draws and abandoned tat became hazy. Eventually, certain routes were regarded as “needing” to be fixed with draws, either because they were difficult to clean, popular or both.

But in many areas, this long-term hanging gear seems to have fallen outside of anyone’s responsibility, which has caused the disputes regarding safety, aesthetics and access.

Over the last three decades, sport climbing has undoubtedly exploded. According to the 2010 “Outdoor Foundation Participation Report,” climbing is among the top five fastest-growing outdoor sports.

First-time participants in sport climbing, indoor climbing and bouldering increased 24.4 percent from 2009, while trad climbing, ice climbing and mountaineering saw an 18.8 percent increase, with nearly as many first-time climbers introduced through an indoor setting as an outdoor one.

“Climbing is dangerous,” says Kevin Daniels, owner of FIXE Hardware and a climber for 25 years. “When I started it was serious stuff and I gradually learned to climb. That’s something that climbers today don’t get to experience as much.”

Daniels is among many who believe that climbers introduced to sport climbing with fixed draws have a skewed perception of personal responsibility in the outdoors. He says today’s climbers lack the type of guidance they received when he began climbing.

“In a climbing gym, within a month you can climb 5.12,” says Daniels, who believes gyms create a false sense of security climbers take outside with them.

“They’re looking at it as the same thing … indoor climbing wall outside.” Daniels believes fixed draws have exacerbated this situation.

Daniels also notes that as a company owner, he’s worried about the liability these issues create.

“If one of these fixed draws fails, then all of a sudden you have a land manager with a lawsuit on their hands,” says Daniels. “The more personal responsibility we take out of the equation, via fixed draws, we fool ourselves into thinking it’s safer, and we’re setting ourselves up.”

On the other hand, plenty of sport climbers support fixed draws. Rajiv Ayyangar, a climber of eight years from Portland, Maine, sees fixed draws as a convenience that has helped him push himself. “That ability to get on things that are too hard,” Ayyangar says, “focus on the difficulty of the moves and not have to worry about getting gear down is the great freedom of sport climbing.”

Given that perma draws are such a convenience, they carry a connotation of laziness. But for many advanced climbers, using them is not a matter of being too weak, scared or lazy to hang the draws; they allow climbers a way to pump out “lap routes” without the hassle of having to get all the way up a climb previously redpointed. For better or worse, perma draws have created outdoor gyms that have helped people become better, fitter climbers.

“It is no doubt great to have a fixed route that you can use to warm-up on easily or run laps on at the end of the day,” says Bill Ramsey, a philosophy professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas who has redpointed 5.14c.  “[Fixed routes] make you more likely to do that one last burn, to get a little more training in, if you remove the excuse of not wanting to hang and remove draws.”

Grant Stephens and John Haight are the owners of one of the Red River Gorge’s most popular crags, Roadside—popular for its line-up of classic moderates like AWOL (5.10a) and Pulling Pockets (5.10d). Climbers themselves, they acquired the Training Fork Nature Preserve, on which Roadside sits, in 2004 with the goal of ensuring future access to the climbing there. However, on May 24, they closed Roadside to climbing after visiting the crag and finding the climbers had broken their rule that no new routes or gear were to be installed without their consent. On, Stephens cited “homemade” perma draws as one reason.

“These are not rated for climbing and have not been tested,” Stephens wrote. “In short, there is no quality control of these, nor do they appear to be stainless steel. At the end of the chain is an aluminum carabiner. This carabiner should be stainless steel. We all know about the cut rope at Muir last year due to carabiner wear.”

The bigger issue, however, seemed to be overcrowding. Stephens noted that on the day he visited Roadside, “There were over 35 cars in the parking lot. Every route had multiple parties on or waiting for them. There were dogs digging deep holes, hammocks in trees, [and] people pissing wherever they wanted.

“These permadraws drive more people to climb at [Roadside], which is exactly what John and I do not want.”

The Red presents an extreme situation. Due to the especially sandy environment, ropes collect grit and dirt. As these sand-laden ropes run through quickdraws, they groove aluminum biners at a much quicker rate than at other areas. Here, an aluminum biner on a popular route may not last more than a couple of weeks before it becomes dangerous.

“Steel doesn’t wear as quickly as aluminum,” says Kolin Powick, director of quality for Black Diamond Equipment. This added durability is why gyms are fixed with steel. “But,” Powick adds, “steel does still wear.”

Accidents resulting from dangerous fixed gear are relatively infrequent and often benign—especially compared to rappelling accidents. However, all sport cliffs seem to have their share of close calls.

In 2006 Jason Marshall of Knoxville, Tennessee, was projecting the classic Convicted (5.13a) at the Motherlode in the Red. When he fell at the redpoint crux near the penultimate bolt, the biner, rope-grooved from similar falls, snapped. He took a 50-foot fall, only stopping at the route’s second bolt. Convicted is not only popular as an intro to the 5.13 grade, but it also doubles as a lap route for strong locals.

A similar scenario happened at the top of Table of Color (5.13b), also at the Red, in 2005 when an old carabiner broke after it stuck open.

In 2003 John Shrader, a local Red climber, had fallen at the second bolt on Cutthroat (5.13b) when a biner snapped. His belayer jumped off a ledge to take in extra slack, which bought Shrader just enough height to avoid cratering headfirst onto it.

Each year Powick gives a presentation to the Climbing Wall Association’s annual conference in Boulder, Colorado, that he calls  “Unanswerable Climbing-Gear Questions” such as: How long does a harness last? When do you switch out draws?

“The whole point of my discussion is that there are no hard and fast rules. Just because it’s a perma draw, hung at a popular cliff, doesn’t mean it’s safe,” says Powick. “It actually makes it more suspect.”

According to Powick, the biggest concerns are sharp rope-grooved carabiners, most often found at a route’s crux, at anchors, and at the first clip (due to belayers standing out away from the wall, causing the rope to run against the rope-end carabiner at a sharp angle). Sharp, grooved carabiners can break themselves, or sheath or cut the rope.

In 2009 a Boulder-based climber “took” on what turned out to be an extremely sharp carabiner on the first bolt of Zulu (5.14a) in Rifle. As he dropped his weight onto the carabiner, it stripped 10 feet off his rope’s sheath, leaving him dangling by the core strands.

Jim Ewing of Sterling Rope notes that a rope’s biggest downfall is that under tension it has low cut resistance, as he often demonstrates during facility tours by cutting a rope with a pair of dull scissors.

“[Climbers] think, ‘It’s a fixed sport route, and it’s only one pitch.’ They don’t think to look [at the carabiners],” says Ewing.

Powick notes another trend where climbers, instead of replacing quickdraws, are flipping draws that have sharp rope-end biners so the grooved biner is now clipped to the bolt. However, the bolt-end carabiner is often just as sharp because bolt hangers will gouge out carabiners over time and after catching many falls.

Because some climbers view perma draws as part of the route and community property, responsibility is easily passed on. In terms of property rights, draws left on a route fall into “a gray area,” according to Jason Keith, policy director at the Access Fund.

“It largely depends on the land manager,” says Keith. “The regs from Park and Forest Service could be interpreted differently in every state or even local management district. Then it gets into a philosophical discussion.”

National Park Service regulations state that abandoning property, or leaving property unattended for more than 24 hours, is prohibited. Likewise, the Forest Service notes that abandoning any personal property on its land carries up to a $500 fine and six months in prison.

In theory, potentially every sport climber who has left quickdraws hanging on routes (in addition to every developer who has left ropes fixed on new routes) on Forest Service land for more than one day could be viewed as violating regulations, depending on the local land manager’s view.

Keith, however, notes that due to efforts by the Access Fund, most Forest Service managers don’t consider bolts and fixed anchors as illegal or abandoned property. In fact, federal land managers often acknowledge that rock climbing on public land requires fixed anchors, and no national regulations or policies require special-use permits for anchors.

But quickdraws, in particular, are not often discussed. White Mountain National Forest, for example, is one of very few that has a special-use permit for draws. Is it reasonable to consider perma draws in the same light as fixed bolts or anchors?

The Madness Cave in the Red River Gorge is a 140-foot wall that overhangs 45 degrees the whole way. On any given day, a dozen climbers will queue up to tackle such classics as BOHICA (5.13b) and 40 Ounces of Justice (5.13a). Local climbers say it would be time-consuming, impractical and inconvenient for each party to place draws (perhaps even going back to adjust the lengths of each draw for its relation to clipping holds and for rope drag), then come down, try to redpoint the route, and finally clean the draws before another climber takes a turn. Cleaning a route like BOHICA might take 30 minutes by itself.

“There’s a time and place for it,” says Dario Ventura, who recently purchased the land rights to the Motherlode. “If it’s something like BOHICA or anything in the Madness Cave it makes sense because it’s so steep and hard to clean.”

Bill Ramsey, who equipped many of the routes in the Cave, agrees, noting that the bolts were actually placed high with the intention that a fixed draw would be there.

“But,” he adds, “I was horrified to learn that as recently as 2006 people were still using those draws I put on Omaha Beach (5.14a) in 1999. I guess it has all been replaced now, thank god.”

The Waimea Wall at Rumney, New Hampshire, boasts some of the best, and hardest, granite sport climbs in the country. Many routes—particularly the classic Technosurfing (5.12b), Man Overboard (5.12d) and Predator (5.13b)—have long had fixed gear in the form of nylon and aluminum carabiner quickdraws. James Otey estimates that routes have been equipped and climbed on well over five years, though draws get swapped out for new ones.

In June, on, Otey discussed what installing Perma Draws on select routes at Waimea could do to limit the amount of in-situ draws and manage the safety.

A debate involving climbers from across the country unfolded within hours, moving from how to fix Waimea to whether Waimea should be fixed at all.

“Wake up people. Not everyone thinks like you,” wrote Tom Fralick of California on the thread. “Not everyone is in favor of converting outdoor crags into climbing gyms.”

He went on to write, “I think Whitney-Gilman is the best 5.7 trad route in New Hampshire, so why don’t we install a ski lift to the bottom and leave a [toprope] hanging on every pitch.”

“It didn’t take long,” wrote Jay Knower, a local New Hampshire climber, “for this to devolve into a ‘just hang your own draws’ discussion.” He replied to opposition by stating that his intentions to limit draws and update what is already there with steel PermaDraws was a safety issue, separate from the issue of whether fixed draws should even be there in the first place.

“The situation is how to fix the cliff, not if,” says Otey, who believes the Climb Tech draws will help address the UV damage done to exposed webbing on nylon fixed draws. “I was trying to keep the discussion out of the ethical sinkhole that is the fixed-draws debate.”

“So much of the whole issue is a matter of moral relativism,” says Brady Robinson of the Access Fund. “It’s simply different for every area.”

Robinson notes that the Access Fund made a decision that it would not take a side on purely ethical/aesthetic issues, such as those in play at Rumney and at Shagg Crag.

The steel Climb Tech PermaDraw, a solution for upgrading deteriorating fixed nylon slings and aluminum carabiners.
The steel Climb Tech PermaDraw, a solution for upgrading deteriorating fixed nylon slings and aluminum carabiners.

While the Waimea discussion has (as of deadline) not come to a clear conclusion, the community at Shagg Crag reached a compromise that allowed PermaDraws, in moderation.

“I’m just glad it’s all blown over and everyone is back to just enjoying climbing there,” says Morse.

However, Roadside at the Red was the opposite. The addition of fixed gear to address the issue of safety and traffic further perpetuated the problem to the point of closure.

Robinson thinks the best way to approach the issue is to reach an agreement that is accepted by the land managers and does not bring them into the dispute.

“This is fundamentally a matter of local ethics,” says Robinson. “There are valid arguments for and against fixed draws … it is a matter that local climbers and land managers must work out and agree upon.”

Whitney Boland lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is a contributing editor for Rock and Ice.