To Bolt or Not to Bolt? Federal proposals to ban climbing anchors sparks a wilderness climbing outcry.


Madaleine Sorkin, one of the world’s top big wall climbers, climbed the Hallucinogen Wall in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in a single day in April 2022 after replacing old bolts on one of the nation’s most celebrated big wall routes. (Henna Taylor, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Another excellent Colorado Sun story by Jason Blevins.

And now climbers say the Forest Service and National Park Service are ready to propose a national prohibition on bolts and a review of all fixed anchors in the wilderness. The classification of bolts as permanent installations that are largely banned in the 1964 Wilderness Act, or require lengthy federal review, has galvanized the climbing community anew.

The Access Fund this month called the potential policy banning fixed anchors “a war on wilderness climbing.


Climbers and their influential groups have supported major wilderness legislation in Colorado for decades. Longtime U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette has included language that specifically protects rock climbing and fixed anchors in her Colorado Wilderness Act, which she has proposed every year since 1999 to protect more than 700,000 acres as wilderness. The CORE Act also specifically mentions climbing.

“Imposing an unnecessary prohibition on climbing in the wilderness not only harms local economies and recreational experience and safety, it perhaps most importantly creates a serious obstacle to wilderness advocacy,” Murdock said. “A prohibition on fixed anchors in wilderness will make it very difficult for the climbing community to deliver full-throated support for wilderness initiatives. This is an existential question. A small minority of bureaucrats in D.C. are not understanding the far reaching implications and fast-acting repercussions of this type of policy.”

Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat, has joined Utah’s U.S. Rep. John Curtis, a Republican, with a bill that will fix the fixed-anchor debate. The lawmakers’ Protect America’s Rock Climbing Act, introduced in early March, directs the heads of the Forest Service and Interior Department to create a uniform policy and issue guidance for all of the country’s federal wilderness areas that allows “the placement, use and maintenance of fixed anchors” for climbing.

“By requiring additional agency guidance on climbing management, we are taking steps to protect our climbers and the spaces in which they recreate,” Neguse said in a statement.


This is not the first time federal land managers have considered a nationwide ban of fixed anchors in wilderness. The Forest Service in the late 1990s decided to prohibit the use of new bolts in about 40 of its roughly 400 wilderness areas.

Climbers protested that decision too, alongside a wilderness group that argued all fixed anchors should be removed. In 1999, the Forest Service gathered the 23-member Fixed Anchors in Wilderness Negotiated Rulemaking Advisory Committee. The group met four times and agreed that climbs with lots of anchors did not belong in wilderness but climbing management plans can allow “a small number of bolts.”

But the committee was unable to, ahem, fix the fixed-anchor row. The result has been an array of management policies, with some public land managers prohibiting bolts and some allowing limited use, with many management plans concentrating anchors near roads and campgrounds.


10 thoughts on “To Bolt or Not to Bolt? Federal proposals to ban climbing anchors sparks a wilderness climbing outcry.”

  1. Those who can’t seem to have a desire to limit those who can. I still remember the death of a climber in Oregon in a Wilderness and her family being denied the use of a helicopter to retrieve the body. Or when the Willamette NF purposefully burned all the three sided CCC built log Baker shelters on the then Skyline Trail, packed out the fire grates and patted themselves on the back. Zealots are what they are and a community is not better off for having them. “No Compromise” is the reason this country is failing in the world and for its citizens and the millions of non citizen invaders.

  2. Sad for the climbers, but if this results in climber groups finally realizing they are shooting themselves in the foot by advocating for Wilderness designations and starting to oppose them, we will all be better off. Wilderness has been hijacked by anti-recreation zealots and the sooner all recreational user groups unite in opposing it the better. If land managers want to kick start a real anti-Wilderness movement to start repealing Wilderness designations (or even the Wilderness Act itself), all they have to do is keep doing what they’re doing.

    • The weird thing about this to me (as a person with no particular dog in this fight) that if the agencies use a shifting set of regulations, depending on their druthers, then when folks vote for Wilderness they are essentially permanentizing a pig in a poke.

    • Patrick, you and Sharon are both correct.

      Let’s say I were a Wilderness opponent. (I’m not.) Maybe I’m in the logging or mining industries, or I’m a right-wing contrarian who questions the idea of public lands in general and thinks most should be like Texas, i.e., mostly private land.

      I would be all for the ban on fixed anchors. I’d also be all for continuing the bans on mountain bikes, baby strollers, hunter’s game carts, sailboats, and chainsaws and wheelbarrows for maintenance. I’d be campaigning to get rowboats banned (the Forest Service considered doing this shortly after passage of the Wilderness Act).

      I could imagine pretending to be an ally of the Wilderness purists, who I presume welcome all of these bans. I would put on a suitable hipster disguise so that I don’t look like Mr. Burns of The Simpsons.

      I’d be inspired by how well this strategy has worked so far, with new Wilderness almost impossible to get through Congress and a growing chorus of complainers.

      In Jason Blevins’s article, the Access Fund threatens to pick up its marbles and go home if a fixed-anchor ban is implemented:

      “A prohibition on fixed anchors in wilderness will make it very difficult for the climbing community to deliver full-throated support for wilderness initiatives.”

      Yes indeed! As hypothetical CEO of the Lourenço Marques & Sons Rare Earths Extraction Corporation, I would be delighted to read the Access Fund’s quotation and strive to get a total ban implemented. While the Wilderness-as-museum-and-cathedral crowd celebrates its pyrrhic victory, I would be laughing all the way to the bank.

  3. I think there’s may be a terminology problem here. “Anchor bolts” to me means bolts used as belay and rappel anchors. Is that what’s meant here?

    Bolts can also be used as climbing aids and for clip-in points. The former is widely regarded as bad karma as improved equipment and skills and some very careful route finding are showing that more and more of the first-ascent aid bolts were unnecessary.

    Bolts as clip-in points throughout the climb are the definition of “sport climbing”. I think most, but probably not all, people agree this has no place in wilderness areas. But banning all clip-on bolts is to me a difficult issue. Ideally, I think, we’d ban all but the “necessary” clip-in bolts. But who decides what’s “necessary”? How could this ever be enforced?

    Bolts as belay and rappel anchors are to me a necessary safety feature and not very obtrusive. W/o them the climbing risk is tremendously increased, for everyone in the party, and even people below. To me, banning them in wilderness areas makes no more sense than banning trail signs or even trails.

    But first, what is meant by “anchor bolts”?

    • Having only done sport climbing, and having only done that a handful of times, I’m curious how this consensus that sport climbing doesn’t belong in Wilderness areas arose? If I’m understanding you right, you think the bolts at the top of a route should be allowed but not the bolts going up the route? Seems like kind of a bizarre distinction to make if you ask me.

      The whole idea of unobtrusive bolts being considered “installations” that detract from the wilderness characteristic of naturalness is ridiculous, since you can’t see the bolts unless you are right on top of them. They certainly don’t make an area as a whole appear less natural. And considering recent Wilderness designations have been covered with roads and old mining areas and weren’t by any stretch of the imagination “untrammeled by man” (thinking in particular of the raft of Wilderness designations in the San Rafael Swell in the 2019 Dingell Act), naturalness doesn’t seem to mater much for wilderness designation anyway.

      Oh and BTW, in practice it seems new hiking trail construction in Wilderness areas is already banned, as land managers generally won’t even consider it even if hiking is allowed in Wilderness. That seems kinda odd to me as well.

    • Phil the confusion over the term is intentional. They do mean bolts used for pro, not just belay or rap anchors. I have to agree about sport climbing in Wilderness. I think that’s why local managers have been deciding on a case by case basis. I seem to remember some area of limestone crags in Wyoming being contentious. Having groups of climbers at the bottom of routes every fifty feet along the base of the crags, hangin out, blasting tunes, walking around and denuding, dogs, etc can have a heavy impact on the bottom of cliffs. Look what happened at Indian Creek.

      The photo accompanying this story is the other extreme. Black Canyon. Thousands of feet down a gully to the bottom, and then route finding and run outs to get out. I’d think sometimes on new routes people bring a drill bit and hammer and a couple of bolts and hangers, but other people don’t, they simply run it out. Any bolts I’d think would be rare.

      Less trails, more wilderness.

  4. Perhaps this is similar to the 1984 administrative ban on mountain bikes in wilderness. Now mountain bikers support less wilderness, unless the wilderness advocates make boundary adjustments and non-wilderness corridors to their proposals. It also raises the question about “wilderness lite”, and if that might be a needed designation in the toolbox. Could wilderness lite be of benefit to climbers as well?

  5. From Jason Blevins’s excellent article:

    “We should be doing everything we can right now to grow the coalition of champions for public lands,” [Colorado Gov. Jared] Polis wrote. “In contrast, a new prohibition on fixed anchors in wilderness would jeopardize the safety of climbers, harm our recreation economy here in Colorado, establish unnecessary bureaucracy, and restrict access to some of the wildest places in America.”

    Earth to Governor Polis and every other Democratic politician who’s afraid of the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society — Truer words were never spoken. So why can’t you apply the same rationale, do the right thing and vote for legislation to restore mountain biking in Wilderness? Reasonable, regulated mountain biking, not a free-for-all.

    Almost all congressional Republicans are on board. The Democrats quail because they’re afraid and because they don’t want the other party to gain a victory.

    Meanwhile, on the ground, I’ve seen enough bicycle tracks in Wilderness areas to understand that the ban isn’t enforceable or enforced. It only be enforced by keeping the trails in horrible condition, so no one wants to use them. In that sense, it is working.


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