Let’s say the first pitch has been easy-going up a solid crack that accepts protection well. However, about 80 feet up, the crack peters out and becomes a seem for a body length before opening up again. What do we do?
1 | Risk taking a big fall by free-climbing through the seam and hoping we can get more good protection in the next crack.
2 | Aid-climb through the blank section using hooks, beaks, etc.
3 | Add bolts until you can get more natural protection again.
The answer will differ every time depending on the situation, and the above isn’t necessarily the order of operations. The benefit of being able to free-climb past this runout section is that you can save a lot of time, and you can always go back and place a bolt on rappel afterward. Major drawbacks include the fear factor and even a safety concern depending on the length of the runout, the quality of the gear, and the shape of the wall. It’s not uncommon to commit to a runout thinking it will be over soon, only for your next good piece of protection to be another 10 meters above.
It can be difficult switching from free-climbing mode to aid mode, but sometimes you can just aid through a short section and get right back to free-climbing. Depending on your skills or tolerance for danger, the section in question may not even be possible to aid through. That brings us to bolting.
How you decide where to place a bolt comes back to personal preference. In general, you want your bolt placement to be in solid rock, within reach for clipping in sequence (if a free-climb), and on a section flat enough for the hanger to sit flush with the wall.
In this scenario, my goal would be to reach as high as I could while standing on a ladder off my last piece of pro. The higher I can get, the more spaced out each bolt will be. If I can cover a lot of ground with each bolt, I can greatly reduce the number of bolts I need to place. Among many, two main factors will limit your reach for the bolt placement. The first is your pro. If you’re on a bomber piece of pro or even a bolt, you can stand tall for ages. However, if you’re bolting from a hook placement, your movement may be limited.
The second is what kind of drill you’re using. With a light hammer drill, you can max out your reach. You’ll have one hand to steady yourself while the other holds the drill. Even if it feels very strenuous, that’s ok, as it shouldn’t take more than a minute to drill a hole with a hammer drill. When doing this, however, it can be difficult to confirm your entry angle. This may leave you with a crooked hole and a bolt hanger that doesn’t tighten down because it can’t lay flat against the wall.
Alternatively, if you’re using a hand drill, it is much harder to get the same reach, as you’ll need both hands. One hand holds the drill at a 90-degree angle to the wall and rotates after the other hand hits the end of it with the hammer. Imagine an ancient Egyptian chiseling out a stone tablet but standing on a precarious stance on the side of a mountain. Luckily, instead of intricate design, we’re just driving straight into the wall. Because the technology is so rudimentary, some think that there’s no technique involved. However, one can make hand drilling up to 50 percent faster with proper technique and practice.
To start a hole, we need to create a small divot. Do this by rotating the drill back and forth about 90-degrees clockwise and counterclockwise, giving the drill fast, light strikes with the hammer each time. Once you’ve created a divot deep enough that the bit can’t bounce out, you’re ready to move on.
Next, transition from rotating back and forth into to a continuous clockwise motion. Also, instead of rotating 90 degrees, rotate about 15 degrees after each blow of the hammer. This boils down to about 6 hammer swings before you’ll need to readjust your hand in order to continue rotating the bit clockwise. These hammer swings need to be strong and deft.
Continue this process until the bit stays in the hole without you having to hold it up. From this point on, don’t take the drill out of the hole until the line you’ve marked with a Sharpie is all the way in the hole. This is most important for softer sandstone when just having the bit loosely bounce around in the hole can wallow out its diameter. Leaving the bit in place leaves the rock dust in place and keeps the bit from damaging the hole.
Once the hole is deep enough, you’ll want to give it a thorough cleaning. No matter what style of bolt you place, a clean hole is important for installation.
We were able to navigate the rock climbing on our first pitch of ground up new routing, but where do we stop? On established climbs we usually just stop climbing where the topo says, but we need to decide where belays will be. Typically, large ledges will dictate the beginning or end of a pitch, but any good stance will do. If there’s no obvious place to stop, I like to climb until I run out of rope. Once I’ve run out of rope, I’ll build a belay and hand haul our gear using the micro traxion while my partner follows the pitch.
Rinse and repeat this process all the way up the wall. Depending on your style and size of the wall you may or may not fix ropes on each pitch of the route. When possible, I prefer this method as it allows for quick retreat from storms and is great for putting the finishing touches on a route.