Climbing House » Where Climbers Live

Masthead header

The Super Slab Debate

A few weeks ago Tyler told me about a bolt relocation proposal in Eldorado Canyon that seemed strange. The applicant wished to move a bolt on Super Slab – regarded as one of Eldo’s top 10 classic routes – 2 feet. Super Slab is a 4-pitch 5.10d on the Redgarden Wall with a single bolt below the crux. The bolt sits about 10 feet above the traditional anchor and belay stance and the crux moves are encountered about 6-8 feet above the bolt. Over the years, a few fixed pins have pulled and a few holds have broken, making the lead more serious. (However, judging from the surprisingly shallow pin scars, those pins were likely never meant to catch a fall.) During this time, a handful of whips from the crux have resulted in broken ankles and/or collisions with the belayer. The goal of relocating the bolt was to prevent such occurrences.

From the application: The bolt on Super Slab and point of the proposed relocation

Such applications are submitted to the Action Committee for Eldorado (ACE) and put up for a public vote and meeting. One “vote” is given for the result of the public poll, another is given for the public sentiment at the meeting and five are controlled by the ACE committee.

Over 100 climbers participated in the public polling with a final tally of 59-54 against the proposal. Rarely do proposals garner so much attention and participation and rarely is an application so contentious – and all the fuss was over whether to move a bolt 24 inches.

Tommy and I climbed Super Slab for the first time yesterday and I now have a much clearer picture of the issue. Having climbed the route and read some of the history of the line, four major thoughts stick with me.

1. Good pro protects the crux about 8 feet above the bolt. In fact, I got not one but two good cams at the crux, either of which would have held a fall. A good nut could be placed there instead of cams. The bad ledge fall, potentially onto the belayer, is only a possibility if the climber fails to protect the crux move adequately. Much of the MountainProject discussion about Super Slab centers on this pro with several people referring to a difficult, “blind” placement from a strenuous stance. I was able to place and inspect both cams without issue from a reasonable stance. It should be noted that 5.10 is well below my limit so I wasn’t in full-on battle mode. The applicant described the route as being “R/X” and requiring “wiggling in RPs” during the crux. This simply wasn’t my experience.

A climber at the crux of Super Slab (photo courtesey of Mountain Project)

2. One of the first free ascensionists, Pat Ament, was against the proposal. In fact, the bolt wasn’t even there when he first freed the route! The bolt was later added without his consent. Ament has climbed the route more than 10 times since his first ascent. In his own words regarding this proposal, “The best protection is good footwork, good technique, and experience…Rise to the challenge. Work hard. Get to that level.”

3. As a recent climbing partner of mine, Terry pointed out, the danger to the belayer can be easily alleviated by moving the belay. Fearing that a bad fall could land me on Tommy, I had him anchor in via a clove hitch and belay from about 6 feet below the normal stance. It was no big deal and every climber who regularly climbs “dicey” multipitch lines should know how to do something similar.

Super Slab. The red line indicates Super Slab with belay spots (pitches 2 and 3 linked). The white dot is the location of the bolt.

4. Many of Eldo’s routes are worthy of aspiration. A route that one climber takes a warm up stroll on may be another’s heady challenge. These types of goals and ambitions are a huge part of what makes climbing there a unique experience, worthy of planning, training and overcoming nerves. A couple years ago, Kris Linstrom led Aerospace, an incredible 5.11 R arete route with serious runouts. Though I followed the route clean at the time, it wasn’t until this season that I felt ready to lead it. When I clipped the chains, a long awaited goal had finally been accomplished. Something I had aspired to had come to life. Risk is a defining and inspiring characteristic of Eldo. It is because of these risks that I don’t have to climb at my limit to have fun and achieve a meditative focus. Even though I’m a 5.12 climber, there are 5.10s there I’m not ready for. Maintaining Eldo’s “sharp edge” is worth defending. Those gritty experiences are a big part of what makes Eldo one of the primer climbing destinations in the world and they are not for everyone. Boulder Canyon, Table Mountain and Clear Creek Canyon are all within a half hour of Eldo and offer a lifetime worth of well-protected sport routes for those whose focus lies in the purely gymnastic aspects of the sport.

Having said all of this, I don’t think that had the proposal been approved we would have started along a “slippery slope.” To change a route in Eldo necessitates a process by which the case must be made on individual merits. If anything, having a controversial bolt replacement proposal be accepted would motivate the “traditionalists” even more. The climbing community seems engaged and intelligent (on both sides) which leads me to believe future arguments such as, “They moved the bolt on Super Slab so they should do so here as well…” wouldn’t be taken very seriously.

One of the biggest classes of issues that will be debated in the coming years will be replacement of pins in Eldo. In many cases, what once was a bomber piton is now a “ticking time bomb” waiting to blow and send the leader for a nasty fall. The namesake route Rincon is a good example of such a route. If the old pin at the crux holds a fall, the route would be a fun, well protected 5.11. If the pin pulls, the route would be rated R or worse with potential danger for both leader and belayer. If the early ascents of Rincon could be done with the confidence that the pin was guaranteed to hold a fall, then in my opinion, replacement of the now deteriorating piton with a bolt would be justified.

But that was not the case with Super Slab. Regardless of the superficially trivial nature of moving a bolt by a couple feet, the potential consequence and indeed the goal of the proposal was to change the nature of the climb, a character that has existed for decades. In the end, by a unanimous vote, ACE denied the request to move the bolt. Lack of consensus among the public was given as a major reason.

In Pat Ament’s words, “Let (Super Slab) stand for what it is and was, a kind of standard-setting pitch, one of the earlier 5.10 routes in Eldorado, and one that requires a little head work.” You can read his full essay and other arguments, both for and against here.

*Thanks to Terry Murphy for useful discussion.

Tyler - This is an interesting post. It’s pretty easy to see both sides of the argument for moving the bolt, and I’m glad that Eldo has both a committee to make these decisions, and climbers respectful enough to abide by them.

I think that in general, if a bolt is placed, it should be located, or relocated to whatever spot will make it most effective in preventing injury. Eldo isn’t, however, a place where “in general” holds much water. If you’re hopping onto a route that’s at your limit, you’d better be ready to get yourself out of dangerous situations, and fully prepared for hard moves in sketchy spots. If you’re not, then dial it back a little, or head to Boulder Canyon for the clip ups.

Here’s the weird thing for me: I’ve been climbing for about four years now, and two years ago, I would not have agreed with my last statement. I’d have felt that if a route was unsafe, then bolts should be added at all potentially injurious locations, and the danger should be managed. It’s taken two years in Eldo to teach me the value of routes with challenging pro, and now I’m glad that I have a new perspective on it.June 29, 2011 – 7:07 pm

kris - Thought provoking topic, Adam. I agree with Tyler that it is great that Eldo has a committee for issues such as these. The existence of ACE demonstrates the ethic for preservation of character in the park. To me that signifies that the burden of proof lies with those that assert a change in the status quo.

The fact that the bolt was placed after the first ascent puts an interesting spin on this debate. My thoughts? I am a sucker for history and zest when choosing and climbing routes. I find excitement and satisfaction in doing a route in the manner (or close, as in this case) of the first ascent and thereafter. By altering a route “for safety”, I feel you rob future climbers the opportunity to experience it in the established manner – particularly if the route has been safely repeated. It is not fair to supplant one’s own deficiencies on others. Rock climbing has inherent potential danger and there are plenty of other fantastic(!) routes on which to sharpen your teeth if you don’t yet feel comfortable on a grade. Perhaps make it a goal to improve and come back.

In the end, I suppose any idiot can do a hack job on a first ascent and botch an otherwise phenomenal route and I guess that is another reason why ACE exists. However, from my experience, the beauty of Eldo is that is rarely ever the case. It’s sought-after, and often spicy, routes are what make it one of my favorite destinations.June 30, 2011 – 2:10 am

Back to Top Contact Me Share on Facebook Tweet this Post Email to a Friend
T a l k
N e i g h b o r s
S e a r c h