Sandrock, Alabama: Disputed Ground
Written For Boulderdash! Magazine
By: Michael Crowder
Like other places, Sandrock is a climbing area in modern chaos. I remember my first visit there in 1981. I was fascinated with the presence of the area as much as the climbing. We spent hours exploring and finding climbs around every corner. We climbed cracks, slung horns, bouldered and toproped. Many fine lines were established in this era of traditional ethics. The best part of a trip here was the intense toproping and bouldering at the end of
As the 80's progressed so did the climbing standard. Shannon Stegg, Greg Allen, Chris Watford, Stan and Curtis Glass, along with others, were putting up many difficult traditional routes. These people were the core of a group of climbers that was going to Sandrock on a regular basis for several years. It is amazing to walk through this area with these guys and count the number of routes they did on gear. Many of today's bolted testpieces are among these old classics. How did this happen?
As the 80's came to a close, a strong shift in bolting ethics was brewing. Ascents of climbs like Dreamscape were the beginning of the evolution. Originally led by Curtis Glass with only three bolts, it was a bold route plugging small cams and climbing steep rock on the upper section. With many new routes being put up in the area by the first of the sport climbers at this time, it was seldom repeated with easily protectable routes of comparable grade close by.
Curtis then decided to retrobolt Dreamscape. He felt that the route had three bolts already, and it didn't need to be so committing. The boldness required to lead this route was lost in pure focus on movement. It was now possibly one of the finest sport routes of the area. I climbed the route soon after the retrobolt and was stunned by the beauty of the climbing on the route.
Other routes were retrobolted at the turn of the decade. I even retroed one of my routes that had not been repeated since the first ascent. At the time this was thought to be a good thing, as it opened up routes that were just plain scary. It was usually done by the first ascentionist, or at least with their blessings, and on a very limited basis.
With these retro routes and the rampant sport development during the early 90's, climbing standards returned to the level that Rich Gottlieb had already established in the 70's. It also set a precedent that to retro was O.K. It was never thought that someone would bolt a route that was easily protected naturally. As sport climbers quickly ticked off every conceivable unprotectable line, new route potential shrank. The early traditional and sport pioneers then wandered off to other feeding grounds and a new animal took up residence.
This new species came to repeat sport routes and found to their amazement that many routes had no bolts. They asked few questions, and if they even cared that these were established routes, quickdraws just don't work without bolts, do they? These newcomers had a remedy: a trip to Home Depot for bolts and coldshuts was all they needed. The fact that these routes were easily climbed with traditional gear and had been climbed many times before was not important to this group.
The quality of hardware being used by these "activists" is questionable at best. It seems that the goal for these individuals was getting the most number of routes for the money. Carbon steel, no-name anchors seem to be the norm for these retros. Open carbon steel coldshuts litter the tops of many of these climbs. Most of these coldshuts are placed within 12 inches of each other (a big no-no) along with the fact that an open shut is just plain wrong. If a person is planning to bolt a route, they owe it to the climbing community to use the proper hardware correctly.
The ensuing bolt and chop war that has erupted is becoming a fiasco. Glasstic has been retrobolted, chopped and retroed again. The person responsible claims that it gets climbed more when it's bolted. He knows it was an established line. Many of the routes established in the 80's have now been bolted by later parties and chopped by the first ascentionists.
This is becoming a lose/lose situation. One
of the greatest attractions to climbing for many is its lack of rules. Climbing
is a sport that has been able to self-regulate for decades. It is time for
sanity to resume. All that it takes to remedy this situation is for people with
aspirations to do first ascents to ask a few questions when in established
areas. There are plenty of cliffs for all styles of climbing if you look.
Respect each style of climbing enough not to "steal" climbs.
Sandrock is now the official poster child for the squeeze job. The climbs are growing so close together that they cannot be discerned from one another. Routes cross each other going every direction. Soon people will have to start putting colored tape on holds so you will know what holds go with which route! With duct tape left everywhere at the tops of climbs this is not a stretch. Check out White Gold, there are four climbs that intersect the original line now. On many climbs the right handholds for one climb are the left handholds for the next. Crowding in one more route is not an improvement. The goal of the first ascentionist should be to open up new territory, not just find a different way of climbing the same holds.
A renewed interest in restoring Sandrock's routes to their original status is building. Some have been restored and others are being considered. A holding pattern seems to be in effect but all it will take to upset this is more indiscriminate bolting. The lack of respect running rampant through our society seems to have crept into climbing. Bolting an existing trad line does not make someone a first ascentionist nor does it save money to use substandard equipment if it is soon to be removed.
It astounds me the dichotomy between the sport and trad routes here. On almost any weekend most of the moderate sport routes have gaggles of people waiting for their turn to climb. The trad routes have little traffic
and no waiting. Let's come together as a climbing community and not "sport vs. trad". If you haven't had the trad experience at Sandrock, you're missing out on half the fun! It is time to preserve our climbing resources and history. There are plenty of firsts left to do without squeeze jobs and thievery. Whether you claim to be a sport or trad climber or both doesn't matter. Honor does.
My recent pilgrimages to S.R. have been suprisingly pleasant. A light rack and a few slings have allowed my friends and I to climb at any grade we choose and have plenty of variety. This includes several bolted lines without using the bolts. Sandrock is still a fine area with plenty of climbing no matter what style you prefer. Just treat it like the unique area that it is and not a run-of-the-mill gym.