The Art of The First Ascent by Luke Mehall

Nov 18 • Locations • 2114 Views • No Comments on The Art of The First Ascent by Luke Mehall

You know you’re getting old when they start replacing the bolts you used for a first ascent. That was my first thought when I heard that an anchor I’d placed, over in my old stomping grounds of Gunnison, Colorado, was getting an update.

Story by Luke Mehall. This piece is published in Volume 15, the current issue of The Climbing Zine.

Banner photo of Dave Marcinowski on the first ascent of Real Sports, in Indian Creek. Photo by Braden Gunem. 

And then I started thinking of all the subpar bolts I’d placed in my beginning days, back when I thought it was okay to buy cheap bolts from a hardware store instead of investing in the proper hardware from a climbing company.


My beginning days of establishing new routes started off on bulletproof granite with a hand drill. I consulted an older climber who was a prolific first ascensionist, and he advised me on some basics. Then I heard somewhere that it was good practice to drill a bolt into a rock at home. I did. It took forever. Forever-ever.

Same with drilling at the local crags. An hour for a bolt. At least. But I was just a young twentysomething whose biggest responsibility was washing dishes five nights a week—what better did I have to do with my time?

Eventually I got more efficient. I could crank out a hole in twenty or thirty minutes in granite. One day, another older climber saw me toiling away and offered up his power drill. It was powerful and magical. And expensive. Once I found out how much they were, I knew I couldn’t afford one.


Soon the seductive spell of sandstone splitters started speaking. Drilling anchors into the medium of sandstone couldn’t have been more different than granite. There’s a method to reading the rock that, at first, seems like another language. In granite, it’s almost difficult to mess it up once you have the basics down. In sandstone, there’s so much variety in rock quality and other features that it seems easy to mess up. Like land mines in a country after war, many bolts in sandstone are ticking time bombs, the opposite of bomber.

I’ll never forget the day we were taking a lap up the South Six-Shooter, down in Indian Creek, and my buddy Dane was inspecting a rappel anchor. We knew the anchor needed some upgrades, and we were equipped with the proper tools. Dane started moving one of the bolts with his hand and then pulled it out! Nightmares of climbers resting on one sketchy bolt and then pulling it out with their bodyweight awake me in the middle of the night. I try to always keep a wrench in my backpack.


One day, I was shooting the breeze at a local gear shop, and the shop manager showed me something he’d found at a limestone crag nearby. It was a chunk of rock with a bolt in it. Apparently, after a long, cold winter, he was walking along in the canyon and came across this six-inch-by-six-inch bolted piece of rock just sitting there. What. The. Fuck…was all I could say.

I got into an online debate about limestone route development before I’d ever developed a limestone sport route. All I can think now is how stupid I was to get caught up in this argument, and how foolish I was to blast a local issue out there into the larger interwebs.

Here’s what happened: a climber had been working on a project at our short but beloved local limestone crag. One section wouldn’t go, and after deliberation with his partner, who he was bolting the route with, he decided to chip a hold using his power drill.

I heard word of this and thought his action was highly unnecessary—and unethical. Back then, chipping seemed lame to me, like a climber was bringing the route down to his own level rather than letting it remain as it was until a stronger climber could come along and send it.

This particular scenario unfolded not long after Ivan Greene was filmed chipping holds with a hammer and chisel on a boulder in New York. The response to Greene’s actions was swift: he was dropped by sponsors and at least one of his sponsors issued a statement condemning the manufacturing of holds.

The response to this incident—and my traditional ethics—led me to believe that I needed to write something about our own “chipping incident.” And, I did. I interviewed the climber who chipped the hold, then posted my story to The Zine website, and immediately shared it on the Mountain Project forum too. Then, as anyone who has spent time on a climbing forum can imagine, things got ugly—but they also became educational.

First, people backed my opinion that the chipping of the hold was wrong. My post was shared and liked and all that shit. Then, others, climbers I respected, started voicing their opinion that they were okay with a chipped hold from time to time—like if a climb were 5.11 with one ridiculous move, sure, manufacture a hold and make the climb 5.11. Another person pointed out that the crag where the hold was chipped already had several other routes with enhanced or chipped pockets, routes that I myself regularly climbed and enjoyed. Someone made a note that most hard climbs in Rifle Mountain Park were manufactured in one way or another, due to the chossy nature of the limestone.

A few days into this, I was out in Indian Creek, working on a new route of my own, cleaning the dirt from the crack and removing some loose holds, when a wave of guilt overcame me. Who was I to criticize another local climber’s actions and blast those judgments out to the world on the internet?

When I got home, I wrote another post apologizing for my first article. I also realized that I should have contacted the climber and had this discussion with some other locals over a beer, not on the internet. I had abused the power I have as a writer and publisher.

I kept thinking about it and reading about it; the more I thought and read, the more nuanced the issue became. Dr. Bill Ramsey has some of the most philosophical, well-thought-out articles on the subject. One point that I found particularly poignant in his writing was that even though many climbers accept hold manufacturing, almost no one is openly defending it.

I noticed certain people that were the most passionate against hold manufacturing were those who mostly climbed on bulletproof granite. Soon after this, I started bolting on limestone. It was a completely different medium than granite or sandstone. At least our local limestone here in Durango is, which tends to be chossy and fractures easily. Even routes that have been climbed hundreds of times still tend to shed loose rock from time to time.

At this point, I’ve bolted fifteen or so sport climbs on this limestone, and on each and every route there’s been choss; some routes I’ve cleaned for days, weeks, months, and years—removing death blocks is the duty of the first ascensionist for a sport route in a well-traveled area. This cleaning involves crowbars and hammers and usually a lot of brushing. I’ve also reinforced key holds with epoxy. Cleaning these new routes often seems like you’re on a construction site. It’s like the tired yet appropriate saying: it’s like seeing how the sausage is made.

Through the years, my position has evolved on that “chipping incident.” First, I know that I’d never create an online debacle like that again—it was a local issue that should have never made it onto the World Wide Web. It also made me realize that climbers—and humans in general—can have such a mob mentality online.

Second, I think I would find myself on a different side of the debate, maybe not on the opposite side, but somewhere in the middle. Climbers who develop new routes give something to the community: it takes time to develop, money for the hardware, and in the end, the community gets a new climb. When a developer is bolting choss, there’s also this trust that they are putting the bolts in good rock, that they have an understanding of the nature of the rock. With that trust in the bolts, we climbers that follow in their footsteps must also put trust in the fact that they “created” the climb in a manner that will make it enjoyable for years to come.

Does this mean I’ve flipped and now I’m chipping holds on my new routes? No. I’ve never found a reason to chip a hold, but I have cleaned a lot of choss, hammering away at the rock for hours, and I also have used glue to reinforce holds. Sometimes, when I’m up there pounding away at the choss, I realize how much of a fine line there is. Those who are adamant against hold manufacturing in all ways probably have not bolted any choss. But then again, what is choss? One person’s choss pile is another person’s dream come true. I no longer think it’s always wrong to chip or enhance a hold on a sport climb that was once choss; although I do feel like it’s always wrong to chip a boulder. I guess my opinion is that it’s a tools-of-the-trade sort of thing.

The art of the plaque

The plaque for The Climb Formerly Known as Prince. Photo by the author.

It all makes me realize how nuanced climbing is and how important critical thinking is. Another thing that comes to mind are plaques in Indian Creek. Not every pitch has one, but many climbs in The Creek have a small plaque at the base of the route indicating the grade and the name of the route. It all started in the 1980s with Steve Hong, the prolific first ascensionist. My understanding is that he did it so folks not only knew some information about the climb but also so that they knew it had been climbed, and they wouldn’t install midroute anchors, as had happened in the past.

Like many unique climbing traditions, this one had to be put to the test with the democracy that is climbing. More than one notable climber took it upon themselves to destroy plaques, thinking that they were doing the right thing. Over the years, many plaques have been destroyed, but many have remained. And the consensus these days is that most climbers appreciate the plaques. When I do a new route, I almost always create a plaque, leaving the name, grade, and date. It’s fun as hell to create one, and it’s a very efficient way to share information, especially in remote crags that aren’t in any guidebooks and don’t have beta posted online. All of that said, I think “retro-plaquing,” someone creating a new plaque for an existing route they did not establish, is not appropriate, but, that’s just like, my opinion, man.

Coming across one of Hong’s plaques from the 1980s is really cool. Like the desert itself, plaques are fragile, and in a thousand years from now, most of them will join the scree and boulders below the crags. The petroglyphs of the Ancestral Puebloans, which also grace many walls of Indian Creek, will likely outlive almost all of the climber plaques.

Establishing new routes and fixing hardware on existing routes gives me a sense of engagement and accomplishment that is extremely satisfying and occasionally frustrating. Taking part in debates, whether in the right way or the wrong way, has helped me expand my point of view, and it made me realize the odd democracy that exists within climbing. Bolt chopping can be democratic, as can the installation of something odd like a plaque at the base of the route. Something that works in one area might be completely inappropriate in another.

Now, who wants to help me replace all the old, shitty construction-store bolts that I put in back in the day?

Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine. His fifth book, The Desert, was just released, and he will be traveling the United States this year to promote it. You can order a copy HERE.

Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $19.99 a year for three issues, and $37.99 for two years (six issues). 

About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

We have also published six books: The Desert,  Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 


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