Titanium bolts: The answer for Thailand climbing?

Introduction: The Norwegians

Let me relate a story real quick. A new multipitch route on Fire Wall (Tonsai, Phranang Peninsula) goes up with stainless expansion bolts. The very same bolts that are used throughout all of Europe and the States. One year later a team of two Norwegians go to repeat the route. The leader climbs the first 6b pitch without falling and establishes the belay at two bolts. Before bringing up his seconder, he clips the rope into the first bolt of the 7c pitch above. When the seconder reaches the belay, both climbers lean back to survey the pitch above and BOTH BELAY BOLTS SNAP.


They are left hanging by the single bolt on the next pitch. That could have been two deaths right there, and it was really just luck more than anything else that saved them. I mean, who would think that an entire belay which is basically brand new would self destruct under bodyweight?

Well this is what happens to stainless steel bolts in a few select places in the world, and southern Thailand is one of these places.

Forget what you think you know about bolting. It does not apply here.

Why do perfectly good stainless steel bolts snap in Thailand?

Thanks to our good friend Science we now know the answer definitively. In brief, the high amount of rainfall combined with the high amount of vegetation atop the cliffs sets up for very acidic water within the rock itself. This produces high concentrations of magnesium on the bolts, which allows for a higher than otherwise possible concentration of chloride ions. This is then a hyper-corrosive environment for bolts and can sometimes cause 'Stress Corrosion Cracking' (SCC). Think of SCC as a little rust gremlin which has a sixth sense for finding any weakness in the metal and then driving a wedge through it until it snaps.

Stress corrosion cracking (SCC) in a Fixe 304 stainless steel ringbolt
on Massage The Rock 6a+, Muai Thai sector.
So how do you know which bolt is good and which is bad?

You don't. There is no way to tell from visual inspection alone. What's more, sometimes rusty looking piece of crap bolts are super strong and hard to remove, and perfectly shiny bolts fail with one hit of a hammer (I had this happen multiple times).

SCC simply eats the stainless
 Who maintains the routes in Thailand?

People seem to think "There's heaps of climbers here and I haven't walked over any bodies so someone must be maintaining and rebolting routes." Let's be clear. There is no "Federation of Climbing" in Thailand. There is no local organisation whatsoever. There is not even a coalition of guiding schools on Railay (there's currently about 14 climbing schools, all in competition). Every local Thai person using the cliffs commercially is there to make money. There are a couple of exceptions (hi Toto!), but generally, the locals do not rebolt or maintain the routes. This is left up to foreigners. But who carries a drill, glue, and titanium on their holiday? Well, I'll tell you...

I'll let you decide if this is good or bad.
The "Thaitanium Project"

Titanium does not rust. Therefore it is the perfect material to make bolts from for use in Thailand. It's tried and tested. The problem is it is expensive. With glue, a single titanium bolt costs around US $15. Rebolting an average pitch can easily cost $200. This is about quadruple the price of stainless steel bolts.

For the last several years a group of Americans including Josh Lyons, Tom Cecil and Sam Lightner Jr. have been travelling to Railay with the sole mission to rebolt the peninsular with safe, titanium bolts. And as I was in Thailand for a couple of months I ran into the guys and got the low down. Between Sam and Tom, you probably account for 50% of the first ascents on the peninsular. They are some of the true pioneers of Thailand climbing. Like me, these guys love new routing. What was amazing to me was that instead of going off and doing the stuff they love (exploring and new routes), they spend their hard earned holiday time back in Thailand working their arses off rebolting.

So they're paid by the local authorities?
So they get free accommodation right?
A discount?
Nope! ... Bubkus! 

The locals give these guys nothing whatsoever. I was gobsmacked. There are no perks to doing this, it's just endless hard work with very little in the way of gratitude.

Why do it then? Because it needs to be done or someone will die. That's it.

Well at least one of the bolts on this multipitch anchor is good (!!)

One encouraging point was that a number of climbers who were there on their holiday offered to lend a hand. Most had no previous bolting experience, but both Tom and Josh are excellent teachers. So it was a merry band of climbers doing the work each day. 

It's not just putting in new bolts

After I heard what the guys were doing, I thought "Well, I could be sitting on the beach having another shot at Jai Dum, or could actually be doing something useful". So I ended up spending my final two weeks primarily engaged in the rebolting initiative.

One thing that has tended to happen in Thailand is that as routes get rebolted, the old bolts are not removed. You end up with an ugly mess as the picture below illustrates. Why? Removing the old bolts is often plain hard work. It's much harder than simply drilling a new hole and gluing in a new bolt. But, a mess of bolts at each clipping stance is a huge pet hate of mine.

Three generations of bolts. Expansion bolt on right. Shiny Fixe stainless ring at top,
and dull grey titanium bolt with red glue at bottom. The bottom bolt is the one to clip.
Not only does it make routes look ugly as hell, it's a safety issue. No matter how clearly the guidebook describes to only use bolts with red glue (these are the bombproof titanium bolts glued with the highest quality Hilti RE-500 glue), people still make the somewhat understandable mistake of thinking shiny = good. So you have people climbing routes clipping every shiny ringbolt and skipping the new safe titanium bolts.

Under the supervision of a local Thai guide, a punter clips the stainless bolt
instead of the safe titanium on Shadow Show (5), Muai Thai.
So because I had friends coming over from Australia to climb with us, I had them bring over my cordless 18V Makita grinder. And then the real work begun. I would often go out climbing for the morning and then in the afternoon, I would go and self-belay myself up some route and begin work removing the old bolts and carefully patching the holes. Sometimes I would go out at night using my headlamp. Basically, whenever I thought I might go have a massage or kick back and have a drink out of a coconut, I would go and fix something instead. Within a couple of weeks I had personally removed 99 old stainless bolts (on routes which had already been rebolted with titanium), many of which were cracked through with SCC.  And whenever I wasn't personally using my grinder, it was being used by other people. I reckon the team might have removed 200-300 bolts all up.

What was achieved in the 2011 season
  • Complete rebolt of Wild Kingdom Wall
  • Complete rebolt of The Nest
  • Complete rebolt of The Keep (this is what I was involved in and took over a week for a team of roughly 8 people to do)
  • My complete clean-up of Muai Thai and some routes on One Two Three
  • Rebolting on Ko Yawaban and other misc projects
Cost: Several thousand dollars.

The Film

The money has to come from somewhere.

To spread awareness of what's going on and to help fund buying the expensive bolts and glue so rebolting can continue, Josh Lyons produced a film on the 'Thaitanium Project'. It's great. They go through the whole thing from start to finish, talk to the metallurgists and scientists who did the testing, and lay out a plan for moving forward, which is basically switching out every stainless bolt with titanium. It's a must see for people that love Thailand climbing.

The sign I would hang up when I was working. We sold a few films for the cause.

Donating to the cause

The guys have a simple website with a donation link. Visit http://thaitaniumproject.com/ and hit the Donate button up the top. This money goes to Josh who puts the money directly into the kitty for the next season. Every single dollar goes towards titanium being put in.

If you are in USA, you can make tax deductible donations to the American Safe Climbing Association (ASCA) and earmark the funds for use on the cliffs of Tonsai/Railay. If you earmark it for Thailand, that's where it goes (it's a rule of the Association).




2013 update: If this article has you curious and you want to buy some of these amazing titanium bolts for your own routes and rebolting efforts, the guy to speak with is Martin Roberts who has now been producing and supplying the Thaitanium Project for the last few years. He now has a website where you can purchase his titanium bolts: http://www.titanclimbing.com/.

In the press:
  • Thanks to ClimbingNarc for profiling this story on his blog.


David said...

thank you lee!
i´m heading to thailand in april, so your article got my interest immediately. since i´m going to northern thailand (crazy horse buttress), laos, cambodia and vietnam i´m curious if SCC could occur there too. or is this limited to sea areas (don´t think so...).
if you have any ideas it would be nice if you could share your thoughts.


Lee Cujes said...

Hi David

I am told that the guys up in the north haven't found any evidence of SCC on the bolts around Chang Mai (Crazy Horse etc.)

In Vietnam, you won't have any issues on any of the routes at Butterfly Valley or the routes SloPony recommend in Ha Long Bay. However older routes in Ha Long Bay will suffer SCC for sure.

Laos and Cambodia - unknown!


Neil Monteith said...

Awesome job Lee. I need one of these battery angle grinders! Who is making the titanium rinbolts?

David said...

There are a variety of grades of titanium as well, as it is normally employed in aero space industries.
I have vague recollection that a particular grade was also found to be most suitable, ( titanium can also corrode, but forms a thin but tough oxide coating, hence its dulleness)

I know that michealweitzman of hotmail would be able to sort you out with where to get bolts but believe that they will come from the US. He runs Koa Loa Liang and is local to thailand.

Lee Cujes said...

Hey Neil, the guys are getting their very sexy Ti ringbolts manufactured by a firm in Ohio called UNITED TITANIUM!

Hey David, they are using grade 2 Ti which is very very pure. The dullness on the bolts is a treatment during manufacturing to make the product look nice and uniform. I have seen the non treated U-bolt versions and they are as shiny as stainless steel, even after years in the rock.

Dull grey is good though, as you know it's Ti.


David said...

Exactly, they are probably treated to form a thicker uniform oxide coating (I think the rate of oxidation is almost zero at ambient temps) the shiny ones you saw may have been an alloy, or simply had a much thinner oxide coating. The oxide coating it forms is like aluminum eg it prevents further reactions with O2 taking place.

aha, I just found this

"Q: I've seen "black" titanium. What is that, and can you make it?

"Black titanium" is titanium with a coated surface. It usually is G23 titanium, which is called "pure" by some marketing materials I saw, but really is an alloy with 6% Aluminum and 4% Vanadium in it. Alloys are generally harder and stronger than pure titanium.
I believe that the black coating chemical is titanium-aluminum-nitride. It is even tougher than anodized titanium oxide because it is applied as a thicker coating.
Requires a vacuum chamber and vapor-deposition equipment necessary to produce this surface."

john said...

great job, lee- super informative, i hope lots of folks read it- i'll definitely be passing it along.

i'll also likely be in touch if i manage to make it to thailand anytime soon- im heavily involved with the ASCA rebolting Red Rock and would be psyched to help out!

Lee Cujes said...

Thanks John, that's awesome. I was super surprised that ASCA were so instrumental in funding the Thailand work for early 2011. Double thumbs up.

Leo said...

Hi Lee... Very good job indeed.

I've been living and climbing in Dominican Republic for a few years, where the same SCC has costed a few accidents so far. In fact, Petzl sent an specialist to check the area (high walls just by the seashore) and put a warning on their website.

Now, do You think it would be possible that the same funding could be applied to Dominican Republic routes? Maybe You and your team could plan a vacation trip to this island (much closer to US than Thailand) to check for yourselves.

Best regards,

Lee Cujes said...

Hey Leo

Are you on Facebook? I would like to add you to the Titanium Bolting group so you can network with the main drivers of this initiative.

I don't know about funding as such, but getting you guys access to titanium bolts would seem to be critical.


Leo said...

Sure Lee..




LeahJme said...

Thanks Lee

That is really useful to know and I was wondering what to do in terms of a bolt fund.

I'm heading out in November and was thinking of bringing out bolts for the cause, but happy to donate on the site instead.

Please keep me informed on the work happening out there - I know lots of UK climbers that are keen to know what is being done to keep Tonsai safe.