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.
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|
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.|
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?
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 (!!)|
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.
|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.
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
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).
BUY THE FILM:
BUY TITANIUM BOLTS:
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.