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Pikes Peak ‘bolt war’ pits iconic climbers against each other on America’s Mountain

Longtime climbers are removing fixed protection installed by author of new guidebook
Phil Wortmann tosses a rope from the top of a climbing route at about 13,000 ft on Pikes Peak Monday. Wortmann is set to self-publish a guidebook to climbing on Pikes Peak, but another pair of Colorado Springs climbers, Bosier Parsons and Brad Saren, has been cutting bolts from some of Wortmann's more remote routes on the mountain. (Mark Reis/ Special to the Colorado Sun)

Rock climbing’s “bolt wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s are long gone. But two Colorado Springs climbers are trying to reignite the decades-old debate over bolts.

Bosier Parsons and Brad Saren last year warned Phil Wortmann they would take drastic action if the veteran climber published a guidebook detailing the granite routes around America’s Mountain. And then the well-respected Colorado Springs climbers started cutting bolts from Wortmann’s routes, arguing the equally well-respected local climber did not follow long-held traditions when installing the fixed protection.

Wortmann, a high school teacher who has put up dozens of routes on Pikes Peak and this month will begin selling his self-published guidebook “Alpine Adventures on America’s Mountain,” said the bolt chopping by Parsons and Saren equates to “access for me, but not for thee.”

They want to protect their own sandbox. They want to go climbing anywhere, anytime, but when someone else goes climbing, there are issues,” Wortmann said. “There are other ways to disagree with a route. Say you don’t like the way it went up and have a conversation. Vandalism is not right.”

As recreation traffic across Colorado increases, thanks to a growing population and a renewed pandemic-sparked appreciation for the outdoors, land managers and veteran outdoor adventurers are struggling to manage the surge. In some places, backcountry campgrounds have closed or now require reservations. Shuttles ferry hikers to trailheads. Travelers book advance times to visit parks and popular destinations.

And on Pikes Peak, climbers are using chain-cutters and other tools to remove bolts — and not just from Wortmann’s routes — saying they are adhering to standards that have defined the remote, adventurous routes on the 14,115-foot peak. Climbers use bolts, anchors and other permanent, fixed hardware to protect themselves from falls, but Pikes Peak has a long history of climbers using less invasive, temporary protection that can be easily removed. The climbers chopping bolts — which is not illegal — say they are protecting the peak’s climbing tradition.

“My love for the area is extensive and my passion for protecting the peak’s climbing traditions and ethics runs through my veins,” Parsons said in an online statement last week.

Saren said he and Parsons have embraced a “no-fixed-hardware ethic up there” in response to Wortmann’s push to change traditional ethics around climbing on Pikes Peak. Saren said the two have removed bolts, pitons and “convenience anchors” installed by other climbers as well.

Both Parsons and Saren are longtime members and leaders of the Pikes Peak Climbers Alliance. They were featured prominently in a 2019 Colorado Sun article on climbers volunteering to help maintain eroding trails in Garden of the Gods, where they regularly climb.

An old bolt in granite at the top of a climbing route on Pikes Peak Monday. This is similar to the bolts that Colorado Springs climbers Bosier Parsons and Brad Saren have been cutting from certain remote routes on Pikes Peak. (Mark Reis, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The Pikes Peak Climbers Alliance board last week voted to affirm a recent survey showing 95% of respondents approving fixed anchors on routes where it is unsafe to use temporary gear — like spring-loaded cams and wired nuts — that can be wedged in cracks and then removed. The board said it did not condone the removal of bolts and voted to organize experienced climbers to replace all the fixed anchors removed by Saren and Parsons.

“We always need to be open to others’ opinions and take a breath to try and be understanding. If we don’t, this is how areas can be closed down because the community is not willing to work through less-than-desirable conversations,” the alliance board’s Aug. 5 statement reads. “Pikes Peak is ‘America’s Mountain,’ and not just our local climbing community’s private crag. We all should welcome those who seek to find euphoria on Pikes Peak.”

The alliance’s survey of Pikes Peak climbers — the first of its kind — will help the climbing community work with the Pike National Forest on a potential formal climbing management plan similar to the South Platte Area Climbing Management Plan the alliance helped create for the South Platte Ranger District in 2015.

The South Platte climbing plan, which was signed by Parsons when he was president of the alliance in 2015, allowed for fixed anchors, but said “bolt-intensive climbing routes are not appropriate in wilderness and should not be developed.”

“Fixed anchors should be placed infrequently and only when removable protection opportunities are unavailable,” the South Platte climbing plan reads.

In June, the Pikes Peak Climbers Alliance began asking climbers to get permission from the alliance’s fixed-hardware committee before placing new bolts. In a statement, the group said it “strongly encourages climbers to place bolts discreetly and in a manner appropriate to local climbing tradition.”

The group also said bolts should not be removed “unless there is compelling evidence that the bolts in question would threaten access.”

“The PPCA opposes individual climbers taking unilateral action on bolt removal,” reads the group’s statement.

Saren asked a reporter to read a 2000 report by the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation entitled “To Bolt Or Not To Be,” before an interview. That report attempted to reconcile climbing’s respect for the natural environment and the use of bolts by discouraging the use of fixed protection “in ecological sensitive areas.”

“Ouch, too bad,” Saren said in response to the Pikes Peaks Climbers Alliance decision to reinstall the bolts he and Parsons removed.

“They didn’t mention anything about rap bolting and the poor style of establishing climbs up there in that manner, nor did they mention anything about the sensitive tundra,” he said.

Saren and Parsons removed the bolts out of consideration for the lack of trails and impacts to alpine terrain when climbers approach the bolted routes. But mostly, they said Wortmann’s bolting violated tradition dating back several decades.

Saren said the long-standing tradition and ethics for Pikes Peak climbers prohibited bolting on rappel and not placing bolts or anchors where temporary protection could be used. Also, Saren said, local tradition demanded “no guidebook.”

“These climber-respected ethics have been adhered to a long time before Phil and the members of the PPCA even started climbing here,” Saren said, adding that the pristine nature of Pikes Peak “leaves room for preservation.”

Parsons directed inquiries to an Aug. 6 statement he posted on the popular mountainproject.com climbing forum, where he responded to Wortmann by saying “I am not actively starting or engaging in another bolt war.”

Parsons, in his online statement, said Wortmann was breaking with Pikes Peak tradition by publishing a guidebook, bolting routes on rappel, and adding permanent protection to crack climbs traditionally climbed with temporary gear.

Parsons said he removed bolts and fixed wires on routes that had been climbed without permanent protection for 50 years. He also said he removed anchors on routes at Pikes Peak’s Golden Wall, where climbers have long climbed without fixed protection. The bolt wars of old focused on chopping bolts added to routes where “trad” climbers had placed traditional gear — cams and nuts — for protection. If a climber could ascend the route “clean and free,” without using permanent protection, then it was OK to remove the bolts.

“Adding fixed protection of any kind to a route that has been climbed clean for 50 years is breaking tradition,” Parsons wrote. “New ethics of climbing on Pikes Peak will not be tolerated by me or others, and I will continue to defend the wild, adventurous and minimalistic venue that Pikes Peak has been for 50 years before Phil and others have come along. If you want to sport climb, or develop a sport climbing area, you should go elsewhere. If you want to trad climb in a pristine environment where risk is part of the adventure, feel free to come climb on the peak.”

Wortmann, who has been climbing on Pikes Peak since 1998, said he began exploring a guidebook after two Colorado Springs locals were killed in 2017 and 2019 after falling while skiing Pikes Peak.

“I went online to find where people were getting their information for skiing on the peak and what I saw was not good,” he said. “It was like, ‘Walk out on the ridge and drop in anywhere.’ That is so dangerous. I wanted to create something that would help people better identify the risks on Pikes Peak. My hope is to educate.”

His introduction to the book includes nearly two pages detailing why this is the time to write a guide to Pikes Peak.

“I felt a responsibility to do this,” he said. “I’m in a position where I know more about the peak than most, yet for every answer I have, I have 100 more questions.”

He also wanted to preserve the stories and history from old timers who are fading away from climbing after decades on Pikes Peak.

“I wanted to include what others have heard and seen. I want others to come up and check out Pikes Peak and add to the story,” he said. “It’s a living, breathing mountain that should live on and not just be a time capsule for someone’s glory days.”

Many limitations on Pikes Peak climbing

Stewart Green was born in Colorado Springs and started climbing Pikes Peak’s granite in 1970. Back then climbers pounded in metal pitons for protection. And all the climbers knew each other. Today, they use much less invasive protection and there are a lot more climbers.

Green said for decades local climbers have kept quiet about Pikes Peak routes and crags. He has written several guidebooks, including the seminal “Rock Climbing Colorado,” which is now in its third edition. But he’s never detailed routes on Pikes Peak.

“Our local tradition here in the Springs has been that we want to maintain Pikes Peak and the high-altitude crags as an adventure climbing arena and I respected that because that’s how I grew up climbing. It wasn’t about excluding people from climbing. It was about protecting the adventure experience,” said Green, who happily shares topographical maps to routes with out-of-town friends, but asks them to not post it on the internet and warns them: “Plan on getting lost.”

Green said climbing lonely routes on Pikes Peak “can feel like a first ascent.” He remembers bolting routes with a hand-drill, where it would take an hour of cranking to bore an inch into the granite.

“It’s not paint-by-number climbing where you follow a line of bolts,” he said. “You have to figure it out on your own and there are not many places like that left, really, with such great rock.”

Phil Wortmann makes his way up a climbing route at about 13,000 feet on Pikes Peak Monday. Wortmann is set to self-publish a guidebook to climbing on Pikes Peak but another pair of Colorado Springs climbers, Bosier Parsons and Brad Saren, have been cutting bolts from some of Wortmann's more remote routes on the mountain. (Mark Reis, Special to the Colorado Sun)

But he’s not too worried about a guidebook drawing more climbers to the peak. Pikes Peak has many obstacles that limit traffic. It costs $15 to drive up the Pikes Peak Highway. Parking is limited and some routes require steep and complex approaches. The climbing season is very short on the fourteener. Weather can change quickly, especially on the high alpine routes.

“There are just so many limiting factors up there,” Green said.

Violating tradition

For more than two decades, Wortmann, like many Colorado Springs-area climbers, has used the technical alpine lessons learned on Pikes Peak to enable grander mountaineering adventures in Alaska, Europe and South America.

“I would love to see younger kids use the peak the same way and push themselves to new levels,” said Wortmann, who has coached young Colorado Springs climbers for the last 10 years.

Wortmann met with Parsons and Saren often. He said he shared where he added new bolts. Many of his routes did not include new bolts. When he began researching his guidebook, they were not happy.

“Brad told me if I was free to write a guidebook, he was free to remove routes that were included in the guidebook,” Wortmann said. “It’s such a different mentality. I can’t understand how someone wakes up in the morning and sees a beautiful day and says ‘Let’s spend $30 to drive up the mountain, haul in tools for vandalism and destroy someone’s dream.’”

Parsons’ bolt cutting “was my action as an individual expressing my right in a free country. Just as your action to place a bolt on rappel or to install a convenience bolt anchor is also your individual action and expression, as is your right in a free country,” he wrote in a November 2020 email to Wortmann and board members of the Pikes Peak Climbers Alliance that he posted Aug. 6 on mountainproject.com. “If you consider this starting and engaging in a bolt war, I’m sorry, but I do not.

“If I find fixed gear on a traditional climb in a traditional area that has always gone clean and free, I will always try to remove it,” Parsons wrote.

Wortmann suspects Parsons and Saren have chopped bolts from about a dozen of his routes. He hasn’t inspected them all in recent weeks. But he thinks they are targeting the routes he spent the most time and thought on.

Wortmann said he adhered to climbing’s rigid ethic for adding fixed protection. If the route could be climbed without bolts, he wouldn’t bolt, he said. All but one route was bolted from the ground, he said, meaning he climbed up and bolted as he went versus rappelling down from above and drilling while dangling on a rope. (Saren and Parsons said Wortmann and others admitted to bolting while on rappel and installing permanent protection next to cracks where climbers typically use removable gear.)

“I really have not put in many bolted routes. But when you do some of these harder routes, you start needing more protection so you don’t die,” Wortmann said. “The guy I learned from, he doesn’t climb any more, but his motto was ‘scare ‘em good, but don’t kill ‘em.’ So I tried to place bolts far enough apart that you might take a good fall, but you weren’t going to die. I wanted to keep the excitement level high.”

Parsons, in his November email to Wortmann and climbing alliance leaders, said climbers need to understand the dangers of climbing and use their judgment to accept some level of risk in the sport.

“But if someone decides that placing a piece of natural protection is too risky and instead decides to place a bolt, is it wrong to try to protect the traditional ethic of an area by removing the bolt?” Parsons wrote. “I don’t think so, because I believe that having at least some traditional areas are adding valuable experiential opportunities even to new climbers, in the potential for new climbers to have to think, use their instincts, develop a sense of what might be too risky and what might be acceptable risk.”

Fear of federal, city involvement

Wortmann said his hardest project on Pikes Peak was a first ascent of a route he named Samsara. He trained and endured injuries over six summers before finally becoming the first climber to ascend it without falling last year. He said he used pitons given to him by veteran Pikes Peak climbers “in honor of their past contribution,” but he did not add any bolts to the route other than anchors up top for safe rappelling off the route.

Parsons and Saren, who argued climbers have traditionally walked off the top of those routes so the anchors at the top were unnecessary, removed the pitons and bolts, Wortmann said.

“Maybe it’s envy, maybe it’s revenge for my guidebook. I don’t know but really there is no excuse for what they did on those routes,” Wortmann said. “If they were going to put these routes up they would probably do it the exact same way. They think I should be held to different rules.”

The code of ethics that guides the climbing community has led public land managers to largely leave the community alone. Aside from concise management guidelines involving wildlife closures, judicious use of fixed protection and rock-colored chalk, climbers have largely regulated themselves and organized to minimize impacts.

That could change with the recent bolt-war drama at Pikes Peak. Rangers from the Forest Service or Colorado Springs officials in charge of the Pikes Peak Highway could step in and impose rules and regulations. They could limit parking. They could close areas. In a worse-case scenario, they could issue a climbing ban.

“That fear and anxiety is being weaponized here,” Wortmann said. “These two guys are using that against us. It’s a sick game to say they want it all closed down because they will just hike in and trespass, knowing that a climbing ban will largely be unenforceable. I’m guessing that’s what they want.”

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when European-styled, bolt-friendly sport climbing swept through the U.S., bolt wars were common. But everything eventually settled down, with places like Rifle Mountain Park and Shelf Road near Cañon City set aside for heavy bolting while routes in Rocky Mountain National Park and Black Canyon of the Gunnison, for example, were left largely unbolted.

Wortmann hopes this recent bolt-chopping fiasco will result in similar compromises, with climbers coming together to map out places that should not have bolts and even a process for vetting bolt plans.

“We want to preserve ethics, but also protect the safety of people traveling in the mountains,” he said. “These are complex issues and it takes a lot of voices to get to some kind of consensus and not just bow to the will of the loudest voice. We will have a more open dialogue about what routes get put in. I’m willing to give up some of my freedoms to go out and put up a route wherever. I’m happy to explain my plans to a committee and get feedback. I really like to think that we will have a success story coming out of this mess.”

“The real loser” in chopping bolts

Despite his understanding the urge to protect Pikes Peak climbing tradition, Green, the author of “Rock Climbing Colorado,” opposes Saren and Parsons chopping bolts.

“They disagree with bolts and a book, feeling it will denigrate their experience up there and it won’t be so much of an adventure climbing area,” Green said. “But in my mind, chopping bolts is not the way to solve this issue. We are supposed to be adults and sit down and talk about these things and come up with compromises and agreements.”

The real loser in this bolt war, Green said, is the granite. The rock was scarred when it was bolted and it is scarred again when bolts get chopped.

Green, a founding member of the Pikes Peak Climbers Alliance who termed out of service on the group’s board last winter, does suspect that land managers from the city or Forest Service could step in if this isn’t resolved.

“And I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Perhaps the best thing now is the Forest Service working with groups like the Pikes Peak Climbers Alliance and coming up with a climbing management plan,” Green said. “We do need to protect the rock resources. It can’t just be the free-for-all that it has been. We are going to have to accept that regulation is going to be a part of the future of rock climbing on Pikes Peak and really everywhere.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.