Update Sept 2013

Stainless steel climbing bolts, even those of the highest quality, have been corroding and breaking in certain environments world-wide.   The bolts break due to Chloride Stress Corrosion Cracking (SCC); see the article below.

If you are planning a climbing vacation to any of the following areas, or an area that has a similar environment, you owe it to yourself to find out more about the condition of the bolts.  In other words, will the bolts hold a fall?   All of the areas listed below have bolts breaking but most don’t know what to do, or can’t fix the problem due to money or regulations.  Some locales actually cover up the problem in order to keep the climber revenue coming.

To my knowledge the only places in the world that have properly addressed the problem are Thailand, Cayman Brac, Hawaii and Brazil.  These places have replaced, or are replacing, the corroding stainless steel bolts with titanium bolts.    Some places are experimenting with specialty steels but whether these steels will endure remains to be seen.

Known areas with corroding bolts

  • Cuba, Dominican Republic and ALL of the Caribbean islands and coastal areas
  • Sicily, Kalymnos, Sardinia, Calanques and many Mediterranean areas
  • Philippines, Viet Nam, certain Australian areas  and many SE Asian areas.

What these areas have in common are:

  1. Limestone or Basalt.  No other rock type seems to promote SCC.
  2. Warm climate.  Most are winter destinations.
  3. Rainy climate at least part of the year.
  4. Near salt water, although sea spray can travel many miles inland, such as in Cuba.

More information is available at:

UIAA website

If you have any questions, corrections or additions, please contact me.  — John

 

Corroding Confidence

The invisible weakening of stainless steel bolts

Published in Climbing June 2001

Sport routes allow today’s climber to focus on doing moves without worrying about the consequences of a fall. His protection — modern stainless steel bolts — is so strong that he can casually take multiple leader falls. However, few climbers realize that these bolts are also susceptible to corrosion and sudden failure.

A hanger with large Stress Corrosion Cracks that couldn’t be seen until it was removed. (S. Harper)

 

Tropical, seaside climbing areas such as Thailand’s Railae Beach and the Caribbean’s Cayman Brac were among the first to experience serious accidents due to bolt failure. What’s worse, many of these injured climbers didn’t even fall. The bolts and/or hangers broke when the climber said, “Take,” and hung, and in one case in Thailand the result was a two-bolt zipper! Everyone is familiar with oxidation corrosion, or rust, and galvanic corrosion, that mold-like growth on their car battery. But now climbers need to know about stress corrosion cracking (SCC) as well. SCC is like roots growing in a crack in concrete; as they grow, they expand the crack.

Notice the cracks in the nut, hanger and ring.  You can see this bolt on “Shooting the Curl” at the Wave Wall. Please don’t yank on it, it will break off. (Larry Hamilton)

All three types of corrosion (which can occur simultaneously) on climbing bolts can be caused by similar conditions. Water must be present for oxidation, and salty water for galvanic corrosion and SCC. The longer the metal is wet, the faster corrosion proceeds; warm temperatures accelerate all three mechanisms.

Salt can come from the sea but it may be in the rock itself. Granite, basalt and other types of rock don’t appear to be a problem. Porous limestone, however, may have salt embedded within it. One theory is that rain falling atop a limestone cliff percolates through the rock, picking up salt or other contaminants before finding its way to the bolts. Some climbs have only a single bad bolt where the rock seeps water.

A stainless steel “clad” nut that disintegrated when we removed it with a wrench. The cladding can be easily seen. (Harper)

On tropical Cayman Brac, with its warm temperatures and sea-battered limestone, stainless steel bolts and hangers have failed in as little as 18 months. In cooler, drier, less salty Rifle, Colorado, bolts placed in seeping crags like the Skull Cave showed obvious corrosion after about 7 years.

Although oxidation and galvanic corrosion can easily be seen on a bolt, SCC is generally invisible. Not only are the cracks microscopic, SCC often occurs behind the hanger where it can’t be seen. More than one perfect-looking bolt has snapped off under body weight. A climber on Cayman Brac hit the deck when he weighted the second bolt of Throwin’ the Hula Girl. (I had done the route a few weeks earlier, luckily without falling, and except for a light patina of rust on them, the bolts looked perfect.)
SCC also attacks aluminum. A carabiner that was exposed to salt water for about a year was tested and failed due to SCC. If you climb by the sea, wash all your gear in fresh water once a month or when you return home.

An old corroded stainless bolt and the Titanium bolt that replaced it. Note the purple discoloration on the stud. (S. Harper)

Needless to say, if you’re bolting limestone, keep corrosion in mind. Does the rock seep for months? Do existing bolts show any signs of corrosion? In dry areas where there are no signs of corrosion, the least expensive option is to use solid stainless steel bolts and hangers. Do not use stainless-clad bolts, which have a mild steel core encased in a thin layer of stainless steel. If the cladding cracks, the bolt will fail in short order. Stainless steel glue-in bolts are a better choice, but not in seaside rock or seeping limestone.

In seaside rock of any type, seeping limestone (watch for streaks or discoloration of the rock), or where bolt or hanger corrosion is already apparent, your only rational choice is a titanium glue-in bolt. Currently only Ushba Mountain Works Now Liberty Mountaineering makes them, but other manufacturers may soon offer alternatives.

(Note:2013 At this time titanium bolts are available from only one source.  Bolts are produced once a year and orders must be placed by October for a mid-winter delivery.  Contact me for more information on how to order.)