Guest Editorial: Carn Vellan Bolts

by Shane Ohly Mar/2011
This article has been read 6,421 times
Following on from last October's BMC meeting down in Cornwall, which was held to discuss proposals for bolting, it is now time for a second meeting to be held.

In this Guest Editorial, active and passionate climber Shane Ohly puts forward his opinion on why bolts should not be placed at the super-steep cliff of Carn Vellan, Cornwall.

You can read more about the original debate in this UKC News item.


On Saturday 2nd April, there will be BMC South West Area meeting at Redruth School to once again discuss a proposal to place bolts and sanction sport climbing at Carn Vellan. A vote will be taken at this meeting, with only the people present being able to vote. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, it is really important that it has legitimacy and I would ask any climbers with an opinion to attend the meeting.

Why not make a weekend of it and enjoy some of the superb climbing West Cornwall has to offer?

photo
Carn Vellan in largish seas. Is this the steepest crag in Britain?
© Dave Kerr, Aug 2006

Personally I am opposed to the placement of bolts at Carn Vellan and the sea cliffs and natural inland outcrops in West Cornwall. I will explain why.

Although there is a long and murky historical context to this debate, I am determined to look forward, not backwards, and focus on the issues of today rather than the personalities of old. Instead, I will briefly set the context.

I believe that all climbers would agree that West Cornwall is a unique and beautiful area with a rich traditional climbing heritage, which offers a superb adventure climbing experience equal to that found anywhere else in Great Britain. The fact is demonstrated year round with broad array of domestic and international visitors to the region. Indeed, the BMC chose West Cornwall for their International Climbing Meet in 2010.

Carn Vellan is a sea cliff in Penwith close to the village of Pendeen. There are at least twenty traditionally protected climbs there, but the focus of the debate is the severely overhanging central section of the crag that has previously seen some highly controversial sport routes. Currently, there is one bolted sport route on this section of the crag that was bolted in contravention to the agreed no bolt policy.

There is a small group of local climbers calling themselves the 'Penwith and Cornish Climbers' that would like to legitimise the existing sport route and seek approval for further bolting on the roof section. Furthermore their proposal asks to "put in a process that will allow a mechanism for the development of sport climbing at additional crags in the future" and that they "may develop sport climbing at certain specific Cornish venue/s excluding all natural granite cliffs/outcrops".

Seeking to reach a local consensus, some members of Penwith and Cornish Climbers and other local climbers have met to discuss their proposal, including a group visit to Carn Vellan. Despite trying to find some common ground or reach an equitable compromise, it would be fair to say that we have reached an impasse. At a basic level there are two views: 1) Allow some bolting or 2) Don't allow any bolting.

The implications of allowing sport climbing at Carn Vellan are far reaching. Whilst some members of the Penwith and Cornish Climbers assure me that they only wish to bolt the roof section of Carn Vellan, the facts are that their proposal explicitly seeks to develop sport climbing in other (as yet unnamed) locations and there is a significant historical president for the creep of bolts across the grades and into new areas once they are allowed in one location.

I will quote Nigel Coe (Climber Club Guidebook Editor) from 2005 when he demonstrated the creep of bolts in Dorset.

"In 1993 Pete Oxley asked a BMC southwestern meeting to agree to bolts being acceptable on certain cliffs at Swanage. He got his way over virtually every cliff he'd put forward, despite some of the people at the meeting personally not wanting bolts, because we respected that he had a different opinion and we thought that we should compromise. And we hoped that by giving him what he wanted, we would keep some areas bolt-free. One thing he did not get was bolting on one half of The Promenade at Swanage. Also agreed at the meeting was that retrobolting in Dorset would only occur with the first ascensionist's permission.

So has there been 'creep'? Well, a few years later in '96 there was another Dorset bolt meeting at which the other half of The Promenade was allowed to be bolted, as was a section of sea cliff adjacent to Dancing Ledge Quarry.

Lulworth East had been designated bolt-free in '93, yet 9 routes were bolted on the roofs there, with the routes coyly being publicised as being on 'Boulder Ruckle Far Far West'.

Implicit in the retrobolting agreement was that if permission had not been obtained from a first ascensionist, the route would not be retrobolted. Obviously, if the first ascensionist was not known or could not be contacted, then permission could not be obtained. And if there was no permission, no retrobolting could occur. But a few people decided, when they could not easily contact the first ascensionist, that they could retrobolt routes nonetheless this led to six routes at The Cuttings being illicitly bolted. Half a dozen of my routes have been retrobolted on Portland, yet I'd definitely not given permission."

In South Wales there has been a creep of bolts from inland quarries to the traditional limestone on the Gower. Pat Littlejohn, one Britain's most prolific new routers and former South Wales resident had this to say, "... when people bolt the beautiful natural limestone of the Gower I start to worry, because it seems that these climbers are missing something, i.e. any appreciation of these cliffs as natural landscape features and of climbers' responsibility to look after them for future generations".

The proposal by Penwith and Cornish Climbers states that they "may develop sport climbing at certain specific Cornish venue/s excluding all natural granite cliffs/outcrops". Lets examine this request more carefully. It potentially includes all crags in Cornwall that are not granite. As well as Carn Vellan, Pendeen, Trewellard, Bottallack, Crowns Mine Cliff, Evening Slabs and Kenidijack are all Killas. Zennor, Boswednack, Gurnards Head, Pedn Kei, Zawn Dual, Carn Gloose, Freedom Zawn are all Greenstone/Killas. Carnelloe, Wenven Cove and Robins Rocks are Greenstone. Windy Zawn is Granite and Killas. The Lizard is certainly not granite (although its exact nature is debated by geologist) and much of the undeveloped climbing (albeit 'adventurous') on the North coast of Cornwall is non granite.

Admittedly, venues such as Evening Slabs are unlikely to be bolted by people intent on the difficult climbing offered by the roof section of Carn Vellan, but going by the example of The Cuttings on Portland and so many other areas, bolting does spread down the grades and to new crags.

The proposal by the Penwith and Cornish climbers group also asks that they "should have the same opportunity to develop [sport climbing] crags in their local areas just like the rest of the UK".

Clearly if every climber in the UK exercised the same opportunity to develop sport climbing at their local crag, there would chaos. To put it in to context, imagine if a climber living close to Pembroke was insisting on their right to develop sport climbing at their local crag; they would be laughed out of town.

Likewise, if these climbers claim the right to bolt routes for themselves in the 8th grade, what is to stop another climber claiming the same right to bolt routes in the 6th grade? This would have to happen in a different area. Again we would see the creep of bolts.

Whilst I recognise that it's great to have the climbing you like best on your doorstep, we all make decisions about where we live and should accept what is on offer locally or be prepared to travel. As an example, to access some sport climbing from Penzance it is 60 miles to the Cheesewring Quarry or 105 miles to Ansteys Cove (not everyone lives as far west as Penzance though). Compare this with 76 miles from Sheffield to Malham. Many climbers must travel significantly further just to find any climbing, let alone what they like best. There are also a large number of inland quarries across Cornwall that have yet to be fully explored let alone developed. I suspect that there is some laziness on the part of local climbers.

Misleading information has been published by the Cornish and Penwith climbers with one member of the group claiming in a forum debate that the justification for bolting was that "Carn Vellan is an anomaly for the reasons endlessly listed but mainly and importantly for the fact that is quarried and that it has already been bolted...". The claim that Carn Vellan is a quarry is incorrect and very misleading. Also, if the logic for re-bolting was that there had been bolts previously, then we would have to allow bolts at Gurnards Heads for example, which has previously had bolt protected routes.

The person(s) who re-bolted Carn Vellan in 2005 has remained anonymous and their identity has become a closely guarded secret by those in the know. Without any doubt this re-bolting was in direct violation of the agreed 'no bolt policy' and this kind of unilateral decision has been a hallmark of the spread of bolts. Des Hannigan, author of the Climbers Club guidebooks to Penwith in 1991 and 1992 sums up this kind of approach far better than I can:

"This sport targeting of non-granite cliffs, regardless of the various conditions expressed in their statement, would create a hugely dangerous precedent. The core issue regarding Carn Vellan, for example, is that sport routes were established on the cliff unilaterally, without discussion, debate or final consensus - not even with a passing Cornish Chough... If the Penwith and Cornish Climbers plans were accepted then this kind of unilateral action would be repeated, without question, by those interested only in a fait accompli on whatever cliff caught their fancy. By the time everyone else got together with the BMC to 'discuss' the matter, the bolts would be established and anyone chopping them would be branded as 'vandals'.

The entire issue of whether or not bolts should be established for any purpose on Cornish sea cliffs of all rock types involves a complex mix of ethics and aesthetics, as well as differing perceptions of landscapes and how far we should exploit them. It involves much more than the sometimes blinkered desire of climbers to play their games. I suspect that the 'Penwith and Cornish' climbers are approaching this whole debate from a single issue perspective. The fact that they seem obsessed with 'Cornwall being treated with parity with any other 'regional' climbing area in the UK (especially in so far as sport climbing is concerned') is depressingly parochial and reflects a rather narrow understanding of the special status of the Cornish cliffs..."

Finally, there is the small matter of consent and permission. Carn Vellen is within the Aire Point to Carrick Du SSSI and falls under the authority of Natural England. Within the citation for this SSSI "drilling" of any sort is specifically mentioned as an operation requiring Natural England's approval, as is any "modification of natural or man-made features". As far as I am aware, nobody has consulted with the landowner or Natural England on this matter.

Unfortunately, West Cornwall is a climbing backwater and I worry deeply that the broader climbing community will be ambivalent to this bolting agenda until it is too late. Indeed Pat Littlejohn talking about the Gower recognises that "things have already gone too far" for the existing bolts to be removed.

I passionately believe that we risk jeopardising an entire region's adventure climbing status in the long term for the sake of a few sport routes now and the shortsighted motivations of a minority.

Pete Oxley was proved wrong in bolting the Big Issue in Pembroke and Ron Fawcett was proved wrong in bolting the Cad at Gograth. These days both the Pembroke and Gogarth sea cliffs enjoy a protected 'no drilling' status and no climber in their right mind would argue with that. The climbing in West Cornwall is equal in quality to those areas and I am asking that the climbing community recognises that fact and helps to protect West Cornwall from the drill.

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