Neil Gresham Defends Retro Bolts at Kilnsey

Neil Gresham recently added Premonition 8b+ (UKC News Report) to Kilnsey - a full-height extension to Ron Fawcett's Extreme Rock classic E5, Deja Vu. After much deliberation, Neil replaced the three threads in the lower E5 section with two new bolts as well as placing a new bolt higher up to reduce a run-out section. His actions have received a mixed response from the climbing community and Neil felt it necessary to speak out and defend his decision.

Neil on Premonition 8b+  © Rich Heap/Lyon Equipment
Neil on Premonition 8b+
© Rich Heap/Lyon Equipment

The following is Neil's statement which he has sent in to UKC:

As many people now seem to know, I have recently become involved in a minor ethical scandal to do with the placing of bolts in Déjà vu, the classic E5 / F7b at Kilnsey. I had hoped initially that my actions wouldn't need to be justified but evidently some clarification is due. This issue is something that I care about passionately so I would like to present the entire case as I see it. First some background, Déjà Vu was originally aided in 2 pitches by Peter Gomersall and Ian Blakely in 1973. The lower pitch was subsequently freed by Ron Fawcett, but the old bolt ladder through the roof was left to rot until I re-equipped it last year. I managed to free the entire line in one pitch a fortnight ago and named it Premonition 8b+. In order to do so, I established a new version of the first pitch of Déjà vu, which was slightly more direct, in order to reduce rope-drag and create a line that felt logical and aesthetically strong. My version climbs the start of Déjà Vu (which is/was protected by a cluster of 3 threads) and then joins the fully-bolted Visitation 7b for the middle section before finishing up the somewhat plentifully-bolted top groove of Déjà Vu. Having led this pitch a few times with the gear exactly as it was, I decided to place a new bolt to reduce the run-out from Visitation into the top groove of Déjà Vu. I should point out here that Visitation is a total clip-up and so too is the top groove of Déjà vu – with bolts closer together than they are at a climbing wall (there are 3 on the crux within 4 metres of each other.) It seemed pointless to have this run-out when the relevant sections of both adjacent routes were so generously bolted.

The line of Premonition 8b+ with the new bolts marked   © Neil Gresham
The line of Premonition 8b+ with the new bolts marked
© Neil Gresham

An important element here, which critics have highlighted, is that the middle section of Déjà vu is not bolted and relies on threads for protection. In view of this I was very careful in the positioning of my new linkage bolt and made sure that it was not clip-able from the middle section of Déjà vu. In so doing, by adding this bolt, what I did was no different to what Martin Berzins did when he added Visitation in the first place – IE: he put up a sport route pretty close to a so-called trad route (which isn't really a 'proper' trad route anyway, but I'll get to that in a minute). It was clear to me that some of the people who objected to this bolt on a recent forum evidently hadn't seen exactly where I'd put it and were making unfair assumptions about my motives for placing it. I should point out that even the sternest crag guardian actually commented, with some reluctance, that he thought this bolt was ok.

Having made the free ascent of the entire line, I then took a very deep breath and replaced the three threads at the base of the route with two new resin bolts. There are so many factors that influenced this decision. Firstly, this action was not on a whim but I considered it carefully for over a year. Secondly, I approach this as someone who was brought up on trad and climbed in the UK for six years before even clipping a bolt. Trad climbing is in my blood and I'm sure that most people know me as someone who cares deeply about our history and traditions. Thirdly, Deja Vu fits the exact profile of climbs like the Cave Routes at Gordale, which are both 'Extreme Rock ticks' and were once a mess of tatty fixed great but have now been cleaned up with modern equipment. It was this third point that influenced me most of all. There is simply no consistency in the counter-argument. In the modern arena routes like Déjà vu (and formerly the Cave Routes) do not seem to fit the profile of trad climbing anymore. Deja Vu can be climbed comfortably with a rack of draws without placing a single piece of trad gear. The first part is protected liberally by threads and the top part is, one of the silliest bolt-ladder clip-ups I've ever seen. It differs fundamentally to adjacent routes such as Face Value or Central Wall, which have no bolts and a much stronger trad flavour. As one local activist said to me: 'Deja is not a trad route but a poorly equipped sport route'.

In light of all this, the more I climbed the lower pitch whilst attempting the extension, the more the threads started to irritate me. Do we really want to see someone's faded old knotted climbing rope hanging off the base of a piece of rock as beautiful as this? Is trad not supposed to be about aesthetics? In this case, the bottom of the crag is an eye-sore thanks to so-called 'tradition'. We all know the other arguments about tats: they rot and fade and rely on people to replace them regularly. On more 'traddy' routes with no bolts or few bolts, there's clearly a stronger argument for them but in this case, if we take a step back and try to be objective, they make the base of a crag look like a rubbish dump.

The interesting thing is that literally hundreds of people share this view. The reason I know this is because I canvassed the crag for two seasons before replacing the low threads with bolts and also put the feelers out on social media, receiving over 400 hundred 'likes' for a related post. It was amazing how many people felt passionately about this, as well as the other controversial issue of why all the first bolts are so high up on this part of the crag (I'm not even going to get started on that one). The frustrating part is that nobody dares to act through fear of being shot down by the old-guard who police these crags. There are so many people who are eager for change – not for a mad retro-bolting spree but for the crags to be updated in a modern way that is respectful of traditions, but their voices are stifled by others who appear to run the show. I believe that the majority of people who climb regularly at Kilnsey and also the British climbing public at large support this type of sensitive modernization.

Neil looking chuffed with his latest discovery  © Neil Gresham
Neil after making the first ascent of Premonition, before the debate ensued. Credit: Neil Gresham.

In spite of this, I refrained from 'doing the deed' until something very interesting happened which proved to be the catalyst. I received an email from Pete Gomersall who strongly advocated that I replaced the low threads with bolts. My next step was to phone big Ron Fawcett to see if he agreed and sure enough he did. 'Times change', were the words used by the living legend (I couldn't believe I was actually speaking to Ron Fawcett on the phone – it made my week). To me this was enough to feel that we had a case. If all three people who were involved in the creation of this climb felt the same way, as well as all the barrage of others who I spoke to, then surely we should go for it.

Having replaced the threads I received an overhwhelming amount of support, but of course, I have also been criticised and have even received border-line insults from a minority few. I am ignoring the latter but would like to respond to those who took the time to raise more pertinent criticisms. Firstly, to the assertion that first ascentionists don't have a right to say how routes are equipped. It's not for me to say if this is wrong or right but this has been part of the traditions since climbing began. If you want to alter the fixed pro on a route, you consult the first ascentionist. That's how it's always worked and it's a deeply engrained code of practice. Clearly the first ascentionists don't physically 'own' the routes but you can't have a free-for-all here and so surely it's logical that the people who put all the hard work into their creation should be allowed to make the call. Personally I just don't believe that someone who merely rocks up and ticks the first pitch of Déjà Vu should be able to over-ride the views of Pete Gomersall who established the route in 1973.

Secondly, some have suggested that I have changed or spoilt the character of Déjà vu. This was something that I considered carefully and which I strongly dispute. If I'd placed bolts closer together or lower down than the original threads then this would definitely have been the case and I would have deserved a roasting. However, I've merely replaced like-for-like and the first bolt is pretty high. It will certainly feel exciting getting up to it (unless you stick-clip it of course, like most people do). But to be clear, this route is graded 'E5' for effort, not boldness, on the ground that it's F7b. If the threads were in anyway in doubt it would be closer to E6. So in actual fact, for those who want their 'Extreme Rock E5' my bolts actually increase the likelihood it's the grade it's supposed to be! My actions really haven't taken anything away from people who've ticked this route in the past.

Another new line for Neil Gresham: Premonition 8b+  © Rich Heap/Lyon Equipment
Premonition: A recent topic of controversy. Credit: Rich Heap/Lyon Equipment

Another thought-provoking criticism is that I have set a worrying president for further and unwelcome retro-bolting, but I am totally confident that this fear is unfounded. As an example, when the first quarry was bolted for dry-tooling in Scotland in the early 90s I spoke out and criticized it publicly. My concern was that dry-tooling might spread onto crags where it was unwelcome; but interestingly this didn't happen and I was proved wrong. On reflection, I think climbers should be given credit for having more intelligence and sensitivity. Are routes like Right Wall or even Face Value or Central Wall at Kilnsey going to be bolted? Of course not. Should other messy so-called trad routes like Déjà Vu or the Cave Routes, which are actually far more like sport routes be retro-bolted? Quite possibly, yes. Of course the issue will always be slightly grey but common sense usually prevails and the climbing community invariably resolves things for the better.

One thing for me in all this is that I've been disappointed in the way the 'old guard' have been so un-willing to make any compromises in order to assist me in developing some decent modern lines through Kilnsey's fantastic main overhang. (I had some problems last year when one of the 'crag police' chopped one of my bolts when I was trying to establish Freakshow – it was just plain unreasonable but I don't even want to go into this here). Putting up routes that are this long and steep takes a huge amount of time, effort and dedication. I'm not asking for thanks or praise because I've enjoyed every minute of it. However these long, enduro-style sport routes involve complex rope management issues that are tricky to address when you're being chased by someone with a hammer! The attitude that prevails amongst the old guard is that they don't care, possibly because they won't be able to climb these new routes, who knows. Surely both the classic old routes and the new-generation routes can co-exist with a little bit of jigging around here-and-there with some of the existing gear? My concept for Déjà Vu's first pitch was to create a 'direct sport version' for those wanting to do the extension whilst preserving the character of the original line for those wanting the classic experience (and also cleaning up some of the mess along the way). The frustrating thing is that by now the bolts will probably have been chopped anyway. Whether or not I'll replace them again I really don't know as I don't want to get into a tit-for-tat (pardon the pun) exchange where the rock suffers as a result. To conclude, I'm all for tradition but I refute closed-minded, misguided tradition that restricts progress and makes the crags feel like a microcosm. I'm going to finish with a final plea for compromise, tolerance and positive change and sign off before I bore myself and everyone else to death. Happy climbing.

This post has been read 17,574 times

Return to Latest News

Neil has performed at a high level in every discipline from Deep Water Soloing to Sport, Ice and Traditional climbing for over two decades. In the UK he made the third ascent of Indian Face (E9 6c) in 1995 and the second...

Neil's Athlete Page 17 posts 4 videos

15 Sep, 2015
Doesn't matter how you justify it Neil, those bolts are coming out. If someone else hasn't already, I'll be doing it. As I explained, if it was grotty quarry route or something at Gig North it wouldn't matter that much, but in this case of such a classic route that is a big deal for many, please leave well alone. You are really milking the publicity on this new route of yours. Good effort on that score, you are a pro and hats off to you for your recent fantastic ascents. All the best, Mick
15 Sep, 2015
For the record, when Neil says: “I established a new version of the first pitch of Déjà vu […] My version climbs the start of Déjà Vu (which is/was protected by a cluster of 3 threads) and then joins the fully-bolted Visitation 7b for the middle section before finishing up the somewhat plentifully-bolted top groove of Déjà Vu.” He is talking about this line, which isn't new and has previously been climbed by others:Visitation/Deja Vu link
15 Sep, 2015
15 Sep, 2015
So why are three unsightly threads better than bolts on a route that requires no gear placements at all?
15 Sep, 2015
because they require no 'manufacturing' of the natural rock, once removed they leave no trace (ok maybe a slight stain but that will wash off eventually), simple.
More Comments