The hike to Chiefs Head, the third-highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), is a haul by any account. Seven miles deep in the park, the wide stone behemoth rises from the back of Glacier Gorge, linking to Pagoda Mountain and Longs Peak on its left, McHenry’s Peak to its right. It’s an ocean of granite that gently slopes up from the basin floor, vertical near the bottom, then rounding slightly in toward the top — so-named Chiefs Head for its resemblance to the feathered headdresses worn by male leaders in many nations indigenous to the American West.
Rock climbers like to pick their way up Chiefs Head’s giant granite face, which is different than most of the popular rock walls in RMNP. Where other big walls like the Diamond (the east face of Longs Peak) and the northeast face of Hallett Peak have cracks splitting and criss-crossing all over, the northwest face of Chiefs Head is serenely blank. A clean slab marked only with subtle ripples, crimps and grooves, scarred by the slow drag of the glacier that once clung to its walls.
Straight through the middle of the wall — the cleanest, blankest section — a climbing route called “Birds of Fire” slithers 1,200 feet up from the basin floor. It’s rated 5.11R, the “R” perhaps interpreted as “not suitable for children,” or in climber-speak, “don’t fucking fall.” There are 39 bolts placed sparingly throughout Birds of Fire to help climbers safely get through the blankest sections with zero opportunities for personal protection. Still, to fall between the bolts is to risk falling up to 60 feet before being caught by the rope.
My husband, Jordan, went up to Birds of Fire three times this July. I joined for the second excursion, hauling sleeping, climbing and rebolting supplies — altogether the heaviest pack I’ve donned in years. Jordan and his friend Andrew Andraski had tasked themselves with rebolting the route, removing the wedge-bolts and hangers installed in the 1980s, then replacing them with new-and-improved sleeve-bolts and hangers.
The bolts on Chiefs Head had been suspect for years. A RMNP climbing ranger we chatted with in the park that weekend said he hadn’t climbed Birds of Fire himself because he was wary the bolts wouldn’t hold. On the popular climbing forum Mountain Project I’d seen comments dating back to the early 2000s expressing the need to replace the bolts due to signs of rust and wear.
“Rebolting is probably the hardest thing you can do in terms of rock climbing,” says Daniel Dunn, stewardship manager for the Boulder Climbing Community (BCC). “In general, it’s harder than putting up a new route … and it’s not as glamorous as a first-ascent. It’s generally pretty thankless.”
As rock climbing at large is a rapidly expanding, dangerous sport with no centralized organizing body, the BCC is a local entity that supports climbers on the Front Range and helps care for the region’s climbing infrastructure. Part of Dunn’s job, for example, is to survey the dozens of crags in Boulder Canyon, checking for hardware weaknesses and organizing what needs to be fixed. (The BCC also has a “bad-bolt tracker” on its website where climbers can submit their own hardware concerns.)
Much like the need for replacing bridges and other U.S. infrastructures has peaked in mass waves of structural aging (due to original mass construction), bolts across the nation are approaching their structural lifespan. “We’re right in this zone where a lot of the [bolts] that were placed during the sport climbing boom are needing either maintenance or to be fully replaced now that they’ve been in the rock for 20 to 30 years,” Dunn says. “The bulk of the routes in Boulder Canyon went up in the late 1980s to early 2000s — [installed by] all different people, almost no data to support the hardware choices they were making, no standards across the region or country.”
Dunn says thousands of bolts in Boulder Canyon alone are considered “substandard.” To date the BCC and its partners have replaced more than 1,000 bolts and run a bolt replacement program with clinics and mentorship opportunities; the goal for 2021 is to replace at least 500.
“It’s extremely expensive to run a rebolting program,” Dunn says, as they have to factor in the price of hardware (on Birds of Fire, seven sets of anchors costing $33 each, plus 25 lead bolts, adds up to almost $450, plus specialized tools, some of which are homemade) and insurance as a nonprofit — not to mention the time, physical exertion and technical expertise a rebolting project requires.
To replace the 500 bolts, the BCC is hosting a series of rebolting clinics and supporting community members like Jordan and Andrew who want to take on their own rebolting projects with hardware grants.
In most places on the Front Range, like Boulder or St. Vrain canyons, you can use power drills to install climbing bolts. That way, a single pitch might take a team of two climbers a half-day to rebolt. But in RMNP, power tools are strictly forbidden and Jordan and Andrew knew they’d have to drill each of Birds of Fire’s 39 holes by hand — chiselling the 1.8 billion-year-old granite with a drill bit and hammer — the same method first ascensionists Richard and Joyce Rossiter used as they designed the route in 1988.
Richard Rossiter is among the small, historic cohort of Boulder climbers that established many of Colorado’s now-classic routes beginning in the ’70s. He’s authored several climbing and mountaineering guide books over the decades and now directs The Pilates Institute of Boulder, which he founded in 2000. He named Birds of Fire after the guitar-shredding six-minute song by Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Rossiter and his then-wife Joyce began bolting Birds of Fire from the ground and worked their way up. “It looks blank from the ground, and even blanker when you’re on the rock. It’s astonishing they bolted it on lead,” Jordan explains to me. “With one hand on the drill and one hand on the hammer, in some places all he could use was his feet to support himself on the featureless slab — sounds terrifying.”
Bolts in and of themselves have been the subject of much controversy in the alpine climbing world over the years. There’s an ongoing, decades-long debate about where and when bolts are appropriate. On one end of the spectrum, purists believe bolts have no place in alpine climbing and, on the other end, over-stokers demand bolts be installed in natural rock as they would in climbing gyms. Most want some balance of adventure, risk and safety.
At the time of Rossiter’s first ascent of Birds of Fire, not everyone was jazzed about a line of bolts up “this beautiful flawless piece of granite with virtually no cracks or weaknesses,” says Steve “Crusher” Bartlett, one of the BCC’s rebolting instructors and another among Colorado’s inaugural climbing cohort. “We were somewhat … indignant at the thought of somebody just bolting something, putting a protected route, a sport route as it were, up the middle to the face,” he says.
But then he climbed it. “It was nothing like [I expected]. It’s really run out, so you have to be really on your game with being brave and confident. You have long gaps between bolts and you can’t even see the next bolt — you’d have to spend 10 minutes standing on little holds at one bolt, trying to figure out whether you go out left or right, and then finally shrugging your shoulders and going, ‘Oh, well, I’ll just head up and see what happens.’
“It was a visionary climb and very, very impressive. And I was super, super impressed and completely changed my mind,” Bartlett says. He’d go on to climb the route twice more.
Dunn, who climbed the route in July, in between Jordan and Andrew’s rebolting sessions, says Birds of Fire is as unique as routes come. “The fact that a lot of people wanted to rebuild it is a testament to the quality; folks realize this is a good route, they want future folks to be able to do it.”
Dunn wants rebolting to be a community-driven endeavor, and it kind of needs to be. “We can’t touch everything. As a program, we couldn’t go out and rebolt Birds of Fire — it’s just too complex for our organization to take on.”
That’s where the hardware grants come in, available to help people organize their own rebolting projects. The organization supplied Jordan and Andrew with all the hangers and quicklinks.
The first weekend Jordan hiked up to Chiefs Head, it was just to drop off some supplies. The following weekend, he brought Andrew and enlisted two more friends to help for the weekend: Aaron Glasenapp and Carolyn Conant. The five of us slept two nights in the boulder field at the base of the vertical ocean of granite. I took pictures and ran around the park while they hustled up to the summit and dropped into the route on long ropes they fixed in place and dangled from as they worked. For two days they labored, first removing the old zinc-plated steel bolts and then tap-tap-tapping the rock, hand-drilling new holes up to 4 inches deep and 3/8th-inches wide.
After 73 man-hours on the wall (plus a collective 48 hours of hiking), they had 6 more bolts to go. Two weekends later, Jordan and Andrew returned to finish the job. They tried to top-out the route as a final hurrah, but wet rock from a recent storm kicked them off before they could finish.
Later that week, Jordan, Andrew, Bartlett and Rossiter sat around a table at Sanitas Brewing Co. Jordan gave Rossiter the route’s first bolt off the ground, the first bolt Rossiter had tapped in 33 years before. Rossiter ran his fingers over the rusted bolt and hanger, eventually saying to Jordan, “This brings me right back.”