Question - was the route safer 45 years ago because it had brand new Pitons? Just for a minute, forget about advances in climbing gear. If you bailed off the crux of the route, did you have a better chance of having the gear hold back then than now? (i.e has the route become more dangerous)
This is unquestionably a difficult issue. Having climbed in southern Ontario for the past 15 years, I have watched many of old in situ pitons get worse and worse, wondering should someone replace those, and if so, with what? While many trad routes have become safer over the years with the advent of new forms of climbing protection (although former Alien owners may choose to disagree), others have become more dangerous because the original protection has deteriorated from its original state. Lets look at specific examples to illustrate my point.
Take Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (5.10d) at Buffalo Crag. When I started climbing, the start of the route was protected by 2 pins. The last time I was at Buffalo, there was only 1 pin left, and I bet it is dubious at best. I remember following a good friend up that route, who happened to fall on one of the original fixed pins (which is no longer there). If you have ever done the route, you know the start is tenuous. Because of the deterioration of the fixed protection, SELOTL has become a much more dangerous lead than it originally was. Should the pins be replaced with bolts? Should the pins be replace with new pins? (God only knows how you could get the broken pin out of its original placement) Should the route become a top rope problem for everyone except those who are comfortable with soloing?
Last year I also lead Holy Cow 5.8 at Rattlesnake. While I am sure there are pin free variations, I took a direct line that involved clipping 4 pins in a row, non of which looked like they would have held a fall. Now the climb was only 5.8, but it was most definitely way more perilous that it would have been when the pins were first placed?
I personally, have no difficulty with people replacing old pins with bolts if there is no other viable protection and the original route was safer than it is today because of the deterioration of the old pins. If a route was a statement when it was first put up, why do we need to one-up the statement by climbing it in a more dangerous state. I do not feel like more of a hero when I avoid death by not falling on a pin that wouldn’t have saved my life if I had fallen on it. I do, however, admire those who trad climb sport routes that have adequate gear to be climbed without the bolts.
I do not like the idea of replacing pins with pins. If the community deems it totally unsavoury to replace pins with new bolts, then I think we should at least be allowed to replace the old pins with new pins. However, because replacing pins deteriorates the rock, in my opinion we should avoid this option. Would anyone have minded if someone had replaced the pins on The Joke?
I also do not like the idea of adding bolts to old routes to make them safer. Take Iguanadon (5.10d) at Mt. Nemo. This is a bold trad lead that has a heady runout at the top. Bolting this classic would be like putting disc brakes on a 1967 SII Landrover. It would make it safer, but it would also destroy so much of its original character.
I have not been on The Joke, but if it was in fact bolted to make it safer, than a travesty has occurred. If however, the route is closer in safety to its original state, then leave it be. I don’t think anyone would disagree with replacing rusty old bolts (or 1/4 bolts for that matter) with new ones. Why is it any different with Pitons? If the route was bolted because some bored ACC members were simply looking for a new route to climb, then, once again, a travesty has occurred.
I some respects, there is value in the fact that it was The Joke that was bolted. First of all, it brings the whole should pins be replaced with bolts issue to the surface as it is a classic route, and secondly, now all the bold Ontario climbers have a new project to spray about - I climbed the Joke bolt free!!! I will definitely buy you a beer if you do…